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.
Walking the colorful streets of Varanasi’s old town
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.
The Man Who Sold the World
Back in 1993 in Colombia, when I was 8 years old, I remember listening to the Nirvana cover of “The Man Who Sold the World.” Back then I couldn't speak English, but I knew the meaning of the title. I always wondered what the person who sold the world would look like. In Varanasi, I got to take his picture.
A beautiful scene
One early morning I found this yellow facade in the old part of Varanasi. I had the picture in my head but needed a subject to make it come alive. The bicycle was a great element. The stairs and the blue door behind make for an interesting composition of colors and lines. I shot a couple pictures with people walking by. Then, as I was pausing in my corner, an old man came and sat on the stairs. At first I got a bit mad, since I wanted someone walking by, but then I looked through the camera and saw this picture.
Step by step
Just because Varanasi is photogenic doesn't mean it's easy to take pictures here. In fact, I found it very challenging. Imagination is the key for getting great shots in a city like Varanasi. Walking around, I saw a young woman wearing a beautiful blue dress go up these stairs. I figured at some point she'd have to come back down. I prepared my camera and waited.
Sewing machines are a vital tool of employment in Varanasi. Women and men work their machines on the street. When the day is finished, they carry them back home or just chain them up where they stand.
Gas on the way
The old part of the city has very narrow streets, too narrow for motorized vehicles, so supplies are often transported on foot.
While I was looking out over the Ganges, I heard someone saying, “He is my master.” I turned and saw this man reading a book. In India, many people refer to those in upper castes as “masters.” This term is also used for yoga instructors and those who teach meditation.
In the Muslim area of Varanasi I met this young guy carrying chai, a drink that's as important in the city as it is everywhere in India.
Motorbikes, cows, and bicycles are omnipresent here. I sat in this small street and prepared my camera, waiting for someone to pass at the intersection with a bicycle.
They live in the middle of the traffic, walk and stop when they want, and from time to time can be very aggressive. People scream and honk on their motorbikes, but the cows just don't give a shit. They'll eat anything they find on the street, even plastic. Everything that comes from the cow is holy, be it milk or manure. In everyday language, when people want to say that a person is good and gentle, they'll say he/she is "like a cow."
Morning is milk-buying time, producing many scenes like this in Varanasi.
With friends at the river
Many people hang out by the Ganges, talking, playing cards, or maybe going for a swim.
A look at a common clothing item seen in Varanasi.
Sleeping with the Ganges
Tourists take the 5:30am boat to see the sunrise from the Ganges. I wasn't very excited about it, but my Japanese and German friends convinced me to go with them. I saw this young man sleeping on a boat, making me jealous.
Dogs in Varanasi are not typically dangerous. They are very afraid of people and will try to stay far away from you. However, if you're walking at night it's a good idea to carry a stick. The city has a huge population of these animals, and it seems nobody takes care of them. Walking around, I saw this old man giving some rice and milk to a pack. Once the food hits the floor, a fight starts and the pack leader will be the first one to eat.
This is how people prepare chai on the streets. The chai vendor's is a place to talk and meet new friends. The tea costs around 5 rupees (US$0.079).
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Andrés Vanegas Canosa, or Andy VC, is a lawyer who has worked for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime headquarters in Vienna and the Microfinance Foundation BBVA in Madrid. He is also a freelance photographer, focusing on the human consequences of war and crisis in developing countries. See more on his website, Andy VC.