The world's great rivers are defined by their most outstanding features: the Nile for its length and the landmarks of Egyptian civilization, the Amazon for the diverse rainforest it feeds and the Colorado for the Grand Canyon. But the Ganges River in India is instead defined by the religious devotion of nearly a billion people to its waters. The Ganges, after all, is a goddess, and her waters are worshipped on a scale that is unmatched.
Every day, thousands of Hindus travel to the banks of the Ganges to take ritualistic baths, and several times each year, Hindus gather in the millions along her banks during bathing festivals to pray and worship. The waters of the Ganges are believed to heal sickness, purify the soul and provide a pathway to a peaceful afterlife.
My brother, Tyler, and I were fortunate to have traveled down the Ganges earlier this year to attend the most massive bathing festival of them all, the Maha Kumbh Mela, which takes place every 12 years and always sets the record for the largest gathering of humans for a single event.
Over two months, more than 120 million came to the banks of the Ganges near the city of Allahabad. On the main bathing date of February 10, over 30 million people took a holy dip in hopes of attaining Moksha, eternal liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. It was overwhelming to witness the power of one river to capture the soul of an entire nation and religion. Many pilgrims we spoke with had traveled from every corner of the globe, some spending much of their savings for the chance to step foot in the waters of the Ganges.
If the thought of 30 million people taking a bath together was not impressive enough, the Ganges is also unmatched in the sheer number of people it supports with food and water. About 500 million people live in the Ganges river basin and its waters are crucial for irrigating India's fertile northern plains that help feed India's 1.2 billion people.
But the impact of supporting such a massive population has devastated the river. The Ganges has another feature it is now famous for - the worst pollution of any large river on Earth.
Billions of litres of raw sewage pour into the waters of the Ganges every day and in some stretches the waters are devoid of fish and wildlife. So much water is now taken from the Ganges to support irrigation and hydropower needs upstream that the southern half of the river is just a trickle of what it once was, further concentrating the pollution.
It is difficult to comprehend how a river that is worshipped as a goddess could be allowed to deteriorate to such a degree. It is a paradox that we found even the people of India had trouble explaining. A river that is supposed to purify the soul is also a toxic killer. Considered a goddess, but treated as a dumping ground by the same people who worship her. A river that gives so much to humanity, but receives only waste in return.
Political, scientific and religious leaders in India have tried for decades to initiate river cleanup efforts, with little progress. One of the biggest obstacles is that many Hindus truly believe that because the river is a goddess, it cannot be polluted - so no need to treat waste.
The biggest learning lesson from our trip down the Ganges is that even the holiest and most worshipped river on Earth is still vulnerable to the same threats that currently face every other major river system in the world today. The Colorado no longer reaches the ocean due to over-pumping and the Nile has also been crippled by severe pollution. The Amazon has lost much of its rainforest and every other major river system on Earth is threatened by some form of human intervention.
The Ganges represents a paradox, but we must ask ourselves: How is it that we humans, who accept that water is the giver of life, can accept the unprecedented rate of destruction of our rivers all around the world?
Alex Mifflin and brother Tyler Mifflin host the award-winning eco-adventure series, The Water Brothers, exploring the world's most important water stories. The second season airs Tuesdays at 7:30 pm from September 10 - October 22 on TVO and at www.thewaterbrothers.ca. Learn more about the paradox of the Ganges in the premiere episode, "The Pure and the Poisoned," airing September 10.