Notes from a photographer in Varanasi, India
According to Hindu mythology, Varanasi was founded by Lord Shiva. The city is one of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism. It is also a city surrounded by death. The biggest tourist attraction here is to witness the cremations that take place along the banks of the Ganges. Hundreds of locals arrange such tours for foreigners. Others charge money to allow visitors to observe the burnings from nearby buildings.
- “Pictures are not allowed here, sir, but if you want I can take you to where you can take some. Just 200 rupees,” I’m told.
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about this city, it’s the chaos. I’m staying in a room that reminds me of Van Gogh’s “Bedroom in Arles”: a simple bed, one chair, and a table. The room costs around 150 rupees (US$2.40) a night. The neighbors have a baby who cries all day. Pairs of dogs fight down the street. The man at reception reads aloud constantly, seemingly incapable of concentrating in silence.
There’s a fan in my room; it has one speed and barely moves. The heat is killing me. And I don’t sleep alone — two mice come and go from the window and crawl around below my bed. I share the toilet with a couple of other travelers. The one from Spain came to Varanasi to learn the tabla, and in the afternoon he sometimes plays music for us.
There’s also a girl from Italy who is always trying to explain to me how chakras work. She says there are seven chakras, as taught in Indian yoga. It doesn’t matter how many times I say I’m not interested in energy or spiritual ways, she persists and is convinced that I must find “the way.”
The street in front of my hotel is under construction. During the night, men from the Musahar caste work to repair it. I wonder how many more days they will need to construct 50 meters of road.
In all of this, I find sanctity in waking up before sunrise to photograph this world.
Just around the corner from my hotel there’s an old guy selling chai, and a few meters beyond is another man selling tobacco. My routine is to have one tea and speak with the first man for a couple of minutes. The conversation is always the same and tends to be short. It ends when the tea ends, and I move on. Sometimes when passing the tobacco guy, he says it looks like I have some problems and suggests I do some yoga and meditation.
- “I can take you to the best teacher in town!” he shouted once.
“I don’t have any problems. Thanks for the offer, brother,” I said.
There is a mad and incredibly photogenic atmosphere in the old town of Varanasi. There are cows all over the place. One day I was on my way to have a lassi, but just before I turned the corner some people ran past me heading in the opposite direction. Apparently a cow had gotten angry and wasn’t allowing anyone to proceed down the street. I asked the owner of the lassi shop, who told me someone had pushed on the cow’s head too hard, which made it angry.
In the midst of all of this, it’s really the dogs and monkeys who own Varanasi. Every street has a gang of dogs; every roof has a gang of monkeys. A stick is therefore a fundamental possession in every shop in town. Dogs and monkeys know this and will try to keep far away from the most dangerous animal: the human being. I see people striking dogs and monkeys on a daily basis.
Despite the craziness of this city, it’s easy to find places to chill out and relax. My favorite place, for example, is the roof at my guesthouse, where the sunrises and sunsets are spectacular. Here are some of the images I’ve made in Varanasi.