Holy Water

Growing up, photographer Ashish Shah saw the Ganges River as a giver of life. But the consequences of human and industrial pollution—and the Kedarnath floods of 2013—would eventually change his perception of the holy symbol and teach him to confront its dualities. For Flourish/Collapse, Shah offers a portrait of life, celebration, and death along the Ganges.

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY ASHISH SHAH

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The Ganges has always been a part of my life. My ancestral village is located on the bank of the Bhagirathi River— the source stream of the Ganges. I have memories of going down the bridge that connected our village to the town with my friends to fetch water, waking up early in the morning for fishing, dancing and singing every sunset on the rooftop of my aunt’s house near the river with my cousins, warnings from my relatives telling me not to walk on the shores at night. My uncle took his own life in the river when I was a kid, which was often a topic of discussion for my family when we crossed the river.

 

Growing up, I could only see the life-giving aspects of the Ganges. But along with providing physical and spiritual sustenance to millions, the river also holds a mirror to the darker corners of human nature. During my travel through certain cities documenting this story, I was hesitant to be in contact with the water, even though I grew up drinking it. In some places, the river has become toxic, and yet life still revolves around it. People still drink this water and wash clothes in it. Millions of liters of wastewater, containing toxic elements and metals, are dumped in the Ganges.

More than 400 million people live in the Ganges River Basin.

The flowing water is passive; it does not defend itself. The river stays there quietly as strangers use it as they wish, without thinking of the immediate consequences. That all changed with the tragic Kedarnath floods in 2013, when the Ganges went from passive to active. The water learned the lesson of the dangers of its accepting nature and turned toward its violators to confront them. The strangers could not face their actions; they tried to run away. More than 5,000 people lost their lives, around 4,500 villages were affected.

 

“Strong environmental ethics are deeply rooted in India’s culture. From worshipping the Panchatatva (the five elements) as deities to tree and river worship, India has an inseparable bond with nature. It also has a long tradition of recycling. Kitchen waste is largely made into compost. Our villages are self-reliant and self-sufficient through the use of natural resources. But thanks to industrialization, overpopulation, consumerism, poverty, and a lack of education, India is deviating from its wisdom. The average person living there today is working for their own survival and to keep their family alive; responsibility toward nature comes second. So, we keep taking from nature until it stops giving.

 

The holy river is regarded as a living entity. The abuse it suffers at the hands of its own people is so prominent. Growing up as part of a community who lived by the river and flourished from it, I see it as a mother—the embodiment of acceptance and perseverance. The Ganges has shown me life, celebration, and death during the course of my life and continues to do so for many around it.

This article appears in Volume 03: Flourish/Collapse of Atmos.

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