In the myths of Hinduism, the Ganges is a river to be both fought and fought over, to be mastered or importuned. A sage, disturbed in his meditations, razes the sixty thousand sons of a king with his eye. One of their descendants pleads for the Ganges to descend from heaven to earth to cleanse the souls of the departed. The river falls with such fury that the god Shiva has to catch its waters in the matted locks of his hair and release them at a slower pace. In a side story, another sage, enraged by the Ganges’s destruction of his fields, drinks the river in one mouthful; the gods themselves must beg him to let the river go. In the Skanda Purana, an old Hindu text, Shiva’s son explains: ‘One should not be amazed at the notion that this Ganges is really power … taken the form of water.’ As much as the river promises salvation to the Hindu dead and spiritual purity to the living, it also reminds us to never take it for granted.
For centuries, the Ganges assisted those who sought to know India. The river was a ready point of ingress into – indeed, even the parent of – many constituents of the country’s soul: the theology of Hinduism, the soar and sink of empires, the culture of the Gangetic