Varanasi is a photographer’s delight. The ghats and alleys provide the perfect set up for some incredible Varanasi photography, especially portraits. Varanasi has a variety of scenery. As photographers, we could never get enough of the place.
In this blog, we are going to share our Varanasi photography experience along with tips for taking better photographs in Varanasi.
Where is Varanasi?
Varanasi is located in Uttar Pradesh along the banks of River Ganga, one of the holiest rivers in India. It is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. In the words of Mark Twain –
Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together.
Varanasi, Benaras or Kasi, as the city is called in India, is the place where the Hindus come to attain Moksha or salvation. Kasi is the city where people come for enlightenment. Undoubtedly, Varanasi is the most spiritual city in India – the original land of Lord Shiva and the land blessed by River Ganga. The river is considered as a mother in India. Just as the mother looks after her children, Ganga Maaiya too nurtures the land and its people.
For me, Varanasi is quite special. I have the earliest memories of the city as a child visiting with her parents. I would not say that I fell in love with the city at the first visit, but it somehow stayed with me. I actually started loving the city only after we visited as a grown up. This Varanasi was different from the memories I had and I loved the new Varanasi.
However, some things in Varanasi can never change like the narrow alleys or the cow dungs and the crowd of people at the ghats. Nevertheless, this Varanasi is a place that both Agni and I loved. He loved it because Varanasi provided ample scope for photography and I loved the city because of its hidden stories. So let’s start talking about Varanasi photography now.
Varanasi photography – Why do we like it?
Varanasi is a kaleidoscope of colours and emotions. In Varanasi, we felt that colours were brighter, every shade more vivid and the hues more nuanced. Every place in Varanasi is absolutely photogenic.
There is always so much happening in Varanasi all over. Infact, for a first-time visitor, Varanasi can be extremely crowded, confusing and overwhelming, especially if you are a foreigner. We always recommend foreign travellers to keep Varanasi later in their itinerary. Only after you are accustomed to the chaotic ways of India, venture into this ancient and profuse display of typical Indianness.
Anyways, the ghats in Varanasi are always full of life. Starting from the crack of dawn till the night, there is always something happening in the ghats. You can actually see the entire Varanasi coming to life in its ghats.
The alleys and lanes of Varanasi are equally interesting. These lanes are really narrow, but you will find many visual stories in these alleys. These are the best places to where you will get ample subjects for your Varanasi photography.
Varanasi is place one of its kind. I believe that there are no other places like this ancient city of India. It might be the most important city for the Hindus, but I think Varanasi contains the entire world in it.
Some Important tips for Varanasi Street Photography
As a photographer, we always look for places where we can get the best pictures. And we believe that the best way to find such places is by walking along the city. In our multiple visits to Varanasi, we have discovered many places where you can take some wonderful photographs. Some are well known, but there are a few lesser known as well. So here is our list of best places for photography in Varanasi.
What are the best locations for Varanasi photography?
The Varanasi Ghats
We believe that the ghats in Varanasi are the best place for photography. There is always so much happening at the ghats.
The Varanasi ghats are full of activity since the morning. Assi Ghat is in the southern part of Varanasi and is relatively less crowded.
The most crowded and happening ghat in Varanasi is the Dashashwamedh Ghat. There you can see pilgrims gathered to take a dip in the Ganga. There are some who have come to do the last rites for a family member. You might also see some people getting tonsured. There is always a sea of activity there and a lot of scope for taking photographs.
Take a boat trip, preferably the hand rowed boats. You will get some good opportunities for Varanasi photography of the ghats from the boat.
Alleys and Lanes
The ghats are not the only place where you want to photograph. The old Varanasi town is an incredible maze of lanes and alleyways. Walk along the narrow alleys and lanes of Varanasi. You will find many interesting people and things to photograph.
Get up early
The golden rule for taking some awesome photographs of Varanasi is to get up early. Infact, if you have to watch Subah-e-Banaras, you have to reach Assi Ghat by 5.00 AM in summer and 5.30 AM in winters. Varanasi wakes up along the ghats.
Starting with the morning Ganga Aarti, you can gradually see Varanasi waking up. The atmosphere is indeed special with a soft mist over the river and the morning glow of the sun. The lighting is just perfect for photographs. This is also the time when the ghats are quietest. Together with the soft glow of sun, the surreal atmosphere, we are always filled with a zen.
You can see the locals washing up and so do the animals. If you walk towards the Babua Pandey Ghat, you will see people washing clothes. Walk along the ghats and you will see some people doing exercise.
Take photographs of the Akhadas
Also, do not miss out on the akhadas. The Akhadas are places where the body builders practice their craft. There are a few akhadas behind the ghats where kushti takes place almost daily. This is also a good place to take photographs.
However, keep a note that the performances at Akhadas start by 6.30 AM and gets over by 7.30 AM. So use the morning effectively.
Stay late as well
Sunset and time after that is also a good time to take photographs in Varanasi. It is the time when the ghats come alive with its evening rituals. The most famous one is the Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat.
In the evening, the ghats are all lighted up and the entire crescent shapes river bank of Varanasi looks quite mesmerizing. It would be wrong if you do not take a few photographs of evening Varanasi.
Ganga Aarti is a great subject of Varanasi photography
The Ganga Aarti is one of the favourite subjects of photographers from all over the coming for Varanasi photography. Though some might say that the Ganga Aarti has become a touristy affair, we would say that it is the most popular attraction in Varanasi for a reason. The Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat is a visual treat.
We have taken pictures of the Ganga Aarti from the boat and from various vantage points. What we understood is that there are no specific points for taking the best shots of Ganga Aarti. You can stand behind the priests or stand in the stairs of the riverbank, you will get a good angle for taking photographs.
It is usually suggested to arrive early at the ghat and take a vantage position so that you get some good photographs. We had tried that and got good results. But we also arrived at the ghat late and then found a good position after everyone was seated. Infact we felt, this was a better way to find a position suitable for taking photographs. I think this would work different from individuals.
Do carry your prime lens and a telephoto lens to take some great photographs of Varanasi Ganga Aarti. There are a few more tips that we have shared in our Varanasi Ganga aarti blog. Do head there to read the tips.
Walk along the ghats
Walking along the ghats is the best way to take photographs. After you are done with the usual sunrise photography, walk along the ghats leisurely. There are so many things that can catch your fancy. There are 87 ghats in Varanasi, each having their own importance and beauty.
The ghats are a place of colour and contrast in Varanasi.
We love walking along the ghats and we find our subjects for photography on the way. We love the grandeur of Chet Singh Ghat and the colourful stairs near Kedar Ghat. The Darbhanga Ghat is equally beautiful. Pandey Ghat is quite vibrant as you will see colourful sarees are kept there for drying.
Also, visit Lalita Ghat and go up to the Nepali Temple. It is believed that the land where the temple stands belongs to Nepal till date! The wooden doors and the intricate carvings are extremely beautiful and will remind you of the pagodas of Nepal.
Go beyond the Manikarnika Ghat
Usually, the most popular ghats in Varanasi are from Assi Ghat in the south to the Manikarnika Ghat in the north. Very few go beyond the Manikarnika Ghat. Even most of the boat tours will take you from Manikarnika to Assi Ghat only. Our suggestion is to go beyond the Manikarnika Ghat.
These ghats are less crowded and are more endearing. You will find more locals and some amazing wall art. The imposing Alamgir mosque is also right behind the Panchganga Ghat. The mosque is also quite picturesque to miss. In our last trip, we went all the way to Gai Ghat after which I was too tired to move further. Next time, we do wish to walk beyond Gai Ghat to all the way to Raj Ghat!
Photography of the Burning Ghats of Varanasi
Varanasi is a holy city according to both Hinduism and Jainism. Hindus believe that dying in the city will give them moksha or eternal salvation from the cycle of rebirth. There are many people who visit Varanasi in their last days. They come to Varanasi to die and get cremated. The cremations ghats of Varanasi are eternally busy.
Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghats are the two cremation ghats in Varanasi. Day in and day out, cremations take place in these two ghats. While cremation is entirely a personal affair, many take photographs of the process.
Dead bodies are usually brought in wrapped in glittering clothes. Rituals are done by the family members and then the pyre is lighted. If you want to take photographs, we would suggest you to take it from a distance. Also, if anyone objects, do not take photographs.
However, I also warn you that cremation ghats, especially the Manikarnika Ghats are places where scammers work overdrive. Refuse anyone who would say that they will let you take pictures of the cremation from close quarters. They will then ask for money.
Also beware of people approaching you with sad stories of not getting wood for cremation. They are potential scammers ready to fool you and take money from you.
Walk along the narrow alleys of Old Varanasi
After you are done with the ghats, you can turn your attention to the alleys and lanes. Late morning and afternoon are a good time to explore the alleys. Benaras has an intricate maze of narrow alleyways. And along these alleys you will get some very interesting photographs of Varanasi life.
One thing that we love taking photographs of is the old buildings and doors of Varanasi. These old buildings are architecturally different and the wooden doors of the houses are quite well designed. It is as if they are telling stories about the houses and people.
There are chances that you might get lost in these dingy alleys. So it is good to carry your hotel card and in case you are lost, ask for directions.
Go around the rest of the city as well
The entire city is an interesting place for photography. Go beyong the ghats and alleys. Visit the markets, especially the flower markets and spice markets for getting hold of some good Varanasi photography. Walk beyond Assi Ghat and you will get the vibe of the new city.
Take photographs of food
Varanasi is a delight for vegetarians. Chats, kachori-sabzi, delectable sweets, rabri, lassi and thandais – I get tempted even when I think about them. The food not only tastes great, but they also look good in photographs. Do not believe my words, just see it!
Varanasi and cows
Well, my earliest memories of Varanasi (when I visited the city as a child) were the lanes full of cowdung and dirt. This is not exactly a fond memory. But Varanasi and cows are inseparable. Varanasi is one of the holiest cities for Hindus and in Hinduism cows are considered sacred. Quite naturally, cows have a free reign all over the city.
You might not see a stray cow in the ghats, but you will encounter them in the alleys and lanes. We had, however, seen a huge bull with curved horns sitting like a king at the Scindhia Ghat. So keep safe distance from the cows. Do not disturb them and they will not disturb you. Also keep a look for cowdung while you are walking in the roads and alleys.
Taking photographs of the Sadhus
This is a bit tricky. Nowadays the Sadhus straightaway ask for money if you want to take pictures. The Sadhus are supposed to have left all their worldly belongings. So why would they ask for money? I would not delve deeper into this question, but if you want to take pictures of the Sadhus, be prepared to shell out money. Some of them are not satisfied with 40 or 50 rupees. They want 100, 200 and even more.
We saw one sadhu literally barging towards a foreign tourist ready to strike him. The tourist apparently had not understood that the Sadhu was asking for money and he left without giving any donation. So the Sadhu literally went all out. A few locals came forward and explained to the tourist and asked him to pay money to the sadhu. Only after he gave money, the sadhu became calm. He even posed for the foreign tourist and encouraged him to take more photographs. Money works everywhere, after all!
There are also some reclusive sadhus who would not allow you to take pictures even if you offer them money. If any such person objects to your taking pictures, please respect their privacy.
Well, photography in Varanasi can be quite difficult at times. But I am sure you will find the city quite photo-worthy and will get some amazing clicks.