One day in January 2015, black crows began to fill the gray sky like wild brushstrokes, so a group of villagers decided to investigate. The birds were circling something, and as the villagers approached they heard the guttural growl of dogs, all teeth and rib cage, scrapping for the last tug of tendon. That’s when they found a floating mass grave of more than 100 corpses washed up in a canal that connects to the Ganges River.
The macabre event lent itself well to sensationalization; each headline that came out in the week following ferried me back to June 2013, when Raghvendra “Nandan” Upadhyay, a local journalist and tour guide, greeted me before leading me through his hometown by saying: “Welcome to the city of learning and burning, of light and death. Welcome to Varanasi.”
Situated on the west bank of the Ganges River—referred to in Hindi as Ma Ganga (Mother Ganga), or simply Ganga—in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi is India’s oldest city and thought to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Mark Twain, upon visiting in the 1890s, quipped that it’s “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together!”
Varanasi is also the religious capital of India and Hinduism. “Millions of Hindus want to die or at least have their ashes spread in the Ganges here,” said Nandan. “In doing so, they believe they can break the perpetual cycle of samsara, of birth and rebirth, and thus achieve moksha, eternal liberation.”
That’s why dead bodies are burning 24 hours a day there, seven days a week. “This same fire has been going for 3,000 years,” said a worker at Manikarnika Ghat, the most famous riverside cremation site in Varanasi. “We average anywhere from 30 to 100 bodies per day. Each takes about three hours.” The corpses are covered in ghee (clarified butter), laid atop wooden planks, layered with ornate cloth, briefly dipped in the Ganges and then carried to the open-air pit and lit aflame.
Death is big business here. There are hotels, such as Kashi Labh Mukti Bhavan, that accept only occupants expected to die within 15 days. And according to Uttar Pradesh’s official data, tourism is on the rise, with thousands coming every month to watch this theater of death along the Ganges. And while workers at Manikarnika Ghat will tell you that families can pay “based on means,” there is immense pressure to buy the right kind of wood for these cremations (sandalwood, for example, offers a better burn and therefore, it is believed, means a better shot at moksha). In the end, a body can cost a family 7,000 Indian rupees ($109) to burn—over 15 percent of the average Indian’s yearly wage.
It’s why many families deposit their recently deceased directly into the Ganges or into a channel that will lead to it. Liberating the soul of a loved one is worth running the risk that the body ends up being picked apart by carrion birds and wild dogs. The problem, really, is when the scavenging animals don’t come, and the bodies are left to rot in the river.
“All of this,” Nandan said as we watched the funeral rituals from our rowboat, “the economics, the ritual, the history, the bodies burned or simply dumped, the families over there bathing to wash away their sins, all of this is because of my country’s deep belief in Ganga. Respect for Ganga is what truly unites India.”
The infamously polluted body of water begins in the Himalayan town of Devprayag and winds throughout the country for over 1,500 miles before draining into the Bay of Bengal. The Ganges River basin, according to Colorado State University fluvial geoscientist Ellen Wohl, supports a staggering 10 percent of the world’s population. This includes all ways in which the water is used for survival: for growing rice and other crops, bathing, drinking, providing fish and other animals as a food source, and more.
The mythological story of Ganga the self-cleaning river god—she lived in heaven but chose to live on earth to purify the sins of all those she came in contact with—fuels countless festivals and holidays in India. Tragically, though, it’s often respect for Ganga the god that leads to disrespect for Ganges the river.
As I sat in the boat with Nandan that morning, I wasn’t struck so much by the burning bodies as by how, in water just a few feet from floating corpses, young boys rinsed their mouths and spat the water high into the air. Yogis and meditators devoted their morning service to worshipping Ganga, but in the afternoon were throwing their candy bar wrappers and plastic bottles into it.
Thousands joined in the Ganga Aarti festival, a spiritual gathering that happens every day at dusk for worshippers to receive Ganga’s blessing. And that’s when I realized how bad things really were: The celebratory rituals used to laud the Ganga involve poisoning her.
We were all packed in so tight to watch the Ganga Aarti performances that I could see only a few inches of the river in the spaces between the rowboats. This was the space that served as receptacle: I watched as people stuffed these gaps with their cigarettes and cigarette boxes, empty juice containers, receipts—whatever they wanted to get rid of ended up in the Ganges. It was as though we weren’t on water but instead on some kind of swaying land of trash.
What’s flowing beneath the surface is much worse: Millions of gallons of industrial effluents and raw sewage drain into the Ganges each day. The results are devastating. Diarrhea, often caused by exposure to fecal matter, kills 600,000 Indians per year, and waterborne diseases throughout the Ganges River basin, many a result of the polluted waters, cost families $4 billion per year. Sanitation and water pollution issues cause 80 percent of the diseases that afflict rural Indians.
The pollution has also slowed down or made stagnant many once free-flowing areas of the Ganges. Stagnation is where the mosquitos thrive, and with mosquitos comes malaria. The deadliest form of malaria, Plasmodium falciparum, is on the rise in India, and the worst may be yet to come: Dr. François H. Nosten of the Shoklo Malaria Research Unit in Thailand believes the drug-resistant strain of the disease-causing parasite his team is struggling to combat in Southeast Asia is “bound to spill over into India.” This form of malaria is perhaps the world’s most pressing global health issue, and if India cannot clean up the Ganges the country could be setting itself up for a catastrophe. And this is to say nothing of dengue, which is endemic all over India, and of chikungunya, a viral disease of which India has had several outbreaks in the past few years.
The pollution has become so grotesque that in May of this year my taxi driver in Delhi went through a list of places I could visit, and after mentioning World Heritage Sites like the Red Fort and Humayun’s Tomb, he suggested I go see “Yamuna foam,” the toxic foam of chemicals and urine coating large swaths of Delhi’s portion of the Yamuna River, the largest tributary of the Ganges. Tourists in India’s big cities now flock to see how bad the country’s waterways have become, while up and down the river, things are only getting worse.
There’s a widespread belief that the destitute people living along the river destroy it the most. But Sonali Mittra, of the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, a nonprofit think tank involved in regional and transboundary resource management of water, says the data do not bear this out. “The poor or vulnerable river communities are often viewed as the major polluters,” she says, “but much research indicates that it is industries and urban centers who are more responsible.”
Follow the Ganges along its winding route from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, and you’ll encounter a veritable catalog of these pollution types. Haridwar is about 60 miles southwest of Devprayag. It’s regarded as one of the seven holy places for Hindus, and it’s here where the Ganges enters the plains of Northern India. It’s also where, on May 23, 2015, the Radisson Blu hotel had its utilities shut off for about 36 hours by the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) after it was caught dumping untreated water from its drains into the Ganges.
Many viewed the actions taken against the Radisson as heartening evidence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s passion to clean the Ganges. Maybe, they said, his Cabinet’s declaration of 2015-2016 as Jal Kranti Varsh, or Water Revolution Year, was more than just a clever political move. Uma Bharti, Modi’s “Ganga rejuvenation minister,” has even set a goal that the Ganges will be clean within two years.
SPCB regional officer Ankur Kansal told The Times of India, “We have made it very clear to them that untreated water flowing into the Ganga will not be tolerated.” But a hotel manager, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of damaging the Radisson’s relationship with government regulators, tells me that after dealing with the SPCB for four years, he is confident that the hotel “will not receive any fine” and “will not receive any sanctions.”
Kanpur is 320 miles southeast of Haridwar. It’s a major industrialized city where, according to Murali Prasad Panta at the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, “Nearly 70 percent of the people who use Ganga’s waters will become sickened by waterborne diseases caused by the sewage upstream.”
Kanpur’s dirty little secret is its underground cow-slaughtering market. Reverence for the cow is found in nearly all of Hinduism’s major texts. For the most part, people treat them as pets that provide milk, and generally beef isn’t eaten in India. But when the sun sets in Kanpur, the silent slaughtering begins. Despite the countrywide respect for cows and the laws in some regions that carry a seven-year prison term for those caught killing them, India is home to an estimated 3,100 illegal slaughterhouses that export cow meat under the guise of buffalo meat to hide the sacrilege. The country is also the world’s largest exporter of leather. Kanpur, known as the “Leather City of the World,” is at the center of this lucrative industry.
There are 700 tanneries on the banks of the Ganges here, many pumping dangerous levels of sulfuric acid, chromium, arsenic and mercury into the river. According to India’s National Green Tribunal, these tanneries are one of the worst sources of pollution to the Ganges; cancer rates are higher in these areas, and it’s believed that many children have gone blind as a result of the industry.
“In Kanpur, the river is effectively dead,” says Rakesh Jaiswal, an Ashoka Fellow and environmental activist. “No one ever thought this would happen. This is the water we believe holy, yet we remain silent at its desecration.”
Toilets Before Temples
About 1,100 miles from Kanpur, in the state of West Bengal, is Sagar Island, where the Ganges drains into the Bay of Bengal. Millions of Hindus make the pilgrimage here at least once in their lifetime to pay respect to Ganga before she makes her way into the ocean. This is especially true during the Gangasagar Mela, an event in mid-January to celebrate Ganga’s descent from heaven. It’s one of the largest annual gatherings in the world, and well over 500,000 Hindus dip themselves in the water to purify their souls.
It’s one of the area’s main sources of income. But it’s also devastating for the environment. "The load of human waste in Gangasagar Mela is colossal with so many people defecating and bathing within three days on a 4-square-kilometer stretch,” Tuhin Ghosh, a researcher at the School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University, told the Times of India.“The carrying capacity of Sagar Island is exceeded several thousand times during this brief period, and the resultant pollution causes environmental degradation. Each Mela pushes environmental parameters closer to the brink.”
These problems will only continue to worsen. India’s population is growing. With it, water needs are skyrocketing: The International Water Management Institute estimates that water demand in the country will increase 32 percent by 2050. And though India is in the midst of a tech revolution, bolstered by a population set to surpass China by 2028 and developments such as its impressive space program, there has been little investment in technology to save the country’s 5,219 miles of water that are, according to environmental journalist Chetan Chauhan of Hindustan Times, “ not fit to support aquatic life” due to pollution. The water is so bad that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared the Ganges-swimming India river dolphin, the country’s official national aquatic animal, as functionally extinct in 2007.
There are some signs that things might be improving. There are now some radical cleanup efforts underway using innovative machines such as the floating trash skimmer made by Cleantec Infra. The skimmer moves through the use of two basic paddle wheels, and its two hydraulic gates pull trash onto a conveyor belt. Namami Gange, a government-led water conservation mission, has used the machine during celebratory events involving millions of Indians, and efforts are underway to continue advancing upon this technology.
Professor B.D. Tripathi of Banaras Hindu University pioneered Ganga pollution research initiatives in the early ‘70s and has been studying the river’s decline ever since. So it’s reassuring that he is filled with hope. “Modi is the first prime minister of India who has shown his dedication for Mother Ganga and created a separate ministry for its rejuvenation,” he says. “I hope he will succeed in his efforts. Over 450 million people rely on the Ganga. Saving the Ganga is the saving of humanity.”
When Modi took office in May 2014, he famously thanked two mothers. In Gandhinagar, the capital of the state of Gujarat in Western India, he thanked his mother, Heeraben Modi. After receiving her blessings, he traveled nearly 900 miles east to Varanasi, and along the banks where 96 percent consider the water unsafe to drink , he thanked the Ganges for its strength. With that, he claimed he would clean the river by October 2019, the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth.
He’s also sticking to the “toilets before temples” mantra that he’s repeated on the national stage since his election. There are 600 million people in India who don’t use toilets, and much of that human waste ends up in the river; a U.N. report in 2010 revealed that while 45 percent of Indians have a cellphone, only 31 percent had a toilet. But in July of this year, Modi promised there would be toilets in every school throughout India within the next few months.
Above all else, though, the country needs to come to terms with the fact that, as Mittra puts it, “the mythological idea of the Ganga is indeed more valued than the river itself.”
Sadhvi “Sadhviji” Bhagawati Saraswati of the nonprofit Ganga Action Parivar, a nonprofit organization based in Rishikesh, believes that the way to do this is to form “a collaboration that involves the government and scientists, but also faith leaders who have the networks and the capacity to shape perspective through story rather than shaming.” Many nongovernmental organizations and others hoping to save the Ganges have ignored the cultural influence of Ganga myths, seeing the pollution as a matter of the people not caring about it. But understanding the impact of religion is key.
“People will starve themselves. They will skip meals to save rupees and use those rupees to buy flowers to offer Ganga,” Sadhviji says. “But in offering those flowers, they also offer the plastic bag they’re wrapped in.” That’s why saving the Ganges is not about convincing people to care, it’s about convincing them to care differently. “For thousands of years, people have believed Ganga can wash away a lifetime of sins. Why on earth would they suddenly believe their garbage could harm her? Many people actually feel disrespected when such an idea is presented,” Sadhviji says. She says it will take local faith leaders to effectively convince them otherwise.
Ganga Action Parivar tries to wrap informed messages about environmental conservation into religion and its myths. “Hinduism is inextricably linked to caring for animals, plants, the natural world,” Sadhviji says. “When the pollution conversation is shaped in this manner people immediately realize the way their actions go against their deepest values. This is when they change.”
In 2015, I visited the city of Rishikesh in the lap of the Himalayas just in time to celebrate the Ganga Dussehra, a countrywide recognition of the exact day Ganga came down from heaven to earth. Rishikesh is known for being “the yoga capital of the world” and for hosting the Beatles in 1968 during their transcendental meditation retreat at the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It’s also where many Indians told me to visit if I wanted to see Ganga at her finest.
In Rishikesh, the Ganges is shockingly clean; while in water up to my knees, I could still see my feet. Perhaps a better indicator is that I didn’t see a single piece of trash during the 30 minutes I spent meditating along the banks. So at 4 in the morning on the following day, with thousands of others, I celebrated Ganga and for the first time plunged my entire body into her waters.
Cameron Conaway’s reporting on the Ganges River was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.