Scourge of the Sacred

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Scourge of the Sacred

Monday, 22 April 2019 | lokesh Ohri

I happened to visit the cremation ghats at Kankhal in Haridwar recently. Within a few moments of my arrival, on the banks of the Ganga, I could understand why despite hundreds of crores of rupees being dumped into the work of cleaning the river, nothing has ever been achieved. What hit me squarely in the face was a realisation that in spite of all the tall promises of the politicians, the river, indeed is not and may never become clean.

Within the half hour that I spent on the ghats, almost seven dead bodies arrived for cremation. A funeral pyre was prepared for each with three to four hundred kilos of wood. Once the mantras had been recited, the priests and grieving relatives casually chucked the polythene bags with the left over flowers, into the river waters. Each dead body was then taken into the river and bathed in the waters. It was evident that a few that arrived that day had died in hospitals. Can one even imagine the amount of contaminants entering the river with this ritual bath? As if this were not enough, many of the funeral parties left the contaminated clothing, even blood soaked bandages, at the ghats once the bodies had been set ablaze. I cringed at the thought that people who drink this water would risk hepatitis, typhoid, cholera, amoebic dysentery, other waterborne diseases, and a variety of skin afflictions. Despite these dangers, however, Ganga remains the most desired destination for the dead.  

Many parts of the Hindu faith revolve around the Ganga River, who they believe is the form of the mother goddess. Believing that she will purify their souls, many hope to be placed in her waters after dying, to attempt to elevate their souls in the hierarchies in their future lives and ultimately attain salvation. Large quantities of ashes from crematoriums along the Ganga River are also dumped into the river each year. These ashes are also keeping the river from being clean, and many of the people who drink the water are in fact ingesting the dead!

Dead bodies are also a very significant pollutant to the already dirty water. It is believed that because people are not rich enough to buy firewood for a cremation, and cannot afford the rituals, an estimated 35,000 bodies are discarded into the river every year. The very thought of so many dead bodies in the river, that is an important source of water for hundreds of thousands of people, is revolting. 

The Central Pollution Control Board has recently stated that water in Haridwar district fails almost all parameters of safety. According to estimates, nearly 50,000-1,00,000 devotees bathe at the over twenty ghats of Haridwar everyday. The main indicators of river water quality are temperature, dissolved oxygen, biological oxygen demand (BOD) and coliform bacteria. Samples at Haridwar have shown high levels of BOD, 6.4 mg per litre against a permissible level of 3 mg per litre. In terms of coliform too, the situation is equally alarming. Against the permissible limits of 500 MPN per 100 ml, in the waters at Haridwar the levels sometimes rise as high as 1600 MPN per 100 ml.

Keeping the data aside, it is significant to note that the Ganga, for most people in India is a veritable tirtha, a metaphysical threshold. Millions travel to its banks as penance, seeking redemption. The water is revered as a cleanser of sins, a healer of afflictions, even a destroyer of pathogens. But clearly, the cleanser is itself contaminated through human greed and callousness.

For most of us, Ganga has been associated with the death of millions of ancestors. One look at the meticulous genealogy records kept by the over 2,500 pandas along the banks proves this point. Many of these records are eight hundred years old and go back family bloodlines up to almost twenty generations. If our traditional wisdom has empowered us to accomplish this feat, what prevents our logical thought processes from transforming our redundant rituals leading to so much misery?

For a river that has absorbed so much of our past, we cannot allow it to die. For, if Ganga dies, our civilisation dies. We must remember that, even after all the abuse, Ganga pours 3,55,361,464 tonnes of silt into the ocean every year, roughly the weight of sixty Egyptian pyramids. This is a significant resource that feeds the teeming millions of India.

The question is, are we prepared to mend our ways? Is there enough political will to transform death rituals along the Ganga into more nature friendly methods?

This is an issue we can, like the contaminated dead bodies in the river, no longer keep under wraps.   

(The writer is an anthropologist, author, traveler & activist who also runs a public walking group called Been There, Doon That?Views expressed are personal )    

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