On a sweltering afternoon in Varanasi, India, a family is washing their relative's corpse in the river Ganges. Behind them, on the steps leading up from the river's edge, half a dozen funeral pyres are burning.
Hundreds of people mill around the cremation area: families in mourning huddle in groups, workers lug wood along the muddy paths, hawkers sell tea and spicy snacks, priests scuttle between rituals, bearded Hindu ascetics meditate and ask for alms. The smoke rising out from the burning bodies wafts across the water, burying the scene in a woolly haze.
‘What we've heard from our ancestors is that if you are cremated in Varanasi you get moksha, or liberation from the cycles of death and rebirth,’ he said.
‘We're happy we can perform the death rituals here,’ he said. ‘We will have done our duty.’
Varanasi has been attracting pilgrims for millennia, and today it is a bustling city of 3.5 million people. Millions more Hindu pilgrims visit the city each year to bathe in the Ganges, which Hindus believe is a sacred river whose waters purify the soul.
Varansi photo from Wikipedia Commons.