From the Mountains to the Sea: Travels Along a Sacred River in Northern India
A river is much more than a thing. It is a system, a network, a web of interconnected life-ways. In a sense, a river is a living entity. It often provides both physical and spiritual sustenance to those who interact with it. The Ganga (Ghan-Ga), or Ganges as it is more popularly known as in the west, is just such a river. If one combines both the numbers of peoples that benefit from the river with its religious and spiritual significance, it could be argued that it may be the most important river in the world.
Most Hindus refer to the river by the endearing and more appropriate name, Ganga-Ma, “Mother Ganges” out of respect for this river entity. This waterway feeds hundreds of millions of peoples, from the high Himalayan mountains to the Bay of Bengal off of Bangladesh and it serves as one of the most important temples for the more than 800 million Hindus of South Asia.
The Ganges, like so many other major river systems is much more than one line, one body of water. Its tributaries and offshoots are the appendages that allow hundreds of villages to provide for themselves and to cultivate their own futures. But perhaps more than other waterways, Ganga-Ma is a sacred river, revered for thousands of years for its cleansing, healing, and rejuvanative properties.
Each time I have visited or traveled along this river, I have felt compelled to watch and perhaps learn something about the capacity for a human to connect with a supposedly non-living entity. Watching, I feel inspired by the relationship that people have cultivated with the river. I am struck by the devotion and respect that a person can have for this “thing.”
A river doesn’t end at its banks. Its influence permeates throughout the peoples and communities that sustain themselves along its shores. Thus, to photograph a river, sometimes one must look away from the water. I hope that these images speak with reverence for the river and also say something about the places that have built relationships with it.
The headwaters of the Ganges begin near a place called Gaumukh in the Indian Himalaya. In this place, the river emerges from beneath a massive dirty blue glacier. Large boulders of ice tumble along in the new river currents and pilgrims, some of whom have walked for hundreds of miles (some barefoot) to get here, submerge themselves in the ice water as a sign of their devotion to the river and the Hindu gods that are associated with it.
The masses of India’s devotees make their pilgrimages to places along the river in the northern plains after it has come from the less accessible mountainous regions. Although, most Hindus hope that at least once in their lifetimes, they will be able to visit Gaumukh, the source of the great Ganges river.
It is believed that a dip in the Ganges washes away one’s past misdeeds, cleaning the slate, thus providing an opportunity to start afresh on their creator’s scorecard.
Varanasi is perhaps the most well known city along the Ganges. Individuals and families from all over the country come to bathe in its waters here. And in the itineraries of tourists coming to India, Varanasi is about as essential as the Taj Mahal. I might suggest that while the Taj Mahal is as beautiful as any other palace in the world, the Ganges is a more meaningful symbol of India and its peoples because it is a living history. It is just as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago. However, in both of these places, the curious tourist must still actively search out meaning and feeling so as to dive a little deeper into the wonderful mystery that these energy centers offer.
I remember sitting in the old city of Varanasi and along the banks of the Ganges there feeling the history of thousands of years of pilgrimage to this place, and perhaps to some of these same places along the river! And this feeling is something that we rarely if ever feel here, in this relatively new country.
It is believed that to die in Varanasi, one is released from the painful cycle of being reborn as a human and having to continue to work things out with one’s karma. So obviously a lot of people come here to bathe and in the last stages of their lives, to die. And they have been doing this for thousands of years -- with this same conviction. And so there is a texture in the air, in the smell, in the constant activity along the river’s edge night and day that makes this place a center of life and a center of death, both simultaneously.
But in India, when one has finally accepted the dirt and decay, one begins to become present to the place in its modern timelessness.
And eventually down to the ocean where the river meets the sea, where water merges into water and with the sun’s help, a meeting with the high mountain passes comes again in the form of falling snow. It melts and carries with it rock and mineral, nutritious silts to the farmer and becomes an entity for worship for millions.
And this cycling of water, over and over, from tropic to arctic and the amazing journey back down amazes me every time I think about it. The journey cultivates the lives of many beings, relationships are nourished, life propagates and then the water meets the sea – for a few moments.
The river means many things to many people. For me, it is the web that connects an enormous amount of history to our modern world. And this continues to fascinate me. It has provided me an opportunity to explore the unknown and to look a little more closely at a different kind of relationship, one between people and rivers. It has catalyzed my enthusiasm to look closely at the importance of rivers within the fabric of a cultural landscape in addition to the more practical and utilitarian ones.
These images, I hope, will be the beginning of a much larger project on rivers and people. How are rivers changing because of a growing human population? How in turn are these changes changing the peoples who have had relationships with these waterways for many generations? Considering that most of the world’s peoples depend on rivers to sustain their own existence, these questions seem to take on more meaning.
Thank you for taking the time.