No trip to India or Bangladesh is complete without paying your respects to one of the world's most famous waterways, the Ganges. But it's complicated, writes Linda Meads
Worshipped by Hindus, the Ganges River is known as the goddess Ganga or Ganga Ma — Mother Ganga. Bathing in her waters, believed by the Hindu people to be very pure, is said to wash away all sins and allow the process of moksha (the end of the death and rebirth cycle) to take place to achieve eternal rest. Here are a few things to know about this holy waterway.
It comes from a glacier
One of the main sources of the Ganges is the Gangotri Glacier in Uttarakhand, one of the largest glaciers in the Western Himalayas. The river begins life icy and pristine in the town of Devprayag where the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers meet. From there, it flows for 2500km south then southeast through several of India's most heavily populated states before reaching the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh, playing a part in the lives of tens of millions of people across hundreds of cities along the way.
It passes through the spiritual capital of India
There are several holy pilgrimage sites along the Ganges' banks including the ancient city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, Northern India, known as the City of Light. Millions of Hindu people bathe and perform funeral rites such as the cremation of dead relatives at Varanasi every year. A visit to this chaotic city is said to be one of the most intense experiences you can have in India thanks to the labyrinthine cobbled alleyways of its old city and the endless procession of pilgrims en route to the dozens of ghats, or ceremonial steps that lead down to the river. These ghats are where most of the action takes place — as well as worshippers and holy men there are beggars, hawkers, people practicing yoga, touts and food vendors to contend with, as well as floods of curious tourists. Among the river's other sacred sites are Allahabad, believed to be the best place to scatter a loved one's ashes for their onward journey and Gangotri, near the glacier in the Himalayas, where in Hindu folklore Lord Shiva released the river from the locks of his hair leading to Mother Ganga's arrival on earth.
Rise for the dawn
You've seen the photos, and to experience the ghats in their full glory, it's worth making an early morning pilgrimage at dawn to watch proceedings take place. Think beautiful light, cool morning air and, if you arrange to go out on a boat, some space and respite from the madding crowds. Dusk is also a special experience when aarti, or prayer ceremonies, take place. Light, or fire, is offered to deities, usually accompanied by songs.
Don't get in the water
The river and its ghats are not just used for Hindu rituals, this is where the local people bathe, do their laundry, cool off and wash their precious buffalo. This insight into daily Indian life proves a fascinating drawcard for hordes of tourists every year. However, sadly the revered river is also used as a dumping ground for Northern India's factories, sewage and household waste, making it one of the most polluted waterways in the world. This is alarming because it is the main source of drinking water for around 400 million Indians, about 40 per cent of the population.
The big clean-up
When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi ran for government in 2014, he pledged to clean up Mother Ganga and in 2015 India put US$3 billion towards achieving that by 2020. The United Nations weighed in last year on the disappointing progress of the project saying the river was still "woefully polluted and efforts to clean it severely lacking". In January the Nikkei Asian Review reported that there had been more than a million household toilets installed in the villages along its banks, more than 50 electric crematoria built and more than 20 sewage treatment plants renovated or built. Some bathing areas had been cleaned up, the BBC said in April, and there had been a clampdown on the dumping of toxic waste. It also reported that Germany was helping to finance the upgrade in sewage treatment facilities following its own experience with cleaning up the Rhine. Yes, progress may be slow and underwhelming, but the world is watching.
It's home to an endangered species of dolphin
Seriously under threat after many years of overfishing for its oily blubber, the effects of pollution and the damming of the river, the endangered Ganges river dolphin is now a focus for global wildlife campaigners WWF as fewer than 2000 remain. In encouraging news, WWF's India branch announced recently there had been a slight increase in Uttar Pradesh's numbers of the under-threat mammal, a sub-species of the South Asian dolphin known for its distinctive extended rostrum, or snout. The river is also home to the Ganges shark and the gharial (a fish-eating crocodile), both of which are also on the endangered list.