For a city where people come to spend the last moments of their lives, Varanasi feels eternally—and exquisitely—alive. The holiest city in Hinduism is a place without vanity, where millions of pilgrims come each year to exhibit the most private moments of their religious life: to pray, to wash away their sins, to die. Here the road to salvation is a river, the Ganga Ma, or Mother Ganges, and few places on Earth offer such dramatic and public displays of elemental worship.
Though the Ganges is an actual deity, its heightened status in the Hindu pantheon is grounded in the material; the river irrigates one of the largest and most densely populated watersheds in the world. This is the Indian heartland, where rich alluvial soil gave rise to the region's first civilization and now helps feed the entire country. Hindus thus venerate Ganga Ma as a giver of life—and, confoundingly, as a means of liberation from it.
To die in Varanasi, on the river's sacred banks, is to free oneself from samsara, the seemingly endless cycle of death and rebirth; it enables one to forgo further reincarnations and achieve moksha, or spiritual liberation. Moksha is not a place but a goal, one similar to Buddhist enlightenment, an emancipation from temporal desires and all the suffering that goes with them. Moksha is what every Hindu desires most, a supreme realization of the self, and there is no faster route than these waters.
A bend in the river. But why here? Why, on a river that is more than 1,500 miles long, did Varanasi emerge where it did? "Thousands of years ago the spot was the nexus of some important trade routes," says John Hawley, professor of religion at Columbia University's Barnard College. "It was also unusual in that the river, which flows southeast, here makes a sharp turn and flows north, as if it were looking back at its origins."
"The northern direction was considered very auspicious," concurs Travis Smith, a Varanasi expert and assistant professor at the University of Florida's Department of Religion. "And it was significant to Varanasi's development," because it allowed worshipers and temples on the western side of the river to directly face the rising sun. According to Smith, Varanasi soon "became associated with wandering ascetics. As a trading center, it was a good place to get alms."
Today, Varanasi's cremation ghats are still at the city's heart—literally and metaphorically—and still face the rising sun. Several thousand bodies a month are consumed by fires that, day and night, never go out. Barefoot men use bamboo poles to rotate the blackened bodies, and the resulting smoke hangs above the river complex like a thin blue veil. The bone and ash that remain are shoveled into the river. It is not uncommon to see uncremated corpses in the river as well—the bodies of infants who are still considered pure and not in need of cremation, floating alone in the caramel-colored water.
The river's unsightly shade of brown isn't caused by silt alone. Though the Ganges begins as glacial melt high in the Himalayas, it is soon sullied with pollution. By the time its water reaches Varanasi, the Ganges seems less a river than a roux, a toxic mix of raw sewage (the river's fecal level is 1.5 million times India's safe level for drinking), industrial chemicals, and corpses. Yet for the millions of pilgrims who come to Varanasi annually, pilgrims who collect, bathe in, and, yes, drink this water, the river's austere origins are still enough to assuage such mortal concerns.
Beyond the waterfront, Varanasi's interior is a dark and dirty labyrinth, one so narrow that a sleeping cow can block your passage. The air is heavy. Bouquets of patchouli incense compete with India's signature odors—car exhaust and coal fires. Ocher-robed ascetics—garlands of marigolds around their necks, tridents in their hands—wander these passageways, as do hustlers, dope pushers, and beggars.
As the primordial home of Shiva, that most fertile of Hindu gods, the city is cluttered with phalluses, both stone and real. The former emerge from temples and sidewalks like concrete posts, the latter hang from sadhus, or Hindu holy men, whose only dress, if you can call it that, is the ashes from the cremation ghats spread over their bodies like powder.