Where Ganges Ends, Island Teems With Pilgrims

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The final report in a six-part series

Kavars bicycling on the beach. i

Kavars, or devotees of Shiva, bicycle on the beach at Sagar Island on the eve of Makar Sankranti. James Ashby hide caption

itoggle caption James Ashby
Kavars bicycling on the beach.

Kavars, or devotees of Shiva, bicycle on the beach at Sagar Island on the eve of Makar Sankranti.

James Ashby
A couple rests on the beach at Ganga Sagar. i

A couple rests on the beach before Makar Sankranti — the day Indians take a holy dip in the Ganges River. Raja Chatterjee hide caption

itoggle caption Raja Chatterjee
A couple rests on the beach at Ganga Sagar.

A couple rests on the beach before Makar Sankranti — the day Indians take a holy dip in the Ganges River.

Raja Chatterjee
Ganges Map i

The Ganges River is 1,500 miles long from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. The river's water is the lifeblood for more than 600 million people in India and Bangladesh. Lindsay Mangum, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Lindsay Mangum, NPR
Ganges Map

The Ganges River is 1,500 miles long from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. The river's water is the lifeblood for more than 600 million people in India and Bangladesh.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR

Every January 14, millions of Indians make their way to Sagar Island for a great bathing festival to celebrate the sun entering Capricorn.

The island — where the Ganges River flows into the Bay of Bengal — turns into the Indian version of Woodstock during the celebration. There are no age restrictions, no tickets and no invitations, and celebrants get there any way they can — by train, bus or on foot.

At the end of his 1,500-mile journey down the Ganges, independent producer Julian Crandall Hollick visited the island to witness Makar Sankranti — the great day when the island's visitors take a holy dip.

Makar Sankranti comes from Hindus' belief that the Ganges descended from heaven. Hindus believe that 60,000 sons of King Sagar disturbed a hermit while he was meditating. The hermit reduced the men to ashes, but King Sagar's grandson begged the gods to send down the Ganges to bring the men back to life.

The Ganges came down from the Himalayas to Sagar Island, where it washed over the ashes and liberated the men's souls so they could go to heaven. The millions of pilgrims who come to Sagar Island each year celebrate the release of the men's souls, and they take a dip in the water to seek their own mukti, or freedom.

Hollick walks among the bathers and discovers personal dramas playing out. He meets 50 peasants on the beach who took six weeks off from work to make a pilgrimage around the country to visit religious sites. He finds a woman who unwittingly immersed her fare back to Calcutta into the Ganges.

One man has walked across India with just a bedroll, and another claims his family was friends with the Hindu god Krishna. He finds many Indians who haven't eaten in days, but they still enjoy the celebration and meeting one another.

On the night of Makar Santranti, thousands of bathers chant, play music and talk in the sea, celebrating a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Books Featured In This Story

Ganga

A Journey Down the Ganges River

by Julian Crandall Hollick

Hardcover, 279 pages | purchase

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