At first light, thousands of Indians come to the temple landings along this bend of the Ganges River to bathe in the water, which in Hindu religious belief purifies their souls. But the water itself is far from pure.
"The Ganges is India's holiest river, but it has become a toilet," said Veer Bhadra Mishra, director of the Sankat Mochan Foundation, one of the few Indian organizations trying to clean up of the Ganges. "Too often the media focuses on people bathing themselves or washing their clothes in the Ganges, but these are nothing compared to the raw sewage pouring into it," he said.
As India rallies to become a global economic powerhouse and with its stock market indexes posting record highs, government leaders have been slow to face the often deadly environmental impact of the country's explosive growth.
Instead, they have focused the bulk of the nation's limited resources on roads, airports and electricity to support the manufacturing and information technology sectors that are fueling the boom.
China and other developing countries in Asia and Africa face similar problems trying to balance economic growth with protecting the environment.
But India faces mounting pressure to protect its supply of fresh water as climate changes nudge it closer to an era of water scarcity, according to a recent World Bank study.
The Ganges is not only the country's most important source of fresh water, it's also central to the religious beliefs of India's 800 million Hindus. In Hindu mythology, the river descended from heaven and contact with its waters leads to salvation.
On most days, the landings near the river, known as ghats, are a confusion of color as hawkers sell their tourist chachkas under huge umbrellas and women wash their colorful silk wraps, called saris, in the water. Every year, millions of Indians make the pilgrimage to Varanasi to dip themselves in the Ganges or burn their dead along its banks on pyres of sandalwood and ghee.
As the Ganges winds from the foothills of the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal — passing at least 30 cities and thousands of villages along the way — it accumulates about 946 million liters of raw sewage.
Recent water samples collected in Varanasi show counts of fecal-coliform, a potentially deadly bacterium, about 3,000 percent higher than the government's standard for water deemed safe for swimming or bathing.
At one of India's biggest Hindu festivals earlier this year, thousands of Hindu holy men refused to dunk themselves in the river during the ritual washing ceremony saying that the river was too polluted. A handful of priests threatened to drown themselves in the river unless the government pledged anew to clean it up.
Their protest did little to improve the condition of the Ganges, but many say it helped raise the country's awareness of environmental problems.
Only about 10 percent of India's 4,000 cities and towns have sewers and treatment plants. In the cities, streets often serve as open-air toilets. Even in such modern commercial hubs as Kolkata, New Delhi and Mumbai — better known as Bombay — most of the municipal sewage flows untreated into rivers, lakes or the sea, linking an environmental crisis with one of the nation's most serious public health problems.
Deadly diseases traced to water tainted with human waste continue to afflict India's population, especially the 450 million people who live in the Ganges basin. Poor water quality and lack of sewage facilities are blamed for most of India's 2 million child deaths a year, according to a recent study by the World Health Organization.