Journeying to the Source of Ganga NPR's Vice President for Legal Affairs, Neal Jackson, recently traveled to India with a group of producers gathering material for a radio series on the river Ganges. In this essay, he describes the journey to the sacred river's source.
NPR logo Journeying to the Source of Ganga

Journeying to the Source of Ganga

The Ganges River flows in a valley near the settlement of Chirbas. Neal Jackson hide caption

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Neal Jackson

A Hindu woman praying. Hugh Stevens hide caption

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Hugh Stevens

Neal Jackson crosses a log bridge on the way to Gaumukh glacier. Hugh Stevens hide caption

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Hugh Stevens

A bagpiper from the Garhwal Rifles army pipe band, a much-decorated unit of the British Army before Indian independence in 1947. Hugh Stevens hide caption

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Hugh Stevens

NPR's Vice President for Legal Affairs, Neal Jackson, recently traveled to India with a group of producers gathering material for a radio series on the river Ganges. In this essay, he describes the journey to the sacred river's source.

I never realized that the radio business could be so physical. My lungs ached. We were already at an altitude over 11,000 feet, and the mountain trail was still climbing. Our group had left the Hindu holy city of Gangotri that morning in Himalayan sunshine. But now driving snow was stinging my face.

Here I was, deep in the Indian Himalayas with some of the top production talent for radio documentaries, Julian and Martine Crandall Hollick. I wasn’t sure my months of physical conditioning had worked. Finally one of those ubiquitous South Asian institutions, the tea-stall, appeared by the trail, and Martine and I took shelter. A short time later, fortified by the tea, we were at our base camp at Chirbas. It took another 24 hours before my 60-year-old body finally caught up with the demands of the altitude.

Julian and Martine are independent producers who generate audio content for NPR and other program distributors and broadcasters. They create some of the "ear candy" that NPR includes in its programming. They specialize in telling stories with other people's sounds and words, and knitting them together into spell-binding audio adventures.

I was on a busman’s holiday. I had volunteered to come along -- on my nickel -- as they gathered material for a radio series on the river Ganges. Ganga, as it is known to most Indians, is a living icon of the Hindu religion. Notwithstanding its holy status, the river is defiled daily by tons of untreated municipal, industrial and agricultural wastes. Its status is anomalous, to say the least.

Productions of this magnitude usually have a long gestation period, and this one was no exception. It was conceived in 1998, but the critical ingredient -- money -- did not arrive immediately. After two tries by Julian and Martine, the National Science Foundation at the end of 2003 agreed to fund the project.

This was to be no small effort. Julian wanted to capture the sound of everything related to Ganga. He also wanted information about the people who were economically and spiritually dependent on the river -- their ideas, the environment around it, the religion defining it.

In April 2004 they would visit the source of Ganga, deep in the Himalayas. They would return in October for a three-month journey down the river in a boat built for them by native craftsman, capturing life along its banks. Finally, in July 2005, they would return to the river’s delta in Bangladesh to record the interaction of the Islamic culture of that nation with the river. Then and only then would the editing and compilation of the audio start. No finished project was likely to hit the air until 2006.

We all assembled in Dehra Dun, a bustling city in the foothills of the Himalayas known for its high-quality educational institutions and basmati rice. The production and support crew consisted of ten people. Besides Julian and Martine, there were Anish Andheria, an environmental scientist and photographer; Aditi Thorat, who had recently completed her masters studies at Oxford; Nidhish Sharma, well-known Himalayan guide; and Hugh Stevens, a college friend of mine and fellow media lawyer whom I had recruited when my wife could not join us. The group was augmented by Bhagwati Derari and Pushkar Bisht, two of Nidhish's clever staff, and our driver, Harbijan Singh, a Sikh from Delhi. After a celebratory dinner at Nidhish's home, early the next morning we piled into the van headed for Gangotri.

The Hindu scriptures say King Bhagirathi prayed to the god Shiva in penance at Gangotri and was rewarded with the goddess Ganga, delivered in the form of a river. Because the river would have devastated the area if it had fallen freely to earth, Shiva caught it in the locks of his matted hair, permitting a gentle descent. King Bhagirathi's prayer rock is preserved in a small temple alongside the river. The main temple, built in the 1700s, lies a few hundred yards away. Gangotri is an important pilgrimage for Hindus, and thousands come here every year.

The trip to Gangotri was harrowing. Being a passenger in a motor vehicle in the Himalayas is not for the faint of heart. The roads are barely wide enough for two modest-sized vehicles to pass, and usually consist of a series of hairpin turns, without guardrails, punctuated by drops of hundreds of feet over the shoulder. Our anxiety was not helped by Harbijan, who drove as though his top priority was to get us to our destination as swiftly as possible.

After three days we arrived in Gangotri. Each of the guest houses was clean and neat, but few had many Western amenities. Each one seemed to have a power outage as soon as we arrived (we blamed Julian's bad kharma), and the necessary recharging of batteries for equipment had to be done by generators.

In April Gangotri is the site for a major celebration of Ganga. That celebration focuses on the return to the Gangotri temple of the small figurine that represents the goddess Ganga. Since snow makes Gangotri inaccessible for nearly six months each year, the "deity" is kept in winter in a similar temple in Mukhuwa, a village in the valley below Gangotri. The deity is brought up the mountain each spring in a colorful procession led by the blowing of horns.

Soon after we arrived, so did the procession. To our surprise a popular feature was a bagpipe band, provided by the Garhwal Rifles, an Indian army unit which had been much decorated as part of the British military in the days before 1947, when India gained independence. Each of us was positioned to help Julian gather material. Hugh and I were "muscle," protecting Julian and his microphones from the jostling of the crowd. Nidhish and Aditi were positioned to talk to crowd participants and to translate where needed. Martine shot photos.

It was a colorful and productive morning, with many local gurus, government officials, police and military personnel in attendance. Julian interviewed a variety of pilgrims, a young mother from Mumbai (Bombay), some local priests, and a number of other participants.

The next day we left on foot for the Gaumukh glacier from which the Ganges first flows, some 20 kilometers away. As day broke, Nepalese porters arrived to carry camp materials: tents, cooking equipment, fuel and sleeping bags. Our objective was to reach Gaumukh and to capture the sounds there and of everything along the way.

The first day on the trail was rough. The weather turned bad, as it can in any mountains, and we all felt the altitude, me particularly. The plan had been to move camp twice, but when we got to the base camp at Chirbas, Nidhish realized that we needed to better acclimate ourselves to the conditions. So he decided that we would stay at Chirbas and hike all the way to the glacier in one day, not two. His judgment proved perfect, as all of us who were suffering the day before were ready to go on the next day.

We left as sun broke over the incredible mountains. The sky was nearly cloudless. Two porters had joined us to carry extra clothing in case the weather changed, and they began to sing folk songs in Nepalese. I reminded Julian to record them, which he later did. We pushed on.

Finally, in the distance, loomed the massive Gaumukh glacier, looking a bit worse for wear. We were told that at one point it had extended all the way to Gangotri, and that as recently as 1970 its "snout" had been hundreds of meters further down the valley. Our pace quickened and in another hour we were as close to it as safety dictated. The porters, both Hindus, ran ahead to bathe in the frigid waters that exited the mouth of the glacier.

Seated on a rock was a pilgrim, just finishing his meditation. He had come more than a thousand miles, from Southern India, to visit this site. Julian promptly switched on the recording equipment and began to interview him. Then he recorded the sounds of the water, and then the ambient sounds. He was the only one really working -- the rest of us were simply adoring the beauty and peace of the surroundings. We also congratulated ourselves: we had made it to the source of Ganga.

We returned to our camp late that afternoon and packed our gear. Julian played for the two porters the recordings of their songs. The looks on their faces will always be with me.

We packed up the next morning and headed back to Gangotri. Harbijan was dutifully waiting. We piled into the van, exhausted but happy.

Julian was also happy. He had eight hours of raw audio -- less than an hour of raw audio per day. He told me that a typical ratio of raw to edited audio is one hour per finished minute. In short, for over ten days of work, there was only enough audio for about eight to 15 minutes of programming material. But there will be two more visits, one lasting three months and the other several weeks, during which the rest of the raw material will be collected. Another six months or more may be necessary to edit that audio. Then, and only then, will the material be ready for NPR's air.

When you hear it, I promise that it will have been worth waiting for.