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Ganges: River to Heaven

Ganges: River to Heaven - Image Produced by Gayle Ferraro.
52 min. Color. 2005.
Available as: VHS and DVD
Captioned: No
Catalog #: 0144
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Sale Price: $295.00 Buy VHS Buy DVD

This extraordinary documentary explores with unparalleled intimacy one of the most cherished of Hindu religious aspirations: to die in the city of Varanasi, on the banks of the sacred Ganges, in the faith that dying here assures liberation from the cycle of earthly life.

In Varanasi (also called Kashi), the power of Ganga, the Hindu mother-goddess of the Ganges River, is strongest. Each dawn she calls her children to the ghats, the steps leading down to the water's edge. The young and strong purify themselves in the river's polluted waters. The old and the infirm, too weak for rituals, wait for death. In time, Ganga carries their souls, released from the bondage of reincarnation, to heaven. Their bodies, as ash afloat her crests or flesh submerged in her depths, return to the river.

Shot in a hospice for the dying and on the ghats of Varanasi, the film follows four families' struggles to grant a loved one's final wish: to go to heaven. In their common quest the families become a fraction of the hordes of Hindus drawn to the city's holy promise of freedom from reincarnation. As the clans prepare for death, the citizens of Varanasi manage life -- praying for health, dumping industrial waste, begging for pocket change, bathing their children, selling to tourists, monitoring fecal chloroform levels, cremating their mothers -- along the banks of the Ganges. The four families' preparations go virtually unnoticed along the river, where death is a daily part of life.

"Ganges: River to Heaven" investigates the inextricable bond between the sacred river and its people with remarkable sensitivity and depth. From the ghat workers gathering wood for the next cremation, to the chemists gathering water samples for contamination-testing, each perspective sheds new light on India's evolving society and its unchanging veneration of the Ganges. The film also examines many viewpoints on the death process: the families who bring their beloved dying to Kashi Labh Mukti Bhavan, a hospice for the dying; the proprietors of the hospice and their understanding of the service they provide; and the workers and proprietors of the cremation grounds where the bodies are brought for final rites.

Keenly observed and filled with unforgettable imagery of ceremonies, rituals, and daily life and death, "Ganges: River to Heaven" sheds a profoundly revealing light on the sacred river, polluted from years of overuse, and wonders if the natural force strong enough to sculpt the peaks of the Himalayas and the beliefs of a nation will survive the adoration of generations to come. This illuminating film will engage and challenge students and generate thought and discussion in a wide variety of courses in Asian and Indian studies, cultural anthropology, religion, death and dying, and environmental studies. It was produced by award-winning filmmaker Gayle Ferraro (see also "Anonymously Yours" and "Sixteen Decisions").


"A film of tremendous energy and tremendous intelligence. It takes viewers on an intense, beautiful, and challenging journey into the heart of an extraordinary city, a place of mind-boggling contradictions. With its luminous photography and its unflinching view of the realities of Banaras, this film will be a wonderful addition to our library of visual resources for the study India. I will certainly use it in my introductory classes, and it would be valuable in any course on pilgrimage, ritual, and the religious significance of death and dying." -- Malcolm David Eckel, Distinguished Teaching Professor, Dept. of Religion, Boston Univ.

"There is nothing sentimental about the portrait of death in Varanasi presented in this remarkable and intimate work. The film is clear, sensitive, and, above all, articulated in the words of Hindus themselves. Most remarkable is the loving and powerful footage taken with great care in the rooms where death is approaching. In this film one learns a great deal about the involvement of families in end-of-life care and the spiritual aspirations of Hindus for whom this final pilgrimage is a life-long hope. In addition, the reflections of Banaras religious leaders, such as Veer Bhadra Misra, address directly the concerns of Ganges pollution, making clear that this issue is of utmost importance not simply to observing tourists, but to Hindu leaders themselves. This is a wonderful film and a real tour-de-force. It will be an important addition to my teaching." -- Diana L. Eck, Prof. of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies, Harvard Divinity School

"This visually stunning and compassionately edited film will be a wonderful tool in the classroom. It sensitively conveys the vital role that the sacred river Ganges plays in everyday Hindu life. The film explores the multifaceted mother of rivers' ability to nurture, heal, and consume. Students will learn not only about mythology, ritual, and pilgrimage but also about Hindu rites of passage, the art of dignified dying, and the essential role that kinship plays in the daily lives of devout Hindus. By viewing ethnographic footage and carefully conducted interviews, students will enter into the world of those who live permanently in the city of Varanasi and those who make the final journey there to die and be released from the endless cycle of rebirth." -- Frank J. Korom, Associate Prof. of Religion, Boston Univ.


  • "Best Documentary" Award, Reel Women Intl. Film Festival
  • Association for Asian Studies honoree
  • Margaret Mead Film Festival honoree
  • "Special Jury Award," Ft. Lauderdale Intl. Film Festival
  • Bangkok Intl. Film Festival honoree
  • Zanzibar Intl. Film Festival honoree
  • River to River Intl. Film Festival (Florence, Italy) honoree
  • Selected for screening at more than a dozen major film festivals worldwide



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