The Ganges, or Ganga, is a 1,616 mile river that flows through India and Bangladesh. Hindus consider the waters of the Ganges to be both sacred and purifying. What the Ganges removes, however, is not necessarily physical dirt, but symbolic dirt; it wipes away the sins of the bather, not just of the present, but of a lifetime.
The river suffers from extreme pollution levels caused by the 400 million people that live along it. Despite the contamination, Hindus consider the Ganga as the form in which their Lord Shiva appears on Earth. It is believed that as water, Shiva’s energy can be felt, tasted, and absorbed. The Ganges is also the mother, the Ganga Mata of Hindu worship and culture, accepting all and forgiving all.
Because of this, millions of Hindus come from all over the world to bathe, drink, and be around the river every day. The Ganges in Varanasi is also considered the ideal location for one to die so that ones soul can be released to nirvana. There are two public cremation sites – Manikarnika ghat and Harishchandra ghat that are in operation 24/7.
Before cremation, the body of the deceased is washed in the river to purify it of any and all sins. Once the body is burned, the bones and ashes are thrown into the river. 5 types of bodies are not burned, but tied to stones and released into the middle of the river upon death. Pregnant women, people with leprosy, certain animals, and children. Families who cannot afford the expensive cremation ceremony also typically throw the bodies of the dead into the Ganges as well.