We took a beautiful boad ride up the ganges river last night. An old man rowed Nicole and me up stream (the water flows from the himalayan mountains just a few hundred miles north of here) for about an hour until the sun set over the town of Varanasi. Then we turned around (the river flows to Calcutta) and rowed near the ghats (steps that lead into the water). It really becomes peaceful, for the first time in india, out on the river.
This 10km section of the river is sacred - ironic when you learn how polluted it is. This is where hindi people come to be cremated, and nicole and i watched some very moving cermonies from our boat. For about $10, Brahmin (a religious man) will build a big stack of wood and perform the ceremony. The family stands on the riverside ghat and the "pallbearers' carry the body on a bamboo stretcher covered in a bright cloth and flowers down to the river. The stretcher is immersed in the water and then the body is placed on the stack of wood. The Brahmin performs some rituals as the family watches and then lights the fire. Within an hour or so, nothing but ash remains. If you can't afford the $10, there is an electric burning facility next door for much less. A rich family might elect for the wood pile to be sandlewood, and this would cost much more.
About the tranquil waters of the Ganges... if you are within certain categories: never married, don't have a job, under 10 years old, afflicted with chronic disease, or bitten by a snake, the brahmin won't cremate you. Instead, they tie a big stone around your body, take you to the middle of the river, and drop you in. 45,000 corpses are dropped into the river at this area each year. Add to this "medical waste" the fact that there are 30 sewers emptying directly into this area of the "sacred" river and the pollution levels are off the charts. Yet, each morning, thousands of pilgrims walk down the steps of the ghats to bath in and drink from it.
There truly are no limits to the shocking things we see here. My head hasn't quit shaking in bewilderment since we first landed.