Photo was taken from a small boat on the River Ganges or Ganga in the city of Varanasi, India. A cremation was about to take place.
Notice the body wrapped in bright orange and prepared for the cremation. Smoke rises along the ghat, the rock steps that lead up from the rivers edge. Small boats constantly pull up with towering stacks of logs for burning. In Hinduism the Ganga is the most holy river, and Varanasi, the most holy city, in the world. It is believed that if a deceased’s ashes are laid in the Ganges at Varanasi, their soul will be transported to heaven and escape the cycle of reincarnation. Hundreds of bodies are burned daily on this famous cremation ghat. People come from all over to pray, collect sacred water, and bath in the Ganga. Rituals performed along the banks or in the water of the Ganges are believed to bring fortune and wash away impurities.
Varanasi was a kaleidoscope for the senses - crowds, colors, performances, and rituals so completely new to me.
I have to admit, my first view and understanding of exactly how these cremations were performed involved a bit of shock along with my curiosity. Then as I observed the people, the preparations, the sense of joy in faces, along with the reverence of the hundreds of bathers in these dirty waters, I was enveloped by a sense of awe, emotion, and spirituality. It was beyond my imagination to see all of this. I realized that the traditions which I grew up with would seem just as strange and foreign to these beautiful, devoted Hindus as theirs appeared to me.
As it seems with all of life, there is a flip side. The Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world, with billions of gallons of raw sewage dumped into the 1500 mile long river, along with the ashes of the bodies. The cost of the 1100 pounds of logs needed to burn one large body is beyond the means of some of the faithful and many bodies end up in the Ganges only partially cremated or not at all. This river serves as the primary water source for many along its course. India is a country of vibrant color, full of people with respect for all living creatures, but also a country with very little public infrastructure to meet many basic needs such as sanitation. Efforts are underway to clean up the Ganges, but it is an enormous task that has shown little progress.