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Thursday, 28 February 2013

Body of the Ganges, Varanasi

Written by Adrienne Rose Block
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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.



Varanasi is a maze of cobblestone alleys. Dozens of stone staircases called ghats lead down to the Ganges, continuing below the surface so bathers can use them to enter the river. As Steve and I descended, the pollution in the water became even more obvious. I could smell its odor, rancid and warm. Plastic bottles, crumpled wrappers and brightly colored cloth from funerary pallets floated in clumps along the shore. 

Part of me wished we hadn’t gotten any closer, that we had simply watched from above. I realized why most of the pictures I’d seen of Varanasi had been taken at sunrise or sunset. It wasn’t just for romantic effect; the light of day held little compassion for Mother Ganga. I turned to look down the riverbank, eager to see the Ganges from a distance again. But then, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a flicker of movement near one of the clumps of trash. I squatted down to look more closely, my hesitation overcome by curiosity. 

I motioned to Steve. “Hey, I think I see a fish!”

“Really? I didn’t think anything was alive in there.”

“Neither did I.” 

Unbelievably, it was a fish, and another swam behind it. They looked like small carp, mottled with orange, black and white. The two wiggled back and forth, pulling at pieces of garbage with their puckering mouths. They approached and retreated, approached again. Little bubbles rose to the water’s surface. 

Steve and I walked along the concrete riverbank between the ghats. We soon came to one of the ghats designated for bathing, and found it nearly empty. High season for pilgrimage to Varanasi is from October until March; in late July scorching temperatures and monsoon conditions keep many away. Because of this, less than ten people, all men and boys, lingered at the bathing ghat. Most wore swimsuits or underwear. Younger boys swam and splashed in the river or climbed onto the metal railing of the concrete pier and dove in headfirst. A sign painted on the side of a nearby building advertised a swimming club for girls and boys. As I watched, all I could think about were the vast quantities of fecal matter floating in the river, the input of raw sewage and industrial waste, the residue of corpses and ashes, and the thousands who die each year from drinking its water. 

A man waded into the river. He cupped his palms together and lowered them to gather water, then raised them to his mouth and drank, smoothing the remaining wetness into his hair. He touched his hands to his forehead, palms clasped in a gesture of prayer. I wondered at the strength of faith that could lead a person to drink this water—maybe I even envied it. I wanted to feel that same devotion. 

“Adie,” Steve said, taking my elbow and turning my gaze away from the river, “Look.”

Midway down the long flight of stone steps leading to where we stood, a herd of around twenty water buffalo picked its way down the stairs toward the river’s edge. We watched, motionless. Since arriving in India two months earlier, we’d grown accustomed to animals roaming free in urban environments: monkeys, donkeys, the occasional camel or yak, skittish street dogs and slinky backyard cats, and of course, cows. Hundreds, thousands, of cows. But we hadn’t seen water buffalo before, and they were much bigger than cows, even bigger than the wrinkled white bull with oil-slick eyes that Steve and I had dared each other to touch earlier that day. And here they were, smack in the middle of a city with over four million people, lumbering toward us.


The buffalo walked carefully on their delicate hooves, their unwieldy bodies swinging side-to-side as they went. Their sleek brownish-black hides glistened in the late-morning sun like they’d been rubbed with mustard oil. Their bodies were more cylindrical and compact than cows, reminding me of a childhood craft project when I’d built barnyard animals with soupcan bodies and pencil legs. The heaviest among them seemed to have a precarious relationship with gravity. Standing on his dainty legs, he looked like a cartoon drawn intentionally out of proportion. 

The herd arrived at the river’s edge. None of the bathers paid much attention, even though the herd approached the same section they were bathing in. The buffalo entered one by one, some with grace and others with a loud, splashing plop. As they submerged, their exaggerated shapes gained coherence; their added mass posed no problem under water. They seemed relieved and at ease to be soaking in the holy river. I saw nothing menacing in their appearance or manner, and I admired their thoughtful brows and short, curved horns tucked close to their heads.

Their smooth flanks sank into the water until I could see only the arc of their backs and long wedges of their heads. The crests of their spines emerged above the waterline like bridges and mountains. The Ganges was shallow enough that the buffalo could stand on the bottom and sink down according to how they bent their knees. As they settled into the water, common mynas, gray birds with yellow beaks, came to perch along the massive ridges of their vertebrae and shoulder blades. The buffalo tipped up their chins and tilted their heads back to keep their mouths from drowning. Some sank deeper and their faces floated disembodied—their calm, doleful eyes half-shut against the sun. 

The bathers and the buffalo mingled in the same water that had appeared poisonous to me only minutes earlier. I still couldn’t keep my eyes on the river for too long, and despite the endorsement of the buffalo and religious faithful, I couldn’t find anything inviting in its color or texture. The river had none of the clarity of water. Its consistency was like milk, and the color like creamed coffee in the bottom of a forgotten mug. It had none of the coolness of water either. If a breeze blew across its surface, it gathered heat and wafted up onto the river’s banks like stagnant breath. 

This, the holiest site on the holiest river in India, did not call me into its currents as I’d hoped it would. Maybe I’d imagined that once I saw it, once I was actually there, I would be overwhelmed by the desire to immerse myself and nothing else would matter. 



When the river is low, Steve told me, it’s possible to walk its length uninterrupted. But after a month of monsoon rains, the Ganges flowed high along the ghats, washing out the most low-lying areas. At certain spots, we had to choose between wading through the water or climbing up the ghats, wandering through alleys and trying to find our way back down. Steve assured me no harm would come if we waded in a little, but I couldn’t imagine dipping even one toe. I recoiled when droplets splashed in my direction. 

 “I thought you said you might want to go in,” Steve said with disappointment. He hadn’t gone into the river when he came to Varanasi before, and wanted to this time.

He was right. I had wanted to go in, but that was when it was hypothetical.

 “I don’t think so,” I said. “It looks disgusting. Look at all the garbage floating in it, all the ashes.”

“Maybe we could just go in for a minute,” he said. “Afterwards we could run right into the shower.” 

I looked at him with exasperation. This had been a theme since we’d arrived in India, Steve pressing me to do things I didn’t feel comfortable with: day-long treks to remote monasteries that were only supposed to take an hour or two, drinking water out of streams and taps when I would have preferred bottled, sleeping outside on freezing nights with only one sleeping bag between us. 

“I just don’t want to do it, okay?”

We’d been in Varanasi for several days when we woke to the roar of monsoon winds and the spray of rain blowing into our guestroom at the Hanuman temple. We’d gone to sleep with the window latched as always—a measure to keep out mosquitoes. But during the night, fierce gales had blown it open and its metal shutters screeched and clanged against the stucco wall outside. Steve went to the window and pulled the shutters in, then re-latched them as securely as he could. He tried the electrical switch near the window, hoping to spin the ceiling fan back to life, but, as we knew would be the case, nothing happened. It was 10:15 in the morning. The energy crisis in Varanasi and the rest of Uttar Pradesh meant that the power went out every day from 10:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. Even though the rain brought relief from the stifling humidity, we quickly felt the heat spreading back into the center of our room from the corners where the whirring fan had kept it pinned. 

“Breakfast and walk?” Steve asked.

Our daily routine. We woke up with the heat of the power outage or spray of the rain, ate breakfast at a nearby restaurant and then went down to the river to spend hours walking along its shore. Whether it rained or not didn’t change our plans. In heat like this, with no obligations, it didn’t matter if we got soaked.

That day, we went to a restaurant at the top of a four-story hotel. The rain stopped by the time we arrived and we sat down at a table by an open window to enjoy the cool breeze. We were the only people there except for an Indian man who sat on a pallet near the wall playing tabla drums. It felt luxurious to sit there high above the city, to enjoy a private concert and feel the breeze on our skin. 

It wasn’t until after we ordered our food that I noticed little white specks blowing onto our table. We went to the window and looked down to discover that one of the cremation grounds was directly below. I watched as a knot of men huddled near the flames, shawls thrown over their noses and mouths to keep out the ash. 

We finished our meal to the rhythms of tabla and the burning smells from the cremation grounds. Strangely, the fire smelled almost the same as any other fire. Nothing about it suggested a burning corpse. If anything, its scent was slightly sweet, probably from the incense used in the cremation ceremony. As I breathed in, I thought about the life and death mixing together inside me, the tiny white ashes vibrating in my lungs to the tabla’s intricate beats. 

After breakfast we walked down to the river. It had been raining for several days and the water level had risen along the ghats. Many were washed out and impossible to navigate without coming into contact with the river. In certain spots, a deep layer of mud had accumulated on the concrete. The constant rain had turned everything into a slippery sludge. But we decided not to climb the staircases like we usually did to avoid wading through the river. With the water so high, we would have had to interrupt our walk countless times to avoid it, and it didn’t seem worth it. 

So I stepped carefully into the water, gripping my sandals with my toes to keep the mud from stealing them. I let the water cover the top of my feet and creep toward my ankles; I didn’t cringe when I felt it lick my calves. My sandaled toes sank into the warm, smooth mud beneath the surface, and I didn’t think about the pathogens lurking in the water, waiting to enter through an imagined cut in the flesh of my foot.



On our last day in Varanasi, we returned to our room at the Hanuman temple after dinner. Rain had fallen throughout the day but ended by twilight, leaving the air cooler and the humidity somewhat dissipated. Steve and I stood on the terrace looking out across the Ganges. In the last light of the fading day, I could see a strip of land out near the horizon. The land cut through what would otherwise have been a continuous view of calm sapphire waters mirroring the sky. One solitary touring boat remained, and I could make out three figures inside of it. Two were seated in the back while one stood at the front and worked his oar. The boat moved smoothly, parallel to the shore, and headed up the river toward the lights in the distance.

“I think we should go in,” I said to Steve.

“You do?” he said, a smile in his eyes. 

Over the course of ten days, the river had come to seem less menacing. People washed their clothes in it, bathed in it, drank it, worshipped it, trusted it to take away their sins. Pilgrims of limited means journeyed thousands of miles to immerse themselves in its waters, to open their mouths and allow it to mix with their bodies. Every day I watched rains from the sky pour into it and refresh it. I didn’t understand quite when or why something had changed in my mind, but in that moment I had no doubt that the river was holy, that the city was holy. All the millions of people that had bathed their living bodies in it, entrusted their corpses and ashes to its currents—that made the river holy. The act of mixing my own molecules with those of other people, living and dead, past and present—that was a holy act. Perhaps I would never have another chance like this; perhaps I would never return. Maybe the residue and grime of millions of people, their bones and tears and flesh and ashes, would somehow make me clean. 

We walked down to the river by way of the Hanuman Ghat, next to the temple where we stayed. It was after 9:00 p.m. and the ghat was nearly deserted, but the emptiness felt safe and comforting. I knew we’d be able to go into the water unobserved, avoiding the curious stares and comments that a foreign man and woman bathing in the Ganges might attract during the day. The fires of the burning ghats flickered in the distance and a stray dog lingered along the staircase, skinny and tense from hunger. 

I took off my sandals and left them on the concrete. Women keep their clothes on during ritual bathing. Steve undressed to his underwear, as is common for men. He stepped into the river as I watched tentatively from the pier. 

“How is it?” I asked. “Is it warm?”

“Just come in,” he said. “It’s nice, you’ll see.”

I approached the water slowly, at my own pace. My feet found the bottom of the first stone stair underneath the water’s surface. The river felt warm and thick and soft. From the shore it had been impossible to see any current at all, but as I continued down the steps I began to feel its strength. I reached for Steve’s hands and he put his arms around me. I went down one more step, up to my knees. Down another, and my thighs were covered. Down I went until the river soaked my t-shirt, lapped at my collarbone and neck. My clothes filled with water and floated as the Ganges wrapped itself around my limbs and waist. My footing faltered on the steps as the current tugged at my body and I held tighter to Steve. 

“The current’s stronger that I thought.”

“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ve got you.” 

I looked out into the mighty Ganges, my eyes almost level to the river’s surface. A light drizzle began to fall, and concentric circles rippled out into the water from where we stood. Infinite other circles overlapped and collided around us, some as fine and delicate as hair. Underneath flowed the zigzag shimmer of the current, fragmenting ripples into fingerprint whorls. All I could hear was the soft rushing of water. Both of us stood deep inside the river, Steve still holding one arm around me. 

“You can let go now,” I said.


©Adrienne Rose Block

Last modified on Friday, 01 March 2013