The burning ghats (also known as Manikarnika ghat) in Varanasi are a sacred place where the Hindu funeral rituals take place. After the body is burned, the ashes are pushed into the Ganges River, which is also considered sacred. We’d visited the burning ghats in Kathmandu a few weeks before this trip to see Pashupatinath along the sacred Basmati River. Cremations take place within full public view in these Hindu societies.
Though many people bathe in the Ganges River and the Varanasi locals believe very strongly that the river is clean because it is sacred, there are some obvious problems with this logic. The Basmati River in Nepal has similar problems (hospitals dump their toxic waste into the river, upstream from where locals dunk themselves for fertility rituals and near where other locals bathe and drive their cars down to the shore to wash them). The boatmen told us that the bodies of people who die of pox or other similar, contagious diseases are dumped into the Ganges without being burned. The carcasses of these people rise to the surface and float alongside boats like the one we’re riding in.
Varanasi, as with most of India, is an overwhelming, crazy, hard-to-understand place, but that’s all the more reason to go and see it.