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.