The Purifying Ganges

by Chris Devonshire-Ellis

August 14th, 2009

The Ganges River flows into and across India from sources high up in the Himalaya, with its source tributaries being in Tibet. As I noted on my 2point6billion China/India commentary, both China and India have recently embarked on studies into Himalayan glaciers to determine the rate of melt. During the Monsoon however, the river crashes down the Indian Himalay, thunders through Rishikesh and then makes its way right across the country.

Staying further upriver, at the Glasshouse on the Ganges, site of the Maharaja of Tehri Garhwal’s private shooting estate, the Ganges in full spate thunders past. Rishikesh, about a hours drive downstream through conifer forests, deep valleys and occasional road obliterating landslides, is where the Beatles hung out in the mid 1960s , it retains a vaguely hippyish feel amongst the many temples and ashrams along its banks that still draw those looking for enlightenment today. But Rishikesh also marks another spot in the Ganges long journey. For it is here that water burials begin to be practiced, immersing the holy, the poor, or the suicidal into the deep waters. It’s a long observed custom, and crocodiles inhabit the waters from here southwards, all gathering to snap at a newly wrapped shroud. With India’s population explosion, it’s also becoming a problem, from here on, the Ganges becomes increasingly polluted. So it’s to the Glasshouse and beyond I prefer to search for the Mother India of rivers. Even in August, the waters half way up the Indian Himalaya  are chilled, a healthy mixture of glacial melt water tumbling down the mountains, mixing with the incessant monsoonal rains cannot rise the temperature much above 10 degrees. Its treacherous at this time of year, in full spate, the white/grey sand beaches that otherwise appear along its banks have disappeared, and the river partially floods lands at its height.

The Hindu’s believe that immersing oneself in the river will wash away accumulated sins, I strip naked at dusk, reach for a rock I can see underwater, and making sure I stay close to the bank, plunge right in. The rivers fast torrents could wash me away if I’m not careful, but I hang on, enjoying the cool waters and the burbling, crashing sounds of the water in my ears. I totally immerse myself, and watch my sins float away, perhaps into some crocodiles belly where they may feel more at home. I suspect however, one immersion may not be enough. The Ganges, being mystically pure, is also good to drink. I fill two liter bottles, and eventually they reach my apartment in Beijing. What was a swirling, grayish hued water, when in my refrigerator for a month has settled, it’s now clear, with a small residue of sediment on the bottom. I drink it. It’s fresh, good, and does me no harm. Thousands of miles away, a crocodile bites into a wrapped corpse that has been carefully placed in the Ganges by an Ashram Yogi. The Yogi means well, but for me, the purifying Ganges is beyond, in the mountains of the Himalayas, as close to the source as possible.