The Ganges River, the subject of history professor Sudipta Sen’s engrossing and challenging new book Ganges: The Many Pasts of an Indian River, flows over 1,500 miles in its courses, from the foothills of the Himalayas, through India and Bangladesh, into two big and many smaller incarnations of itself, and finally empties into the Bay of Bengal. At various points along its path and at various times in its long history, the river has touched on dozens of important cities like Kolkata, Allahabad, and of course Varanasi, and it has formed a focus, both practical and spiritual, for millions of people. Indeed, like other rivers such as the Urubamba or the Indus, the Ganges is sacred: Hindus worship it in the embodiment of the goddess Ganga.
In other words, it’s a long and sprawling topic, fascinating on personal, historical, economic, historical, and religious levels. Mighty rivers tend to be, which allows them to exert the magnetic pull they do on writers of all kinds. Mark Twain wrote one of his most entertaining books, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," about his beloved Mississippi; Alex Shoumatoff’s amazing "The Rivers Amazon" appeared in 1986; the novelist Allan W. Eckert turned to history in order to tell the story of mighty Ohio in "That Dark and Bloody River" in 1995; and in 2008, Peter Ackroyd wrote one of his most popular books about the Thames River, "Thames: A Biography."
Such a connection, amplified a thousandfold, is at the heart of Sudipta Sen’s book, in which he sees the great River Ganges as both “text and context” for thousands of years of human faith and history. Sen seeks both to examine the “mythical and historic significance of the sacred river, worshipped in human form and fought over as a political icon for centuries by various regimes” and to articulate the “long-term convergence of climate and ecology and the cumulative consequences of human activity.”
As Victor Mallet detailed in his sobering 2017 book on the Ganges, "River of Life, River of Death," the subject of human activity and its consequences inevitably comes up whenever the Ganges is mentioned. The sacred river is infamously filthy. Sen notes that efforts to address this problem have always been stymied by a collection of factors: “corruption, population density, failed sewage plants, lack of public awareness, and red tape.”
For the bulk of Sen’s book, the environmental factors take a backseat to far more traditional events of panoramic histories: The Ganges has flowed through many kingdoms over many centuries, raising major settlements in places like Atranjikhera, Hastinapur, Champa, Kashi, Mathura, Noh, Ujjain, and dozens of others. And for all of those places, it has held religious significance as a focus for priests and pilgrims, Buddhist monks and acolytes, as well as a site of burials and immersions – a place that one ancient Sanskrit ode claimed “redeems the virtuous.”
Sen himself is aware that his approach necessarily telescopes vast swaths of history. The stories of the Gupta emperors who ruled the Ganges valley in the 5th century AD could fill a book three times the length of Sen’s 464 pages, for instance, as could the Mughal empire or the years of British rule in India. The Ganges, its sister rivers, and their vast ecosystem form a spine running down the length of that long and bloody history, wiping out villages during monsoon floods and embracing millions of faithful in holy rhythms more powerful than the edicts of any transient kingdom. Sen is uniformly excellent in evoking that parallel history unfolding along the Ganges. "Pilgrims over untold generations," he writes, "have had to parse out their meager resources, paying leprous beggars, innumerable fees and gratuities to guides, offerings to priests, and tolls to the various guardians of the road, rajas, zamindars, Mughal road keepers, and tax collectors of the East India Company."
Readers must expect the lacunae of such an approach, of course. Like the river itself, Sen’s book touches on dozens of key points and then flows on its way. The stunning ecology of the Ganges, for instance, its endangered present-day wildlife and wetlands, is only glancingly mentioned. And although Sen is deftly conversant in India’s great literary tradition, his book doesn’t throw prolonged focus on the renowned spiritual side of the Ganges; for that, readers will be better advised to turn to George Black’s 2018 book "On the Ganges" or wait for Aatish Taseer’s brilliant book, "The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges," which arrives in bookstores on March 5.
What readers will get here instead is a glittering current of impressions and eras, a book very much meeting Sen’s own description of the goddess Ganga herself: part human, part water.