The river Ganges or Ganga winds 1560 miles from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean, supporting nearly half a billion people as she meanders through the great wide plains. The river is revered as a goddess who grants purity and aids the dead towards heaven. It is said that a single drop of Ganges water washes away a lifetime of sin.
The pock-marked rickshaw wallah picked me up at 5.15 to get to the river. The streets were beginning to wake. Bus loads of tourists pass us. When the rickshaw wallah pulled over, I followed a group of western tourists to the boats. There were many boatmen and not as many tourists so I got away with paying only 50 rupees for an hour’s ride, 50 rupees being the government price. The city is built on the west bank of the river. The east side seems to be only sand banks. At the last moment an Indian chap holding a small stick, which turned out to be his tooth brush jumped in as well. He was going to one of the ghats north of Dasaswmehd. We pass a series of ghats including the main ‘burning’ ghat. “Here burning place, no picture. Fine (something we Singaporeans are familiar with)”. There were piles of wood and a couple of what looked like starter fires but no sign of a funeral. May be it was too early in the morning. The boatman asked if I was married and had children. He also suggested that I should tip him.
As it got brighter, I scrutinized the river but could not see visible signs of pollution, or other large floating objects. I soon forgot the danger of having a half cremated corpse bob up next to my boat. There was some debris (plastic bottles, flowers, slippers, scum) at places along the water’s edge. There were lots of yellow, gold and red flowers from offerings floating around. Little candle and flower offerings bob on the surface. The water at the bathing places also looked reasonable. Still I was not tempted to stick even a finger into what the 2003 edition of the Lonely Planet guide said had no dissolved oxygen and 1.5M faecal coliform bacteria per 100ml. Boats full of souvenirs, light offerings and fish (to be set free?) compete for the tourists’ attention. A band of monkeys invade a couple of buildings and a man on the roof terrace waves a large stick threateningly. The monkeys screech and move on.
On the banks, saddhus, yogis, mere mortals bathe and meditate. As the sum came up and photography became possible, spectacle of Indian life materialized. I watch a few women expertly manoeuvre their change of saris after their bath. That means working with 2 x 5 metres of fabric. The saddhus adjust their loin-cloths, a piece of fabric of opposite size to the sari. Along the ghats, all sorts of businesses open shop: masseurs, palm readers, hair dressers, child barbers, people who anoint (or decorate) your forehead (these were particularly plentiful), sellers of paan and chai and everything imaginable. They all sit on little platforms; some have large umbrellas, their wares in front of them. Touts bother tourists. Tourists ignore touts; ditto for beggars, newspaper & other vendors. The usual cast of dogs, goats, cows and the odd buffalo add to the melee. The resident population go about their business of bathing and dressing in public, a practice I thought completely contrary to the normal Indian sense of modesty.
More tourists are around now. I wonder what the locals think about us, gawking and photographing their daily routine. It must be very annoying. A very wet child runs past me up the steps, snapping his wet towel. Thus I was anointed by the holy river.
In 1985, the government of India launched the Ganga Action Plan, which was devised to clean up the river in selected areas by installing sewage treatment plants and threatening fines and litigation against industries that pollute. Almost 20 years later, the plan has been largely unsuccessful. The Western-style treatment plants simply did not meet the needs of the region. Such treatment facilities are designed for use in countries where the supply of electricity is stable, there’s no season of overwhelming monsoon rains, and the population doesn’t drink directly from the water source. With a dual identity as Hindu priest and civil engineer, the citizen-based Sankrat Mochan Foundation organization’s founder, Veer Bhadra Mishra, has proposed an alternative sewage-treatment plan for Varanasi that is compatible with the climate and conditions of India. The advanced integrated wastewater oxidation pond system would store sewage in a series of ponds and use bacteria and algae to break down waste and purify the water, so it wouldn’t need electricity. According to Mishra’s view, to tell a Hindu that Ganga, goddess and mother, is “polluted” or “dirty” is an insult; it suggests that she is no longer sacred. Rather, the approach must acknowledge that human action, not the holy river herself, is responsible: “We are allowing our mother to be defiled.” This approach has stimulated grassroots involvement in the clean-up effort, and is transforming the work for environmental preservation into a model for cultural and religious preservation as well. – www.Sacredland.org