- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

VARANASI, India — Here, in one of the world’s oldest living cities, more than 100 ancient piers descend step by step into India’s holiest river, the Ganges.

Known as ghats, they are places of worship and places of business. They are carnival and crematorium.

Every dawn, tens of thousands of Hindus gather on them to slip into the Ganges to bathe in a ritual believed to wash away sins. Others meditate silently on the painted steps.

Fishermen and tourists float past the crowds, wading into the current while laundry workers beat the city’s clothing into a foam at water’s edge, sharing drying space on the ghats with dogs sunning themselves.

Brides and grooms step from temples and are led to the banks for blessings. Then, marching bands and lantern-carrying children lead the wedding processions up narrow alleys away from the river.

At the “burning ghats,” families wash the dead in the Ganges and then huddle around blazing funeral pyres, consoled by the belief that their loved ones were cremated in the most auspicious of places.

The atmosphere is more festive on the larger ghats, where hawkers sell novelties, color film and other items to pilgrims. Masseurs work their trade for tourists. Beggars plead for small change.

Worshippers crowd around Hindu priests and, at night, children put candles into flower-filled cups and set them afloat in the darkness.

But the crowds have taken a toll, and India’s most sacred river is now one of the most polluted. Rotting flower garlands, bottles, cans and other garbage lie along the riverbanks. Sewage is pumped directly into the river. The burned remains of funeral pyres, and even some bodies, are thrown into the Ganges.

During the summer rains, the Ganges rises and most of the ghats are submerged, leaving thick layers of silt in winter when the river falls. Men with fire hoses wash away the mud, the steps are repainted, riverside temples are swept clean.

And the ghats come alive again.

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