In Himalayas, Ganges Began with Divine Help A six-part series on the source of India's great river begins in the Himalayan village of Bhaironghati, where villagers prepare to take a statue of the goddess Ganga to her summer temple.
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In Himalayas, Ganges Began with Divine Help

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In Himalayas, Ganges Began with Divine Help

In Himalayas, Ganges Began with Divine Help

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

(Soundbite of music)

Julian Crandall Hollick has produced a number of series for this program over the years, all set in India.

Today, Julian begins a new series, a journey by boat down Ganga, the River Ganges.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Ganga runs fifteen hundred miles from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. It is the lifeblood for over 600 million people in India and Bangladesh. Farms, big and small, depend on it for crops. Villages and cities depend on it for washing, cooking, drinking and to carry away waste. Many worship Ganga as a goddess, whose waters will cleanse them of sin and help them attain salvation by carrying their ashes to heaven.

Earlier in the year, Julian went deep in the Himalayas in search of the myth and the reality of the origin of Ganga.

Unidentified Man#1: (Speaking in foreign language)

JULIAN CRANDALL HOLLICK: Slicked-back hair, black leather jacket, Krishna(ph) is not some aging rock star but a heredity Hindu priest waiting to greet the goddess Ganga here in the tiny village of Bhaironghati, now that the snows have melted.

Unidentified Man#1: (Through translator) This afternoon the procession will come up which has already left and it will stay here for the night. And then tomorrow morning, it will be taken up to Gangotri.

HOLLICK: Where has Ganga been all the winter? Which temple?

Unidentified Man#1: (Through translator) Ten kilometers from Bhaironghati, in a place called Mukhimat.

HOLLICK: Earlier today, I met a group of men, crossing a footbridge at Harsil to fetch the goddess. Tonight, she'll sleep here in Bhaironghati. But tomorrow, is Akshaya Tritiya, when she's reinstalled in her summer temple at Gangotri where Hindus believe she originally came down to Earth.

When should we be there?

Unidentified Man#1: (Through translator) From 8 to about 10 o'clock, preparations are done. People have a bath, the deity is washed. The adornments are put on and the actual ceremony will only begin by around 10:30.

(Soundbite of music)

HOLLICK: The procession from Harsil somewhere down below, slowly winding its way up the mountain, dhol and ransingha announcing to all and sundry that the goddess Ganga is on her way.

(Soundbite of music)

HOLLICK: We're looking left down the road. Suddenly they appear on our right. They've taken a shortcut through the woods.

(Soundbite of music)

HOLLICK: Two drummers and an old man staggering under a huge curled serpent horn called a ransingha. Then, Ganga, in a covered litter on the shoulders of four young men, behind a struggle of young and old mountainfolk, fathers carrying children on their shoulders, all dressed in their winter woolens out on a joyous holiday walk.

(Soundbite of music)

HOLLICK: Across the road and up the stairs to the temple, everyone congregates around the small shrine. The four young men reverently carry the 2-foot-high goddess swaddled in red silk, and place her in her bed for the night.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

HOLLICK: They step back and salute her.

(Soundbite of crowd)

HOLLICK: Ganga Bishad Sharma(ph) for one is not hanging around. He is off right now to Gangotri.

HOLLICK: (Unintelligible)?

Unidentified Man#1: (Through translator) I'm going to Gangotri right now. I'm fine. Thank you. I'm going to stay there the night and be there tomorrow morning. Once the (unintelligible), then I will leave Bhaironghati and come back.

(Soundbite of people singing)

HOLLICK: The other have started singing lustily the entire Gangalahari.

(Soundbite of people chanting)

HOLLICK: The Gangalahari or ways of the Ganga consists of 56 verses by the 17th century poet Jagannatha in praise of Ganga. As the water rose step by step until they drown him and his Muslim lover. Obviously apocryphal, otherwise how could he have written it down?

(Soundbite of people chanting)

HOLLICK: Next morning when we wake up, the goddess has long since gone up to Gangotri for her big day. But we make it with plenty of time to spare and sit in the temple courtyard, soaking up the sun. People from surrounding villages are trickling in to stake out their places to watch the ceremony. A suitable moment for Nidhito tell me how Ganga was brought down to Earth, right here in Ganga tree.

Mr. NIDHI SHARMA (Internpreter): There's a king called Sagar.

HOLLICK: Sagar wants to be top dog, so he sets a horse free to roam. If no one challenges it, he will be the ruler of all the land. Sagar also has two wives. Wife number one has 60,000 sons. Wife number two, just the one. Anyway, the 60,000 sons set out in pursuit of the horse. The horse wanders deep into a forest. Stops through the grass, next to hermitage, where a saint called Kapil is deep in meditation. The 60,000 sons burst in noisy on this tranquil scene.

Mr. SHARMA: Now, they've disturb the saint. The saint was so powerful, so powerful. He opened his eyes and just by opening his eyes, all the 60,000 sons they were burned down into ashes.

HOLLICK: Days turned to weeks, then to months, no sign of the 60,000 sons. Anshuman, the son of King Sagar's second wife says, why don't I go and see what's happened. So off he goes to Kapil's hermitage and finds the horse peacefully gracing.

Mr. SHARMA: And in front of the saint was a huge pile of the ashes. No, he could not understand but he could smell the wrath.

HOLLICK: Kapil explains, they disturbed me, so I burned them into ashes. Anshuman says, this is serious.

Mr. SHARMA: It is very important that the soul of my brother should go to heaven. What can be done?

HOLLICK: KapIl says, there may be a solution.

Mr. SHARMA: You have to please the mother Ganges which flows into heaven and if the Ganges can be brought down into the Earth, then it will wash away all these ashes. And then only the soul will go to heaven. So you have to please the Ganges.

HOLLICK: Fast forward to Sagar's grandson King Bhagiratha. He also meditates for many years successfully.

Mr. SHARMA: Mother Ganga has said, yes, I'm very happy the way you have meditated, but the problem is if I come down from the heaven to the Earth, the whole of the Earth will be flooded and no one will survive.

HOLLICK: The only person who can control Ganga's water is Lord Shiva. So Bhagiratha goes to see him.

Mr. SHARMA: She was said, okay, what do you want?

HOLLICK: Bhagiratha explains what Ganga wants. Shiva agrees. Stoles Ganga on top of its head and fells one of his long locks of hair, lowers her down, and that's why the first section of the river is also known as the Bhagirathi.

Mr. SHARMA: And this is the place - this very place, Gangotri, is where King Bhagiratha did his meditation. So this is the story how Ganges was brought down to the Earth.

(Soundbite of music)

HOLLICK: And right on cue the procession enters the temple compound led by the drums of bagpipes of the (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of music)

HOLLICK: Behind them the goddess Ganga in her litter carried by the same four young men. Then the venerable runs in their hunting horn, carried by its ancient player.

(Soundbite of music)

HOLLICK: Finally, a never-ending procession - men, women and children.

(Soundbite of chanting)

HOLLICK: Round the far-side of the temple that up the steps through the wrought-iron gates. Their litter is maneuvered into the inner sanctum of the temple. The crowds found out, some clamor the railings for view of the goddess, but then they fall quiet, waiting their eventual turn to go inside and receive prashad, the food blessed by the goddess. The (unintelligible) first, then everyone else.

And while they wait, the bagpipers entertain them with a medley of good-marching tunes.

(Soundbite of music)

HOLLICK: Next to the pipers, a group of villagers sitting cross-legged around their local deity.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in foreign language).

Mr. SHARMA: (Speaking in foreign language).

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in foreign language)

Unidentified Man #3: (Speaking in foreign language)

Mr. SHARMA: Okay. These all people they have come over here in a form of pilgrims. And today they will see the festivities, ceremonies over here and tomorrow they'll go back to their village and place this in their temple, in their village temple.

Unidentified Man #4: (Speaking in foreign language).

HOLLICK: They walked 30 kilometers up the mountain for (unintelligible) to watch the reopening of the temple and to bathe in Ganga.

Mr. SHARMA: They've already taken a dip at 4 o'clock in the morning, when we were still in bed.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Speaking in foreign language).

HOLLICK: (Unintelligible) come a lot farther, all the way from Chandannagar in west Bengal, fifteen hundred miles to the east.

Unidentified Woman #1: Right in front of my village, in West Bengal where I came from, the Ganga flows. The Ganga plays much part of my everyday life. We bathe in the river. We get water from the river. She provides irrigation facilities for our crops. All these reasons, she's a very important part of our life.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Through translator) We are completely dependent on the Ganga.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

HOLLICK: Just beyond the temple, an old bell marks the spot where Bhagiratha supposed to have meditated standing on one leg for a thousand years. Today, Shuram Tapa(ph) from Mumbai is toweling himself down and shivering.

How cold is that water?

Mr. SHURAM TAPU: Minus 0.2 degrees.

Unidentified Woman #3: Minus 2 Degrees Celsius.

Mr. TAPU: 2 Degrees.

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

Mr. TAPU: I believe this is Ganga. This name is Ganga. I believe it's god.

HOLLICK: How does it purify you?

Mr. TAPU: (Foreign Language Spoken)

HOLLICK: He's following hallow traditions and Shuram Tapa convinced that his soul will be purified if he bathes in Ganga.

Unidentified Woman #3: It's a question of faith, really.

HOLLICK: Tonight, Shuram Tapa and his family will start back to Mumbai by bus and train. Forty-eight hours, but it was worth it.

Unidentified Woman #3: I have this desire in my heart to come here and take blessing from the Lord and see the Lord here and I've done that, so I'm satisfied.

HOLLICK: Arish Kumasing's(ph) also come from Mumbai. He's filling plastic bottles with gangajal, the water of Ganga.

You're taking like gangajal back to Mumbai?

Ms. ARISH KUMASING: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Woman #4: (Foreign Language Spoken)

Ms. KUMASING: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #5: Yeah.

Ms. KUMASING: Yes, I will take this gangajal back to Mumbai.

HOLLICK: Arish's explanations is a new one me.

Ms. KUMASING: I knEw about the properties of the Ganga from what I've read in the holy books. And one of the properties, the medicinal properties I'm told, is that it actually helps prevent diabetes.

HOLLICK: And does it work?

His father died at 55 from complications from diabetes so he's taking no chances. But his own blood sugars are much better since he came to Gangotri and started drinking the water.

That evening, when it's dark, I returned to the temple. Something unusual and very auspicious occurs. A gray dove flies out of the sanctum sanctorum, takes a turn around the temple and then returns inside. A perfect end to a very special day.

(Soundbite of water running)

HOLLICK: Today, the actual source of Ganga is some 17 kilometers north at the edge of the Gomukh glacier. The glacier is retreating every year more than 60 feet, probably the victim of global warming.

It's a three-day hike up to Gomukh, hard work but ultimately worth it. And when the sun shines on the snow-covered peaks, one really is in the abode of the gods.

From the edge of the glacier Gomukh where Ganga emerges ice cold and vigorous, its downhill all the rest of the way, in more ways than one. Just 50 kilometers south, Ganga's already dry, damned and diverted for electricity.

I'm Julian Crandall Hollick in the high Himalaya.

HANSEN: Ganga is also under great threat from pollution and the rapidly modernizing India, whose appetite for water far outstrips the river's capacities.

Next week, Julian examines the pollution in the industrial city of Kanpur. Ganga was edited and produced by Tina Morris and Fernando Ruiz del Prado. Nidhi Sharma and Abeti Taurat(ph) were the interpreters. Julian's book, "Ganga: A Journey Down the River Ganges" has just been published by Island Press. You can trace the path of the Ganges and read the reporter's notebook from the trip at

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