Varanasi is all about death. Hindus pilgrimage here to die, believing that cremation in this ancient city breaks the reincarnation cycle and allows the soul to finally be at peace. It also keeps a strong firewood industry going.

We arrived in Varanasi after our somewhat pointless journey down the Ganges. Navin took us on a walking tour one evening, a boat tour the next morning, and yet another boat tour that evening. The shore is lined with ghats, series of steps leading down to the water. Some are places to worship and bathe, others are crematoria. Piles of ash smolder day and night, filling the air with a choking haze.

Some individuals are not cremated (those of certain castes and those who were bitten by snakes, among others), so their bodies are weighed down and sunk in the river. A sea of corpses rotting beneath our boat was a repulsive notion.

Perhaps I’m being too sensitive here. Many Indians were contentedly bathing and doing laundry in the river. Then we saw it: a dead body floating past our boat. Nope, I’m not being too sensitive. Navin thought he might be a suicide, since he was in street clothes rather than funereal finery. All I know is that an hour later, the body was floating within a few meters of a man brushing his teeth with river water. Does this not raise a red flag for anyone?!

Well, yeah, it does. The Ganges is dying. Our Lonely Planet guidebook says:

The Ganges River is so heavily polluted at Varanasi that the water is septic – no dissolved oxygen exists… Samples from the river show the water has 1.5 million faecal coliform bacteria per 100mL of water. In water that is safe for bathing this figure should be less than 500!

According to the local newspaper, a scholar named K Chandramouli is preparing a study of Ganges pollution. He notes that 43% of India’s population lives along the Ganges and relies on it for water, yet untreated sewage and industrial water is discharged into it every day. Advocates say that cleanup is needed immediately, before the Ganges reaches a critical stage. (Wait a minute, people are brushing their teeth in corpse-infused water, and it’s not at a critical stage?)

On our nighttime boat ride, Navin led us in a puja, a Hindu expression of worship and respect. Each person floats a candle into the river while remembering departed family members or making a wish for the future. This is one of those things that could seem crassly staged for our tour group (6:00 – feel spiritual, 6:15PM – dinner buffet), but I chose to embrace it.

India has been testing Karen and me, and it can’t hurt to push a few happy wishes into the winds. I just hope the candles, in their dried-leaf rafts, are less environmentally destructive than, you know, rotting dead bodies.