An Englishman In Varanasi

An Englishman In Varanasi – A day in the life of Travel Photographer & Writer Gavin Gough

By Gavin Gough

This article by Gavin Gough first appeared in the April 2008 issue of Digital Photo Pro magazine.

I’ve never been what you might call a “morning person”. However, I’m much more likely to throw back the covers with enthusiasm when the alarm rings if I’m in a great location and know that the potential for eye-catching photos is just outside the door. In Varanasi, the alarm barely sounds before I’m up and searching around in the darkness for my camera bag. For a Travel Photographer, Varanasi is a real gem and I always get that sense of being a “kid in a sweet shop” when I’m here.

Once known as “Benares”, Varanasi sits on the banks of the holy river Ganges in northern India and is arguably the holiest city in a country where almost every location can lay a legitimate claim to a sacred heritage. This is the city of Shiva, one of Hinduism’s principle deities. An auspicious city that offers Hindus who die here the chance to escape the endless cycle of death and rebirth.

My plan is to leave the hotel, which is at the southern edge of the main town, take a small ferryboat up the Ganges to the northern end of town and then to walk back along the river, photographing the many activities that take place on the string of ghats that line the riverbank. It’s pitch black as I tiptoe out of the hotel and I need a torch to help me pick my way through the maze of cow pats that dot the narrow alleyways or galis towards the river.

Despite the early hour, the ferrymen who sleep in their small, wooden boats have a sixth sense and know when there’s a potential passenger nearby. I quickly accept one of the many called offers for a ride and step aboard a rocking rowing boat. It’s a magical time to be on the river. The only sound is the slip-slap of the ferryman’s oars in the water and the first, golden band of light is only just starting to bring illumination to the ghats and riverside temples.

I’m shooting stock material for Getty and Lonely Planet Images and whilst Varanasi is rich in potential material, I’m also conscious that I need to look for more than the usual run-of-the-mill images. I have a list of potential shots and ideas and I’ll refer to this during the day although, inevitably in a place like Varanasi, the great diversity of subject matter will dictate what I actually photograph as the day progresses.

I usually carry three Canon ‘L’ lenses with a 1Ds MKII body. The f/2.8 70-200mm IS is a wonderful lens and I’ll have this on the camera for much of the day. For stock use, having a camera with higher resolution can make all the difference. Larger images give potential clients more flexibility and with Travel Photography being such a competitive market it makes sense to grab what small advantages one can.

At Raj Ghat I pay my ferryman his fare and he waves me goodbye whilst grinning an almost entirely toothless grin. Both our days are off to a good start and I’m quickly finding lots to photograph as I walk towards Manikarnika Ghat, one of Varanasi’s main cremation ghats. Even this early there are log pyres burning but it’s not a place to photograph so I move on, knowing that there are some locations that really should remain unseen.

The existence of the burning ghats does demonstrate how people lead their lives very much in the open here. The river soon becomes much busier with people performing their early-morning ablutions, praying, meditating, washing their laundry and even scrubbing their oxen clean. The Chai-sellers have set up shop and are soon serving a queue of eager tea-drinkers. A hot, sweet chai is a perfect way to start the day in Varanasi.

At Meer Ghat, beneath a Nepali temple boasting many X-rated, erotic sculptures, I happen upon a holy Swami in the middle of his morning yoga routine. He is stood on his head, completely motionless, but he calls out a friendly “Nameste” to me. When he’s upright again we chat for a while and he tells me about the pilgrimage that he has made from southern India to Varanasi. He poses for photos and then, bizarrely, offers me his e-mail address. I’m just pleased that he didn’t ask me to stand upside-down as well.

In the course of the next few hours I wander slowly back south along the river, photographing couples getting married, children flying kites, men getting haircuts and women gossiping as they lay out their washing to dry on the steps. All life is here.

Back at the hotel there’s just time to download the morning’s photos to a laptop and grab a bite to eat before heading back out to do the same route in reverse, ready to catch the evening light. Varanasi is such a delight, I’ll probably set the alarm clock even earlier tomorrow.


Gavin can be contacted at mail [at] gavingough [dot] com