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Q: Why do people in India put ashes in the Ganges River?
Photo of the Ganges River and structures along its bank at the city of Varanasi.

Photo by Jeeheon/Flickr Creative Commons.

Temples, shrines, and palaces crowd the ghats that stretch for miles along the left bank of the Ganges in the Indian city of Varanasi.

As you might know, many of the world’s best-known natural features are considered holy or sacred by certain peoples or religions. Aboriginal peoples of central Australia, for example, revere the giant sandstone formation known as Uluru or Ayer’s Rock. Similarly, the cone-shaped volcanic mountain called Mount Fuji, famous for its perfect symmetry, is sacred to many people in Japan. Devil’s Tower, the 867-foot-tall rock formation that rises in northeastern Wyoming, occupies an important place in the religious traditions of the Lakota people and other American Indian tribes.

The Ganges is the most sacred river in Hinduism, the religion practiced by about four-fifths of the people of India. Perhaps no other river in the world holds as much religious significance as the Ganges.

According to Hindu traditions, the Ganges — or Ganga, as it is known in India —descended to earth from heaven. It is considered not just a body of water but a deity: the goddess Ganga.

Hindus believe that if they bathe in the Ganges, their sins will be washed away. They also believe that a dead person will quickly ascend to heaven if his or her ashes are spread upon the river’s waters.

Each year, millions of Hindus from across India and even from other parts of the world make pilgrimages to the Ganges. They come to bathe, attend festivals, make offerings,  pay homage to ancestors, or visit temples or shrines. Some come to bring the body or ashes of a loved one who has died. In the holy city of Varanasi and in other cities on the river, broad flights of steps known as ghats have been built along the banks to accommodate the pilgrims.

On the India Political Map, you can trace the 1,560-mile-long course of the Ganges. From its headwaters high in the soaring Himalayan mountains, the river flows southward and then eastward across northern India. Near the end of its course, it begins to split into branches called distributaries. After entering the country of Bangladesh, part of the river merges with another great river, the Brahmaputra. The waters of the two rivers cross a vast, densely populated delta and then empty into the Bay of Bengal, which is part of the Indian Ocean.

The drainage basin of the Ganges covers roughly one-fourth of India’s area and is home to hundreds of millions of people. Many of these people depend upon the river for drinking and bathing water, irrigation, and transportation. Industries along the river also depend on the water.

Unfortunately, the Ganges suffers from extreme pollution. In fact, many experts consider it the most polluted river in the world. Tremendous amounts of raw sewage and industrial waste flow into it from cities and towns along its banks.

In recent decades, the Indian government has made some efforts to clean up the river. Pollution, however, has continued to increase, and many Indians feel that far more should be done.

(Question submitted by a 7th-grade student at Dodgen Middle School in Marietta, Georgia.)

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