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A Ganges Experience

By Morgan Helme

March 22, 2009

Slowly and deliberately, she lowered her face to her hands as they dropped scoops of water over her head. It soaked into the fluorescent green sari that was draped over her hair. The sari would never again be quite so bright after being dowsed in the dingy water of the Ganges River.

This water, so holy to the Hindus, had long before turned a dismal shade of grey that was off-putting among the celebrations along the river’s banks. Cups of flower petals floating in the river provided splashes of color, but soon they would become part of the rubble heap on the shores.

Men stood on the steps of the ghats leading down to the water in black sarongs. They scrubbed themselves with soap that left a thick, white film on their body. After they submerged, no soap scum was visible, but oily remains of chemical waste dumped in the river snaked past with the slow current.

Laundry was washed here to bring protection to the wearer, but came back with a new layer of grime.

Farther down the river, an old woman stooped to fill a small urn with the sacred water. When sipped on a sickbed, it had the power to heal. When swallowed on a deathbed, it guaranteed immediate liberation of the soul. My stomach rolled as I thought of someone ingesting this stew of filth.

A man did laps past our narrow boat as it glided down the river. A dog with rigor mortis floated downstream, large pink sores visible through the fur. A young man sat in lotus position on a platform extending over the water. The many faces of the River Ganges.

Waist-deep in the water stood a family of three. A chant murmured on the mother’s lips as she brought her clasped hands to her lips and forehead. Beside her, her husband ritually sprinkled water over his head and their son bobbed, attempting to keep his chin above the water.

We left the young boy and his family behind, and came upon another child, no more than 8-years-old. That was the age where they began cremating children instead of burying them in the river. The bloated, grey corpse had since engorged. The limbs that must once have run through the narrow alleys of the city were now slowly decaying as they travelled along the shores of Varanasi.

This is the life-cycle of the Ganges. The sick come to get healed in the same river where the dead find their eternal rest. The religious come to purify themselves in the same water where the factories dispose of their dyes and chemicals. Clothes are cleaned in the same water that serves as a trashcan for much of the city.

Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists line the shore as the sun slowly rises. Tourists clamber in boats to capture it all on film. All leave changed.

For more stories, see the author's blog at: Follow Morgan Around the World

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