To India’s devout Hindu population, Varanasi is the most sacred place they may ever visit. Situated in Uttar Pradesh in the North East it is a place where millions come to bathe in the murky swelling waters of the Ganges and – in some cases – to die. Visiting Varanasi in the month of Shiva is quite a vision, especially on a Monday when the city is awash with bright orange-clad pilgrims who have travelled hundreds of kilometres in bare feet to reach their destination. Their calls of praise to the God Shiva traverse the small dirty alleyways alongside the river as they queue in their thousands to take water from the Ganges to the temples around the city in hope of gaining happiness and peace for the year to come. Similarly, pilgrims recite prayers while immersing themselves in the holy water, floating lily offerings down the river and drinking from it.
A dawn boat ride down the river gives quite a different perspective to the city. Varanasi is the most sacred place for a Hindu Indian to be cremated and have their ashes scattered into the water, though it is certainly no place for the squeamish. Public cremations, nearly 200 a day, take place at the burning ghats on the river bank and are a morbid yet awesome spectacle. The Ganges symbolises both the power to sustain mankind in life and also to take them to their death. To die in Varanasi is to end your cycle of reincarnation.
While the holiness of this river is felt even to a visiting tourist, it is a strange truth that some parts of the river are actually septic. Over one hundred cities on the river spill raw sewage into its holy depths every day and samples have shown that it contains 1.5 million faecal coliform bacteria per litre, where water that is safe to bathe in (let alone drink!) should contain less than 500. The task of cleaning up the Ganges is slowly coming into action and it is estimated that the river may be clean by 2014. While I won’t be taking a dip any time before that, it is of little difference to the millions of zealous pilgrims for whom the Ganges remains truly holy. Clean or unclean, the city is a spectacle to be admired, respected and experienced.