The sun rose over Varanasi as we boarded a small fishing boat and took to the river, cameras in hand. My excitement to see the Ganges River was palpable, and it contrasted the calmness with which thousands were assembling at the bathing ghats before starting another day.
As a long-time student of religion I had been reading about the Ganges for years, and I finally had the chance to see it for myself. Feeling uncharacteristically reverent, we sent out an offering of candles in tiny bowls made of areca leaves.
The river is worshipped as the Goddess Ganga, and her waters are considered the embodiment of all sacred waters in Hindu mythology. The Ganges is considered both pure and purifying – it is the ultimate force to reclaim order from disorder, and to wash away the physical and symbolic impurities of those who bathe in the river.
The Taj may be the first image that comes to mind with India, but these – the ghats of the Ganges – are the sight to see. We’d never seen anything like them, and I think in some ways they serve as a microcosm for the complicated, beautiful religion of Hinduism, and of India itself.
Our guide and rower started us moving northward up the river, pointing out the various bathing ghats, Rajput palaces and temples along the way. The number of people who ventured into the early morning water was staggering, and the banks were cloaked in the colors of thousands of saris.
The mundane activities of bathing and doing laundry were set alongside joyous children flipping into the water and the sacred prayers of sadhus, but no one seemed to mind the juxtapositions.
It wasn’t long until we drifted alongside the burning ghats where cremations are performed before the ashes (and sometimes partial bodies) are spread into the water. Instead of the cheerful hues and vigor of the bathing ghats, the burning ghats are brushed a dark gray, and the surrounding buildings are dreary with soot. Piles of wood are stacked high in the air, and mounds of smoldering ash dot the embankments that lead down to the water.
I asked our guide, “Do they see any problem with bathing right next to the burning ghats?” Meaning, “Do they see how unsanitary it is to swim next to half-burned bodies?” The confused look on his face was answer enough. No, they don’t see anything wrong with it. The river is pure, remember?
The people who have been sent down the Mother Ganga aren’t rotting remains; their souls have been liberated from the cycle of rebirth, and the bodies are just leftover vehicles that will eventually be absorbed back into the earth. Not only is it not disgusting, but the journey into death is occasion for merriment – they no longer have to deal with earthly worries, and they now dwell “honored in heaven”.
As non-Hindus (and germophobic Americans), we found the proximity of the bathing ghats pretty revolting. Not only because of the bodies, but also because of the vast quantities of trash, fecal matter and other pollutants that find their way into the river.
What’s unsettling is that some people’s corpses float along here because their families couldn’t afford the hundreds of pounds of wood it takes to fully burn them. So many are put into the river after their fires go out, even though the whole process was insufficient. Others, such as pregnant women and children, are considered unsullied and therefore don’t need to be cremated. In this case, they’re just weighed down with rocks and lowered into the water. Disturbingly, it’s not uncommon for the ropes to break, and for them to float up to the surface and say hello.
There have been some efforts to remove contaminants in the river near Varanasi. Several sources point to a potential solution for the bodies, anyway: Apparently the local government has bred a special type of snapping turtle that feasts on decomposing human flesh, but steers clear of the live people who bathe in the river. (If the whole topic isn’t too graphic for you, read Environmental Graffiti’s fascinating and informative photo essay, here.)
If you’re curious, it is possible to walk down to any of the ghats in Varanasi and take a closer look. We were both satisfied with seeing them from a distance, and we didn’t want to come across anything that would keep us up at night. Besides, this is a holy place, and we’re always conscious of gawking at something that people hold as sacrosanct.
Although the whole experience is rather perplexing, witnessing the ghats at Varanasi is actually quite serene, and I think the effect is what some would describe as spiritual. It would be hard to come away from it without sensing the heavy significance that thousands of years of tradition have imparted on the banks of the Ganges.
If you find yourself in India, be sure to put Varanasi at the top of your list. It may be the most intriguing place we’ve seen so far.