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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: One question has been bothering Julian Crandall Hollick during his trip down Ganga, the River Ganges. Hindus believe Ganga water has extraordinary powers. Does it really?

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HANSEN: The Indian Emperor Akbar called the water of the Ganges, or Ganga Jal, the water of immortality. And he always traveled with a supply. The British East India Company used only Ganga Jal on their ships during the three-month journey back to England because the water stayed fresh and sweet.

Indians have always claimed Ganga Jal prevents disease, and they still do. Are these old wives' tales or is there some special substance in the water of the Ganges that science can identify?

Today, Julian Crandall Hollick goes in search of the mysterious factor X.

(Soundbite of water)

JULIAN CRANDALL HOLLICK: How cold is that water?

Mr. SUYIRAM TAMKA(ph): Minus two degrees.

Unidentified Woman: Minus two degrees Celsius.

Unidentified Man: Two degrees.

HOLLICK: Suyiram Tamka comes from Mumbai to bathe at the Ganga Chu, the source of Ganga.

HOLLICK: Why do you come and have a bathe in this water?

Mr. TAMKA: I believe it's holy. If not still (Through translator) I'm bathing here today because there's a tradition that I believe in that if you bathe in the waters of the Ganges, you can purify yourself.

HOLLICK: My friend, Nidish(ph), swears by Ganga Jal for slightly different reason.

Have you drunk Ganga Jal?

NIDISH: Many times. Without Ganga Jal we cannot even think of our survival. Ganga Jal is everything for Hindus.

HOLLICK: And you've never been ill?

NIDISH: Never, never, never.

HOLLICK: Nidish remembers his grandfather's last moments. It's a custom to place two drops of Ganga Jal inside a dying man's mouth.

NIDISH: So we put him down and then two drops of Ganga Jal we put in his mouth, then he died.

HOLLICK: Monish Zerkan(ph) in Calcutta remembers her grandmother would go down to bathe in Ganga every morning, rain or shine.

Ms. MONISH ZELKAN: So we used to ask her why do you have to go every day and bathe in Ganga River, why? Then she said, if you bathe in the Ganga every day that will cleanse you of all sins and diseases, not only sins but of diseases also.

(Soundbite of crowd)

HOLLICK: Have you got Ganga Jal there?

Unidentified Man #1: (Hindi Spoken)

Unidentified Woman (Translator): Ah.

Unidentified Man: Yes.

HOLLICK: This is the sangam at Allahabad where the Yamana and the Ganga meet. This family had come for the day from (unintelligible), out of Kanpur to bathe and purify themselves. They're taking back Ganga Jal for various rituals, but also for the important and practical reason.

Unidentified Man #2: This Ganga is coming out from the (unintelligible), and here, it's still fresh and very sacred. And if you take this water and you keep it for some time, you will see there would be no insect or on any germ there.

HOLLICK: A river for all seasons, cleansing humans of sins, speeding the (unintelligible) along with preventing disease and never going bad. In India, there are often connections between mythology and hard science. But is there any hard evidence that Ganga really does have special scientific properties?

(Soundbite of chirping bird)

HOLLICK: The obvious place to start is in the Himalayas. Here are some of the candidates: wild plants, radioactive rocks, unusually cold water, the velocity of mountain streams.

But there's one major problem with all four of them. Since 1854, almost all Ganga has been siphoned off the irrigation as it leaves the Himalayas. So what you get in India's heartland is a broad, shallow, sluggish river fed from Nepal and the India's central highlands, just like any other river. End of story? Not quite.

Mr. D.S. BHARGAVA (Retired Hydrology Professor): Right from very ancient times people have been thinking that the Ganga have got some special properties, which other rivers do not have. One such special property is that when you store Ganga water in a close container, it doesn't putrefying.

HOLLICK: In other words, there's oxygen in the water, a lot of oxygen. So organic materials such as human waste or vegetable(ph) matter.

Mr. BHARGAVA: Then they were put in the Ganges, it is assimilated by the Ganges in a very short time compared to other rivers. I'm not saying that it immediately vanishes, but what I'm trying to say is that it's assimilated(ph) ability is about 15 to 25 times more than any other river. These are some of the very important special properties of the Ganga, which any of the river doesn't have.

HOLLICK: D.S. Bhargava spent a lifetime doing experiments up and down Ganga in the plains. Organic material usually exhausts the available oxygen. It outlives it and then starts putrefying, but not in Ganga.

Mr. BHARGAVA: There are some material present in the Ganga water, which prevent their survival.

HOLLICK: To prove this, Bhargava did a simple experiment.

Mr. BHARGAVA: We took two beakers. In one, Ganga water as it is, other one we boiled the Ganga water, then cooled it and then refilled it. In bottles because we record(ph) it as evidence.

HOLLICK: In the bottled water, the pathogens survived. In the un-boiled Ganga water, they died.

Mr. BHARGAVA: There is some material, which is acting up on the bacteria and not letting them survive. So this material will be there for have disinfecting.

HOLLICK: Bhargava have conducted the simple experiment at Varanasi and the plains.

Mr. BHARGAVA: So this shows that a material which is responsible for preventing the pathogens to survive, they're not coming from the Himalayas. This material is picked up on the bed. It is picked up on the bed.

HOLLICK: Bhargava claims that Yamana, which flows less than 100 miles away and will eventually merge with Ganga to Allahabad, simply doesn't have this property. What it is, he doesn't know. He's never been able to isolate it.

Mr. BHARGAVA: And it is a mysterious material; sometimes I call it a magic kind of material.

HOLLICK: And there's little matter of the river's extraordinary ability to retain oxygen, by Bhargava's calculations, 25 times higher than Yamana or any other river in the world.

The question is, why does it have such a high rate of oxygen?

Mr. BHARGAVA: Right. How does the river purify itself? And why does it have such as high rate of self-purification? That means a high rate of natural purification compared to any other river.

HOLLICK: There are various possible chemical causes once you've dismissed the temperature and the velocity. The ones I like involved words like extra cellular polymers, coagulants, colloidal material. Essentially they all suggest molecules come together and remove most of the organic waste dumped into Ganga in less than 60 minutes. What's left is quickly assimilated by the bacteria in the river.

Mr. BHARGAVA: So both detectors are there, and because of both detectors the Ganga River gets cleaned up in no time.

HOLLICK: And he maintains the only logical place it could come from is the riverbed itself.

(Soundbite of humming and birds chirping)

HOLLICK: Ten days later, we stopped the night at this tiny ashram on Ganga. The Swami Ramesh Chand(ph) says he knows exactly what this mysterious factor X is.

Swami RAMESH CHAND (Spiritual Leader): There is this (Speaking in Hindi), in English it is sulfur. And that's why no germs can live in this water, you know, or pollute the water.

HOLLICK: You're saying that sulfur is in the riverbed?

Swami CHAND: Yes, it is on the riverbed also because when the water is flowing it is getting that sulfur from the bed also. It's all true.

HOLLICK: Ramesh Chand says it's all in the ancient religious texts.

Mr. CHAND: I got this information from Veda and all the Puranas, you know. I don't know why scientific people, they don't know about this, but it is written there. The sulfur is the only thing, you know, which is keeping this river unique.

HOLLICK: His argument is dashed the following week by A.C. Shukla, a retired biology professor in Kanpur. He notes that sulfur in massive quantities would kill everything in the river, including something called bacteria phage, which he says comes from the Himalayas.

Dr. A.C. SHUKLA (Retired Biologist Professor): This bacteria phage which comes up from the glaciers downwards. It has the capacity of cleansing the Ganga water from all kinds of bacteria.

HOLLICK: And that's not its only remarkable quality, according to Shukla.

Dr. SHUKLA: The growth of this killing virus is very rapid. It comes up in the water, it grows and multiplies, and then vanishes automatically in 24 hours time.

HOLLICK: Here today, gone tomorrow. A giant tidal wave pouring down from the Himalayas sweeping Ganga clean of all disease - extraordinary. Unfortunately, Shukla says, it will all soon be thing of the past because the (unintelligible) in the high Himalaya will impound all the water from the glacier. And he dismisses Bhargava's theories about something in the riverbed as impossible. I've struck a dead end.

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Dr. JAY RAMACHANDRAN (Molecular Biologist): Even the Greek word (unintelligible) which is to eat essentially back to the eaters, I guess, that's the simplest way to describe it.

HOLLICK: And then I strike pay dirt. I run into Dr. Jay Ramachandran, molecular biologist and entrepreneur in Bangalore. And suddenly a great deal is explained by someone who really knows.

Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: Bacteria phages are highly specific parasites that are not living entities, but they are extremely specific structures that can attach to the surface of particular bacteria and have the ability to inject their DNA into the bacteria.

HOLLICK: There bacterial viruses is a very specific to a particular bacteria. So only a cholera phage is attracted to the cholera bacteria, a dysentery phage to a dysentery bacteria and so on. Once inside the host, they multiply very, very fast and destroy all the machinery that makes a bacteria active.

Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: At the end of 30 minutes, a single bacteria phage entering a bacterial host would have multiplied into hundred to 300 new bacteria phages.

HOLLICK: And then the fun really stops. The new phages burst out of their host, seeking more bacteria. If they find them, then the vast bathing festival on the Ganga they certainly will, they invade these new hosts.

Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: A single bacteria phage becomes hundred, then becomes 10,000, a million and so on.

HOLLICK: Phages are, in fact, large pieces of DNA and the most common molecular structures on earth. They're everywhere especially in water.

Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: It can hang around in shady waters for years. What happens is you don't notice it because there is no host. It will only expose its presence when there is a bacterial host.

HOLLICK: So phages are absolutely not unique to Ganga or to India. You can find them anywhere in the world. But what is unique to Ganga are the extraordinary concentrations of human bodies at festivals with all that bacteria.

Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: When millions of people bathe, suddenly there is a huge increase in bacterial concentration. They're kind of jostling for space, and they will encounter, sooner or later, the appropriate fish.

HOLLICK: This could be over in 12 hours?

Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: In 12 hours, easily right, or 24 hours. But as soon as the first event happens then there's a devastation that is very exponential.

HOLLICK: It's never a massacre. Bacteria can swim away, phages can't. They go back to sitting and waiting, but it does clear up one mystery.

Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: When you have these huge numbers of people, 5, 6 million people bathing at the Kumbla Mela, there is never an epidemic reported.

HOLLICK: Of course, bacteria are around, many harmful, but epidemics tend to be low level. It's only when the number suddenly multiply and the pandemic is on the point of erupting, the phages swing into action.

Dr. RAMACHANDRAN: And what the phages do is to bring you down to an acceptable or below the level of infection. Until it become population raises a game and so we have this ebb and flow happening.

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HOLLICK: In other words, a state of natural ecology. That solves one of our mysteries why Ganga does not spread cholera or typhoid or any of other great waterborne epidemics. It doesn't mean it's healthy. But it's not that unhealthy either. It also explains Bhagava's beaker experiment. Phages destroy the pathogen. But when the water is boiled, the phages are destroyed so they couldn't do their work.

But what it doesn't explain is why Ganga alone has this extraordinary ability to retain oxygen. That mystery remains.

I'm Julian Crandall Hollick.

(Soundbite of running water)

HANSEN: Next week, Julian Crandall Hollick takes us to a village in West Bengal that has disappeared. He'll ask, who's to blame: Ganga or men?

The mysterious factor X was edited and produced by Tina Morris and Fernando Ruiz del Prado. Julian's account of the whole trip, "Ganga: A Journey Down the Ganges River," has just been published by Island Press. You can learn more about Julian Crandall Hollick's five-month journey at our Web site, npr.org.

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HANSEN: Many of you have written in during the past few weeks to ask about the music in this series. Julian Crandall Hollick commissioned it from Indian violinist L. Subramaniam for an earlier series of his called At Mystery. We liked it so much, we decided to use it again for this series. It's not available on a commercial CD, but you can get it from Julian's Web site, ibaradio.org. That's ibaradio - all one word - .org.

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