India, Part 1 – Varanasi

by | Feb 23, 2019 | Culture, Religion, Architecture, Travel

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You know how I’ve just started a new project to explore Australia? Well, months before I decided to do that, I booked a quick trip to India. It felt a bit weird to be hiving off to the sub-continent when I have so much of my own continent to suss out. But I’d paid for the flights and it had been years since I’d visited (in 2012 for 52 Suburbs Around the World). Coco wasn’t keen (“I’ll get sick with all the pollution, mum”) so I invited a good friend, Tania, and headed off there in early January.

In a last minute change to our two week itinerary we decided to make our first stop Varanasi, somewhere I’ve never been. The well-priced hotel we’d been recommended was booked out so we decided to hell with the mortgage and splurged on a former royal residence, Brijrama Palace. It was right on the Ganges river and looked like something straight out of a storybook. But the way we arrived at the hotel turned out to be just as memorable – after a one hour drive from the airport we were transported by boat along the Ganges for the final part of the journey. As a result my first view of Varanasi, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, was of ancient fortress-like buildings and temples towering above massive stone ghats (steps) that line the holy river. In that 20 minute boat ride I felt like I travelled back thousands of years to the time Varanasi began.

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time travel

Bhonsale Ghat, built in 1780


On the Ganges

biblical scene save for the striped trackies and the mobile phone

It was during this bewitching introduction to Varanasi that I also had my first sighting of the famous ‘burning ghat’, Manikarnika, an open air crematorium. If you’re a Hindu, being cremated beside mother Ganga is the ultimate way to leave the earth, as it releases you from a never-ending cycle of reincarnation. As a non-Hindu Westerner who’s only ever thought of cremation as something that happens behind closed doors, it’s a pretty wild sight to behold.

the ‘burning ghat’, Manikarnika

Not long after that our boat pulled into a ghat and we were ushered up steep steps. A young priest dressed head to toe in deep saffron dabbed sandalwood paste on my forehead while chanting quietly before guiding us into a tiny lift that took us up to the Brijrama Palace hotel. Built in the early 1900s as a royal residence, the palace became derelict decades later; it took almost 20 years to restore it to its current glorious state, complete with unexpected modern conveniences such as the lift and wifi.

Brijrama Palace hotel at Darbhanga Ghat

my friend Tania about to go up in the lift (left hand centre of image)

The inside of the palace hotel was intimate and warm despite being constructed mainly from stone – it felt like a luxurious mini castle with decorative columns and flourishes. But the view from the common verandah was what I really loved, with its bird’s-eye view right up and down the Ganges and across to the other side (which is completely submerged during the monsoon season).

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interior of Brijrama Palace hotel

The challenge in India, like any fascinating and highly photogenic place, is trying to work out where best to spend your limited time – in Varanasi we had just two nights which meant really only one full day. We opted for both the morning and evening rituals called aarti and a three hour walking tour of the old city. All good but lengthy and in hindsight I wished I’d seen only one aarti and then done my own exploring – one’s own aimless amble is infinitely better for photography! I also would have devoted more time to just walking along the ghats observing the pilgrims or on the river looking back at the incredible architecture. As it was I spent relatively little time doing both and feel like there is so much more to photograph. I have to go back one day!

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offering of fire to goddess Ganga – evening aarti

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pilgrims and tourists watching the evening aarti

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early morning on the Ganges

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Chet Singh Ghat fort

demolition of part of old Varanassi – to make way for a pilgrims’ path

chai in the back lanes of old Varanasi

holy cow in the holy city

After breakfast on our last day I had just one hour before we had to leave to take last minute photos – hardly ideal but better than nothing. As I snapped the flock of birds swirling outside on the verandah, I noticed a single file of monks on the ghats below. I got down there as quickly as I could and met one of the Thai monks, sitting with a local holy man.

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a constant swirl of birds

exotic long-tailed parakeets

pigeons perhaps?

holy men – the Thai monk and the Indian sadhu (or not)

a stream of monks beside the river

Our guide had explained that most ‘holy men’ like this one are not true sadhus but rather tourist attractions for photographers. Fake or not they look pretty fabulous with enough adornment to rival the elephant god Ganesha.

fake or for real – a Sadhu


With the little time I had left I photographed some of the pilgrims who come to bathe in the Ganges – Hindus believe the holy river will purify their sins, despite the fact the water is polluted.

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rubbing mustard oil on their bodies before taking the plunge in Mother Ganga

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worshiped for its purifying powers despite the pollution

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washing away their sins

saffron is the most sacred colour for Hindus, in the water…

…or out

I reluctantly drew myself away from the river to go back to the hotel to check out. I was so glad we’d done that last minute change to include Varanasi but two nights was way too quick – I felt like I needed at least a week to explore and photograph this fascinating city.

We left the way we arrived, by boat floating along the goddess Ganga. 

pilgrims on Darbhanga ghat

may his prayers be answered

sacred cows on the sacred river

Gola ghat

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bird lovers flock to Varanasi too to see the migratory Siberian birds

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ancient feel despite the advertising

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Varanasi, Venice of the east

Stay tuned for India, Part 2!

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early morning shoot on the Ganges – I’m rugged up because it’s only 10˚C (iPhone pic by Tania)