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Peter Foster embarks on his Ganges journey

Peter Foster embarks on his Ganges journey

Author: Peter Foster in Devprayag
Publication: The Telegraph, UK
Date: March 14, 2007
URL: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/03/11/windia111.xml

Our journey begins with a prayer, a deep "om" that emanates from a Brahmin Hindu priest who dips his hand into a small copper pot and three times sprinkles the holy waters of the Ganges over our bowed heads.

In our cupped hands we hold rose petals, a nut and a thin strand of sacred red thread which in a few moments we shall cast upon the emerald-green waters of the river that is running quick and clean at our feet.

Together we chant the mantra. "Oh Mother Ganga, cleanse us of our sins and bring peace to our souls. Help our dreams come true and give us long lives. We salute you, oh Mother Ganga and bestow upon you this gift of flowers."

And with that short ceremony, our journey along the spiritual artery of India has officially begun, a voyage of discovery that will take us to the parts of India that live beyond the booming stock markets and gleaming IT parks of Bangalore or Mumbai.

From the pristine foothills of the Himalayas we shall descend onto the Gangetic Plain and into the poverty-stricken villages of Uttar Pradesh, tracing the river's course on through the holy city of Varanasi into the new industrial boomtown of Calcutta in Communist-run West Bengal and finally out into the Bay of Bengal.

At this point, the pilgrim site of Devprayag where the river's two tributaries, the Bhagirathi and the Alakananda meet to form the Ganges proper, the water is icy cold as it flows off the Gangotri Glacier high up in the Indian Himalayas.

In the hours after dawn, pilgrims who have travelled from all over India stoop to worship at the head of a river which devout Hindus must bathe in at least once during their lifetime in order to wash away their sins. For those not fortunate enough to make the trip, plastic cartons are filled with Ganges water that will be kept safe at home, perhaps for the time when a member of the family falls sick and can given the water to drink in a Hindu version of Christianity's Last Rites.

After paying the priest 1,000 rupees (£12) for his services there is time to reflect on the state of the Ganges which, for all its spiritual significance, is the life-support of some 300 million people, or one-in-12 of the world's population.

At Devprayag the river seems in rude health.

When we cast rose petals into the river, shoals of tiger-striped fish come swarming up to the edge of the ghat to investigate, but prefer instead to feast on the milky sweets which a newly married couple have just offered "Ma Ganga".

However, scientific surveys have shown worrying signs that the Gangotri Glacier, where according to Hindu legend Mother Ganges, a celestial-bound god decided to descend from heaven to earth, is rapidly receding.

Government research on Gangotri published last year found that the average rate of retreat has jumped alarmingly from 19 metres per year in 1971 to 34 metres per year today, with many scientists blaming the impact of global warming for the change.

Experts say the long-term consequences of accelerated glacial melting in the Himalayas - and India's other major rivers the Indus and the Brahmaputra are also at risk - threaten catastrophe for the millions who depend on the rivers for their water. There are too many variables to put a date on when the Ganges might become seasonal - a team of Indian and Chinese scientists are currently working on a joint project to firm up the data - however in the temple to Lord Vishnu which sits high above the sacred confluence the prognosis for Mother Ganges is gloomy.

Sitting under a pagoda, J. P. Pandit, a 61-year-old retired school principal who has decided to devote the last phase of his life to spiritual concerns, sees the ailing of the Ganges as a metaphor for the corruption of the earth itself.

He points to the one billion litres of raw sewage and industrial effluent that are pumped daily into the lower reaches of the Ganges, as a signal that the new, industrialising India has turned against all that is good and righteous.

"Ganga is the spiritual motivator of the people of all India. So if you call on Ganga Ma, even if you are 1,200 miles away, she will cleanse you of your sins. But see how we treat her?"

According to Hindu tradition, the world will have entered its final phase when the era of Kalyug - not unlike biblical Armageddon - brings darkness to the world, polluting the mountains, rivers and fields and destroying the earth that still nourishes 60 per cent of India's population.

Mr Pandit cited a story that shocked New Delhi recently in which two men were found to have sexually abused, murdered and then dismembered up to 40 children as further evidence of a "victory of sinners" in India 2007.

"We have entered the era of Kalyug," he continued ominously.

"The Gangotri Glacier from which mother Ganga comes down to earth is melting day by day and the flow of water in the Ganga will become less and less.

"It will become difficult for people to irrigate their land to grow the crops which sustain them. And if the water is less, their animals will die also. If Ganga dies, then the whole universe - and for us India is the whole universe - will die with her."

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