Traversing 2,500 miles across the Himalayas down to the plains of north India, ending up in the Bay of Bengal, is arguably one of the world's largest religious artifacts -- the Ganges. For millions of Hindus across the world, the Ganges is much more than just a river, she is the Mother Goddess whose purity cleanses them of all sins, and within whose bosom they finally rest. Known as Ganga Ma, Mother Ganges, she forms an integral part of the Hindu pantheon, as well as of the everyday lives of her devotees.
According to Hindu mythology, the Ganges used to be a celestial river who came down to earth in answer to the prayers of a king named Bhagiratha, whose ancestors had been burned to ash by the angry gaze of an ascetic they had disturbed during meditation. In order to ensure that they rested in peace, Bhagiratha had to immerse their ashes in the pure waters of the Ganges. However, the force of the Ganges' descent to earth would have caused untold havoc -- so Lord Shiva caught Ganges in his hair and brought her down safely. The Ganges then followed Bhagiratha down the Himalayas, across the plains and into the sea, where her waters lifted his ancestors to heaven.
Hindus believe that if the ashes of their dead are deposited in the river, they will be ensured a smooth transition to the next life, or freed from the cycle of death and rebirth. To die in Benares, or to be cremated on the banks of the Ganges, or to have one's ashes united with the waters of the Ganges, is what every devout Hindu desires. That is why a drop of water from the Ganges and a leaf of Holy Basil (tulsi) is placed on the mouth of a person who is dying. Along with this is the Hindu belief that bathing in the Ganges with cleanse them of all sins. They believe that a single drop of Ganges water, carried by the wind over a great distance, can cleanse a lifetime of sins.
Sadly, the very embodiment of spiritual purity, is today sick and polluted with human and industrial waste. Global Warming is causing the glaciers that feed it to melt at a faster rate. It is possible that sometime in the near future, the Ganges will cease to exist in the form that she does now, living on only the the hearts of its devotees.
Did You Know?
- The Ganges basin is 200 to 400 miles wide, and supports nearly half a billion people!
- Bottled water from the Ganges reportedly does not putrefy even after many years of storage!
- 88% of the pollution originates in 27 cities located along the banks. 
- The World Health Organization standards for drinking water stipulate coliform levels of no more than 10 per 100 milliliters of water. In Varanasi, coliform counts are as high as 100,000 per 100 ml. 
The Path of the Ganges
Many places along the banks of the Ganges are are considered sacred and serve as pilgrimage sites. Gangotri, where the river originates from a glacial cave; Haridwar and Rishikesh, where she loses some of the sprightliness of a mountain stream and slows down as she approaches the plains; Varanasi, the holiest of cities along the river’s course and the most auspicious place to die; Allahbad, the site of the most important festival in the Hindu religious calendar, Kumbh Mela, and where the Ganges unites with the Yamuna and a mythical river Saraswati; and Sagar Island, where the Ganges once restored the ancestors of Bhagiratha.
The Creatures of the Ganges
The Ganges is home to many different species of animals and plants.
- Gangetic Dolphins have probably lived in the Gangetic basin from time immemorial and are mentioned in mythological literature and folklore, including the Mahabharata, which refers to them as the Vahana (carrier) of the legendary Ganga. In the time of Emperor Ashok, more than 2200 years ago, Gangetic dolphins were declared inviolable and provided total protection. Today, however, the building of dams, pollution and uncontrolled fishing has caused their numbers to dwindle to less than 2000 today.
- Through the middle stages of its course, the Ganges has been home to freshwater animals like the gharial crocodile, the smooth Indian otter, the Asian small-clawed otter and various species of turtles. All of these are endangered species today.
- The Ganges delta in Bangladesh and West Bengal consists mostly of fertile swamps and mangroves, including the Sundarbans National Wildlife Reserve that stretches for about 275 kilometers along the Bay of Bengal coast, and is swept by monsoon floods each year. Home to marsh crocodiles and the endangered Bengal Tiger, it is being poisoned by the pollution washing over it. Moreover, the siltation of the Hooghly and the diversion of the Padma at Farraka have resulted in a diminished flow of freshwater, allowing salt to travel unnaturally far upriver from the Indian Ocean in the dry season. The salinity damages both irrigation and drinking water, and is destroying the deltaic mangroves, which require fresh or less salty brackish water. These mangroves perform important ecosystem functions, by filtering pollution and absorbing excess nutrients from the water, which would otherwise run off onto neighboring plains.
The Ganges is most threatened today by pollution. It is indeed ironical that the sacred river, an embodiment of purity, is today, the repository of sewage, organic waste, industrial effluents and worse. Here are some of the main reasons why this has happened --
- Over the past century, city populations along the Ganges have grown at a tremendous rate, while waste-control infrastructure has remained relatively unchanged. Sewage systems designed near the turn of the 20th century (like the one in Varansi) basically just channel 300 million gallons of waste into the Ganges each day. The result of this pollution is an array of water-borne diseases including cholera, jaundice, typhoid and amoebic dysentery. An estimated 80% of all health problems and one-third of deaths in India are attributable to water-borne diseases.
- The tradition of immersing human remains in the Ganges also poses health threats because of the unsustainable rate at which partially cremated cadavers are dumped. It is estimated that some 40,000 cremations are performed each year. In and around Varanasi, people who have died of snakebite are often just floated on the river without being cremated. So are bodies of young children, dead cows and bodies that were only partially consumed by the funeral pyres.
- All along the course of the Ganges, pharmaceutical companies, electronics plants, textile and paper industries, tanneries, fertilizer manufacturers and oil refineries discharge effluents into the river.
- Runoff from farms in the Ganges basin adds chemical fertilizers and pesticides such as DDT, which is banned in the United States because of its toxic and carcinogenic effects on humans and wildlife.
- Damming the river or diverting its water, mainly for irrigation purposes, also adds to the pollution crisis. Rivers need fresh infusions of water to dilute and dissolve pollutants, and water flow is necessary to flush material downstream.
In 1985, the government of India launched the Ganga Action Plan. Its aim was to clean up the river by installing sewage treatment plants in selected areas and clamping down on polluting industries along its banks. 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. Many Indians blame the plan’s failure on mismanagement, corruption and technological mistakes. A key criticism is that local communities, those most invested in the health of the river, were not included in the planning process.
How Can You Help?
Here are some ways in which individual efforts can be made to count --
- Never throw idols, religious artifacts etc into the river.
- Mobilize people to bear upon the State and Central Governments, as well as municipal bodies to install proper drainage facilities and sewage treatment plants in towns on the banks of the Ganges.
- If you bathe or wash clothes in the river, do not use soap or detergent
- The Ganges
- The Decline of the Ganges
- Sankatmochan Foundation
- Friends of the Ganges