Ganges: River to Heaven
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”)