Journey along one of the world’s greatest rivers and catch a glimpse into the lives and cultures of the people who live along its banks
The Ganges flows through northern India and Bangladesh for more than 1,500 miles before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. It is sacred to Hindus who worship Ganga, the river goddess. But it has also long been a magnet for foreigners, some seeking to unravel its mysteries and others who have come in search of plunder. In On the Ganges, George Black, who chronicled the exploration of the American West and the creation of Yellowstone National Park in Empire of Shadows, takes readers on an extraordinary journey from the glaciers of the Himalayas to the sacred city of Varanasi to the “hundred mouths” of the Ganges Delta.
On the Ganges, parts of which originated from a New Yorker article published last year, introduces us to a vivid and often eccentric cast of characters who worship the river, pollute it, and flock to it from all over the world in search of enlightenment and adventure. Black encounters those who run the corrupt cremation business, workers who eke out a living in squalid factories, religious fanatics, and Brits who continue to live as if the Raj had never ended.
By the end of his journey, Black has given us a memorable picture of the great river, with all its riddles and contradictions, both sacred and profane, giving the last word to a man scavenging for the gifts left by pilgrims: "There are good days and there are bad days. It all depends. Everything is in the hands of our mother, Ma Ganga."
Hoping to write a book like the ones "early English travelers packed in their portmanteaus," Black (Empire of Shadows) launched himself on a 1,500-mile trip down the river of legend whose "magnetic field" draws "devotees of the sacred and the profane." Central to Hinduism, Black explains, the Ganges is often referred to as the river goddess, Ma Ganga, but everywhere he travels he sees that the river is threatened by pollution and overuse. In the mountains where the Ganges starts as "a thin stream of gray, silt-laden water," he meets stoned and evasive gurus and explores the ruined ashram once owned by the Beatles' beloved Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Further downstream in the "heat, dust, and unending flatness" of the teeming plains, Black examines the ruins of the British Raj, learns of the mythology behind cremation, and studies Hindu-Muslim tensions. Toward the end of his journey, Black pushes into the delta, where the Ganges pours through the desperate poverty of overpopulated Bangladesh where "life... was a crude Darwinian contest." Black's wry, humanistic narrative depicts a people riding on the knife's edge of catastrophe, but still holding out for hope.