Holy River of Shit

It remains freezing cold in Varanasi and the city feels subdued today with most people wisely hibernating inside. But life must go on – including daily ablutions in the river.

Two sets of chills run down my spine when I watch men plunge into the Ganges for their bathing and tooth brushing. The first chill when I think about how cold it must be. And a second chill when I think about the fecal count of the water on their toothbrushes.

500 fecal coliform bacteria (aka poop, shit, deuce, the brown) per liter of water is said to be safe for swimming. Personally, I prefer there to be no shit in my swimming water but accidents do happen.

100,000 fecal coliform bacteria per liter is the threshold for international recognition (by me) as an official River of Shit.

The Ganges in Varanasi checks in with a whopping 1,500,000 fecal coliform bacteria per liter. We may need to get a fecal coliform expert down here for verification, but I think that means there is more shit in this water than there is water.

Before I get carried away, I should remember that second chill running down my spine. It’s easy enough to make shit jokes but the filth of the Ganges is beyond sad to me, especially in the context of Hindu belief.

The Ganges is the Divine Mother to Hindus and they worship the river like a god. Though some of the chilly bathers I saw today might also lack access to alternative sources of clean water, most of them bath in the Ganges out of religious devotion. They can’t not immerse themselves in her holy, healing waters.

I make jokes about it but underlying my jokes I recognize a layer of cultural judgment and beneath that lies the fact that I have little patience for harmful acts of any kind done out of religious obeisance – whether it be to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or a well dressed goat deity.

But there is another part of me that identifies with the worship of nature and of the river. I have always felt a deep connection to moving waters, perhaps beginning with the clear rippling creek that flowed down to a muddy Midwestern river in the woods where I spent wonder-filled days wading, swimming and exploring when I was growing up.

I appreciate the impulse to worship something that is sustaining and connected to everything around it yet with depths and sources so full of mystery.

Here in Varanasi my Western notions of hygiene prevail so you won’t find me repeating my Ganga dip in this stretch of river. In fact, looking back at those photos, I think I am going to go take a shower in boiling Purell. I understand that work is being done to clean the river here, so I might look into that in the coming days.

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7 Responses to Holy River of Shit

  1. yeah very true !
    Ganga is actually BECOMING A SEWAGE CANAL !
    Me too gonna blog on dis.. I was terrified to see the ganga , wen i was in bengal this february.

    • Usha Gandhi says:

      Garv se Kaho hum Hindu ya Bharatiy hain?
      Our magnificent age-old sacred mother गंगा [Ganges] ‘where the story of India’s rise and fall of great empires, of great and proud cities, of adventures of man, had begun’, has been poisoned- Ganga-jal has become ganda-jal – we have turned the holy river into dirtiest river in the world – nothing but sewer… – this 1,500-mile long river is drying ou- soon it could disappear –

  2. khema says:

    yess.. but no one can deny the purity of the holy ganga.. I am a mauritian where we have the ganga talao, hereby they say all types of eeels and fish lives in it and it is indeed in a form poisonous etc. but it remains still HOLY GANGA
    related to the river Ganges, i hve never been able to be so fortunate to be there. I guess there has been a lot of let it go in India… there is something which is called spirituality!!
    People brushing bathing and doing Shit there should be banned
    Banned should be people polluting the spiritual environment
    Here, Sandals, dipping and even fishing is banned, the holy gange talao remains “as pure”

  3. Pingback: Varanasí: Ciudad de asombro, turismo y muerte « ESTO TE VA A GUSTAR

  4. Chriss says:

    It’s very sad that you will class a holy river the river of shit it remains pure ireguardles of what is placed in it

  5. Steve Krenek says:

    However… despite the huge fecal colilform count, the plain fact of the matter is that te locals don’t appear to get sick from the preactice of total immersion, and drinking the water directly. So far, there appears to me no medical explanation for this :-). (This posting made from Varanasi, where I am spending a very pleasant week…)

  6. FDE says:

    this river is the shit hole of the gods 🙂 . just reading this article makes me dissy WTF

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