The Ganges is one of the holiest rivers in the world, a sacred waterway where millions of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and other religious minorities come to worship and liberate their souls. It’s also one of the world’s most polluted waterways. From industrial and human waste, to the cremated and uncremated remains of religious followers, dead animals and the Indian god Shiva knows what else, all make their way down the reaches of this mighty Indian river.
Back in the States, I was warned about bathing in the Ganges; even touching it was ill advised. Drinking its waters would require hospitalization or treatment to counter the fatal mix of bacteria and toxins lurking within the river.
And yet, I had to see it, to look at those viscous waters full of a virulent mess of things I’d only read about in magazines. I wanted to ride out onto its calm surface for a morning river ride up and down the river’s length next to the ancient pilgrimage city of Varanasi in central India.
The Ganges was a sight for sore eyes, and not entirely friendly on the nostrils either. Plastic bottles bobbed up and down in the water, with floating masses of trash sticking to the edges of Old Varanasi’s ghats, large flights of stairs leading from the city to the water’s edge. The faint smell of waste hung in the air, although I couldn’t distinguish it from industrial, human or animal.
As I stood in awe and disbelief at the river, a man walked down the dark stained steps of the ghats, removed his clothes down to his undergarments, and dove into the Ganges. The closest I’d get to the Ganges was the inch or two of wood of the boat’s bottom standing between me and the river.
As I floated past the ghats the number of people washing themselves in the river or dipping their heads or the heads of relatives beneath the brownish water in baptismal dunks, increased. Clearly they didn’t consult a travel doctor before making the trip. But these were sacred waters, their sacred waters, and bacteria and refuse be damned, they were going to cleanse themselves.
As part of some river tours the boatmen will dip a glass into the river and take a swig, much to the horror of weak-stomached tourists.
It was a shame to see the river in this condition, but it certainly wasn’t surprising. As India and other Asian countries undergo transformations from largely traditional to massively modern, the rapid introduction of certain technological advances, like plastic and industrial machines, have thrown these ancient cultures and their environments into the ring against the machines of modernity. The former, sadly to say, are losing.
Like the Industrial Revolution’s impact on cities like Pittsburgh and the waterways of western Pennsylvania, which left the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers all but unusable, so too is India findings its sources of vitality and culture polluted.
Even so, people still flock to the river to perform sacred acts and holy duties. Each year, thousands of religious followers still make the pilgrimage to holy Varanasi. The spiritually lost reconnect with their inner souls and engage in personal self discovery through meditation along the many river ghats. Tourists are overcharged for boats rides up and down the river while photographing everything and everyone along the old city waterfront. And those tie-dye-wearing, counter cultural-embracing hippies – some faux, some clinging to the carefree lifestyle of dreadlocks and free love – arrive in droves to experience some form of self-induced nirvana while contemplating whether to jump into the river or seek out their next high.
But for all, the Ganges provides the chance to stand in reverence of a natural, holy wonder, to take a boat or sit on the ghats and enjoy a fleeting moment of inner peace.