Life and Death in Varanasi: Portraits From the Banks of a Sacred River

David Leventi
David Leventi
Ahilyabai Ghat, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2013

Varanasi rests on the banks of the Ganges River, in one of India’s poorest states, Uttar Pradesh. In Hinduism, it is the holiest of sacred cities. Passing away on the modest steps beside the river is considered auspicious. Varanasi is a place where people come to die.

It is, in a sense, an unexpected destination for David Leventi, a photographer known for documenting opulent palaces and opera houses around the world. What Leventi found when he arrived in Varanasi—as is the case for many who travel to India—was not what he anticipated. Still, Leventi positions his photographs of Varanasi as a foil, of sorts, to his series Palazzi, from Venice, which is on view for the month of October at Bau-Xi Photo, in Toronto.

Leventi cites wry British writer Geoff Dyer’s tale, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, as the impetus for his trip to India and for his interest in visually contemplating the two cities. As Dyer notes: “They’re actually very similar: both are water-based, old, with crumbling palaces facing onto either the Grand Canal or the Ganges with alleys and narrow streets leading off into darkness and sudden oases of brilliant light. And both, in their ways, are pilgrimage sites. I’m not the first person to be struck by the similarities.”

Envisioning these similarities, Leventi arrived in Varanasi planning to photograph its palaces along the Ganges with the signature precision he uses to articulate glittering architectural details with a 4×5 or 8×10 camera. While the resulting images reflect his same thoughtful attention to light, he quickly realized his documentation of Varanasi would depart from his previous projects.

For one thing, the palaces along the Ganges are marked by elegant restraint, not ornamentation. Their interiors are also simple, not spectacular. Varanasi, Leventi says, is about people more than it’s about architecture. And while, for decades, people have flocked to and fretted about Venice’s striking palazzi sinking into the canal, submergence into the Ganges is what pilgrims to Varanasi seek. Instead of gawking at grand palaces, as in Venice, travelers in Varanasi often observe the intimate undertakings at cremation sites.

For many, Varanasi marks an end. But for Leventi, these photographs mark a beginning. He hopes to return to Varanasi soon.


David Leventi is a photographer based in New York, NY.

Sara Distin is a writer and editor based in Boulder, CO, and Brooklyn, NY. Follow her on Twitter @sldistin.


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