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Chasing the Sacred: Down the Ganges From Snow to Sea

In northern India, there is a river with over a hundred names. It starts in the Garhwal Himalaya and drops over 14,000 feet from the terminus of the Gangotri Glacier before marching some 1,550 miles to the Bay of Bengal. For nearly a billion Hindus in India and beyond, it is more than a river. It is the extension of the divine—Lord Shiva. Not only does it transport the prayers of believers visiting its waters, but it also provides sustenance for hundreds of millions of people, vast industry, agriculture, and endangered wildlife like the Bengal tiger and the susu, a blind freshwater dolphin. For Indians it is most commonly known as Ma Ganga—Mother Ganga. For Westerners, it is the Ganges, one of the most sacred of the world’s rivers.

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Dave Morton and Jake Norton navigate crevasses and three feet of fresh snow above 16,000 feet on Gangotri Glacier.

The idea was simple. Follow the holy waters of this river source to sea. Climb to the top of the Ganges watershed and follow its flow through the Himalaya, across the Gangetic plain and through the delta to where it kisses the ocean. It would be the classic, age-old river trip down India’s lifeline—a window into the country’s culture, religion, industry, birth, ritual, and love, even death. The goal would be to document the river and the world around it and even measure water quality en route.

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Winding through the Himalaya, the Bhagarathi River, a source river of the Ganges, winds through the terraced hills and communities of Utterkashi in northern India. Last summer, this region was ravaged by floods due to a glacial outburst that killed over 6,000 people.

Having visited the Ganges years before on another assignment for National Geographic, I knew just enough about this world through which the river flowed to realize an important thing: A source-to-sea mission, on paper, is simple. Doing it would be daunting. The mind-boggling logistics involved in any source-to-sea mission are troublesome. In India, they can be perplexing. Communication near remote headwaters is limited or nonexistent. The permit process can suffocate you in bureaucratic paperwork and take six months to a year. It took nine months to initiate the process of hiring a helicopter for a scouting/filming flight. The actual trip would last six weeks.

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  Maggie Smith, NG Staff

As a visual storyteller, I knew that finding photographic gems and video jewels amid the swarm of beauty, rawness, and messy vitality that makes up India’s tapestry of life would inevitably create a quandary: where and when do you point the lens?

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In the holy city of Rishikesh, upstream from Hardiwar, pilgrims and tourists from all over the world come to visit the Ganges and give offerings. Shops line the streets with spiritual items and colorful toys that captivate a boy’s attention.

Although the Ganges is far from my home and heritage, I grew up on the banks of another famed waterway—the mighty Colorado. Five years ago I followed that river source to sea—by boat, by plane, by foot—to document its beauty and challenges (it no longer reaches the sea). In the process, I learned something obvious to me now but surprising at the time: Few grasp the importance of watersheds and rivers or think of them beyond their own backyard. I, of course, was one of them. I had little awareness of the importance of a river, especially the Colorado, until I chased its waters. Perhaps our Ganges journey could ignite a spark of interest.

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In Haridwar, Hindus come to the banks of the holy Ganges daily to perform aarti rituals with song, flames, and prayer.

Our first challenge beyond the logistical minefield of permits, communication, and transportation would be capturing the passion and reverence people exhibit for their beloved waterway, which drains the southern Himalaya. Everyone from pilgrims and politicians to socialites and sadhus flock to the river’s banks to pray, bathe, or merely admire its power. Many rivers worldwide often go unnoticed except for hydroelectric operators and a few recreationalists (boaters and fishermen). But in India, the public embraces the Ganges with open arms. And they do it by praying on the river’s banks daily throughout the entire watershed. In the holy cities of Rishikesh, Haridwar, and Varanasi, formal prayer services with music, fire, and speeches occur every day. They are called aarti—some call it the “Hindu happy hour.”

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People cross a makeshift pier on the Yamuna River, the largest tributary of the Ganges. Overall, the Ganges supports over 400 million people.

This collective, spiritual hug by the hundreds of millions using the river, however, comes with costs. Pollution and a lack of environmental awareness are visibly notable across much of the watershed. And in many areas, the challenges are compounded by a simple mindset flowing through the same people that revere its sacred flow: The river is God, thus it is all powerful and immune to the threats of overuse, contamination, and environmental degradation. In short, people believe the curative powers of the Ganges will not only heal us, but also itself. It is an illogical environmental conundrum—the Ganges paradox, if you will.

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Below the Ganga Barrage at Kanpur, fishermen test their luck. Fishing is a rare sight through much of the Ganges since Hindus, the religious majority, are vegetarian and don’t allow fishing in many stretches.

For me, this paradox sparks a question: If the physical river dies, what happens to the spiritual power?

Many Indians I asked brush away the question suggesting the Ganges can’t die, but admit they are concerned about pollution. One woman who has lived on the Ganges’ shores for 18 years boldly stated, “If the Ganges dies, we all die. Society dies.” My friend and translator for the trip, Madhav, a Hindu monk who grew up traveling the river, says, “After years of cleaning our sins, now it is time to clean the sins placed upon Ma Ganga.” It appears many agree. India’s new prime minister, Narenda Modi, won the recent election on a platform that included cleaning the Ganges. Earlier in July his administration proposed a 340 million dollar budget to do just that, fueling hope across India.

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In India’s oldest city, Varanasi, infrastructure for garbage and sewage is insufficient. The Indian government has recently promised three million dollars to clean up Varanasi’s waterfront.

In exploring every possible mile of the Ganges, we hoped to better understand the Ganges paradox, maybe even find answers. Joined by professional climbers Jake Norton and Dave Morton we too embraced Ma Ganga, day and night. Madhav would join us downstream as a translator/ guide. Our intended starting point for the journey would be the unclimbed, 22,487-foot Chaukhamba IV summit towering above the Gangotri Glacier like a watchful sentinel.

While questions of this river’s health raced through our minds, I fretted about the miles of hurdles ahead. Could we gain access to the big aarti service in Haridwar? Could we film in the tanneries of Kanpur? How do you capture Varanasi’s crumbling beauty? Would we even make the end at Sagar Island? Could we stay healthy?

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At Sagar Island, the Ganges connects with the sea at the Bay of Bengal. Considered a holy place of worship, people come to give offerings and prayers. A pack of stray dogs await a handout.

Arriving in August 2013 on the heels of a record monsoon that triggered a glacial outburst flood, our first river lesson presented itself: The Ganges gives and takes away. Over 6,000 people died, and thousands more were reported missing. Miles of roads were washed out and complete hillsides scoured naked. Entire villages were swept into oblivion. The communities we traveled through mourned with stoic resilience. And as we plodded north, I wondered if walking eight days beyond civilization to attempt an unclimbed peak was prudent. The river gods—Hindu and otherwise—appeared far from happy.

Nonetheless, we pushed on. Our snow/water samples might add to the story of this challenged, sacred watershed. And documenting the many that live, survive, revere, and even revile this majestic body of water might help unveil some answers to a paradox that plagues it. If nothing else, we would add a chapter to the evolving story of a river called Ma—Mother.

To see more videos, images, and posts about this 45-day journey tracking every mile down the sacred Ganges—by foot, boat, bike, aircraft, rickshaw, bus, train, and even elephant—follow National Geographic’s Proof all week. Next: High in the Himalaya, 36 Avalanches and a Silent Refuge.

The Ganges River expedition was made possible with funding from Microsoft, Eddie Bauer, National Geographic Society’s Expeditions Council, Ambuja Cement India, and Hach Hyrdolab. The full expedition team includes photographer and videographer Pete McBride, videographers and professional climbers Jake Norton and Dave Morton, and second camera Ashley Mosher.

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