A believer′s town of death and deliverance | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 23.08.2013
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A believer's town of death and deliverance

Varanasi is the religious capital for Hindus and where many believers go to die and exit the cycle of reincarnation. Despite environmental concern, some 250 bodies are prepared and cremated every day on the Ganges River.

Veena Das, a 76-year-old frail looking woman who is suffering from terminal cancer, believes her end is near.

"I wake up every morning hoping the day will bring death. I am tired of suffering like this for years. I just want to die at the feet of the Almighty," she says haltingly, as a nasty cough wracks her weak body sending her to convulsions.

Most auspicious place

A mass cremation (Photo: DW/Murali Krishnan)

Mass cremations take place in Varanasi every day

For the last fortnight after she made the journey to Varanasi, known locally as Kashi, with much difficulty from the eastern state of West Bengal, she checked into a two-story hospice that houses many like her who want to spend their final days in the holy city.

At the far end of a dark and dingy hall, Uma Devi, 56, lies stoically on a tiny cot chanting a prayer. Devi refuses to disclose what she is suffering from and not even the caretaker of the rest home knows why she is here. She looks blankly at the ceiling but is willing to chat about why she chose Varanasi as her final destination.

"To die in the holiest city is indeed a huge blessing. All faithful Hindus hope Varanasi is the end of the road. I can feel it … I will not live long and hope my ashes are immersed in the Ganges soon," Devi told DW.

Her son, Vashist, who has brought his mother to the shelter, says he had no option but to fulfil his mother's last wish.

Bodies covered in fine cloth, ready to be sent to the pyre (Photo: DW/Murali Krishnan)

Bodies are wrapped in fine cloth before being sent to the pyre

"What can I say? This is what she wants and I hope her misery comes to an end soon," he ruefully replies.

This city not only draws hordes of pilgrims to purify their souls but also a huge constituency looking to wind things down permanently. People from all strata of society and from all corners of the country gather here to seek liberation from reincarnation.

Several such hospices, commonly referred to as salvation houses, have opened over the years. Some are run by charitable institutions which do not charge their tenants, while others demand a moderate fee for basic expenses like food and electricity.

"Hindus have for hundreds of years sought release from the cycle of life, death and rebirth by dying in Varanasi or having their remains cremated on the ghats, or steps, next to the Ganges," a local priest, Mahadev told DW.

Varanasi - the final stop

The old city which is a maze of buildings, temples and narrow streets lead to the ghats where pilgrims and visitors take their holy dip in the Ganges River. It is at the 84 ghats scattered across this city that funeral pyres are lit through the day.

Thousands congregate to take a dip in the Ganges river to wash off their sins in this temple town (Photo: DW/Murali Krishnan)

Hindus believe taking a dip in the holy Ganges River can cleanse them of their sins

There is an elaborate ceremony before the corpses are consigned to the flames. They are wrapped in colorful fabric, placed on bamboo frames and given a final bath in the Ganges amid prayers conducted by priests who charge a handsome fee.

"On an average, we cremate more than 250 corpses everyday. Many of these poor families who come here cannot afford the cremation wood required for the pyres and therefore sometimes partially burnt bodies float in the river," Pradeep Chaudhary, who is in charge of a famous ghat told DW.

Environmental concern

Despite the relevance of the location for Hindus, environmentalists for years have tried to stop the religious rites being carried out on the Ganges River. The remains of burnt corpses are scattered about the river - whether they are fully cremated or not. Observers also say animal carcasses are thrown in, contributing to the already high amount of pollution.

According to the National Ganga River Basin Authority, which has been trying to battle pollution for years, the amount of toxins, chemicals and other dangerous bacteria found in the river are now almost 3,000 times over the limit suggested as "safe" by the WHO.

Nonetheless, an estimated 60,000 Hindus bathe in the river every day to cleanse themselves of their sins. And in all likelihood, the city of Varanasi will continue to play a large role in the religious practices of Hindus, especially those in search of deliverance.

Do you think it is possible to reduce pollution in the Ganges without banning religious rituals? Tell us what you think!

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