I'm in Varanasi, also known as Benares or Kashi, the oldest and holiest city in India. It's been continually occupied for more than 3,500 years, making it "the oldest living city in the world" depending on who you ask.
Ironically, the oldest living city is also a place where people come to die. If you die here, you have the best possible chance of skipping the cycle of reincarnation and achieving nirvana. People save up their entire lives to pay for their cremation wood at Marnikarnika, a temple on the Ganges River. People travel from all over India to have their loved ones cremated and spread their ashes here. The fires burn twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Pregnant women, children, lepers and people who die from snakebites are not eligible for cremation and are buried in the river. While I personally did not see any corpses floating in the river, it is common. I did however see people swimming, bathing, drinking, washing their clothes and brushing their teeth in the water, as well as harajins (Ghandi's word for Untouchables; it literally means "children of God") sifting through the ashes for gold teeth and nose rings, as well as other jewelry. Like a lot of other things in India, it's hard to witness, hard to think about, hard to wrap your head around.
As usual, there are cows and dogs everywhere. On the riverbanks, the dogs are not emaciated. You can put two and two together and google it if you really want to. While I sleep in my hotel room tonight- not fancy, but clean and safe and stocked with bottled water- 40 to 50 people will not make it through the night.
Buddha gave his first sermon just 15 km away, after walking from the Ganges River temples to Sarnatha. The theme of his first sermon was on suffering and how it can be stopped. I will go there tomorrow, and think some more about everything I've seen and photographed.