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Week of 4.17.09

David's Journal from India: Day 5

Gangotri
The "Clicking Swami"


The end of the road is the town of Gangotri. It's the location of an impressive waterfall, where the Ganges drops maybe seventy-five feet, and the water has etched the rocks of the crest as if Shiva's hand had squeezed the rocks through his fingers. There are ashrams, shacks offering yoga lessons, a set of concrete steps down to the river where folks can take a Ganges dip, and a Hindu temple.

Bells at the main temple in Gangotri.
Bells at the main temple in Gangotri.
A bell near the temple calls the faithful and not to bring this exalted description down to earth too quickly, the bell is the precise pitch as the ones fitted to the front cars of New Jersey Transit trains. But Gangotri has its own earthiness, especially a long narrow corridor of stalls selling very cheap souvenirs to the many pilgrims here who have little money. Prayer beads, icons of various gods, religious DVDs with holy men singing against painted backdrops of the Himalayas. The big sellers are the variety of containers to hold and transport the Ganges water, from blue plastic flasks to ornate bronze ampules. It's hard to find anything that costs more than the equivalent of four dollars. I slowly cotton on to one of the coolest traditions I have encountered on any continent: Saffron-covered pilgrims who ask not for a cash handout, but for foreigners to buy them some of the paraphernalia of their devotion, pots to hold Ganges water to pour from above their heads or special brown clay with incense that can be rolled and set alight during prayer.

The 'clicking Swami' with some equipment.
The "clicking Swami" with some equipment.
We are on our way to track down a man known as the Clicking Swami; clicking as in the click of a camera. Swami Sundaranand has been photographing the receding Gangotri glacier and other changes to the Himalayas for about half a century. We catch up with him in his simple cottage, an open-front shed with a peak in the center decorated with goat horns and burl wood that apparently drifted down the river. The swami has a full white beard, three horizontal yellow stripes on his forehead, and yes, he sits cross-legged in his robes on his porch for our interview.

He lectures widely around India about the threats to the river and he believes the Ganges has but ten or fifteen years left. He says the glacier is melting much more quickly now than years before, something we intend to observe for ourselves in the coming days. Development in places like the town of Gangotri is putting stresses on the river. Too many buildings, he says. The cutting of trees is a problem, he says. "And the heat," the Swami says, "It's getting hotter and the glacier will soon disappear."

The waterfall in Gangotri.
The waterfall in Gangotri.
The Ganges will be gone, he believes. And then? "Then there will be conflict. Not enough water." How has it come to this? "Politicians misuse their power."

Swami Sundaranand feels he is quite alone in his quest to raise consciousness about the Himalayan climate, although he acknowledges that some journalists are beginning to figure this out.

He shows us his worn book of Himalayan photography, its hard cover spine cracked with age. In that form, the book has the aura of some kind of ancient religious text. The photographs are extremely accomplished, some shot on a medium format Mamiya.
"He says the glacier is melting much more quickly now than years before."
The swami is also quite a climber: Some of the shots required him to be up past 20,000 feet. He is pleased to get out several of his cameras for us to see, each wrapped in chamois and placed in a big black bag. I catch a gleam in his eye, perhaps an acknowledgement of the irony of scene: He has gamely draped himself in several of his cameras for us, in turn, to photograph. About the glacier, though, what I am getting from him is sadness.

Visit "On Thin Ice" to watch the hour-long NOW on PBS special and learn more about global warming.
*Note: All photographs by John Siceloff unless otherwise credited.

Read Day 6: A Breath of Thin Air