Help Save India’s Most Sacred River

by Mariellen Ward,

sustainable travel

To my surprise, the young man from the Haveli Hari Ganga picked me up at the train station in a bicycle rickshaw. With me hanging on in the back, he cycled through narrowing lanes, too narrow for a car, deep into the heart of the sacred city’s medieval bazaar. Past stall after stall we went, the sounds of devotional music and the smells of frying north Indian treats filling the air. I caught sight of rows of glittering bangles, pyramids of sweets, mounds of coloured powder.

We turned down an even narrower side street, and into the courtyard of a haveli, once the home of a wealthy family, now a historically significant and ideally located hotel. As soon as I could after checking in, I walked through the main floor and out onto the terrace. And there she was. Just like that.

The Kumbh Mela in Haridwar: The Ganges flows through sacred Har-ki-pauri

The first thing I thought as I laid eyes on the Ganges was: my mother would be proud. She would have approved of me taking off for six months, by myself, to travel across the breadth of India. She always wanted to have travel adventures in far-flung and exotic places, but she never did.

So there she was, the mother river of India, and how appropriate that I was thinking of my own mother, who had died suddenly, in her sleep, seven years earlier. The Ganges is known in India as Ganga, or Ganga Ma. She flows 2, 500 kilometres from the Himalayas across the Gangetic plain to the sea, the Bay of Bengal. Fully one-tenth of humanity — one in 10 people on the planet — depend on the Ganges for their sustenance and their livelihood.

Since time immemorial, the people of India have considered the Ganges the most sacred river in India and have honoured her with mythological stories, daily pujas and evening aartis. From one end to the other, there are countless sacred cities, temples, sites along her banks. The source of the Ganges, in the Himalayas, is a major pilgrimage destination and often considered one of the most sacred places on the planet.

RIshikesh is where the Ganges RIver tumbles out of the Himalayas

The first major stop on the Ganges River’s journey is at Rishikesh, the yoga capital of the world, where she tumbles fresh and clean from the Himalayas. Haridwar is north India’s most sacred city, and marks the place where the Ganges River begins her journey across the great Gangetic plain. About halfway through her journey, the ancient city of Varanasi lines the river with several kilometres of sacred ghats. This is Hinduism’s most sacred city, and to die here and be cremated and merge with the water brings untold blessings.

I was astounded to be actually standing on the banks of the River Ganges — a river that seemed too mythical and too far away to actually visit. But there I was, and that day in December 2005 was just the start of my India travels and just the start of my relationship with this great river.

Early morning boat ride in Varanasi

Over the past six years, I have dipped and bathed in her, performed many pujas, watched many aartis, from Rishikesh in the north to Varanasi and Kolkata, near the end of her journey. I even braved the heat and crowds to get to Har-ki-pauri in central Haridwar to have a dip in the most auspicious place at the most auspicious time, on the day of the great Kumbh Mela, in 2010.

I have fallen under the spell of the Ganges River, and felt its healing powers. Several months after seeing the Ganges for the first time from my Haridwar hotel, I took part in the evening aarti in Rishikesh. I set a small boat made from leaves and bearing a candle on to the black river, and pushed it into the current, imbuing it with feelings of intractable loss over my mother’s death. The time-honoured ritual helped release me from the grip of grief.

So, it is with all of these meaningful adventure travel experiences and knowledge of this river that I bemoan the terrible state the Ganges River is in. Pollution, population pressure, irrigation canals, global warming, quarrying and dams are all exacting a terrible toll, and the prognosis is not good. Some scientists say the river is already too polluted to irrigate agriculture.

Spiritual leaders in India, conservationists and environmental activists are trying to draw attention to the impending crisis, and to get the government to clean up the river. Recently, Save Ganga  (hashtag #saveganga) activist Swami G.D. Agarwal threatened to fast to the death to provoke some action. Last year, Swami Nigamanand Saraswati died after fasting for four months.

If this river silts up or becomes too polluted, it won’t be able to mother the masses of people who depend on her. I know what it is like to lose your mother. I am recovering from the searing pain. I doubt India will be able to do the same.