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Kissing the Bay of Bengal: Celebration, Reverence, and Mystery

One river, 18,000 feet, 1,500 miles. In the fall of 2013, photographer and videographer Pete McBride, along with professional climbers Jake Norton and Dave Morton, followed the Ganges River from snow to sea. All this week, Proof takes you on their 45-day journey—by foot, boat, bike, aircraft, rickshaw, bus, train, and even elephant—as they track every mile of this sacred river.

October 13-19, 2013

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Aarti is a Hindu religious ritual of worship in which light from wicks soaked in ghee (purified butter) is offered to one or more deities. Throughout the length of the Ganges river, formal and informal aarti rituals are performed daily. Aarti ceremonies like the above, further upstream in Varanasi, are often heavily choreographed events involving music, speeches, and fire.

Just as the gale winds surge and the rain increases, a man struggles toward the bank of the Ganges. His eyes squint in determination as raindrops lash his face. His body leans into the gusts. He’s holding carefully in front of him a plastic bag and a small plastic statue of a Hindu goddess, a miniature replica of Durga.

When the man reaches the edge of the concrete pier, he throws the idol. It hovers in the wind briefly. Then he swings the bag into the river as well. Both items partially sink in the roaring current. The plastic bag, now open, reveals its contents: papers, miscellaneous trinkets, and debris. It looks more like garbage than a spiritual offering.

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During the festival of Durga Puja, a celebration of good over evil, a trombone band ignores the fury of a cyclone as they march down the streets of Patna, headed to the Ganges River to give offerings.

Immediately, the man starts cheering wildly and joins a group of some 50 others, all men, young and old, jumping and dancing, completely unfazed by the cyclone trying to drown us. A parade of vehicles and more revelers carrying more statues, some life size and bigger, are headed our way. A policeman does his best to keep the joyous riot from falling into the flooded river. Durga Puja, a festival celebrating good over evil, has officially started here in Patna, India.

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  Maggie Smith, NG Staff

Drenched, shivering, and fearful our cameras are dying quick deaths in the downpour, our team flees for the hotel in a taxi carefully decorated with scores of lights and an orchestra of paint. Rain pours from the heavens in volumes I’ve never experienced, not even in rain forests. Everything floods—roads, restaurants, shops. Our hotel lobby is shin-deep in water by the time we arrive. Amazingly no one seems to notice or care. The world here is celebrating. Trombone bands march, revelers dance, and lines of floats carrying intricate Hindu statues all slowly migrate toward the Ganges, where they will be heaved into the flow as offerings. Some sink, but most wash ashore downstream, joining hundreds littering the banks.

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On the outskirts of Calcutta, residents decorate elaborate Hindu statues during Durga Puja and then offer them to the Ganges River.

After 40 days of chasing this holy river from its thin air source high in the Himalaya to the edge of its delta here in Patna, our team has grown accustomed to such celebratory reverence. We have also grown fatigued and are racing the clock to complete our mission. A record monsoon delayed us in the headwaters and now we are slowed again, drenched souls stalled in the eye of a raging cyclone. A deluge of rain and some 400 river miles stand between us and the point where the Ganges River finally kisses the Indian Ocean at the Bay of Bengal—the end of our journey.

Over the next five days we hopscotch downstream via train, ferry, rickshaw, bicycle, and more colorful taxis—some with windshield wipers and lights, some without. At times I feel like a fish swimming through the river, upstream at night. And everywhere, people wildly, passionately celebrate Durga Puja, all dumping their handmade Hindu idols into the river.

I marvel at how each and every mile of this sacred Ganges is so deeply loved and intertwined with local rituals. But in many cases, it looks loved to death. The religious symbols and offerings that represent devotion frequently become pollution downstream. Lead paint and plastic seem ubiquitous.

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Throughout the Ganges, Hindus and others come to the Ganges daily to revere its power or pray like these young Hindu monks further upstream in Rishikesh. Many pilgrims will walk weeks to collect Ganga jal (Ganges water) to bring back to their villages as good blessings.

To attain a better grasp of the river’s health, we bring water-testing equipment the entire way. The results in many locations are as expected. Heavy metals and nitrates spike. And in certain troubled areas, oxygen levels plummet. On the Yamuna River, the largest tributary of the Ganges carrying the runoff of New Delhi’s economic boom, we test a section flowing past the Taj Mahal in Agra. Not surprisingly, the river reveals zero dissolved oxygen—a dead river. When we wade out among garbage, sewage, and who knows what else, the data merely confirms what our senses are screaming—the Yamuna River in Agra is far from healthy and full of garbage and waste—every putrid kind.

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Young men bathe in a communal bath in the streets of Calcutta, not far from the Ganges River.

But this is the amazing part. When we meet the Yamuna again downstream at Allahabad some 300 miles downstream and roughly halfway down the Ganges, our samples show dissolved oxygen similar to those found in healthy rivers. Somehow, someway, the Ganges is restoring itself on certain levels (heavy metals remain high in Allahabad). Perhaps there are some curative powers or obscure minerals that support the river’s ongoing real or mythical health. Either way, it has lasted for centuries.

The British East India Company used only Ganges water on their three-month long journey back to England because it stayed “sweet and fresh.” Scientifically, many point to the unusually high levels of bacteriophages, or just phages—viruses known to eat bacteria which keep disease at bay. But few can explain where and why the antibacterial properties originate. As early as 1896, a British scientist documented thriving cholera bacteria dying when put in Ganges water. And experts have yet to fully explain the river’s ability to sustain and revive its high oxygen levels. It is often called the mystery factor or the X factor.

The spiritual answer often becomes the fallback. Ma Ganga, India’s national river, is god—the creation of Lord Shiva himself, the god of destruction in the Hindu pantheon. Of course it can kill bacteria.

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People in the Ganges Delta are accustomed to flooding. The train station in Calcutta continues to operate relatively normally despite two feet of water left by a cyclone.

Throughout our journey, my science-based upbringing struggles to accept the spiritual answer. Regardless, I am frequently moved by the open-armed reverence for the river and its healing powers. Ironically, my backyard river, the Colorado—known worldwide for the Grand Canyon—is neglected, challenged, and thus no longer reaches the sea. In short, people turn their backs to it. In India, people face the Ganges daily, yet a civic concern for abusing the river is almost entirely nonexistent. Most believe Ma Ganga will repair itself. One woman told me, “Babies defecate in their mothers’ laps all the time and the mother cleans it. The Ganges is our mother. It is no different.”

Such thinking forms the paradoxical view that perplexes me every river mile we travel. Those that revere it most pollute it equally. And yet, many of those same believers complain that the Ganges is dirty—too polluted to even swim in anymore. The situation, from an environmental perspective or logical view, is inexplicable.

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On Sagar Island, near the end of the Ganges, ferry boats and cargo ships move endlessly up and down the river delivering people and goods.

Despite all I’ve heard, know, and seen floating in the Ganges, I swim or wade in it almost everywhere we go. Crazy, perhaps, but I want to experience the river firsthand, like locals do. Do I feel my sins washed away? I’m not sure. Time will tell, but I do feel invigorated after every dip.

And do I get sick? Yes, but not from swimming. Rather food poisoning—ironically from eating fish at a fancy restaurant. (Foolish, but I was craving protein after weeks struggling to fully adopt the standard vegetarian diet).

After 45 days of chasing this sacred flow 1,550 miles from nearly 18,000 feet and minus 20-degree temperatures to sea level and 110 degrees, we reach the end at Sagar Island. The cyclone subsides and the sun struggles to emerge. I weigh 30 pounds less than when we started. Teammate Jake Norton is 15 pounds lighter and Dave Morton remains the same weight (we suspect he’s superhuman). The air is humid and sweltering and nothing seems more fitting than going bodysurfing. Jake, Dave, and I sprint out to greet the small, glassy swell rolling onto the beach. Even Ashley Mosher, our second camerawoman who is leery about Ganges water, joins us for a dip. The brackish water is bathtub warm but feels delightfully cooler than the air. A pack of children quickly joins us, and laughter echoes across the bay.

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Where the Ganges River symbolically kisses the Bay of Bengal on the east side of Sagar Island, many Hindus believe the location to be sacred and visit to give offerings to Ma Ganga, Lord Shiva, and even a pack of stray dogs. It took 45 days to travel the 1,550-mile length of the Ganges to reach this point.

As we splash in the water used by some 400 million people upstream, I reflect on this river that is revered and reviled, dammed and diverted, cherished and neglected and in some cases nearly destroyed. Despite all the devotion we witness from aarti celebrations throughout to the Durga Puja offerings, it is easy to wonder if people will realize a simple concept: Sacred and unique as it may be, this river will need more than prayer to survive, despite all its healing properties. After washing the sins of so many for so long, when will India effectively clean the sins of industry, agriculture, and devoted love thrown daily in the lap of their national mother, Ma Ganga?

A few days before we depart, my friend Madhav, the Hindu monk who travels with us for much of the journey, says, “The time is now.”

Perhaps India’s newest prime minister, Narenda Modi, is listening. In late July 2014 his government proposed committing around $340 million to cleaning India’s lifeline. Known to have over a hundred names, perhaps the Ganges will once regain the adjective: clean.

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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