Environment Field Note

Life along the Ganges River


The Ganges River in India influences the lives of more than 400 million individuals. The river has great physical and spiritual significance for the people who live along its banks. Read on to learn about this incredible river and its significance in Indian culture.

How are people connected to the environment?

Have you heard about the Ganges River in India? During my last few days in India, I got to visit the city of Varanasi, which is an important area that lies on the banks of the Ganges River. The Ganges River (which is called “the Ganga” in Hindi) flows through India and Bangladesh and is over 1,500 miles long!

What makes this environment special or different?

A sunrise on the Ganges

The Ganges River has important cultural significance in India, especially for followers of the Hindu religion. The Ganges River is mentioned multiple times in Hindu mythology. In these scriptures, Ganga is the daughter of the mountain god, who is named Himalaya. Followers of the Hindu religion believe that bathing in the Ganges River purifies oneself and washes away all sins. The water is frequently use in rituals. When I visited the Ganges River, hundreds of people were bathing in the river and praying along its banks. Hindus believe that when non-Ganges water is mixed with water from the Ganges, all the water is transformed into being holy.

In Hinduism, there is a special connection between death and the Ganges River. Thousands of Hindus strive to drink the holy water in the hour before their death. After death, the bodies are cremated (set afire) on the banks of the river. While I was visiting the Ganges, I saw homes for the elderly on the banks of the Ganges where old people go to live before they die. Our tour guide told me that each day in a given location along the Ganges, hundreds of bodies are cremated and the ashes are placed in the river. Hindus believe that by doing this, they will gain direct access to heaven.

What parts of this environment help people to live here?

Buildings and boats on the Ganges

People who live along the Ganges River use the water for a variety of purposes. One of the main uses for the water is agriculture. The water is used for irrigation of crops, either by human-made irrigation canals, or by the natural floods that occur during the rainy season. The irrigation canals were originally developed by Muslim rulers in the 12th century. With the help of irrigation canals, farmers grow crops such as rice, lentils, sugarcane, corn, sorghum, potatoes, cotton and wheat. Near the Ganges are also swamps and lakes in which legumes, chilis and a vegetable fiber called jute grow.

Other uses for water from the Ganges River include drinking water, fishing, transportation, and tourism. Although the water in the Ganges River is very polluted, it is still used for drinking by millions of people. Fishing on the Ganges is also a major source of income for communities along the river. For these people, fish from the Ganges makes up a large part of their daily diet. Furthermore, the Ganges is used to transport goods within regions of India such as West Bengal. It is also used to transport goods to Bangladesh, which is a neighboring country. More recently, the Ganges has become a source of income in the form of tourism. Each year millions of tourists, both from within India and abroad, visit cities along the Ganges River. When I visited the Ganges River in the city of Varanasi, I met people from all over the world.

What challenges do people face living in this environment?

An offering to be set afloat on the Ganges

The Ganges River is heavily polluted. The pollution comes from a variety of sources, such as agriculture, factories, spiritual function and animal husbandry. Pesticides, herbicides and other harmful residues from agriculture run into the Ganges at toxic levels. Factories spew out chemicals, colored dyes and oxygen depleted water. Statues of Hindu gods and offerings are set a float in the river and sink, contributing to the pollution. The cows, water buffaloes, dogs and other animals that wander the banks die and fall into the river to decay. Human corpses are also frequently are released into the river. Furthermore, most people who live on the banks of the Ganges do their laundry in the river, and detergent heavily contaminates the water as well.

How have people been adapting to this environment?

There is a plan for a better sewage treatment system for the waste flowing into the Ganges River. This new system would have lower costs and be much more effective than the current system. This plan has been developed with the help of international organizations who are working to clean up the Ganges. Other groups, such as one called Pundit Mishra in Varanasi, another called EcoFriends and the government of India’s pollution control branch are also working to reduce the pollution that contaminates the Ganges.


A site where bodies are cremated on the Ganges

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