Studying the Ganges


Michael Standing in the Himalayas

Just like Kimberly Ryan, Michael Griffin received a scholarship to study abroad in India this past summer. The post that follows paints a vivid picture of his experience. I hope you enjoy the reading.

Offerings to Ganga in Rishikesh

One of the world’s most important rivers has its start at a shrinking glacier high in the Himalayas.  Together with its tributary the Yamuna, the Ganges provides water to nearly a half billion people.  It is also one of the most polluted rivers in the world, but you would have no idea of its downstream fate when skirting the banks of its upstream reaches.

My Summer 2012 study abroad trip to India was led masterfully by Dr. Vijay Vulava and Dr. Tim Callahan of the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences.  Early in the journey, we took a four-hour train trip from Delhi and then a harrowing twelve-hour mini-bus ride along crumbling mountainside roads to arrive in Gangotri, a tiny pilgrimage town perched 10,000 feet above sea level in the Indian Himalayas. The drive was an adventure in itself, with narrow roads switchbacking across rocky peaks. Particularly in the last 60 miles (which took four hours), the paved surface gave way to dirt and rock patches. Streams cut across the road, and rockslides covered sections in rubble.  Drivers honked constantly: to communicate around curves, to negotiate passing, and perhaps to speak their minds.  All along the road, people walked and rested, and livestock grazed.

The Ganges river is deemed by Hindus to be a manifestation of the divine, and revered as the goddess Ganga.  Brahma, the god of creation, ordered Ganga to descend to Earth.  Unhappy with this task, she did so, but with the aim of washing away the peoples of the Earth.  The human king Bhagiratha prayed to the god Shiva to protect them, and Shiva caught Ganga in his hair, slowing her torrents.

Walking from Gangotri to Gaumukh

The town of Gangotri provides services for the many Indian pilgrims who come to pay homage to Ganga.  Little stands sell metal and plastic containers for collecting water and beads for blessing in the river.  From Gangotri, we walked upstream for 12 miles.  As we trekked, I listened to the roar of Ganga’s torrents.  I listened, too, to the stoney silence of Shiva’s locks.  Water and rock.  Female and male.  Yin and yang.  Liquid and solid.

We climbed to nearly 13,000 feet, where we came to the glacier at Gaumukh.  Here the massive expanse of ice sits motionless in the valley, dusted with rock and soil.  We observed the river flowing forth from the solid glacier.  The turbulent water was chocolate-milk brown, laden with sediment carved away by the ice.  The glacier has been shrinking for many decades.  In the past 2 years alone, it has receded over 100 feet.  Still, the snow-capped peaks above shimmer in the golden sun of the world’s highest mountain range.

Michael testing the quality of the water

The other people we met during these days of trekking were not fellow students and researchers like us, but rather religious pilgrims.  Many Hindus believe that bathing in the river brings spiritual benefits.  But whereas the river water was clean near the glacier, downstream was a different story.  Sadly, pilgrims seeking cleansing are also subjecting themselves to high doses of chemical and biological contaminants.  This same water is often used for drinking, washing, bathing, and farming.  Sanitation and purification are irregular.

The Yamuna (also sacred and also a goddess) flows from its own glacial source and joins the Ganges.  Along the way, it passes through Delhi and then Agra.  We spent a 110°F day in Agra, where we strode through a neighborhood to the river.  Local children joined us as we tested the water quality.  The river, which upstream had been relatively pristine, now was little more than a stagnant cesspool, lined with the orange-floral remnants of religious offerings.  Across the river, the gleaming white marble of the sprawling Taj Mahal stood in seeming protest to the desecration of the river.

Group on boat in the Sunderbans

From the secluded mountains to the urban centers to the labyrinthine tidal creeks of the delta, we traveled along the mighty rivers with water-quality probes in hand.  The massive impact humans can have on the natural world was clear from visual and chemical observation.  I return to the Lowcountry humbled but energized.  There is work to be done.

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