Ganga: A Journey Down the Ganges River book was published about 5 years back. My first instinct is to call it an old book. But when I look at the age of Ganga and what we have done for it in the last 5 years and I realize it really does not matter. Nothing much has changed – neither Ganga nor our attitude towards her.
Gaumukh to Sagar journey
The author along with his wife and a team of guides, boatmen go on this journey from Gaumukh to Sagar. From Origin of Ganga to her merging with the Sea. Now he does not just go to the famous points on Ganga like Haridwar, Allahabad, Varanasi, etc. He travels the whole length using small boats. Staying in Ashrams across the length of the river. Talking to locals and local experts and literally living by Ganga. He tries to look at all the aspects of Ganga. Ganga as a Goddess that came down from heaven through Shiva Jatas (he actually gives a logical reason for why it is said to have ascended from Jatas). Ganga as the life-sustaining river. And Ganga as a mother. Ganga as the mystery river with amazing cleansing properties.
And the relation Ganga has with the people of India as they all want to die by her banks. And be merged with her by way of immersing their last remains in her.
Culturally, he asks most people he met through the journey about what they think of Ganga. How they relate to her? Why they drink its water? And bathe in it even when they know it is not clean. Everywhere he discovers the immense faith that people have in her. Some have personal anecdotes to share of how Ganga or Ganga Jal helped them. Most believe she is a mother, and she can be dirty but not polluted. He discovers places like Jhangira Island that have their own stories associated with the place. He takes you to places that you have never heard of. Places you not even associate them with Ganga. But these are the places that Ganga nurtures with her waters. And comes to you in the form of agricultural products that its waters irrigate.
He talks to people who come across from the length and breadth of the country to bath in Ganga. For some, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. He ends his journey with a Makar Sankranti Mela at Sagar with people looking for salvation amidst utter chaos. And he narrates the stories and legends associated with Ganga through the book.
Scientific & Ecological perspective
He looks at Ganga from a scientific and ecological perspective. He brings to light the shortcomings of the Ganga Action Plan. A mammoth initiative by the Government of India to cleanse Ganga in the tourist areas. More to promote tourism than to look at her health that ultimately impacts the health of the people living on her shores. And eating the food grown using her waters. He tells us how following the west blindly and ignoring the local conditions like limited availability of electricity has failed the initiative. He time and again recommends the small traditional techniques to clean the waste before it is dumped in Ganga. And he critically looks at the barrage at Farakka, which is a white elephant doing more harm to the river and the settlements around Ganga by making it flow haphazardly.
It’s scary to think that experts who designed it never thought that the barrage could have an impact upstream as well. As their lab conditions only showed that the path of Ganga could be managed downstream with barrage. He looks at the wasted opportunity of using Ganga for transportation. He introduces Susu or a variety of whale that exists in Ganga. And how it is fast vanishing. Though like everything else in India there is a scheme to save them from extinction. He says it is the vehicle of Ganga the Goddess, but as far as my knowledge goes Ganga’s vehicle is Makara – a crocodile. Or are we both talking about the same thing?
One part of the scientific exploration looks at the cleansing powers of Ganga. Why there is never an epidemic even when millions wash off their bacteria in the rivers during fairs like Kumbha Mela. He also looks at research being done to use fair time river water to treat bacterial infections.
His journey is also an adventure as only a handful of people have done it before him. He introduces the stretch of Ganga between Haridwar and Kanpur and then posts Varanasi and Patna, both the stretches we know exist but hardly know any details about. Bihar and Jharkhand part feels like a thriller with stories of dacoits, kidnapping, and extreme poverty. The author and his wife’s white skin would have made them even more vulnerable. Traveling the Ganga on small boats and staying every evening in Ashram sounds very fascinating. But I am sure it would have been tough, especially cooking on small boats. The adventure of crossing the Farakka barrage through the lock tells so much more than just the author’s journey, the way public funds are wasted in India and no one has any clue on what is happening and hence no concern.
Ganga: A Journey Down the Ganges River is a well-rounded study of the most revered river in the region told from first-hand experience and research. Read the book.