Explorers and sailors have used the Ganges as a source of drinking water for centuries. Whereas supplies from other rivers would spoil within a few days, Ganges water was known to stay fresh for up to a month. Its extraordinary bactericidal qualities – still not wholly understood by scientists – are perhaps partly why the river came to be so worshipped by Hindus who view the 1,500-mile-long watercourse as an embodiment of the goddess Gangā. It might not be India’s longest or widest river, but perhaps no other waterway could have absorbed the flow of corpses committed to it by its faithful subjects, or still host multitudes of ritual bathers without larger outbreaks of contagion. Displaying a reassuring grasp of geography, historian Sudipta Sen traces the cultural and material importance of a river that exists both as an idea and an actuality. Initially the focus of a nature cult, it remained important to Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic traditions while simultaneously becoming one of the most engineered spaces on the planet, and a nurturing entity whose waters physically sustain almost 40 per cent of India’s population.
Today, many Indians are struggling to comprehend how their most sacred and eternal river could also be one of the world’s most polluted – millions of litres of raw sewage spill into the river daily and modern factories have made their own contribution to the toxic brew. Gangā had similar concerns. If the sins of the world were to be washed off in her waters, how was she to remain pure? Don’t worry, said Bhagiratha, the most upright of mortals will also immerse themselves in your waters and make you clean again. Many are hoping they turn up soon. This is a masterful and encyclopaedic work, with just enough illuminating overviews and factual gems to satisfy the more casual reader.
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