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Week of 4.17.09

David's Journal from India: Day 2

"My First In-person Glimpse of the Ganges"

I come from a place where a river matters; a New England town that only made economic sense when the rushing waters of the Kennebec were needed to drive a paper mill and a shirt factory. Beyond that, we didn't talk about the Kennebec much. For a natural feature with spiritual power we would drive to Katahdin, the terminal point of the Appalachian Trail, a tough mountain held dear by the Penobscot and others who would climb its peak to mark anniversaries or recovery to health after a life-threatening disease.

Today, I have come to another river that matters, but on a scale the size of civilization. You can come any day to Hardiwar, six hours north of Delhi by terrifying road, to see pilgrims dipping themselves in the sacred Ganges River. We have managed to come to Hardiwar in time for the climax of the Hindu summer festival, the Ganga Dussehra. My first in-person glimpse of the Ganges has me surveying hundreds of thousands of people who are on hand to share in the experience of the river.

Hardiwar during the Ganga Dussehra festival.
Hardiwar during the Ganga Dussehra festival.
The Ganges waters are said to sustain half a billion people, more than live in all of the European Union. But beyond its economic value, it is the river's relationship to people that lifts it above the other great waterways of the world, from the Mississippi to the Amazon. Just for starters, there are perhaps 800 million Hindus in India and at birth many get drops of Ganga water on their tongues. At the other end, some have their ashes scattered in the river.

As we pull into the dirt parking lot with corridors of stands selling deep fried dumplings, pyramids of lychee fruit, and clusters of prayer beads, it's clear that many of the faithful are right here, right now. Some are taking their plunge in the river, within a safety zone bordered by a chain secured about ten feet out. A couple of folks have swum out past the chain into what looks like a rip current as little leaf bowls of flower petals placed into the river shoot past at what looks like maybe fifteen miles an hour.

Hundreds of thousands of families celebrate along the Ganges.
Hundreds of thousands of families celebrate along the Ganges.
At first, my eye drifts to all the folks in traditional garb including the bearded Sadhus with their yellow-orange clothes and markings on the forehead. But spend some time in the crowd and what emerges is not the oddity but normalness: There are lots of families, some with grand parents, some with camcorders or the latest digital camera, having a fun weekend out. There is a trip-to-the-Sistine Chapel mixed with trip to Coney Island, mixed with a picnic down-by-the-river quality to the whole thing. Not a single person seems to mind gawking westerners or our cameras.

Religious celebrants in saffron-colored cloth walk along the Ganges.
Religious celebrants in saffron-colored cloth walk along the Ganges.
There is one special prayer zone that requires us to take off our shoes and socks and check them for a few rupees, bowling alley-style. Kids come up to us to brand our foreheads with red dye, for which they expect payment. The dye is industrial-strength and even after a lot of scrubbing that night I still have a faint red spot right between the eyes. It will probably show up on camera, but I hope it will be seen in the way I intend it, a mark of respect for the people of my host country.

Hundreds of thousands of families celebrate along the Ganges.
Anointing a god with Ganges water in Hardiwar.
By many accounts, the festival marks the day Ganga came down to earth. Hindus believe to buffer the earth from the impact Ganga ran through the locks of the god Shiva's hair and many see our destination, the intertwined gorges of the Himalaya, as the inspiration for the image of the water slowing through the hair.

I am reluctant to elbow aside people massed at the edge of the Ganges, but Conrad spots an opening and reports back. He says "it feels very silky" with all the rich sediment the river brings to agricultural lands.

Visit "On Thin Ice" to watch the hour-long NOW on PBS special and learn more about global warming.
Pollution could doom this river. If that is the case, given the central role this river plays in the religious and economic lives of all these people, it strikes me that there will be hell to pay.

*Note: All photographs by John Siceloff unless otherwise credited.

Read Day 3: Who Gives a "Dam"?