VARANASI, India — When in Rome, right?
Given that the Ganga holds a sacred place for India’s 1 billion Hindus, who revere the world’s third-largest river as a symbol of purity and for its properties of purification, it seemed a good idea to take a dip in the murky waters.
During my pre-dawn boat ride along the ghats, I decided to postpone my swim until the day warmed.
Originating in the Himalayas and joining tributaries from Nepal and Bhutan as it travels 1,550 miles to the Bay of Bengal, the Ganga represents far more than a simple waterway:
“It is the extension of the divine — Lord Shiva,” National Geographic writes. “Not only does it transport the prayers of believers visiting its waters, but it also provides sustenance for hundreds of millions of people, vast industry, agriculture, and endangered wildlife like the Bengal tiger and the susu, a blind freshwater dolphin. For Indians it is most commonly known as Ma Ganga — Mother Ganga. For Westerners, it is the Ganges, one of the most sacred of the world’s rivers.”
At the ghats, people waded in the water, washed their clothes, brushed their teeth and lathered up to bathe. Pretty standard stuff for a holy river.
Yet one sidebar in my Lonely Planet guide gave me pause — fecal coliform. The bacteria from untreated sewage is responsible for cholera, dysentery, hepatitis and a host of gastrointestinal diseases. In the waters off Varanasi, it was plentiful, as were other contaminants.
The level of fecal coliform considered safe by Indian regulators is ideally 500 and at most 2,500 most probable number per 100 mL. Yet at Rajendra Prasad Ghat, levels tested at 88,000 MPN, leading the Times of India to declare bathing in the Ganga “highly dangerous.” Measurements over a 12-year period showed levels up to 100 million MPN.
Easy, I thought. I’ll just keep my eyes, mouth and nose above water.
And then I saw it: Floating human waste less than an arm’s length from the ghat where I stood.
This is where, in the movie version of this blog, the sound of a needle scratching across a record is heard.
There was no “Caddyshack” moment, no laugh track and no Bill Murray to show it was just a Baby Ruth bar.
Instead of jumping into the Ganga, I released my small offering of a lighted candle and a handful of marigolds in a pressed banana-leaf bowl. For the time being, that would do.