On the Ganges: Encounters with Saints and Sinners Along India's Mythic River
On the Ganges: Encounters with Saints and Sinners Along India's Mythic River

On the Ganges: Encounters with Saints and Sinners Along India's Mythic River

by George Black

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250057358
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 07/17/2018
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 657,475
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

George Black is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work on politics, culture, and the environment has appeared in the New Yorker and many other publications, and often reflects his lifelong passion for mountains and rivers. On the Ganges is his seventh book.

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Month after month, snow blankets the great wall of rock that separates India from China and Tibet. It settles, compacts, changes its crystalline structure, freezes solid. The mountain peaks, the highest on earth, are covered with endless fields of ice. Sometimes people call them the Third Pole.

No one really knows how many glaciers there are in the Himalayas. Some say ten thousand; some say more. In India, the second largest is the Gangotri Glacier. In our warming world, it isn't as big as it used to be. Before I left New Delhi for the mountains, I went to see India's best-known glaciologist, Syed Iqbal Hasnain. A jovial, white-haired, grandfatherly man, he told me that the glacier used to cover more than two hundred and fifty square kilometers — about a hundred square miles. "But now it's breaking up in many places. You will see blocks of dead ice that are no longer connected to the main ice body." He chuckled, which seemed odd for someone who was so alarmed by his own findings. But I've often found that maintaining a sense of humor is a common trait among scientists engaged in possibly hopeless endeavors.

The tip of the Gangotri Glacier — what scientists call its toe, or its snout — has receded by about two miles since the first European explorers reached it two hundred years ago. It loses another sixty feet every year. When glaciers decay, they become sad, derelict things. The ice cracks and crumbles and turns a dirty pale blue before melting away altogether. At the snout of the Gangotri Glacier, a thin stream of gray, silt-laden water trickles from a cave surrounded by a bleak, colorless rubble field. So much of the ice is gone that you would have to use your poetic imagination, or look at a very old photograph that shows the long-vanished arch of the cave, to understand why, for centuries, Indians have called it Gaumukh: the Cow's Mouth.

* * *

Two hundred miles downstream, the stream reaches a town called Devprayag, which sits on a triangular promontory. By now it has picked up countless tributaries, passed through innumerable villages and pilgrimage towns and a couple of dams, and become a broad, whitecapped torrent. At Devprayag, it is joined by another river of roughly equal size, the Alaknanda, which flows deep and green from the east. From there to the Indian Ocean, another thirteen hundred miles, it is Ma Ganga — Mother Ganga, or, as the British chose to call it, the Ganges.

At Haridwar, the "Gateway of God" and one of the holiest places in Hinduism, the Ganges leaves the mountains and enters the endless dusty plains of North India. Its main tributary, the Yamuna, runs dead and black through Delhi, then skirts the walls of the Taj Mahal in Agra before eventually joining the Ganges in a place that is sacred to Hindus but carries the name it was given by an invading Muslim emperor: Allahabad, City of God. Farther on, bodies burn around the clock in another city, one that has four names: Kashi, Benares, Banaras, Varanasi. The hinterland towns and villages of the great Gangetic Plain seem sometimes to encapsulate everything that ails India: caste prejudice, corruption, rape and sex trafficking, Hindu-Muslim violence, poverty, and pollution. A pall of brown dust and soot hangs over the fields for most of the year, rising from the cookstoves that burn firewood, kerosene, and cow dung in tens of thousands of villages. Three kilometers thick, the brown cloud drifts northward to the Himalayas, turning the ice dark, increasing the speed at which it is melting. But the northern plains, especially the state of Uttar Pradesh with its two hundred million people, also control India's political destiny.

When the river finally approaches its delta — the Hundred Mouths of the Ganges — geographers and believers part company. The Ganges divides. Names change. Swollen by the power of the Brahmaputra, the Son of Brahma, the main stem sweeps eastward into what used to be East Bengal and is now Bangladesh. From the geographer's point of view, this is the true Ganges. It picks up the Jamuna, becomes the Padma, morphs finally into the Meghna, whose estuary is twenty miles wide. But the sacred Ganges of Hinduism — which is also to say the secular Ganges of the British East India Company and the Raj — peels off before the border and heads south, changing its name again as it cuts through the fertile rice fields and palm groves of West Bengal. By the time it reaches Calcutta, present-day Kolkata, it has become the Hooghly.

Seventy miles south of the megacity, and one thousand, five hundred and sixty-nine from the Gangotri Glacier, the Hooghly arrives at last at a flat, oval island, the final point of land. At its southernmost tip is Gangasagar, the last of the river's innumerable pilgrimage sites, where the river dumps a coffee-colored plume of silt a mile long into the Indian Ocean.

* * *

By the time it reaches the Bay of Bengal, Ma Ganga has fed half a billion people. The great river is the source of their rice, their wheat, the sole guarantor of their two-dollar-a-day survival. But it is also a seducer, a magnetic field that for centuries has drawn in millions more — empire builders and seekers after enlightenment, butchers and plunderers, scholars and teachers, painters and poets and moviemakers, curiosity seekers and consumers of poverty porn, package-tour pilgrims and yogamat carriers and bungee jumpers and drug-addled Deadheads, devotees of the sacred and the profane. They come to witness ineffable beauty and surpassing ugliness, the river as goddess and place of worship and the river as open sewer and factory drain.

Most leave as bewildered as when they arrived. Invariably they report, record, scribble down their thoughts. They contemplate the incomprehensible. How can there be thirty-three million gods? And why do others of the same religion say thirty-three? Why is it auspicious this year to marry between 3:48:16 P.M. on February 14 and 5:29:37 A.M. on the following day? How can an open sewer be holy? They struggle to make sense of the endless conundrum of India.

This place! How can we describe it to you?

They write reports to their imperial masters, newspaper stories, magazine articles and travel journals, scholarly histories, ecstatic poems, catalogs of fish, inventories of temples, lists of the hundred and eight names of Ganga, the thousand and eight names of Lord Shiva, analyses of dissolved oxygen and fecal coliform bacteria. They send prayers to heaven. They write emails home, groping for words. They take countless photographs. They make feature films and reverent documentaries. They post jerky amateur videos on YouTube.

In their suitcases and backpacks, the travelers carry the tales of those who traveled before them. I still remember the first time I read about the Ganges. For an eleven-year-old, I had an odd assortment of passions: soccer, stamp-collecting, and scouring junk shops for antique books and prints. One day, for a few pennies, I bought a slim, leather-bound volume with its title gold-tooled on the spine: Strange Lands and Their People. Published in 1827, its purpose was to edify, horrify, excite curiosity, but above all to rally the reader behind the civilizing mission of Christianity. The text was broken up every few pages with a woodblock print showing some piece of local exotica: a sled pulled by reindeer in Lapland, ranks of Muslims pressing their foreheads to the ground in prayer, the skeleton of a woolly mammoth encased in Siberian ice. In the chapter on India, the image was of a widow throwing herself on her husband's funeral pyre on the banks of the Ganges in Benares. Formally dressed Englishmen stood off at a distance, clapping their hands to their mouths in horror.

I thought of that woodcut often as I traveled along the Ganges, imagining that this might have been one of the books that early English travelers packed in their portmanteaus and steamer trunks for the three-week journey from Calcutta to Allahabad, whiling away the long hours under a sunshade on the sweltering deck of a budgerow or swaying from side to side in a palanquin. Today's travelers do their reading on the long flight to Delhi, by the dim night-light in the 2AC coach of the Shiv Ganga Express as it clatters across the endless plains of Uttar Pradesh, or sitting cross-legged on the ghats of Varanasi, the steep steps and platforms where the pilgrims come at dawn for their holy dip. The books they carry could stock a small library. There are accounts by those who have traveled all the way from the Cow's Mouth to the ocean on foot, sunburned, stricken with dysentery, sleeping every night in a different but identical village, getting by on a dozen words of Hindi, starting with chapati and dal and chai. Others have made the journey by boat and where necessary by bus, nostalgic for the days of the Raj, tossing out droll asides about impassive or incompetent oarsmen and native bearers. Others have sailed the whole way. Some have struck off on side trips through the labyrinthine channels of the delta in Bangladesh. Others have attempted the journey to the Himalayas in reverse, fighting against the current in jet boats, until they had to admit defeat when faced with the last of the rapids.

As I traveled the Ganges from source to mouth — not in a single journey but in many discontinuous ones — I carried my own share of these books, with each of the authors leaving something new imprinted on the long chain of narrative, adding their own notes of curiosity, distaste, cynicism, ecstasy, and reverence.

Rudyard Kipling, writing for The Pioneer, the newspaper that briefly employed him in Allahabad, hated the sight of dead bodies floating in the river.

Mark Twain wrote the line that has been quoted more than any other: "Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together."

Seventy years later, Allen Ginsberg would sit for hours in a kind of morbid trance among the naked sadhus on the cremation ghats. One night, stoned as usual on ganja, he watched, fascinated, as "the middle corpse had burst through the belly which fell out, intestines sprang up (that is) like a jack in the box charcoal glumpf."

George Harrison spent equally long hours in the beehive-shaped meditation chambers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's ashram in Rishikesh, composing songs for the Beatles' White Album. "That Maharishi's a nice man, but he's not for me," said Ringo Starr, who was homesick for Liverpool and tired of eating eggs and beans.

When Poland opened its borders in the 1950s after the death of Stalin, the journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski's first trip was to India. Like everyone, he watched the bodies burning on the ghats of Varanasi. From there he took the train to Calcutta, where he struggled through the crowds sleeping on the floor of Sealdah Station in the floodwaters of the monsoon.

Kapuscinski, who carried with him The Histories of Herodotus, the first travel reporter, understood the nature of journeys better than anyone. "A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our doorstep once again," he wrote. "It starts much earlier and is really never over, because the film of memory continues running on inside of us long after we have come to a physical standstill."

Part of my own film of memory was made up of stories that were drawn from other authors whose names would never be known, those who wrote the great legends of Hinduism: the Mahabharata, the Ramaya?a, and the Puranas. They were a constant reminder that the Ganges is no ordinary river and that a physical journey is not the only way of going to its source. I found its beginnings in the unlikeliest of places, as far as you can get from the glaciers and the ocean and the cremation fires, in a land that had no rivers at all.



"Turn left at the monkeys," said Sumant, an affable young man with the face of a cherub, who had come to the burning Thar Desert of Rajasthan to explore the possibilities of solar energy.

Sure enough, a mile or two on, we came upon the monkeys, a pack of a hundred or more scavengers at a dirt truck stop, pouncing on plastic bags and mango skins and evading kicks and swipes from the drivers of the big painted Tata trucks. We turned left and headed deeper into the desert toward Jodhpur, the Blue City, where I was going to meet a woman named Kanupriya Harish.

In the world of water, Kanupriya was something of a celebrity. She was a brisk young woman with sensible glasses and a laptop full of PowerPoint presentations. She was the head of the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation, which had its offices in the converted nineteenth-century summer palace of Maharaja Takhat Singh, a sand-brown building on a low, sand-brown hill on the outskirts of Jodhpur. Twice she had hosted Prince Charles. The first time, he came with Camilla Parker-Bowles. The second time, he arrived in time for Holi, the spring festival of colors. Kanupriya invited him to join a celebratory dance with a group of local men. They wore turbans, earrings, and memorable Rajasthani mustaches. The prince wore a gray double-breasted suit. He twirled around for a couple of minutes, holding a brightly striped parasol. When they complimented him on his moves, he said, "It's hereditary."

Kanupriya fired up her slideshow. A woman scrabbled a hole in the sand in search of seepage. Girls trudged through the desert with battered aluminum water pots on their heads. Men dug fathomless tube wells, going deeper each year. "There is nothing harder than finding water in the desert," Kanupriya said, "and that is how we got our name."

You could have written my Hindi vocabulary on the back of a postage stamp and still had room for a shopping list, but one of the few words I did know was jal — water. So what about the Bhagirathi part? Desert?

She shook her head. "Something that is very hard to do, a task that requires a lot of effort and brings praise and honor to the one who carries it out: this is called Bhagirath Prayatna."

"So Jal Bhagirathi is the task of finding water?"

"In a way. But Bhagiratha was a king. Let me tell you the story."

* * *

Every Hindu knows the legend, which is recounted in the scriptures with innumerable variants and sub-variants, elaborated and embroidered down the centuries by oral transmission. This is the version that Kanupriya Harish told me.

There was once a king of Ayodhya, the birthplace of Lord Ram, named Sagara. He was a generous and judicious ruler, but his great misfortune was to be childless. However, the gods eventually granted his wish for an heir — which is something of an understatement, since one of his two wives gave birth to sixty thousand sons. Their seeds were nurtured in a gourd, and when they were born, a nurse tended to each of them in a jar of ghee, or clarified butter.

Toward the end of his reign, Sagara decided to perform the traditional horse sacrifice, the aswamedha. This involved sending out a white stallion to roam the land for a year, at the end of which it would be sacrificed to propitiate the gods. The territories through which it wandered would be brought under the king's sovereign rule. Those in its path would be offered a choice: succumb or fight. But somewhere along the way, the horse went missing, abducted by the gods because they were fearful that King Sagara's power might come to extend as far as the heavens.

Where was the horse? Puzzled and angry, Sagara dispatched his sons to search for the missing animal. They scoured the high mountains and tore apart the forests. By some accounts they dug deep into the underworld, until eventually they came to the ocean, or perhaps it was their digging and delving that created the oceans in the first place. On the farthest shore, they found the horse grazing peacefully by the ashram of a great sage, a rishi, named Kapila. They cursed him as the thief. Kapila flew into a rage at being disturbed during his meditation, at the insult to his good name. He opened his eyes and shot bolts of fire at the intruders, or perhaps the fierceness of his gaze was enough to produce spontaneous combustion. Whatever the case, the sons of King Sagara, all sixty thousand of them, were incinerated on the spot.

Kapila said that only one thing could redeem their ashes and allow them to enter heaven. The goddess Ganga would have to be called down from hercelestial realm, where she had issued from the big toe of the left foot of Vishnu, preserver of the universe, and wash them clean of their sins.

King Sagara tried for thirty thousand years to persuade the goddess to come to earth, but she refused. In the course of time, his great-great-grandson, Bhagiratha, took up the problem. He journeyed to the snowbound peaks of the Himalayas near Mount Kailash, the home of Lord Shiva, where he stood on a rock on one leg for a thousand years in a place that is now called Gangotri. Brahma, the creator, was so impressed that he agreed to summon Ganga to earth. But her descent, the Gangavatarana, was no simple matter; even if the impetuous young goddess agreed, she might crack apart the universe with the power of her flood.


Excerpted from "On The Ganges"
by .
Copyright © 2018 George Black.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

A Note on Language xi

Part 1 Mountains

Travelers' Tales 3

Present at the Creation 8

The Water Pyramid 12

The Cow's Mouth 14

The Temple on the Rock 20

Cave Dwellers 24

The Raja of Harsil 28

Winter Quarters 33

Nomads 36

Big Fish Story 40

The Age of Kali 45

All You Need Is Love 49

The Happy Escapee 56

Good Vibrations 58

From Ocean to Sky 63

Going to Extremes 67

Gateway to God 71

Why Shiva Turned Blue 75

Mrs. Chaurey's Glasses 77

The Best Medicine 79

Fizzy Whizzy 84

Part 2 Plains

Capstan Baba 89

Butchers 95

Massacre Ghat 100

Manchester of the East 102

Scavengers 105

Mothers and Children 110

Press One for Mangoes 114

Bookworms 118

At Barnett's Hotel 121

Allahabadminton 123

The Moustache Dancer 128

The Abode of Happiness 133

The Traffic in Mirganj 136

The Invisible River 141

Desolate and Ruinous 145

Armpit of the Universe 150

The View from the Train 153

Jewel of the Ear 155

Sacred Fire 159

The Spectacle of Wood 164

The Commission Men 167

Ashes to Ashes 171

Slowly-Slowly 174

Keepers of the Flame 178

In the Tiger House 183

I Now Feel I Have Seen India 189

The Poets of Benares 195

The Lost Boy 199

Ganga Fuji Raga 204

The Mother's Lap 210

Guru of the World 215

The Field of Fulfillment 217

Two Brothers 221

Heritage 225

The Forest of Remembrance 229

Part 3 Delta

Bored in Bihar 235

India's Coral Strand 240

Easy Like Water 244

The Impossible City 247

Where You Are From? 251

Women of the Delta 255

The Will of Allah 260

Fields of Salt 264

The Tiger of Chandpai 269

On the Beach 274

Holi on the Hooghly 275

The World of Apu 278

The Aging Prostitute 281

A Walk in the Park 286

Going Native 291

Last Jewel in the Crown 298

Packed and Pestilential 303

Multiple Personalities 305

The Bollywood Goddess 310

The Coin Collector 315

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