Follow along with photographer Réhahn as he travels through the intense holy city of Varanasi in Northern India. His fine art portraits reveal Hindu holy men called sadhus, a Shiva worshiping cannibal tribe, and blue-faced children who idolize Krishna. Varanasi provides a wealth of inspiration for any photographer who can deal with the intense heat, scents, and traditions of this complicated and exhilarating place.
5 a.m. The perfect time to start the day in Varanasi.
It’s already 25 degrees Celcius but by midday, the temperature will hike to 40. At this hour, the sun has just started to rise timidly in the sky over the Ganges, where locals have already started to congregate on the ghats, the iconic stone steps that lead to the river. Some are there to bath, others to pray.
I see children swimming next to devout worshippers. Water buffalo sharing space with bodies being washed of impurities. Fishermen pulling in huge nets filled with their daily catch.
Life here is extraordinary and extreme.
Varanasi, a City of Colors and Contrasts
In Hoi An, Vietnam, my adopted home, I’ve spent years photographing the joyful yellow that is splashed across every building. Here, it’s not only the walls, it is the people who are saturated in color. From the marigold garlands that decorate the dashboards of every taxi to the long robes of the Hindu holy men, known as sadhus, the color orange burns especially bright in Varanasi.
Saffron is the most sacred color in the Hindu religion.
It signifies fire and the burning away of impurities. Sadhus can be found on the banks of the Ganges, in alleys, in public squares. Their long white beards and jubilantly colored tunics, sometimes orange, sometimes bright red, make them incredibly photogenic subjects.
I search for a place that is a bit sheltered from the sun. An alcoved entrance to a home provides some merciful shade. This is where the magic happens. Like a puzzle, all the elements come together and compose a perfect portrait: a sadhu shot in natural light with a dark background that contrasts with the colors of his tunic.
One difference between India and Vietnam is the stoicism on the faces of my Varanasi subjects while in front of the camera. Here, not an eyelash moves, not a shift in the intensity of their regards.
While a Vietnamese grandmother might burst out in laughter while looking at her photograph, an Indian in Varanasi will nod from right to left, as if to say “maybe, maybe not.” It is difficult to know what they think when they look at the image on my camera, whether or not they see the same beauty that I do. They seem content enough, sometimes asking me for the photograph, sometimes simply continuing on their way.
A Sacred City of Beginnings and Endings
Varanasi, formerly known as Banaras, lies along the banks of the Ganges in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It is considered to be the holiest of the seven sacred cities in the religions of Hinduism and Jainism. Hindus believe that dying in the city will bring eternal salvation and an end to the cycle of rebirth. Pilgrims come from all over to seek purification in the sacred waters, to cremate their kin and to spend their final days in peace.
Like a realm outside the ordinary, Varanasi and its inhabitants can spark inspiration at every turn. Every person that I see is a potential subject.
I’ve come on a personal pilgrimage, not for religion, but for knowledge and documentation. To immerse myself in the chaos of the traffic and to take time to see the logic behind what was initially invisible. To get lost in the labyrinth of narrow alleys in the old city and to find the perfect pastel wall to frame with my camera.
Every corner is filled with color, smoke, and light.
Any number of perfect subjects might enter my frame in a day—a woman in a rainbow-colored scarf, children running by carrying cricket bats, a sacred cow whipping her tail to knock off flies or perhaps a follower of Jainism ensconced entirely in white, as devoid of color as the rest of the city seems replete with it.
Seeking the Exiled Tribe of Shiva
The next day, I decide to go to the other side of the river out of curiosity. There, I see a floating body, bones and two sadhus dressed in dark clothing; a sharp contrast from the vibrant saffron silks of the Hindu holy men in town. I am told that they are Aghoris, devotees of the Bhairava manifestation of Shiva, who is associated with annihilation.
This fearful deity is said to inspire worshippers to face their own fears. Aghoris take this idea of challenging their qualms to another level by taking part in practices that would create a sense of horror and revulsion in most people.
Among other things, the Aghoris are cannibals. They fish dead bodies out of the river and eat the flesh. The locals fear and avoid them, leaving the Aghori to live out their hermetic lives alone.
One of them holds in his hand a skull of a human being. He takes a pose which reminds me of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I think to myself, “It is only in India that I could possibly imagine taking a photo like this.”
With a growing sense of discomfort, I decide to leave the Aghori to their dark rituals and return to the other side of the bank to follow another path.
In Honor of Krishna’s Compassion
Back in the city the next day, I meet children who regularly have their faces painted a vibrant blue in honor of the Indian god Krishna. Krishna, the divinity of compassion and love in Hinduism, is the most widely worshipped of all the Indian deities. His deep blue skin is said to have been inspired by the colors of nature, from the endless sky to the unfathomable depths of the oceans—all that is beyond human comprehension.
Cartoons depicting Krishna as a child are popular throughout the country, so like all kids around the world, children in India are excited to emulate the idols that they see on television. In this case, rather than Spiderman, the children’s hero happens to be an integral part of their cultural and religious heritage.
I join two young boys floating in a boat down the Ganges as an artist transforms them into little Krishnas. The younger brother patiently waits his turn as his older brother has his face painted. He calmly stares out over the side of the rocking boat towards the ghats, his arms wrapped around his skinny, orange silk-clad knees.
To him, this sacred heart of India with all its color and contrasts is simply the background to his childhood. Nothing more. Nothing less.
When the artist is finished, the boys are blue as sapphires with pearls of white dotting their brows. We disembark from the boat and find the perfect background. Every shot I take of them makes me smile as they pose proudly. What a sweet contrast to my previous day with the Aghoris!
Revelation and Ordeal
A Photographic Journey to Varanasi
I walk between 8 to 10 hours per day, going from ghat to ghat, alley to alley, seeking the slightest photographic opportunity. 40 degrees in direct sunlight, no wind—I take refuge in some alleys that offer some shade. Monkeys pass over my head, cows block my way. A man preparing the famous Chai Indian tea looks over and gestures for me to squeeze through the final few centimeters that remain between the cow and the wall.
The colors of each alley alternate between turquoise blue, pastel pink or yellow. I quickly understand that every corner has its hour of glory. Sometimes the perfect time is at the moment that the tea is prepared when the smoke spreads through the air and is pierced by rays of sunlight. Other times when fatigue takes over and I can’t walk any longer, I stop in front of an interesting wall for a few minutes of fishing photography. Within 10 minutes, two or three interesting subjects are sure to pass in front of my lens.
Varanasi with all its colors and characters is a city beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. The city assaults the senses with its odors of curries cooking in the streets combined with the heavy scents of burning incense and smoke. There is the refreshing flavor of a mango lassi in the overpowering heat, and the constant companion of voices chanting as rituals are carried out. Life is hard, as evidenced by the dusty figures of women working in brick factories along the roads, but there is peace to be found here too.
Varanasi straddles the line between urban chaos and fervent sanctum.
It is a land of contrasts and arguably one of the most difficult places on earth to photograph.
The language barrier, the stoic faces, the heat, the smells, the dust … all these elements take every ounce of energy and morale to go through. But the constant opportunities to experience more, to learn more, to photograph more, keep me waking up before dawn every morning to start my daily trek.
Asked to define Varanasi in one word, I would say “intense.” There is no respite. On the other hand, if you go at your own pace, strive to see beyond cultural differences and take time with people, then it’s a paradise for photography, be it street photography or portraiture. There is something for everyone, as long as your health allows it!
More reading about Varanasi and Hinduism, Jainism and Aghoris: