nthposition online magazine

Along the Ganges

by Bhaskar Bhattacharyya

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I was sitting cross-legged on the banks of the Ganga, sunning myself after a dip in the river. All I had on was a flimsy loincloth. My hair, oiled, cascaded down my back to my waist. My beard was long, but not as long as it is now. I had no paunch or bags under my eyes. I was 25. That most clichéd of images, the sunlit spires of Banaras, was about to meet another cliché. A boat full of freshly-tonsured Indian pilgrims chanting their paeans to the Ganga got off their boat and made their way towards me in single file. Each one of them prostrated to me and left after humbly placing a hand full of rice, dal and a few coins on my drying towel. When the last of the pilgrims has departed I had in front of me a small mountain of rice and dal, and enough money to see me through a day in ganja. Praise be to Shiva, the Lord of the City of Light.

A sadhu as old as the spires of Banaras came up to me and said gently, “It is not your feet that the pilgrims are touching, it is Ganga-ji's. You are only one of her millions of images.” I felt insignificant and made my way to the Government Ganja and Opium Shop, Registration No. UPST/V/Bh 221005.

The Ganga has been photographed, painted and written about for two thousand years. She is more than a river. She is a potent symbol of hope, birth and death. For me she is simply 'Mother'.

Now Hungarian writer Ilija Trojanow has walked, bussed, boated and trained along her banks from her source in an icy cave in the Himalayas to her muddy immersion in the bay of Bengal. His journey was well researched and, for the most part, sensibly undertaken. He has been careful not to succumb to the mass hysteria that screeches Her name out of metallic tannoys along her banks. Trojanow's account swings from hard-nosed journalism to stoned bewilderment.

After an exhausting climb of more than 1,000 meters to the cave where Ganga begins her descent, Trojanow writes: “The morning after the sleepless night, my head felt like a kite with its string cut. The front of the glacier glowed turquoise, a faded amethyst. The ice was covered with debris; it humped under the weight of constant change. In the last twenty years the glacier has withdrawn more than one kilometre. No other glacier in the world shrinks as rapidly as this. The other fifteen thousand glaciers in the Himalayas are all thawing, as if mankind has left the freezer open... The scientists blame global warming; the pujari would probably have referred to the dark ages, the Kali Yuga, that we live in. Once the cosmos is completely polluted and out of balance, the cycle of change will have to start anew. Both explanations complement one another on a broad canvas of human misdemeanour.”

Two years before Trojanow was born, the travel writer Eric Newby undertook the same journey; with enough suitcases to retire an army of coolies and a 'To Whom it May Concern' letter from Prime Minister Nehru, Mr And Mrs Newby braved an inconvenient India. His account was called Slowly down the Ganges. Newby was born in 1919 by the Thames, a river no longer worshipped, so it is hardly surprising that he travelled burdened by his British provenance in an India where little English was spoken. Trojanow backpacked with a woman and a curiosity awakened by a five-year stint in India with Indians, and is equally at ease with a boatman as he is with an English-speaking Brahmin priest. Trojanow loves the Ganga and is seriously concerned about her wellbeing. The Ganga was cleaner 40 years ago when India's population was half what it is today; less excreta and industrial pollution filled her belly. That holds true of all the rivers, worshipped or not. Trojanow writes about this passionately, as one who loves the Ganga: “The overwhelming majority pollute the river without a thought and believe that a garland and a coconut settle the balance. The holiness of the river relieves them of personal responsibility. Ganga, a goddess after all, should be strong enough to wash away all sins. Dirt only sticks to mortals, the gods are dirt resistant. Hence the people believe they will be cleansed even when Ganga is a sewer... Would it not be better if Ganga were a vulnerable child rather than a holy mother?” A poetic observation, perhaps, but not a Hindu one.

Tronjanow avoids the facile and banal observations of most backpackers, partly because of intuitive research and partly because, I suspect, his local informants are highly educated and diverse in their interests. He tracks down a high priest in Banaras who was a lecturer in engineering at Benaras Hindu University. Veer Bhadra Mishra appeared as one of the 10 most important men in the last century on some Time magazine list. Okay, so Mishra-ji is not so difficult to track down. A more esoteric figure we find in these pages is Kishan Maharaj, Banaras's most celebrated tabla guru, known exclusively in the world of North Indian classical music.

The most esoteric figure that Trojanow meets is the 18th century warrior saint, Majnu Shah Fakir. Waiting for a boat in Bahrampur in Bengal, he writes: “Mentally prepared for a long wait, I had carried a book with me, a historical study of the long-drawn-out Bengali uprising against the British East India Company after the famine of 1770... In the course of this uprising, sadhus and fakirs had not only arrived at a strategic alliance but had fought side by side. There had been practically no harvest in the years 1769 and 1770; one third of the population, which meant just under ten million victims. The administration aggravated the crisis by allowing its officials to speculate with the scant rice reserves, to halt boats from other provinces on the Ganges and to plunder them... at the peak of their uprising, approximately fifty thousand holy men had taken to arms.” If I may just nit-pick here, the rising was all the way from Kanpur to the delta in the Bay of Bengal, though it was most intensely fought in Bengal.

There is, however, a place where Trojanow succumbs to received wisdom. The badlands in Bihar are not a land devastated by colonial blunders. Today, Bihar is a carcass clawed by scavengers, a place where it is difficult to distinguish between politicians and mass murderers; but statistics show violence in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, where the Ganga is at its holiest, to be on a grander scale. Bihar suffers as much from crime as it does from bad publicity dished out lazy journalists. Historical research, it seems, is not relevant as far as Bihar goes.

Along the Ganges is the kind of book to take on a journey along the Ganga. It has been beautifully bound, as are other Haus Books, with beautiful maps on thick tracing paper.

I am looking forwards to seeing what the clever Ilija Trojanow will come up with next.