Editor’s Field Journal: The Bright Red Line of Faith

By John Matthews, WWF-US   

South Asian rivers experience the best and worst of treatment. The Ganges — also called Ganga or Ganga Ma (Mother Ganges) — is treated like a sacred body, even a person or god, by hundreds of millions of people. Her many tributaries and branches are part of a sacred continuum spanning between the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean. This year, there is a great mela in Varanasi, India, a mass event relishing the river that will involve hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who come to wash the sins of their current and previous lives away. Melas occur every twelve years, and they are widely described as the largest peaceful gathering of humans on the planet. In many towns and villages along the Ganga, you see ghats, which are steps going down to the water for bathing. Many people also hope to bring the ashes of their relatives to the river so that they may find absolution and release. Several times I’ve seen funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganges or, during the dry season, in the dry riverbed. The faithful depths of the Ganges are inspiring, even for those weak in faith.

Young boys fishing on the Ganges river. Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. India

Young boys fishing on the Ganges river. Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. India

But even a sacred river such as Mother Ganges is not always treated well. In many cities, rivers are referred to as “drains,” places where all kinds of waste flows openly and noisomely — industrial, household, even from tanneries or butchers. On my last trip to India a few weeks ago, I stayed a beautiful and quiet guest house in a wealthy Muslim-majority neighborhood of Delhi. Across the street stood a high wall. Curious, I walked to our office along the wall until it ended at the edge of a much poorer adjacent neighborhood. The wall had hidden the local drain and some of the smells and sights within. This particular drain was once a creek, flowing into the Yamuna river, which enters the Ganges a little below Delhi. As a tributary of the Ganges, even this creek is sacred and special in the spiritual landscape of south Asia.

The Indian people and government know they have a problem with water supply, treatment, and management, and they know that climate change is making their water problems worse. The US was not that much different as recently as the late 1960s. But the ancient power of the Ganges is suffering for now in the face of rapid growth and development.

Delhi alone has more than 15 million inhabitants, in a city largely created by the British in the nineteenth century as an administrative center and home for a few thousand residents. In fact, the growth of an Indian middle class has led to a more assertive move by India’s citizens for more water security. Even rural, arid Rajasthan state, just to the west of Delhi, is facing national attention to manage water in ways that match the existing climate — and the climate we are entering.

There are also remarkable scenes of hope in India. Although I have been to India four times in the past two years, most of my river experiences have been more like drain experiences. But from Delhi I was invited by colleagues to visit a village a few hundred kilometers downstream, on the mainstem of the Ganges.

About fifty villages line the banks of this stretch of the river, many with small pilgrim hostels and ghats nearby. But this region is also a place with something now rare and special in the Ganges: freshwater dolphins.

There are only a handful of freshwater dolphin species worldwide, and one Chinese species has already gone extinct within recent years.

Ganges river dolphin (Platanista gangética)

Ganges river dolphin (Platanista gangética)

With a group of colleagues, we caravaned to one of the villages and went down to the river and crossed to a small island in zodiacs, where we met our Gangetic dolphin team leader. During the dry season, he camps on the island. Almost immediately, we saw dolphins leaping, swimming near. The river here is pure and clean, and today you will only see Gangetic dolphins in such places. Although downstream of Delhi of many other cities, I swam and bathed here. This stretch was not always so clean. Our local team has worked hard with the network of local villages to reduce the many pressures on this area by creating low-tech water treatment stations and working with villagers to help them understand that the dolphins are the sign of clean and safe water. As with so much around the Ganges, this message has a religious dimension too. Gangetic dolphins are sacred animals, described in many myths. Their loss would be a spiritual crisis.

Being in the Ganges was very difficult for me. Our guide had to cajole me, and then again to get in above my neck. I have always wanted to bathe in the river, to feel that level of connection to one of the most spiritually important places in human history. But I have seen the dark side of the river. I have strong hope, but I have fear too. I need faith conjoined to my hope.

Our dinner, lentils and vegetables cooked in the darkness with river water, seemed especially delicious (if a little sandy). But the beer helped too. “You may hear hyenas or leopards, but don’t be afraid,” said our guide. The sky opened to a broad and open sky, full of stars. A bright meteor passed over the river. The only sounds came from the snores of my good Indian colleagues and a boy minding his family’s fields for the night, calling to his father across the water every quarter of the hour: I am here. I am safe. I miss you.

In the morning, I went with the men upstream, where bathed in the shallow, warm midstream current. They splashed each other like little boys. After returning to camp, a boat crossed over with a tall man in a blindingly white embroidered long shirt. He was the pundit from the village across the water — the village Brahmin priest. Our host turned to us and said, He is here for you. He will have a puja for you to celebrate your relationship to the river.

He led us to a blanket on the muddy bank. As the priest spoke and sang from sacred verses about blessing all living things, the need for the protection of life, and our grounding and connection to nature, we threw rice, milk, cotton cloth, and flower petals into the river. He gave us small pieces of food. Eat and share this with the river. He came to the three of us in turn. He placed a red line with a grain of rice on my forehead. He placed a red dot on the forehead of my two female colleagues. He tied red thread around my right wrist. Do not remove this. It represents your consecration to the river and to nature. You belong to each other. When it wears off, place the remainder in clean, flowing water.

I still wear the circlet. Though worn and tattered, I hope it represents the faith within my hope. All of us in conservation need both, and both together.