STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If you wanted to tour one of the world's rising powers back in the 1800s, you'd see a lot just by traveling down the Mississippi River. Back then, America was seen as the coming giant. If you want to tour one of the world's rising powers today, you would see a lot by traveling down the Ganges. It cuts through northeastern India and it offers a cross-section of a rapidly changing nation of 1.1 billion people. Follow that river and you'll find growing wealth amid stubborn poverty. You'll find materialism fighting spirituality. And all this week we will also find NPR's Philip Reeves, who recently traveled the length of the river and takes us on the journey.

(Soundbite of people singing)

PHILIP REEVES: It's early morning. A cold sun has just begun peeping over the hills. Half a dozen men and children perform their morning exercises outside a Hindu temple. Their day is just beginning, and so is our journey.

(Soundbite of bells ringing)

REEVES: We're in the Himalayas, the vast arc of towering mountains that stands between India and China, the world's two most populous nations. Above us a cluster of pink and yellow buildings spills down the hillside. This is a town called Devprayag. Just below it, two rivers racing down from the mountains meet in a gorge. From this point, the river becomes the Ganges, or to Indians, Mother Ganga. From here, she runs out of the Himalayan foothills and crosses the plains of north India before spilling into the Bay of Bengal.

On her way, she provides sustenance to more people than the population of the United States. She passes through India's most populous state, through its most lawless state, its holiest city, and through Calcutta; India's cultural capital and latest aspiring technology hub.

Those are just the practicalities. Mother Ganga must also serve as a goddess to one billion Hindus. One of them is J.P. Pandit. Pandit's beginning his day sitting cross-legged under a wooden pagoda in a large temple, high above the river. He's a retired principal of a government college.

Devout Hindus believe in the final stage of life, you should withdraw from worldly affairs. That's what Pandit's done. Most of the men in this Himalayan town are priests — and so now, is he. Yet the world below still worries him.

Mr. J.P. PANDIT (Hindu Priest): Today all over India people are not thinking for spiritual. They are thinking for might, for power. They are making, I will say, nuclear power.

REEVES: He worries about the impact of consumerism on India and its traditions.

Mr. PANDIT: We are still living in ancient days. And we like that days. This modernization has detached one person from other person.

REEVES: A steep flight of steps leads down to the water's edge. You can tell this is hallowed ground. A couple of women fill copper pots with holy Ganges water. On the banks opposite, a plume of smoke rises up - someone is being cremated.

So this is where our journey begins. I've got my feet in the water. The water here is clean and it's cold, and it's a wonderful deep, green color. And it's powerful - the current's powerful as it carves its path through the mountains for the beginning of a journey that's going to last 1,550 miles.

It's customary in South Asia to begin a journey with a punjab(ph), or blessing. Here, this isn't hard to arrange.

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A few dozen miles into our journey, the Ganges has her first encounter with modern India.

(Soundbite of people chanting)

REEVES: Middle-class Indians, escaping the stress and grime of city life by going white-water rafting.

Sunil Goyal is sitting on a rock at the river's edge. He's dressed in jogging pants and a baseball hat in the red and white colors of his employers, Airtel, India's largest mobile telephone operator.

Not so long ago, India's middle class was tiny, but it's now estimated at between 200 and 300 million, and is growing rapidly. So is the mobile phone business.

Sunil is 27 and works in sales. In just over two years, his salary has doubled.

Mr. SUNIL GOYAL (Airtel Employee): I mean, today, if I want to go ahead and buy something, I can just go ahead and buy it. That was not the situation five years, seven years back. I mean, we get to wear the brands; we get to have a vacation. Six months into the job I had my first car. And my dad, he was 10 years into the business, and then he bought a car.

REEVES: Sunil is on a company outing at a camp beside the Ganges. Airtel has brought a group of young people here from its offices in the capital, New Delhi. It hopes this will help them to bond. The plan seems to be working.

(Soundbite of people speaking foreign language)

REEVES: As night falls, we drink rum around a campfire, though not for long.

(Soundbite of thunderstorm)

REEVES: The weather doesn't deter Anjali Bagai, a 30-year-old Airtel executive. She's a rarity - one of a minority of Indian women willing to discuss in detail what their lives are like in today's India.

Anjali is single. Her world of malls and cineplexes may look Western, but there are some fundamental differences. The family remains the centerpiece. When sons marry, they usually remain in the family home with their brides, and so do unmarried daughters, while their parents at least try to work on finding a husband.

Ms. ANJALI BAGAI (Airtel Executive): In the West you have like these dating services where you meet people online or perhaps then you meet them offline. Well it is the same thing. Here at least the guy is coming to you vetted, you know, by your family, and, you know, all the backgrounds get checked and everything. And then you'll have a nice supper. And you come back. As it is, my mind is made up - I am not interested. But what the heck, you know, path of least resistance - go ahead, meet somebody, come back, say bye. Get to know the person and just tell him really, I am not interested. It's what, you know, my parents wanted.

REEVES: And when it comes to talking to the family, some subjects are best skirted around.

Ms. BAGAI: Coming from the kind of background that I'm coming from, I know my parents are not open about it, so the fact that if I have dates, I wouldn't tell them about it.

REEVES: Our short journey along the Ganges has already given us a glimpse of what lies behind this hugely complex nation. Yet some things will never be explained.

(Soundbite of bagpipe)

REEVES: As giant forks of lightning flash across the skies, illuminating the steep hills all around, a bagpiper appears out of nowhere. Airtel's finest dance around the fire. The new India is having fun while the old India — the Mother Ganga just a few yards away — flows quietly on.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, beside the Ganges.

INSKEEP: Philip's journey continues tomorrow as the clear, holy Ganges confronts unholy pollution.

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