The Beautifully Dirty Ganges

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India never let me down, wherever I turned, everyday I spent there– I witnessed the most shocking sites, and Varanasi certainly didn’t let me down. Thanks to the The Ganges.

The holiest, dirtiest, most-used river in the world. A whole lot of titles to claim for one very brown river! The walk along the riverside ghats or the short canoe ride past the ghats is unreal. At one ghat women and men are busy beating their clothes clean, piles of clothes surrounding them, and freshly beaten shirts hanging nearby or draped across the dirty sidewalks. The next ghat is full of water buffalo wading in the water attempting to escape the heat. There are hundreds of men, women, and children bathing in the river, splashing their faces with the polluted waters and cleaning their bodies of sins. There are groups of teenage boys jumping off buildings and doing back flips into the murky waters. There are people in huge groups huddled close together praying, chanting, dancing and shouting to the Gods. Barbers shaving heads. Women making and selling glass bracelets to foreigners. Men playing wooden guitars while goats nibble at the guitar’s strings. Dogs scrounge the riverside for food. Boat loads of people pile into canoes for rides down the river.

Then, there are the burning ghats.


Every fire is a different cremation...

Two ghats are dedicated to the city’s cremations. Cremations are constantly ongoing, 24-7-365. At death, it is extremely important for Hindu’s to cleanse the body and free the deceased of all their sins. The whole experience was so surreal for me to witness. Rhys and I were strolling along the river, completely captivated by the scene around us when Rhys stopped and said, “Oh my God, That’s someone’s feet!” There in front of us a mere 20 feet away was a woman piled high with wood, engulfed in flames, black smoke billowing from the fire. A group of men stood nearby saying their last goodbyes and prayers as the red-hot flames disintegrated their deceased family member. I couldn’t believe how public the whole ceremony was. Kids are playing nearby, cows are roaming, foreigners gawk, men are swindling foreigners for their cash, daily life is in full swing all around. The ritual starts in the streets where we were dodging funeral processions as men carried the decorated bodies through narrow streets to the burning ghats. Rhys and I were literally ducking into doorways to avoid collisions with the corpse and pole bearers. Once at the ghat we watched the men carry the body to the river and submerge it underwater thus washing the person of sin. After a little yelling and typical chaos from the men, the body was taken to its place of cremation i.e. stack of wood. With hundreds of people watching the body was left alone to burn.  When the cremation was over the ashes are disposed of into none other than The Ganges.

It was unreal to see the cremations occurring in the chaotic scene around us. Life was more or less normal despite the 15 bodies burning infront of us. A small herd of cows and dogs cooled themselves in the river, scammers were everywhere trying to rip-off tourists with talks of  “donating firewood”,  kids were running around, and a few men were up to their stomachs in the river sifting through the ashes looking for gold teeth, rings, and earrings left on the bodies during cremation. The families of the deceased stood in silence. I was amazed.

To the Indians it is just another day at The Ganges. 


5 Responses to “The Beautifully Dirty Ganges”
  1. Nisha says:

    Well said. India is so full of contrasts that it amazes me too, let alone people from other countries. 🙂

    I have never been to Varanasi, it’s a dirty, crowded and commercialized place. But will definitely go there one day. 🙂

    There are pockets in India which have become tourists hubs and the tourists mostly come on recommendation from fellow tourists. I think people visit these places (e.g. Varanasi) more out of curiosity than anything else.

    • Nicky says:

      We would have loved to get out of commercialized India where tourists frequent, but visiting a village and seeing the real India is virtually impossible! Unless, we knew a villager who could help us figure out what train to get on and than what buses to take there and help us with the language barrier! Varanasi is so different than anywhere else I’ve ever been that the filth and overcrowding came as part of the experience.

  2. alexaabroad says:

    Wow, I cannot imagine seeing the feet of the corpse…..

    In college I took a class called Death: Myth & Reality and we talked about the public nature of the funerals as well as the business aspect of them. Incredible that you got to witness this!

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] The Ganges. One of the most intense experiences. Most rewarding. Eye Opening. Hundreds of people praying and chanting on the river’s banks, bathing in it, washing sin away from the deceased with its holy waters. Cows, dogs, children, men, women… everyone coming together at the river for every reason imaginable. This group of women really caught my eye, they were sitting with their offerings in front of them in a straight line, praying together, and oh the mix of colors! […]

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