Down The Ganges
30,000 ft above India 27 March 2007
I’ve been fortunate enough to have just travelled across eastern India shooting a feature on the river Ganges or “Ganga” as it is known to the Indians for a british newspaper taking a snapshot of modern India along the way. Finding out how the country, economy and people really are faring in the new globalised world that we live in today. India is incredibly keen to show the world a image of a new India, with a powerful economy, largely in the IT sector, attracting huge overseas investment and a sharply rising middle class population with disposable incomes .
The Ganges is in total 1557 miles long and stretches from the foothills of the Himalayas to the Indian Port of Calcutta and the Bay of Bengal, supplying water to one twelfth of the world’s population, both rich and poor, but largely the latter of the two. The Ganges is worshipped by the Hindu faith , one of the three dominant religions in India, and is believed to be not only a source of life but also able to wash one's sins away, and Hindu's from across the globe make pilgrimage to the river along it’s course referring to it as “Ma Ganga.” after the mythical goddess whom the river is named after.
We started,two journalists Phil and Peter and a production assistant by the name of Shivani and myself in the tranquil town of Deoprayag , in the foothills of the Himalayas where the Bhagirathia and Alaknanda tributaries meet forming the great Ganga river . The river here is a lush, fast flowing emerald green, running pure from the Gangatree Glacier higher up in the snow crested peaks, and still good enough to drink without a moments hesitation. Here amongst other characters we met Ganesh Shnakar Bahtt, living in a cave adjacent to the town’s main Ghat (steps) to the holy river, which is uninhabitable much of the year when the water levels are high. With his dishevelled dreadlocks and completely incoherent dribble he wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Portobello Market in the mid nineties when the square was crowded with returnees from the hippy trail and friends they’d picked up on the way. His cave was full of personal possessions and baggage that had been dumped by devotees who’d decided to do away with such trappings and given their lives to the Gods.
Down on the Ghat a young , recently wedded couple were receiving a blessing from a Brahmin priest whilst a rickety old women with a walking stick, matted white hair and faded orange robes was filling a metal urn with water, just able to bend her arthritic joints enough to reach the waters level grabbing on to a rusty chain with one wrinkly old hand to prevent herself from falling in, though it appeared that soon she would be joining whoever it was being cremated on the far bank opposite. Miraculously I saw her again later that day shuffling past some Hindu scriptures on a temple wall high up on the hill above the Ghat .
Further along the Ganges lies the City of Rishikesh , the Yoga capital of the world, and attracting plenty of annoying western tourists because of it, but also bringing welcome revenue. It too is a popular spot for pilgrims and it also sports a wonderfully springy suspension footbridge where young families with their children throw in bait sold by hawkers onto the river’s suface a hundred feet below to enormous Rohu , a type of carp that schools eternally underneath the bridge, getting fat on such rich , easy pickings.
Up River from Rishikesh campsites have recently sprung up on the Ganga’s improbably sandy banks, and India’s new middle classes come to play here on the weekends, taking advantage of the fantasic white water rafting. We joined some young exec’s from India’s number one mobile phone company Airtel, who spent the weekend on a bonding exercise, rafting, playing volleyball and drinking copious amounts of alcohol whilst dancing round the nightly campfire to the sound of bagpipes . To them the Ganga was a playground , somewhere to let off steam away from their hectic, high-tech lives in Dehli and Bombay, a life so far removed from those we would meet later in our journey. They were incredibly optimistic about their nation’s future and believed firmly and somewhat I naively I think, that the wealth they’re accruing will ultimately trickle down to those further down the food chain, giving a leg-up the ladder of success to the majority peasant and working classes below that New India likes to pretend no longer exists. Just take one look at the advertising hoardings on the streets and glossy televison commercials playing round the clock, which I imagine are directed by India’s incredibly talented Bollywood set. The new India is inhabited by young , beautiful , well dressed men and women who walk hand in hand or driving fancy sportcars down freshly scrubbed, fragrant streets, their children grinning broadly with backwards turned baseball caps skipping alongside them. The terrible truth is that statistics point to completely the opposite, that in fact, like we are seeing in western Europe , the gap between rich and poor is actually increasing.
After Rishikesh we spent a night a the Ananda Spa “ the worlds number one Destination Spa “ where the Peter sampled their rather fascistic version of Ayervedic therapy In the name of journalism , having burning hot oil poured onto his forehead like some sort of medieval torture , luckily I just got to take pictures .
Next stop was Kanpur, a stinking, Industrial town, that belongs in the age of Dickens, where a few industrialists have made their fortunes off the backs of the poor working majority, and have managed to turn the Holy River herself into a stinking putrid gloopy mass, of course with the help of a few corrupt politicians, of which there seem to be many in the “New India”. Leather Tanneries are everywhere, and although there are regulations that have been put in place, they have never really been enforced and the factories spew out acids and heavy metals from the tanning process straight into the Ganga, her banks now sadly coated in a black tar like substance, her now charcoal grey waters slowly bubbling with toxins.
On the edge of town we spoke to fishermen about to set off in their rowing boat to earn their keep, they reminisced of their youths when the Ganga was still clean and teeming with fish , when there was plenty to feed everyone, but were doubtful whether those days would return. Of course the toxins being dumped by the factories into the river are added to by the untreated sewage of the City’s population, and considering the poor state and distinct lack of sufficient water treatment works across this city and others adjacent to the river, the state of the peoples health is in dire straights too, and ultimately that of the nation .
Miraculously, when we arrive in Varanasi, India’s oldest and holiest of cities, Ma Ganga has managed to purge herself of toxins , rejuvenating herself, and although you probably would be wise not to drink from her bosom, the stink and discloloration has definitely lifted, making this stretch of the river one of the last habitable spots for it’s blind freshwater Dolphins, which were once endangered but have now thankfully stabilised. The Ghats of Varanasi, over one hundred of them, are an incredible site, attracting hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year and once reportedly home to the God Shiva. Alongside the bathing ghats are also "burning ghats" where bodies are cremated in public, their ashes then given to the cleansing holy waters. Each night the "Ganga Aarti" ceremony is performed for pilgrims (and tourists) on the Dasaswamedh Ghat, an incredible spectacle as Brahmin priests swing flaming chalices to sutras accompanied by a thumping beat . I wonder whether the dreadlocked wannabe Sadhu Ganesh Bahtt had escaped to his cave in Deoprayag from Varanasi , possibly because in the latter characters like him are everywhere, but with no caves to light up there chillums from they resort to living in canvas tents along the Ghats earning a living from impressionable young western students on their gap years with a healthy sense of adventure.
We next take the train to the city of Patna in Bihar , India’s most lawless state, where rival gangs run by rival politicians terrorise the surrounding villages with extortion and kidnapping. We decided to try and meet some of these gang members and set off to the town of Mokama 90 kms east of the city where along Ma Gang’s banks devout local villagers were bathing to celebrate a partial solar eclipse. We were led into to forest adjacent to the river by a local fixer and from nowhere we suddenly heard strange obviously man-made animal noises being called out, which seemed to make the leaves on the trees flutter around us . Then appeared out of the dense trees and marujawana that grows here as thick as blackberry bushes, six or seven young men , their faces hidden by brightly coloured bandana’s and sarong cloth . Brandishing sickles and small axes it seemed like a scene from “Lord of the Flies” and I for one didn’t really know whether to quiver with fear or burst out laughing, but after I’d decided which emotion I felt most overwhelmed by it was best to keep my mouth shut and just get on with taking their pictures. After a brief interview with the two hacks , whom the bandits had decided were BBC (it pays never to quash such dreams and go with the flow in such a situation), they disappeared into the forest as quickly as they’d arrived their whooping and animal cries fading into the distance. We then had a brief discussion as to why these men, who we were assured were the real thing, and from reading of their exploits in the papers were obviously to be taken seriously, had wanted to meet western journalists. But I suppose just like the gangs in Britain’s cities who are now, and somewhat stupidly, hosting their own websites with photos and text boasting of their exploits , these men too crave the same thing, NOTORIETY . What better way to get famous quick than to speak to the international press. They can now say that spines tingle at hearing their name (the “Mokama Massive” or whatever it is) not only in Bihar, but also Hampshire and Massachusetts. If all this sounds slighty ridiculous, think again, their gang leader recently became a member of Parliament , showing how politics and crime run hand in hand in New India’s forgotten cities.
Before I continue something should be said about India’s trains, although somewhat dilapidated, they have a fantastic charm and move something like 200 million passengers a day across the India , putting our system to shame. Due to the immense traffic that travels by rail it is often wise to book long trips up to a month in advance if you want a good comfortable seat . The stations themselves are full of fantastic colour, and India’s poorest city dwellers often make their living here, gangs of young children , scour recently vacated carriages for scraps of food and fruit not only for sustenance but to sell to the hawkers who will add scavenged half eaten apples and oranges to their hand squeezed juices, so beware ! Other platform food though is fantastic , a steaming hot bowl of chickpeas , onions and roti go down rather well on a long rail journey. Cows can also be seen idly wandering along busy platforms occasionally rummaging in bins for orange peel and other vegan treats and being Holy , are only occasionally chased away by the hawkers and tramps who often depend on the same bounty .
The trains themselves , the ones I’ve been in anyway, though rather worn were still pretty comfortable and the 1st Class AC Sleeper cabins really did enable you to get a good kip on the longer overnight journeys that we took. Every now and then Peter and I would stand by one of the opened carriage doors as the train sped along smoking a cigarette whilst watching the world go by. Sadly what you’d often see is someone looking over their shoulder as their arse cheeks faced you in the squatting position , rail-side seeming to be a favourite spot for a majority peasant nation of outdoor crappers , not that you can criticise them considering that over 50 percent of Indians do not have indoor plumbing , something the governing elite of New India should be acutely ashamed of.
After two weeks of travelling we finally came closer to out final destination arriving in Calcutta , capital of West Bengal and home to Sagar Island, where the River Ganga finally meets with the ocean. Formerly the Capital of the British Raj until it was moved to Dehli in 1911, and home to some fantastic colonial architecture. The city is literally buzzing with energy , you can still see traditonal rickshaws originally introduced from China , being pulled by barefooted men , and the famous Bengal hot headedness that gave the British Raj a few scares is everywhere to be seen . Unlike in Dehli angry exchanges can be seen regularly being made on street corners and on the roads by drivers in their Morris Minor-like Ambassador taxi’s as they cut each other up on some of the most hectic roads I’ve ever witnessed.
Calcutta has been ruled by Marxists for the past three decades, making it the most successful and longest running elected Communist government in the world. Problem is it’s popularity has recently been marred by their poor handling of a forced aquisition of farmer’s land in the Nandigram area which we visited , for a "Special Economic Zone” or SEZ , which resulted in the killing by police of 14 demonstrators just over a week ago . We spoke to the villagers, who are incensed , evicting local party stooges off their territory and fighting running battles with police and party thugs . Although they were at onetime the traditional base with which the Marxists rose to power , they certainly won’t be at the next election. It’s a difficult problem for New India , and especially for the Marxists in West Bengal if they want to retain there somewhat dictatorial powers. It’s patently obvious that India needs the massive cash injection and job opportunities that foreign investment brings, and SEZ’s could be the answer , problem is the electorate don’t see it that way. How can you expect an uneducated peasant population to look beyond the short term ? Luckily for them pressure groups ( with their own own political agendas it has to be said ) have come to their aid and perhaps correctly have said …… do you really want your 10,000 acres of beautiful , fertile farmland to be turned into a mammoth Chemical Plant ? And furthermore what skills do any of you have to gain employment in such a place ? …. They’re right of course but what future does India have if it doesn’t Industrialize and join the global marketplace ? The investors will only go to one of the neighbouring countries instead and India’s deeply paranoid about the rise of China as a strong economic and military force to it’s East.
After a long drive south we crossed over by ferry to Sagar Island the final desination on our Odyssey . Annually the island plays host to hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims who take part in the Gangasagar Mela festival bathing en masse, washing away their sins in Ma Ganga's waters. Here we came across a handful of off-season devotees and Muslim women who scour the long sandy beaches for coins thrown into the sea by the pilgrims proving that "Ma Ganga" really does provide for all.
The somewhat sweaty mosquito infested night we spent at one of the Island’s Ashram’s that evening will go down as one of the worst experiences of the trip along with the food, but I wouldn’t have it any other way! When I did finally fall asleep I was soon abruptly awoken by the sounds of crashing cymbals, drums and chanting at three thirty am, reminding me of, I hate to say it , irritating times in the past when I’ve come across the European Hari Krishna community marching down the street making a similar racket in the name of peace.
I decided to spend my last night in India in the Oberoi Grand hotel in central Calcutta, a fine old colonial style hotel , my wood panelled room wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a stately home in the home counties, and to me was absolute heaven after just over two weeks on the road, working from 16 hour days! After a couple of hours by a pool surrounded by palms gently swaying in the light evening breeze, I moved to my room and ordered a cheeseburger and milkshake on room service and settled into some crap Hollywood movie on cable , finally escaping the impoverished world outside my mahogany doors……..