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A Guest post by Indian Photographer Tuhin Subhra Dey.
Mark Twain once wrote, “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Varanasi, sometimes called as Banaras or Kashi is “the oldest living city in the world, the city which was already old when Buddha was young” (Salman Rushdie in ‘Midnight’s Children’). It is situated along the west bank of the holy Ganga River in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India. It is considered as the holiest place among the Hindus. Varanasi always seems a magical place to me, in fact many of my non-Indian friends have also expressed the same opinion. The place provides excellent opportunities for photography. Hence, since my last articles on portrait photography and Indian Festive photography for DPS, I have been planning to share my tips on shooting Varanasi for my fellow the DPS readers and here they are:
I use only one lens, a Canon 18-200mm, with a Canon 450D body which allows me to take all kinds of shots. But having a wide angle lens in your bag will also come in handy in Varanasi, for many reasons including to capture a clear shot in those narrowest alleys as well as the activities on the banks of the river with the background of the old temples and palaces.
Also I would suggest you to study something about Varanasi before going there. Check out the images the famous photographers like Steve McCurry, Ami Vitale have already taken and then plan your own shots. A prime lens with an F value around 2.8 will also help you to capture low light shots, especially during Ganga arati (explained below).
‘Ghat’s are the series of stairs leading down to a holy river. In Varanasi, you will find around 100 ghats. Each of the ghats has different name, history and importance. It is quite interesting to walk along the ghats on foot especially during winter. ‘Gali’ is a narrow alley which is another main characteristic of Varanasi, since they are extremely narrow; the play of lights and shadows inside a Gali is very interesting.
It is almost essential to hire boats during dawn and/or dust. As not only it will make you acquainted with the ghats but also will help you capture the spectacular Sunrise and Sunsets shots. Simply speaking, looking from the ghats, left side is the East and right is the West. So, when riding a boat with others, plan your sitting positing correctly. Try to capture in such a way so that your photographs themselves depicts that they were taken in Varanasi. You may include the ghats, river banks, pilgrims in your shot.
I would suggest you to use a telephoto lens if you are shooting the ghats from a boat on the River as you will always find interesting activities going on in each and every ghat. The sunset trip has another advantage; you may capture the Ganga arati (see next tip) while being seated your boat. However, I believe, you will need a tripod to shoot from there as it will be dark by the time of arati. Be careful, if you intend to shoot at the Hindu ‘Burning ghats’ , since it is not allowed to shoot at these ghats . But sneaky shots are indeed possible.
Apart from the typical shots which have been taken thousands of times, do some experiments, for example, while riding the boat in a fine morning, I noticed these birds were flying from the top of the magnificent Darbhanga Palace. I decided to take a panning shot of the flock of birds, luckily it was possible as my boat was moving forward in the same direction with the birds, so the relative speed reduced and I almost didn’t have to move my hands.
Although I always look for a clear and clutter free background, in case of Varanasi, the clutter in your background can enhance your shots. As everything is a part of the ‘Banarasi’ environment, I would suggest you to shoot in Aperture priority mode and keep your F value within a range of f/8 to f/12 to keep everything in focus. Apart from shooting your main subject, try to fill up your frames with relevant subjects like street cows, sweet shops, Sadhus, street sellers etc.
Look for unique vantage points, like the shot where local boys were playing cricket on the Man-Mandir ghat while boats were waiting for passengers. Also look for geometry and colors in your frame, like the lady and the goat walking on the street, at the same time, some colorful objects and textures are also present in the frame.
Since Varanasi is one of the holiest destinations for Hindus, it is very common to find various rituals going on throughout the year in this place. If you are lucky enough to be present during the Dev Deepavali occasion you’ll see the Ghats of Varanasi look vivid with thousands of Diyas (clay lamps) floated down the Ganges River with chanting of Vedic hymns by priests. It’s believed that the Gods descend from heaven to bathe in the Ganga on this occasion. The view is quite heavenly.
If you plan to visit north India during that time, you can’t afford to miss the occasion. However, this time I was not that lucky to shoot Dev Deepavali, but I spotted some chhat (a festival) devotees performing rituals in the Ganga, usually these people come from the state of Bihar and those women wear very colorful dresses. Here the frame with the woman worshipping the Sun god caught my attention and I clicked some of shots. But was not happy (as the rest of the frame was looking empty) until I spotted a floating Diya near about the other one third section and I finally filled up the frame.
Ganga arati is one of the main attractions in Varanasi. Everyday at around 7pm well dressed priests worship the Ganga River (which is called as Ganga maata or Mother Ganga) with beautiful chanting and spiritual songs, even if you don’t understand a single word, I bet you will enjoy the event. Try to use a prime lens (like 50mm or 28mm), as I found it extremely difficult to shoot with my Canon 18-200 mm.
Varanasi provides you with a great opportunity to photograph people. This time, I decided not to take any Sadhu portraits, as I hate to see their stretched hands for money after every click. Instead, I decided to shoot common people. We met this funny grandpa near the Dasaswamedh ghat (to know his story, check out my flickr page). Varanasi is also known for peaceful cohabitation of both Hindu and Muslim communities. So, it is possible to capture interesting portraits of Muslim people as well, like the Mother and her sleeping son.
Street animals are quite interesting in Varanasi, especially the holy Cows which are considered very sacred by the Hindus. Sometimes they can provide you excellent street shots with people around them – especially in the narrow streets where they stand by blocking the ways, it becomes quite a view when people try to cross them. Sometimes they are decorated with vermilions and other colorful things which make them even more interesting. However, I hate to see some people shooting dying street dogs, dirty animals eating from dustbins in the streets of Varanasi. May be they don’t get to see those things in their own country and find it interesting , but to my taste, Varanasi offers you much better sights for your memory card space and battery.
Streets of Varanasi are full of many interesting stories. While we were walking down the Galis, suddenly a formidable looking Sadhu appeared from nowhere and started speaking strange hymns and showing magical tricks to that guy (pictured below). The Sadhu was actually a tantric one and basically was trying to hypnotize the man and finally managed to get 200 bucks from him. I didn’t go too close, as I didn’t want to become another victim and clicked only a single shot. You will find a lot of stories around, if you keep your eyes open.
My last tip is not related to photography. If you are a non-Indian, before coming to Varanasi, please make sure that you are going to stay in a secure and safe place and trust no stranger. Always take someone you know with you while walking down the narrow alleys, as your trip might turn into a hell like experience if you become a victim of any of the various kinds of anti-social activities go around the place (like any other holy places in the world). It is not very wise to depend on the guide book maps and last time my GPS device didn’t work. So, just stay alert and careful (without being too much stressed).
Finally, a video song for you, which, in my opinion, has excellently captured the true spirit of Varanasi.
About the Author: I am Tuhin Subhra Dey from India. I call myself a serious amateur photographer but dream to become a professional travel photographer one day in future. Connect more with me in Flickr and Facebook.