Spiritually revered by nearly one billion Hindus and worshiped as a goddess, the River Ganga—or the Ganges as it’s known in the West—is India’s mightiest river.
Its pivotal place in the nation’s collective psyche is best captured in the words of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharl Lal Nehru, who described it as “the river of India,” whose saga “is the [very] story of India’s civilization and culture; of the rise and fall of empires; of great and proud cities.”
That it’s also the country’s longest river is a mere geographical footnote. That is to say, that the Ganga would still be the Ganga had it not been the 1,550-mile-long river.
Its significance, springing from mythology and religion, spills over into politics, economy, and popular culture—from the ancient Indian Vedic scriptures to Bollywood songs.
It’s rare to find a pious Hindu household without a small vial of its sacred waters in the private shrine, just as it’s impossible to think of a religious ritual or ceremony without it.
Recently, a minister in the southern Indian state of Karnataka had roughly 13,000 gallons of its waters transported by tankers and distributed to over 1,000 temples in his constituency. The move—ostensibly a thoughtful gesture on his part—backfired when the opposition shot it down as an electoral gimmick to grab votes.
Such is the Ganga’s sway over the population.
In its meandrous journey, which begins at the foot of a Himalayan glacier, slogging across the plains of northern India, and into the Bay of Bengal, the river passes through India’s most populous state (Uttar Pradesh), most lawless state (Bihar), its holiest city (Varanasi), its dirtiest city (Kanpur), and its cultural capital (Kolkata).
It’s considered magical, extraordinary, and holy. An ablution in its currents is believed to wash away one’s sins as well as disease-causing germs and bacteria. Like regular water, bottled for long in a container, it doesn’t turn stale and emit a rancid odor.
This is largely a mystery to scientists, but one theory is that it contains an unknown substance that attacks and kills organic matter. This self-purifying property leads it to have oxygen levels 25 times higher than any other river in the world.
Ironically, that very trait also invites much abuse from its devotees.
For eons, it’s been silently swallowing all that’s tossed at it: filth from municipal sewers, toxic chemical waste, half-lit funeral pyres, grime of pilgrim-bathers, rotting food.
As an attempt to protect its precious waters from further assault, in November, 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared it a National River—the country’s first.
Asian News International reported that the water level in the river has sunk so low in Varanasi that it’s just being used as a swimming pool, of sorts, for children.
So much for trying to save India’s only National River.