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Exploring the Sacred, Modern Along the Ganges

The Ganges River is 1,500 miles long from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. The river's water is the lifeblood for more than 600 million people in India and Bangladesh.
Lindsay Mangum, NPR /
Trace the path of the Ganges River, from where it originates in the Himalayas to where it empties into the Bay of Bengal.

We undertake a journey of more than 1,500 miles along the Ganges River, which flows from the Himalayas across the plains of northern India to the Bay of Bengal.

The river provides spiritual sustenance to 1 billion Hindus, who regard it as sacred. And it provides physical sustenance to hundreds of millions of people who live in its watershed.

The river passes through India's most populous state, its most lawless state, its holiest city and its cultural capital, Calcutta.

Our journey provides the opportunity to learn how Indians feel about the changes taking place in their country as it moves toward world power status: how they feel about its rapid economic growth, the co-mingling of ancient and modern, materialism and spirituality and the widening gap between rich and poor.

We begin in a town called Devprayag, where two mountain rivers merge to form the Ganges. Here, the waters of the river are cold and clean and fast flowing.

Most of the men in Devprayag are priests, including J.P. Pandit — a retired government college principal. Like many devout Hindus, he believes that in the final stages of life one should withdraw from worldly affairs and that is what he has done.

Pandit worries about what India has become. Its citizens are preoccupied with power, he fears, rather than matters of the spirit and he says modernization has brought isolation, "has detached one person from the other person."

After arranging a puja, or blessing, the journey begins. Just a few dozen miles downstream, the Ganges encounters modern India: a group of middle class employees of the country's largest mobile phone company, Airtel. They are escaping the stress of city life by going white-water rafting.

These young people earn far more than their parents did. "Six months into the job I had my first car," says Sunil Goyal, "and my dad, he worked ten years and then he got a car." They have more personal freedom and they make use of it.

But some traditions are still strong. The family remains the centerpiece. When sons marry, they usually stay in the family home with their brides.

So do unmarried daughters, while their parents try to find them a husband. Anjali Bagai, 30, likens this process to online dating services in the West — except that the prospective husband comes already vetted by her family. She takes it all in stride.

"What the heck," she says, "path of least resistance. Go ahead, meet somebody, come back, say 'Bye, really I am not interested. It's what my parents wanted.'"

The Airtel employees drink rum around a campfire and dance to the music of a bagpiper who has appeared inexplicably during a thunderstorm.

One day into our journey, the complexities of India are already apparent.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

United States & World Morning Edition
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.