The Ganges River, also known as the Ganga in Hindi, is the most sacred river in India.
Officially starting at the Gaumukh Glacier in the Himalayas and ending in the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges can be seen in countless towns and serves millions of people. The river is tied to the goddess Ganga, who symbolizes purity. Thousands of people bathe themselves in the Ganga to cleanse their sins and forgive mistakes. The Gangotri Glacier, just a few miles from the start of the river, is regarded as a sacred place for Hindu pilgrimage.
The Ganga is 1,560 miles long, and you could follow it through many different landscapes, including the North Indian city of Varanasi, where over 1 million people live. Varanasi is the spiritual capital of India, and Hindu travelers from all over the world come to Varanasi just to spread ashes in the Ganga. It is symbolic to throw one’s ashes into the river to help them pass on to the afterlife. The Ghats in Varanasi sit alongside The Ganges River, and one would be foolish to look away as the sides of buildings and the river glow just as the sun hits them. While the water emanates holiness and spirituality, the area surrounding the river paints a different picture. The streets are lined with people asking for money and trying to sell items to tourists. It is an interesting phenomenon; the Ganges, in all its glory, carries the promise of purity and ease into the afterlife while, just inches away, thousands of people are working and struggling each day, battling the cycle of life.
This stark juxtaposition isn’t the only one when it comes to the Ganga. While the river is known to be pure and holy, it is also heavily polluted and lined with trash. There’s a long history of garbage and sewage being dumped into the Ganga in various cities. Factories also contribute to the pollution of the river by dumping dangerous chemicals such as chromium and arsenic. Even burned bodies from funeral processions have been found in the river, further compromising its safety.
The pollution of the Ganges River serves as a reminder of how fragile nature is. People all over India rely on the Ganga for its practical and spiritual use, yet both are at risk due to increasing pollution and lack of government action. In 1986, the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) was created to begin cleaning up the river, but little progress occurred. In 2009, the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) was meant to make up for past mistakes, but again, there was hardly any improvement.
The image we see of the Ganga today is convoluted. On the one hand, the river connects all of India and connects everyone who touches it to the spiritual world. On the other, the polluted river proves how systems in society are failing to maintain the environment.
Visiting holy sites in India has climbed to the top of my travel bucket list. While the Ganga is still polluted and India has a long way to go with its environmental reform, no one can deny the history the river carries. In the countless books and articles I’ve read about India, the Ganga makes an appearance, whether the reading is about Varanasi, Kolkata, or Prayagraj, the Ganges River appears in them all. Even as I examine my relationship with spirituality, the Ganga reminds me that India depends on spirituality in some way, and therefore, all of India is connected.