When I caught my first view of the Ganges from atop a flight of stone steps, I wanted it to be beautiful. It was the holy Ganga—stuff of myth and ritual, purifier of sin, compassionate mother to all India, source of life for a half billion people. But all I saw was pollution, a film of grime that covered everything in sight. The river was opaque, toxic brown, an urban color. The flat gray sky had no blue for the water to reflect. Weak daylight disappeared into darkness at the river’s surface, making it impossible to tell its depth. Clusters of trash lapped at its banks.
Steve and I had arrived in Varanasi two hours earlier, on the 8:00 am train. Now, at mid-morning, the heat and moisture of the late July day smothered my body. Sweat ran down my legs underneath my long skirt and pooled in my sandals beneath the depressions of my heels. Back in the States, I could have worn shorts or tied my skirt up, but not in India. Women must keep their calves covered or risk offense. After two months living in the dry, mild weather of the Himalayas, I had underestimated how uncomfortable the monsoon climate would be.
“So what do you think?” Steve asked, as I stood there staring. He had lived in Varanasi two years earlier, and had been looking forward to sharing it with me.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It looks so filthy. How can people bathe in it?”
“Give it a chance,” Steve said. “At first I hated it here. It’s dirty and crowded. Everyone wants to rip you off. It took me weeks to understand what makes it special.”
Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi brings about moksha, the soul’s liberation from worldly suffering and the cycle of reincarnation. Because of this, thousands of Indians go to Varanasi each year to die. Some make the journey when they are already very ill and stay at the city’s death ashrams to await their final breaths. Plenty of healthy pilgrims make the journey too; bathing in the Ganges’ purifying waters is thought to wash away all sin. Even after death it isn’t too late: purification can be attained by casting a person’s ashes into the river. When they die, pregnant women and children aren’t cremated because they are believed to be too pure for burning. Instead, their bodies are floated out on the currents.
Millions of people have bathed in the Ganges at Varanasi, and millions of people’s ashes have been scattered in its holy waters. Millions of corpses have been sent into the river to decompose. Some scholars assert that Varanasi is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, and place its age at 10,000 years. Millennia of dead rest in its waters.
Not only are human remains dumped into the Ganges each day, but also garbage, raw sewage and industrial waste. I read up on the ecological state of the Ganges before arriving in Varanasi and was disturbed to learn that people continue to bathe in it despite the nearly septic conditions. From the way the water quality was described, it didn’t seem worth the risk.
I asked an Indian man I met on the train about bathing in the Ganges. He assured me that the river is sacred and has special purifying properties. “No problem,” he said, shaking his head to dismiss the idea. He himself had bathed in it numerous times. I asked him if anyone ever got sick from bathing in the river. “No problem, no problem,” he kept saying.