The Ganges, between devotion and pollution

The Ganges, “Ganga Mama” for the Hindus, is the emblematic river of India, ever since the origins. Belonging to the seven sacred rivers of the country, it is still regarded as the most important river in the Hindu tradition. According to their faith, the devotees believe that its water indeed has the capacity to exonerate the sins : “Amrita”, or elixir of life, would bring purity to believers and a better life after death.

Ghats de Varanasi

The Hindu believers carry out many pilgrimages to bathe in its water and to practice the meditation on its banks. Several holy sites are thus disseminated along its banks, such as Haridwar and Varanasi. The Hindus are closer to the gods here, more particularly to Shiva. Sacred river, pilgrims and inhabitants come there to make their daily ablutions and pray, hope for absolution, but also come to die there.

Ghats de Varanasi
To die at the edge of the Ganga is a privilege one cannot refuse : it gives an immediate access to the "Moksha" or to illumination, making it thus possible to leave the reincarnations cycle. Sacred river but also place of life : millions of Hindu daily meet there on the Ghats in order to do, not only their ablutions, prayers and offerings, but also to wash themselves, do their laundry there, drink and live of their faith.

In spite of an important pollution, the Ganga is a rich ecosystem making it possible for thousands of fishermen to survive throughout its course. It also shelters several endemic species : the Ganges crocodiles, the Ganga and Irrawaddy dolphins, as well as a very rare fresh water shark. In 1985, the holy river was proclaimed “national heritage” by the Indian government. The following year, first analyses were conducted in an affluent of the Ganga where the sewers of Varanasi flow, and which throws itself into the river downstream from the city. The results revealed a fecal rate of coliforms of 15 million units per liter, the authorized maximum being of 5000 units per liter…

Ghats de Varanasi
Ghats de Varanasi
In spite of this alarming observation, the devotees still come for their prayers every morning at dawn. They decline their ablutions in three gestures : the greeting to the sun, the immersion in the sacred river, and the mouthful of the “nectar” of life. A new tendency has however appeared a few years ago : more and more believers indeed departed from the tradition by not drinking anymore water from the river.

Throughout its course, factories and cities pour all kinds of waste into the river : waste water out of which the biggest part is not treated, garbage thrown by the residents (plastic bags, heavy detergents, manure and carcasses of cattle, etc), not to mention the multitude of corpses which float around.

  Ghats de Varanasi
Ablutions   Ghats de Varanasi
Un des nombreux cadavres jeté au Gange


The cremation is an essential element in the Hindu religion. To reduce the body of the departed into ashes makes it possible for the immortal heart, which wanders on earth, to carry on its way, released from its carnal envelope, and to reappear under a new form. After the cremation, the ashes are then dispersed in the holy river. Unfortunately, many Hindu families do not have the means of paying for sufficient wood to allow a total cremation of the corpse. The hardly burnt bodies are thus thrown in the Ganges river.

And what doesn't help at all, the police force and its cleaning services also get rid of the unclaimed bodies in the powerful water of the river.

According to estimates, the Ganga would thus receive each day the remains of some 400 human corpses accompanied by a few 1550 tons of wood used for the cremations. With that, about 9000 carcasses of animals which are abandoned in the water, another important pollution cause. Regarding this waste, like the billion liters of used water poured daily in the tributaries of the Ganges river, the capacities of the few existing water treatment plants are unfortunately ridiculous.

Various methods were however already considered for the Ganges river's cleaning up. First of all, the installation of water treatment and purification stations were encouraged, as well as their connection to existing sewers.

Finally thousands of public toilets and large crematoriums are installed on the Ghats.

Ghats de Varanasi

Some crematoriums were already set up in Varanasi but they are hardly used by the poor Hindu. Lastly, the government released thousands of necrophageous tortoises, hoping they would devour floating corpses. It was a failure : the reptiles were quickly captured and consumed by the poorest residents…

But no matter what happens, the Ganga will remain the sacred river of all the Hindus throughout the world.

It will still, for a long time, give hope to pilgrims and devotees who will continue to pray there, but also dream the tourists which can see in it the continuity of important traditions and practices going back to unmemorable times. 

Terrasse d'un hôtel avec vue sur le Gange
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