Photo Gallery: India's Sacred Fires
Of all the complex rituals that govern the life of a pious Hindu, none is more important than the culminating act of cremation, which releases the eternal soul from the transient physical body. But this deeply rooted religious practice has serious environmental consequences: hundreds of square miles of forest cut down each year to feed the funeral pyres, carbon emissions from 8 million cremations, and the disposal of countless tons of ashes in India's already grossly polluted rivers (see "India's Forests, Fires, and Funerals"). Indian environmentalists and even some religious authorities are now asking whether those costs can be lowered while still respecting the integrity of this ancient ritual. To answer that question, photographer Agnes Dherbeys and I journeyed from the depleted forests of northern India to the banks of the Ganges in the holy city of Varanasi. We found that cremation turns out to be as much business as ritual. And the credo of that business is: cut, sell, and burn as much wood as you can. Here are some of the amazing images that didn't make it into our story for the magazine.