Murky Passage Ganges: River to Heaven

| May / June 2006

Varanasi, a city abutting the River Ganges, draws Hindu pilgrims from all over India who seek to wash away their sins or to obtain salvation for their dying.

One family we meet in Gayle Ferraro's documentary Ganges: River to Heaven has carried its 96-year-old mother on a 15-hour journey by foot, bus, train, and auto rickshaw to reach a Varanasi hospice so she may attain moksha, or liberation from reincarnation and suffering. Family members sit with her on dirt floors in a dim room, massaging her with oil. One person is always awake to watch over her or hold her hand as she writhes, slowly and soundlessly, or sleeps, her chest moving rapidly with shallow breaths. Her dying takes eight days.

Just outside the door, Varanasi bustles with life. Every morning, thousands of the faithful gather along more than four miles of deep steps carved into the riverbanks. Joyous splashy scenes are intercut with the hospice families' worship services for the dying, creating a lulling sense of the wonder of these holy rituals marking the cycle of life.

Until a corpse floats by a Ganges bather. Then we learn from interviews and voice-overs how polluted the river is -- mostly from raw sewage streaming in from factories, but also in part from the ancient practice of throwing in half-cremated bodies. Suddenly we just want everyone out of the water.

Ferraro hints at other tensions under Varanasi's surface, such as caste; only the so-called untouchables, for example, haul the many tons of wood used to cremate at least 100 bodies a day along the river. But ultimately Ganges limns the inextricable cycle between a city and its river and asks this question: If the Ganges dies, what will happen to Varanasi? -- Sara Aase