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Holy Men of Varanasi

Glamorous portraits of the sadhus of Varansi, India

Varanasi is the most holy Hindu city and the spiritual home of India’s sadhus, or holy men. They are revered by Hindus as representatives of the gods and sometimes worshiped as gods themselves. They are ascetics and wanderers and are often displayed as private, dignified, selfless people, respected for their holiness and feared for their curses.

These portraits show the real men behind their holy titles. In a world that both reveres holiness and fears it, these images attempt to express the authenticity of sadhus as human beings. These are headshots, simple and impersonal, as the sadhus may view themselves: alone with their spiritualism, set apart from any worldly context. Reflecting upon their expressions, I wonder if the clear realities of their human faces betray the kind of religious separation from worldliness they strive for.


The rigors of spiritual practice—a strict prayer regime of mantras, devotions, and personal vows, and a series of seemingly arbitrary self-imposed physical hardships—test the limitations of a sadhu’s human form. Aspiring to a spiritual separation from the world, they are freed of human attachments and common luxuries. While outsiders may not know existence on the different, pure, and holy mental plane of a sadhu, empathizing with the human drive needed for such a radical commitment makes their task seem simplistic in the face of unfathomable complexity. We must ask if this is a way of a life or a lifestyle.

My emotional pursuit of understanding the human beings behind the sadhus was both frustrating and curiously addictive. I wonder if the tedious and irksome obligations they choose in their spiritual path can be humbled by the bountiful praise and respect bestowed upon them, and if such a balance exists. Reaching spiritual separation from the world forces these individuals to adopt a very public status dependent on the reverence, generosity, and sometimes fear of others.

As dedicated to private fulfillment as they are, do they perceive their environment independently of others? Is it possible to exist as a free man, to live as an unbound man on "the edge of society," when you are in its midst? Does the sadhu’s gravitas betray him, or is he empowered by it? Does faith remove you from the world or place you at its heart?

Lynzy Billing is a London-based photographer.