THE BIG STORY
Gingerly, I took my feet out of my slippers and felt them squelch into the riverside mud. Then, leaning over into the flow as far as I could, I upended the plastic bag so that its contents tipped out. Thus a part of my mother’s ashes landed into the river (along with a flutter of pink rose petals), according to Hindu custom, satisfying the wish of those who had cared for her that her soul would now gain peace.
The irony of this ritual was not lost on me – my mother was a Christian (though shaky in her belief later in life) and had always had a great fear of open water due to never having learnt to swim. What peace the immersion of her ashes brought was surely for those left behind. We kept a portion of her remains and buried them in her sister’s grave.
The sanctifying touch of river waters is a belief that runs deep in Hindu spirituality. I encountered it many times during my childhood in India. Going on a school trip to the famous temple at Omkareshwar, an island in the Narmada, I remember being brought a bucket of water straight from the holy river to drink. Eyeing the greyish particles and minuscule creatures moving about inside I chose to go thirsty. Awaiting a ferry crossing at Patna, over the holiest of rivers for Hindus, the Ganges, I witnessed throngs of devotees taking a dip in its brown waters, fringed with litter.
Previous page: Hindu women offer prayers to the sun god by venturing into the foam-coated waters of the Yamuna River (a major tributary of the Ganges) in New Delhi, India. The river is responsible for 70 per cent of the city’s water supply but is severely polluted at this stretch. Recently city authorities have taken to deploying blowers to push back the foam from the banks during festivals, so that the faithful can take a holy dip. ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS
Right: At Chattogram, Bangladesh, kids take to the water in the Karnaphuli as if it were a part of them. IHSAAN EESA/ALAMY
Even for someone like me, not inclined to religious devotion, there remains a strong, primitive pull associated with rivers. In times of mental agitation I find myself walking by the Nieuwe Maas in my home city of Rotterdam, watching the tugs and leisure boats move across it, and feeling my mind’s knots unravel a little.
Anyone who has witnessed the communion of all forms of life at the river bank, in a nature documentary or firsthand, will realize why the function of rivers can best be described as ‘ life support’.
Available surface freshwater (rivers, lakes and swamps) is only an estimated 0.3 per cent of all the water on our planet, more than 99 per cent of which is unusable by humans and numerous other species.1 Yet it forms the habitat for over 140,000 described species (and however many more as yet unrecorded), including 55 per cent of all fish species.2 Move into the wetlands associated with the world’s rivers and a staggering 40 per cent of all the world’s species either live or breed there.3 As for humans, a quarter of the world’s people depend on rivers for that most basic necessity, drinking water. A similar proportion of food production is reliant on irrigation from this source – to say nothing of the renowned fertility of floodplains that are our breadbaskets. Rivers truly are life, not just in any sentimental sense, and that is why traditional cultures have viewed them as sacred.
Dubious offerings Yet reverence is not enough. A confluence of factors involving human influence is choking and drying out these arteries.