If you take the time to look around the old city, even while dodging the piles of excrement, Varanasi is quite the magical place.
We wandered around the tiny streets and alleyways and arrived at 8 o’clock in the city, the sweat was still dripping down our face. “Not much further Sir, not much further”, our Tuk Tuk driver kept promising. With every bend in the narrow streets, our senses were overwhelmed with the scent of spices, fruit, rosewater and street food, along with the unmistakable smell of urine. Our eyes widened with every street stall merchant selling gold, saris, silk and more. The driver finally pulled over the noisy Tuk Tuk and pointed down the endless maze of alleys. “Just ten minute walk Sir”. I guess we were on our own. After aimlessly wandering and getting hopelessly lost in the tiny alleys, we eventually arrived at our hotel, exhausted, dirty and dehydrated. We were at the mercy of Varanasi.
When we awoke the next morning, the sun was just peeking above the horizon. We were whisked away to our boat ride along the Ganges River, which is the quintessential Varanasi experience and best done when the sun is rising and the pilgrims come to bathe. Floating along the river a sense of calm came over us. Varanasi is a place of great spiritual importance to Hindus, and before dawn you can really feel the intensity and spirituality in the air.
Hindus believe that the Ganges is sacred and they worship the river goddess Ganga, who is believed to live in the river. With one dip in the river, it is possible to remove all your sins and get closer to Moksha (the end of the cycle of death and rebirth, the ultimate goals of Hindus). Pilgrims travel from far and wide to bathe in the river as well as scatter the ashes of their loved ones. Twenty-five to thirty thousand cremations are performed annually on the Ghats of Varanasi. It is believed to be the holiest of places. It is not uncommon to see floating bodies as you paddle down the river. The cost of cremation, at $300-$1000, is an extraordinary sum for the average worker, This prevents many of them from being able to afford cremation.
The mother river is the third largest river in the world. The birthplace of the Ganges is high in the western Himalayas. As it winds its way 1,550 miles (2,500 km) to the Bay of Bengal the Ganges supplies water for 40% of the Indian population, more than half a billion people, the most of any river in the world. Most of these people rely on the Ganges for basic needs like drinking the water and bathing in the river. Sixty-six percent of people drinking the water of the Ganges will get terribly sick!
There is an unfathomable uphill battle to combat pollution. Deemed excessively polluted, the Ganges is the second most polluted river in the world today. The main problems are domestic use, such as bathing, laundering and raw sewage. Only 12% of the pollution comes from industrial factories, but they pump out most of the worst toxins. Certain toxic chemical counts in the river are 70 times higher than the recommended values. Experts classify the Ganges as unfit for any human, agricultural or livestock use, which is the worst classification there is. Such high levels of pollution are detrimental to the people of India and cause dysentery, hepatitis and severe diarrhea, one of the main causes of death in children.
Another major stress factor to the Ganges is the Kumbh Mela, which is a religious gathering taking place annually with more than 100 million bathers attending. This is the largest peaceful gathering of people in the world.
Despite this, the Ganges is fighting to survive. According to scientific research the river contains a higher oxygen level which acts as a self purifier. Studies show that these oxygen levels help to contain the breakouts of major diseases from the river.
Several non-government organizations are devoting everything to save the Ganges and are working towards a cleaner future. Since 1986, there have been multiple efforts, in collaboration with government, to reduce the detrimental impacts. The government has agreed and allocated many funds towards this, but they often get swallowed in corruption and mismanagement. The “Save the Ganga” organization has one clear goal and demand; no sewage can enter the Ganges! The locals are also being educated on the effects of dropping dead bodies in the river as well as spreading the ashes. The government is creating eco-zones where no new factories can be built and ordering the closure of existing ones.
The Sadhu pilgrim slowly traverses the steps on the Ghat. You can tell there is no other place in the world he would like to be. As he submerges in the water he feels the warm water cleanse his mind and soul. He cherishes the taste of the mother river as it he closer to Moksha than ever before. The Sadhu has devoted himself completely to Hinduism. By leaving behind all material attachments behind he tells us that he only strives to reach Moksha.
Despite the harsh realities of the Ganges, visiting the oldest city on the river was still an experience not to be missed. We are deeply saddened to see pollution this grave, but also hopeful, and to some extent optimistic, that the dedicated environmentalist of India will prevail.
You can see our photos from Varanasi in our Gallery.