On the river of the floating dead, where the rich burn bright and the poor are left to vultures

Sep 17, 2013 at 12:11 PM ET

Varanasi, India, on the banks of the Ganges, is one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world. The river is a spiritual destination for millions of Hindus each year who believe that bathing in its polluted waters will absolve them of their sins.

But, Varanasi is also a place to die. Hindus believe that dying along the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi will release you from the cycle of rebirth. If you have money, you can be ceremoniously cremated and released into the water. For the vast majority of the poor, however, their bodies are floated into the Ganges, exposed to the elements.

While many make the pilgrimage to Varanasi in order to die there, they arrive without the resources to live. However, the belief is so powerful that those who cannot afford to wait for death will simply jump into the water or commit suicide.

Vultures feast on bodies dumped in the river.

A Sadhu, or holyman, prays on the ghats (steps that lead to a holy river) as the sun rises above the eastern bank of the Ganges River.

The banks of the Ganges—whose holy waters are among the most polluted in the world—in Varanasi.

At the Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, boats of firewood arrive all day to burn a high volume of dead bodies.

Bodies are burned daily in cremation ceremonies near the banks of the river—sometimes, up to 200 cremations a day are performed.

The bodies of the wealthier deceased are elaborately decorated prior to cremation.

As the body burns, last rites are performed. A water-filled pot is thrown into the air. When it lands and breaks, it symbolizes the escape of the soul from the material body and marks the soul’s journey toward heaven.

Cows are lined up at the Manikarnika ghat. The relatives donate the cows to the Sadhus in order that the bless the departed soul to find a place in heaven.

At the Manikarnika Ghat, members of the Dong community, who traditionally cremate the Hindu dead, go through the remains of the burned dead bodies in the flooded Ganges river looking for  gold and silver.

The Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi. In a city where only 28 percent of residents are employed, very few can afford the ceremony.