The world’s most sacred river—the Ganges—is also one of its dirtiest

Mar 28, 2019

ROUND AND round the baggage carousel at London’s Heathrow airport goes a battered cardboard box waiting to be claimed by its owner, a passenger from Delhi: “PLEASE KEEP THIS SIDE UP! GANGA JAL—HOLLY WATER.” For many Hindus the world over, nothing is more holy or pure than Ganga jal, or water from the Ganges.

The whole river—from Himalayan glaciers across the vast North Indian plain to the filigree delta on the Bay of Bengal—is worshipped as a life-affirming goddess. The spiritual potency comes not from the Ganges’s 2,500km length, which falls short of the world’s longest rivers. Rather, its basin supports half of India’s population of 1.3bn (plus nearly the entire population of Nepal and much of Bangladesh’s). For its water and fertile sediment, no river is more important to humanity. And so for centuries Ganga jal has marked births, weddings and deaths. Scores of cremations take place daily on the riverside ghats in the city of Varanasi alone. Between January and early March, a temporary city sprang up on the banks of the river near Allahabad (recently renamed Prayagraj) for the Kumbh Mela festival, in which a staggering 240m devotees took to the river to wash away sins and human ailments.

Yet the Ganges is likelier to add to the ailments than cure them. For decades,...

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