100 Days in India Project

7/ 100 Dirty Laundry

The sacred river Ganges is your go-to destination in Varanasi for just about everything involving water and spirituality. This giant watercourse emerges fresh and clean, high in the Himalaya mountains, before steadily and reliably absorbing all the waste and filth of northern India, ultimately spilling its foul contents into the sea around Bangladesh.

Even if this poor river managed to make it halfway through its journey unscathed it will inevitably succumb to the toxic waste poured into it when it joins the Yamuna river slightly northwest of Varanasi. A river that has itself slowly trundled through the megalopolis of Delhi, and the slightly smaller Agra, and all the tanneries along its toxic route. It is the Yamuna river that flows right by the magnificent Taj Mahal and I am confident that the builder and lover of white marble, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, wouldn’t be impressed by the state of it today.

As a religious person you might bathe in the river Ganges and, horrifyingly, have a sip of the water too, presumably before checking yourself into hospital. Then you might attend one of the many nighttime ceremonies by the water’s edge involving a lot of oil lanterns and shiny metalware. The following morning, every morning, those same metal candlesticks and lamps are being scrubbed spotless with some sort of high-powered chemicals, in the river, for the next ceremony. Sadly that is just one small way the river gets polluted, but there will be more about that later.

It isn’t just candelabra tarnish and sins that get washed away by the river. If you have a load of laundry to be cleaned in Varanasi you can head to one of the ghats (stone steps) that lead to the edge of the river, and find one of the many that specialise in washing fabric.

There are several of them – some do hotel sheets, some do blankets and others, like this one, do shirts. It’s all done, by hand, by men and women standing waist-deep in the sludge by the banks of the river, whacking their towels and trousers over the steps and large stones and rubbing the clothes with bars of soap. There are no washing machines here.

The very obvious problem is that the river Ganges is, as I have mentioned already, very dirty. It is already a heavily polluted watercourse – arguably the most polluted in the world – but if the scent of heavy metals and faeces aren’t quite the fragrance you wanted here you can give your bed sheets a little extra something. The laundry areas in Varanasi are flanked by the cremation ghats, at each end of the ancient waterfront, where countless remains of dead people are brushed into the river every day. Your laundry is almost certainly going to have cremains in it. I cannot see how you could avoid it. Think of this when you snuggle into your hostel bed at night.

Incidentally, if you’ve any interest in the river Ganges you might like to take a look at this excellent book. I read it after my first trip to India and it made me look at the river, and even India itself, in a whole knew way. The book is called River of Life, River of Death and it is by Victor Mallet.

Laundry on the ghats in Varanasi on a hazy day.