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Tall Tales of an Adventuring Prima Donna "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So...Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." -- Mark Twain

Swimming in the Ganges

INDIA | Wednesday, 4 June 2008 | Views [12982] | Comments [3]

Be forewarned:  This entry may be disturbing to those with a weak stomach!

They say that swimming in the Ganges can kill you if you are not accustomed to the water, or at the very least, make a you so sick that you might wish you were dying. 

And from what I've learned, it's got to be true!

Scientists who have done tests on the water say that it is so polluted that it's septic, with no dissolved oxygen.  There are over 30 sewers that are constantly discharging into the river.  If this isn't bad enough, there is a problem with the sewage backing up with the influx of pollution from the other villages, and the manholes overflow into the streets and bathing areas.  I have found that walking through the alleys of Varanasi is a skilled art -- and was mistaken in thinking that dodging the cow dung and urine was the worst of it. 

But those facts don't matter to the Hindus who believe the Ganges is a place to wash away a lifetime of sins and find Salvation.

Here in India, it is called tha Ganga river...the holiest river in all of India.  It flows along the ancient city of Varanasi, which is one of the holiest and most spiritual cities in all of India.

Varanasi is known to Hindus as the city of Shiva, Lord of the Universe. 

For the Indians, dying in Varanasi is a blessed way to leave this life, and for loved ones to be cremated along the Ganga River, it is believed to free the soul from the cycle of life and death...sending loved ones to their salvation.  

For the travellers who visit to explore the culture, the discovery is shocking.  The rituals of public cremation of dead bodies wrapped in muslin and burned on a pile of chopped wood is a common scene and almost too much to bear. 

I saw this for the first time yesterday, sitting with another traveller on some steps that offered a bird's eye view of a cremation at the 'burning ghats.' 

No pictures are allowed here out of respect for the deceased.  But, as I watched on, it was a morbidly fascinating scene of huge piles of wood burning and bodies being prepared as their saffron yellow muslin wraps are doused with the holy water from the Ganges right before they are set on fire.  Our eyes burned and teared from the huge amount of smoke.

It felt like I had been transported in time as I watched the huge fires, the tall stacks of wood ranging from mango wood to sandal wood...and the cows weaving up and down the steps of the 'burning ghat.'

The families who cannot afford a proper cremation will tie large stones to the feet of the body and watch it sink to the bottom of the Ganga.  I have heard many stories from other travellers who have witnessed dead bodies floating on the surface of the water during boat trips, dead bodies being washed ashore....and the most disturbing story I heard involved a feral dog and a woman's bloated body -- Use your imagination.  Iiicckkk!

Morbid, it definitely is.  But, the Hindus see it as a freeing of the soul.  They see death so differently, and when observed through their eyes and an understanding of their culture, it becomes mildly less disturbing.  It is reminiscent of the painting, "The Isle of the Dead"  http://www.stmoroky.com/reviews/gallery/bocklin/iotd.htm -- a place where souls are transported to another world.  Dark to some, freedom to others.

Despite all of the death, Varanasi has been one of the most colorful and interesting cities I've ever been to. 

It is exactly as I imagined India: monkeys everywhere you look, religious people chanting their prayers and 'sing-songy' mantras in Hindi and Urdu, the beautiful silk sarees of every color flowing from groups of women, the offensive smells in the streets and alleys of urine and feces -- combined with perfumed incense and rosewater, devout spiritual sadus who bless you with their strange red paste and powder... leaving a huge red dot in the middle of your forehead, and the ancient religious temples with the rituals still in progress, transporting you in time.

It is fascinating...the irony and beauty of it all.  I have been here for almost five days now and will remember the moving pictures of life and death, the laughter of children bathing in the Ganga and the mothers' who cry for their children who have passed, and my young Indian friend, Badri, who I know will stay here sedentary -- while there will be the coming and going of the new friends he'll make as travellers and mourners come to explore this city of passage into other worlds...   




Um, gross.

  Dominick Jun 6, 2008 6:23 AM


No. This is not beautiful. Its fucking disgusting and inhumane. Some cultures need to be changed for god's sake! To actually be washing yourself in a river where not only feces, urine and garbage are floating around, but also ROTTING bodies, is repulsive. Indians are the most unhygienic breed of humans alive.

  Meep Jun 8, 2014 10:39 AM


Actually dissolved oxygen levels are very high in the Ganges, not low. And there are proven Bacteriophages that tend to prevent disease outbreaks caused by bacteria. Yes, it's highly polluted, but if you're not open to other cultures, for "god's sake" don't go there. They don't appreciate xenophobic foreigners any more than we do. Grow up.

  Laura Jul 14, 2015 11:52 AM

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