The Ganges River

Standing on an open, stone-surfaced platform that was like a “thrust stage,” jutting out from the buildings to the rear and either side, I confronted great contrasts.

On this side of the river, behind me and to either hand, everything was a jumble of towers, temples, balconies, sheds, cupolas, archways, walls, turrets, windows, doorways, rubble – and most striking of all, broad, deep stone stairs leading right down into the floating garbage and sludge along the edge of the river, perhaps 200 feet below.

There were people down there, on all the steps, every few feet along the river. Some dipped gourds over each other, some immersed themselves knee or waist deep by going down underwater steps – and some were dunking themselves entirely, bobbing back up again with elaborate splashes, making ritual gestures before plunging under again.

Baptist preachers of different sects may have a better appreciation for the variations in partial and full immersion, but as an apostate Roman Catholic, I was not able to stop thinking of a chant in Latin, e coli, e coli, e coli”.

Immediately to my right and down about 20 feet, was an open, slightly sloping area, roughly 200 feet wide by 60 feet deep, snugged up under the wall of a temple. About 1/3rd of the area was filled with a surprisingly well-ordered layer of cow dung patties that had been hand shaped into flat spirals and left to dry under the sun. I’ve been told they will burn.

I’m not sure if this is simply fuel or something sacred, sort of an organic, scatalogical version of votive candles. The source of the raw materials were four enormous black bulls, free to wander in and out of the enclosure through an open gate on the side of the pen. None of them looked very holy and one clearly had “people issues,” making feints at anyone who came too close.

The sun was up just high enough, and layered behind just enough air pollution, perhaps from the dung patties (holy smoke? sorry, could not resist) that I could look directly into its fierce eye. The river at this low-season was about 3/4ths as wide the Hudson between the World Trade Center and Jersey City or half as wide as the Mississippi between Illinois and Iowa at the Quad Cities.

This eastern far shore was a flat, brown, desolate and treeless flood plain that ran back another 1/2 mile to a low horizon of vegetation. I could see specks that I realized were groups of people out in that open space, baking in the sun, without tents or even umbrellas to shelter them from the increasing heat of the day.

The final steps to my hotel involved walking halfway down the broad stairs, about 20 yards, and then back up a series of wandering stairs of differing construction that took me right past the pile of cow dung patties, past a small shrine to the elephant god, Ganesh, through a small unmarked doorway – into the “lobby” of my hotel. See the “Scindhia” link under Travel Resources in the column on the left side of this page.

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