“Ganga: The Many Pasts of a River” by Sudipta Sen


Sudipta Sen appears to have premised his encyclopedic Ganga: The Many Pasts of a River on the words of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru: that the story of Ganga was the story of Indian civilization and culture. Written over twelve years using a wide range of sources from Hindu scriptures, archeological findings, writings of foreign travellers, and historical documents, Sen’s history of India’s “national river” begins in the mythological past and ends with controversies around the dams built on the river. It explores how the river and its valley have “sustained the imaginative life, material culture and daily subsistence of millions of inhabitants of the subcontinent.”

Readers outside India unfamiliar with the stories might be intrigued by the mythological origins of the river. Ganga was sent to the Earth thanks to the penance offered by an ancestor of Lord Rama. Only the Ganga could wash off the sins of this ascetic’s forefathers who were banished to the underworld. Sen’s material and discussion about the river in ancient and medieval history provide background but do not directly make any point.  In these chapters, there is some discussion around the transition from foraging to agriculture but the river per se does not appear, except remotely and loosely. Much later, with the formation of kingdoms and the rise and fall of different dynasties warring in the ancient cities like Kanauj, the Ganga valley became a trophy to be fought over. These dynasties paid tribute to the river by making her a goddess, constructing temples with reinforcing iconography. Succeeding dynasties would destroy one set of icons or build still larger and grander temples.

Many Hindus came to see the act of committing suicide by drowning in the Ganga as a way to liberate themselves from the cycle of rebirth and of karma. The Mughal emperor Akbar put an end to the practice by sealing one of the spots. Sen records how different regimes have tried to lay their claims on the river. British engineers gained control over her waters by constructing canals for the purposes of irrigation, and by claiming greater access to the Indian territory for trade and commerce. The Indian Government has been doing the same with the construction of two dams that in fact pose a great risk of flooding the area around the river.

Sen frames the history of the river in terms of a paradox.

Ganga: The Many Pasts of a River, Sudipta Sen (Penguin Viking India, Jan 2019; Yale University Press, December 2018)
Ganga: The Many Pasts of a River, Sudipta Sen (Penguin Viking India, Jan 2019; Yale University Press, December 2018)

What is however most likely to stay with readers is Sen’s discussion of the river’s contemporary condition, suffocated by dams, overcrowded and polluted. In closing his book with this discussion of pollution, Sen frames the history of the river in terms of a paradox: the context of the descent of the river is that of purity and sacredness, while the concerns of today revolve around its contamination. His own writing is further framed by another paradox: Sen begins with the idea of miraculous healing powers of the waters of the Ganga and goes on to explain them from the lens of scientific investigation around the bactericidal properties of its water. For instance, he points out that the annual Kumbh mela on the banks of the river attended by the millions has rarely caused any epidemic. But, at the end of the book, in his discussion of the polluted waters of the Ganga, he points towards the dangers of a pandemic in the same annual fair.

There is another, related paradox: rivers are symbols of civilization, of life, but the Ganga remarkably remains “a comfort for the dying” an example of how a river “can become synonymous with the threshold of the afterlife, integral to the continuum between the worlds of the living and the dead.”

Indian readers, meanwhile, at least those contemptuous of the ways in which everything about Indianness is increasingly being equated with Hindu-ness, might feel uncomfortable with Nehru’s conflation of the story (and thus, history) of India with that of the Ganga. Sen makes a similar sweeping claim:


The Ganga is also a river incarnate, indispensable to thinking about the history and culture of the Indian subcontinent. In this sense it is not only a natural entity outside the frame of ordinary human experience but also a reflexive extension of something akin to a uniquely Indian consciousness.


Sen writes that his book traverses three domains—myths, history, and ecology. The “pasts” in the title notwithstanding, Ganga is not so much a history as it is an overlapping of myths and topical ecological concerns around the river.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.