Photographing the Fake Holy Men of Varanasi, India

“Where should we go?” Melissa, my girlfriend, was trying to narrow down what seemed like a mountain of possibilities-places that were worthy of exploration. After a month of repeating that same question a million times, we finally settled on India.

Why? Throughout my 8-year career, I have seen such an overwhelming amount of photography. I have studied the greats in both photojournalism and commercial portraiture. Out of the millions of photographs, many of the ones I remember most vividly were from India. Every time I listened to top photographers speak, it seems like they all mentioned the same thing: how incredible and unexplainably magical India is.

Eventually, it was these comments and the related work that I love so much, that drove me to insist we go there.

Our goal was to stay in as few places as possible and go deep, instead of trying to see everything. We wanted to find a story, but didn’t want to go there with expectations and decided to figure out what that story would be once we arrived.

India is a massive place, and picking just a few locations was difficult, but one we settled on was Varanasi because of the many incredible portraits and accompanying stories about Sadhus: religious people who renounce worldly possessions and embark on a spiritual journey with the goal of reaching ‘moksha’, or spiritual liberation.

We booked our flights and accommodations and prepared for our trip.

I had always been excited to see the Ganges, or ‘Mother Ganga’ as it’s affectionately called by many followers of the Hindu religion. You see, the Ganges River is not just seen as a river, but as a holy and sacred entity. From where it rises in the Western Himalayas to its end-1,600 miles away at the Bay of Bengal-it is worshipped. Despite this, the river is highly polluted and the level of fecal coliform (E. Coli from human waste) is over 100 times the official government limit around Varanasi. Imagine my surprise when we arrived in the middle of the night and peered out our bedside window at a man bathing in it. As we realized the next day, this is extremely common.

The streets of Varanasi were packed with both animals and humans. What smelled like a mix of diarrhea and bleach permeated the air as heavily as the ashes of the dead. Varanasi, formerly Benares, is over 4,000 years old, making it one of the oldest cities in the world. Much like the Ganges that it sits upon, it is sacred. The most sacred city in Hinduism and Jainism, in fact.

Hindus believe that to die there is to break the cycle of life and death, or to reach ‘Moksha’.

As a result, Hindus will travel from around the world to Varanasi as they (or their loved ones) age or fall ill. When the person dies, a family member will purchase wood that is placed along the Rivers edge. The body is placed on top of this wood pile and burned in the open. This is happening 24/7, 365. To walk along these ghats is to accept the ashes of the dead falling upon you.

Some things are harder to get used to than others.

From a visual perspective, the city was incredible. People toiling and working and laughing and smiling and swimming. It was all so striking. The character in people’s countenance was apparent everywhere we went.

Throughout my 8 years as a photographer, I’ve photographed a variety of content. As I matured in my work, I focused my efforts on environmental portraiture and knew I wanted to reflect the strength of my skill in this area within my portfolio. After seeing so many great photos of Sadhus taken by artists that I respect, I wanted to create some strong photos of these holy men. This was a large motivation for going to India.

I began wandering the ghats. There were many Sadhus.

After an hour or so of scouting, I approached a Sadhu who I thought had a particularly strong look. I sat down and had a good conversation with the man. Eventually, I asked if he would allow me to photograph him.

“500 rupees!” he demanded.

I was a bit shocked. As I mentioned at the start of this blog post, Sadhus relinquish all worldly possessions-including and especially money- in pursuit of spiritual liberation.

I explained to the man that I was there as a photojournalist and that to pay anyone or accept payment for a photo would compromise the integrity of my work and would, therefore, be unethical. I simply wanted to honor and document his culture. He made a motion with his hand, shooing me away. I happily obliged as an austere Sadhu would have never asked for money.

No problem. There were many more Sadhus in the area.

I approached one, then another, and another. They all demanded payment to take a photo of them. I can understand some Sadhus-like in any religion-not being as devout as others, however, I would not expect every Sadhu I approached to disregard one of the core tenants of their faith.

That night, we went back to our hotel confused and frustrated. I asked the gentleman at the front desk whom I had befriended over the previous days, “What am I missing?”

“Those are fake Sadhus. They are not real. They dress in a Sadhu’s clothing and grow dreaded hair in an attempt to fool foreigners into giving them money for photos. All of the real Sadhus are up in the mountains, and tend to avoid people.”

Suddenly it was starting to make a bit more sense.

There are many great photographs of Sadhus that have been taken over the years. I pulled out my phone and showed my new friend a few photos of these Sadhus. I asked if he knew where I could find REAL Sadhus like the ones I was showing him.

“Most of the men in these photos are not Sadhus. These are the same homeless men dressing up and fooling tourists that you saw today. I can take you and show you tomorrow.”

“Wait, so you’re saying many of these Sadhus aren’t legitimate?”


Oh. No big deal. Didn’t travel from the opposite side of the planet to find real Sadhus or anything…

…I couldn’t believe it.

I can see how what happened to me might have also happened to other photographers.

You think you are coming for one thing and discover it’s not what you thought. You realize you came around the world, spent your time, money and resources only to realize you are looking for a ghost. So you just take what you have, photograph the “fake” Sadhus and Aghori and continue to perpetuate the false narrative so that you can still come out with a ‘win’ and appear more legitimate. More ‘Nat Geo’ if you will. I just can’t do that.

The next morning, Melissa and I went out for some breakfast. On our way there, we were passing the ghats where they burn the bodies. A man stopped us and asked us to wait out of respect for a ceremony that was taking place. Despite being frustrated from the night before, we waited. and waited. and waited. While doing so, the man started to discuss the ceremony and tell us everything we already knew about what was going on. Eventually, my hunger got the best of me and I told him that we were just going to go up and around the entire ghat in order to not disturb anyone.

“1000 rupees!” he demanded. He actually expected us to pay him because he spoke to us for 10 minutes.

Unbelievable. Even the funerals weren’t off limits. At that moment, I felt like Varanasi was like a Disney theme park-all the characters dressed up imitating something it once was — a well-oiled machine, with its only legitimate truth being to extract money and scam people. Had he no shame? What kind of person is willing to stand on the backs of dead bodies in order to try to guilt and obligate someone into paying them money?

“Not happening.”

After eating our usual crepe filled with Nutella, we discussed our next move. It was then that we realized that we hadn’t lost our story, but gained one. We decided to spend the rest of the trip photographing these “fake” Sadhus to show just how legitimate they can appear. Knowing we wanted to write this story, we needed to show you examples of the Sadhus standing along the River asking for money in exchange for posing for a photo. Their attire and appearance is representative of how they looked when we found them:

Finally, it was time for us to journey back to Brooklyn. The gentlemen we made friends with at the hotel insisted on carrying our luggage a quarter mile back to our taxi. I admired their hospitality and hard-working attitude. This seemed to be a theme across all of the hotel workers and restauranteurs in India. I was happy to end our trip with this sentiment in mind.

45 hours after our plane took off from Varanasi, after many delays, a Kuwait police officer being more blatantly sexist than I’d ever seen in my life, and awesome airport lounges (thanks Chase Sapphire Reserve), we were back in Brooklyn. The whole flight back, thoughts kept racing through my head;

What does it mean to be a “real” anything?

How can we know ones true beliefs? Often, we struggle with answering this question for ourselves.

How closely do we need to follow our faith to be considered legitimate?

How much responsibility do we have as photographers, journalists, and travelers?

Does the tourist or naive photographer and the ‘fake” Sadhu deserve one another? Are they both not giving the same level of effort and depth towards their journey and commitments?

We want to go learn and empathize with another culture. We want to tell their story, and give a voice and platform to people who might not already have one. But we also want to be recognized and appreciated for providing that insight, doing something many aren’t willing to do. To find the truth. To find something real. Maybe that’s truly what we’re searching for. Something 100% authentic and pure. Maybe that’s the most important question of all;

How far do we have to go to find something real?

How much do our own expectations play into our idea of what that is?

If finally confronted with it, could we accept the truth even if it didn’t fit into our expectations?

This blur between legitimacy isn’t only present in India. There are monks in a Buddhist temple that are constantly over-charging for entry. Tribes in Ethiopia that set up near major roads and dress in more dramatic make-up than is typical of their village located a few miles away-all to gain more money from tourists. Young members of the Jewish faith going to Israel for ‘Birthright’, a program created to deepen their understanding of Jewish heritage, only to party in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Sexual abuse being perpetrated by Catholic priests.

There are a lot of important stories that need to be told, but this line of thought drives deep into human nature and truth itself. Something more timeless that goes beyond what we want to be and asks who we actually are. A string that I feel is worth tugging on, despite the wormhole that might ensue. So with that, I’m beginning a new series that will be titled, “Only God Knows.”

Now that I’ve had a couple months to reflect on our trip to India, I realize how much I’ve grown from it. It was so dirty, yet beautiful. Everything seemed fake but was so real. Humbling and rewarding.

There were many parts of the trip that I didn’t enjoy, but in a way, it was everything I wanted it to be.

You can’t really define India or put it in a box, and trying to understand why I want to go back again is enough to drive me crazy…

But hey, I guess I’m just drawn to the irony in India.

About the author: Gavin Doran is a Brooklyn-based photographer best known for his cinematic portraiture and dynamic lifestyle imagery. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his website or by following him on Facebook and Instagram. A longer version of this post was also published here.