One of the holiest bodies of water and one of the most polluted rivers in the world. This dual personality can be seen everywhere you look in the city of Varanasi, on the riverbanks of the Ganges. For me this has been the craziest, nuttiest place so far. The traffic is beyond comprehension. The noise is outrageous. The crowds induce hyperventilation. And its mystery and uniqueness raise it high to the top for most visitors to India, including me.
Every evening, year round, thousands of people stream down to the riverbanks to participate in a ceremony to essentially say good night to the Goddess Ganga. This ritual is so that there will not be any devastating floods. This happens Every. Single. Night. Hindus and Buddhists from all over the world save for years or a lifetime to make a trip to the Ganges. People get dressed up in their finest and camp out along the ghats. It’s a happenin’ place. Because the river is so holy to its believers, people also perform their own more private rituals, lighting candles, taking a dunk or fully bathing in the river to cleanse themselves.
Another ritual that takes place here is the cremation of bodies in a couple of designated areas along the riverbanks. Families bring their dearly departed, again sometimes from other parts of the world, for their final resting place to be the river Ganges. The ritual is quite interesting as well as the economy that surrounds this tradition. One afternoon while we were waiting for some rain showers to pass we watched a documentary called The Children of the Pyres. It is about the kids who build the fires and cremate the bodies, sometimes for next to nothing. It is their livelihood since a very young age (5 or 6) and for them there is no education, no other way of life. It was a heartbreaking view of things but offered us a more balanced understanding. On an afternoon walk I came upon one of the smaller cremation ghats and watched as 3 bodies were brought through the streets, almost in a parade fashion, to be cremated. Death is not a terrible thing for a Hindu as they believe in reincarnation and each time you die you have the chance to do better next time. The air is full of ashes and smoke is everywhere. Even though there were only 2 cremations in progress, it was a little too much for me.
Ashes are mostly scattered into the river, as well as any remains that didn’t burn or the entire body if a family doesn’t have the money for a cremation. Adding in tons of sewage plus and who knows what else, the river is incredibly polluted. Lots of half hearted efforts seemed to be in play to clean up the river but it seems daunting and impossible. The craziest though was to see hundreds of people happily bathing in the river, kids doing flips into the river and playing, brushing their teeth in the river, and doing their laundry in the river. Intense!
So far this is the city that has had me running back to my hotel room for a short break and required some deep breathing exercises to make it through the crowds. But it’s also the place that has peaked all of my senses the most.
A few more images: