Varanasi in India, also known as Benares, is one of the world’s most ancient living cities. It was there, five years ago, that I first saw the Ganges, sacred to a billion Hindus and arguably the most important river on Earth because it supports a tenth of its population.
I took a boat on the Ganges before dawn. All life was here – bathing, washing clothes, praying, burning the dead; old women knee-deep in the muddy water; an ear-shattering riverside yoga lesson transmitted by loudspeaker; the tilted spire of a collapsed Shiva temple; heaps of wood for the day’s cremations; a religious procession led by a guru with a shiny trident; swifts and herons feeding on insects and fish.
Seeing the river for the first time inspired me to ask why the Ganges remains so central to Indian life, both spiritually and physically, why it’s facing a crisis of pollution and neglect, and what can be done to save the river as others – including the Thames in London and the Rhine in Europe – have been rescued before.
Thousands of years ago, many cultures worshipped rivers as life-giving spirits and goddesses. To this day, this river is still revered as a living goddess, known as Ganga Ma (‘Mother Ganges’). You can still see Indians praying and greeting the sun on the banks exactly as described by the merchant Ralph Fitch in the time of Shakespeare, or by travelling Muslim and Chinese scholars more than a millennium ago.
From Varanasi, I went upstream to Allahabad – where the Yamuna, which flows past Delhi and the Taj Mahal, meets the Ganges – to join the tens of millions of pilgrims who bathed in the river for the Kumbh Mela religious festival. By most calculations, it was the largest gathering of people on Earth.
Victor Mallet is the author of River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future.