A River in Danger

Part of the Water: H2O = Life exhibition.

Uddharane (ritual spoon), bronze, late 1900s; Bangalore, India
© AMNH / Denis Finnin

India's great river, the Ganges, is facing several kinds of problems. Physical scarcity is one: Today, in dry seasons, the Ganges no longer reaches the sea. Climate change is shrinking the glaciers that feed the river high in the Himalayan mountain chain, reducing its flow. In addition, humans divert much Ganges water for their own uses.

But the river--called Ganga by most Indians--is more than a water source. The millions of pilgrims who visit holy sites like Varanasi each year feel spiritually cleansed by bathing in it. Yet for much of its length the river is contaminated by industrial, agricultural, and human waste. While many of the faithful remain convinced of the water's essential purity, others feel a sense of loss at its pollution.

Ritual Objects

Water is the most essential of all offerings in puja, the act of showing reverence to a god or spirit through prayers, invocations, songs, and rituals. In Hindu households, spoons decorated with symbols and images of deities are used to ladle holy water over family icons.

Millions of Hindu pilgrims bathe in the Ganges River
© Alvaro Leiva / AGE Fotostock

Cleansing River

For the millions of Hindu pilgrims who bathe in the Ganges, the river's ability to cleanse souls is unaffected by its extreme pollution: The water may be unclean, but never impure. Some environmental advocates believe this disconnect in the minds of the faithful is one reason widespread popular support for Ganges cleanup has been slow to build.

A Good Son

Veer Bhadra Misra is both a Hindu priest and a hydraulic engineer--and in both roles, he's determined to solve the problem of pollution in the river he calls "Mother Ganga." Working with other environmental engineers, Misra developed a proposal to treat the wastewater from riverside cities in ponds rather than in costly treatment plants that depend on unreliable electrical power. A series of ponds hold wastewater for 45 days; that's time for natural processes--including exposure to sunshine--to begin to purify the water.

Ganges River Delta from space

Origin of the Ganges

In India there are many legends about the origins of the Ganges. In one, the goddess Ganga appeared on Earth to relieve the planet from drought, at the request of Lord Shiva. However, the goddess warned that if she descended with full force her power would destroy the world. As a result, Lord Shiva agreed to let the Ganges fall first through his hair and then to Earth.