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