The Dirt on Mother Ganges

It’s Monday here in Sri Mayapur, West Bengal; though, as any of you who have been to rural India can attest, you lose track of what’s a weekday and what’s a weekend.

A huge contingent of marvellous devotees from Bombay arrived yesterday. 78 bus loads to be precise; the numbers here have swelled to over 5000 residents. A wonderful sight to see. Chanting in the vast temple halls with that many celestial voices is an experience beyond written description.

Yesterday I jumped on a boat and visited Navadvip, the ancient town on the other side of the meandering Ganges. I’ll share some photos with you later.

Oh – speaking of the Ganges – my sister Annie appreciated me sending her the photos of the immersion ceremony of our mother’s ashes here in Sri Mayapur. But she commented that she thought the water ‘looked a little yuk.’

I assured her that, despite appearances, far from being ‘yuk’, the Ganges is a very special river, even from a scientific point of view. I sent her this information, which I thought I’d share with you:

“Winding 1,560 miles across northern India, from the Himalaya Mountains to the Indian Ocean, the Ganges River is not a sacred place: it is a sacred entity.

Known as Ganga Ma — Mother Ganges — the river is revered as a goddess whose purity cleanses the sins of the faithful and aids the dead on their path toward heaven.

ganges at varanasi:

But while her spiritual purity has remained unchallenged for millennia, her physical purity has deteriorated as India’s booming population imposes an ever-growing burden upon her. The river is now sick with the pollution of human and industrial waste, and water-borne illness is a terrible factor of Indian life.

But the threat posed by this pollution isn’t just a matter of health—it’s a matter of faith. Veer Badra Mishra, a Hindu priest and civil engineer who has worked for decades to combat pollution in the Ganges, describes the importance of protecting this sacred river: “There is a saying that the Ganges grants us salvation.

This culture will end if the people stop going to the river, and if the culture dies the tradition dies, and the faith dies.”

praying in the ganges:

But note these facts:

1. Ganges water does not putrefy, even after long periods of storage. River water begins to putrefy when lack of oxygen promotes the growth of anaerobic bacteria, which produce the tell-tale smell of stale water.

2. British physician, C.E. Nelson, observed that Ganga water taken from the Hooghly – one of its dirtiest mouths – by ships returning to England remained fresh throughout the voyage.

3. In 1896, the British physician E. Hanbury Hankin reported in the French journal Annales de l’Institut Pasteur that cholera microbes died within three hours in Ganga water, but continued to thrive in distilled water even after 48 hours.

4. A French scientist, Monsieur Herelle, was amazed to find “that only a few feet below the bodies of persons floating in the Ganga who had died of dysentery and cholera, where one would expect millions of germs, there were no germs at all.

Ganges at Rishikesh:

More recently, D.S. Bhargava, an Indian environmental engineer measured the Ganges’ remarkable self-cleansing properties:

“Bhargava’s calculations, taken from an exhaustive three-year study of the Ganga, show that it is able to reduce BOD [biochemical oxygen demand] levels much faster than in other rivers.”

Quantitatively, the Ganges seems to clean up suspended wastes 15 to 20 times faster than other rivers.

(Kalshian, Rakesh; “Ganges Has Magical Cleaning Properties,” Geographic, 66:5, April 1994.)

Here in Mayapur many of the householders get Ganges water delivered to their door. They keep it in big clay pots, and drink it only after 5 days, when any bacteria mysteriously disappears as described above. Normal water gets stinky if you just keep it. Ganges water just stays sweet.

The mystery of Mother Ganges!
Posted by Kurma on 5/11/07; 12:21:30 PM

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