The Ganges is a holy river, but holy shit, is it filthy!!! According to the trusty old Lonely Planet:
“The Ganges River is so heavily polluted at Varanasi that the water is septic- no dissolved oxygen exists. The statistics get worse. Samples from the river show the water has 1.5 million faecal coli form bacteria per 100 mL of water. In water that is safe for bathing this figure should be less than 500!”
However, people here bathe freely, launder their clothes, and even drink the “holy water.” In fact, one of the most charming sights in Varanasi is the faithful believers dunking, swimming, and bathing in the river.
As I watched children wrestling, somersaulting, and spitting perfect arcs of river water, Hindus soaping their bodies, and old women throwing handfuls of the water in their mouths, swishing it around, and then swallowing it, I was also painfully aware of the boat drivers throwing garbage directly into the river, the excessive oil on the surface, and the dead cow that was floating ten feet away.