Like the soul of the land
The river is like that
A stripe of water
The river is the sand, the gravel,
The villages in the floodplain
It’s all river
Once we reached the floodplain, the scenery remained consistent for days at a time, the flatlands stretching beyond the horizon into the imagination. The river tumbles some 4,000 vertical meters in 300 kilometers from Gangotri to Haridwar, then it is a 350 meter drop from Haridwar to the sea over 2,200 kilometers.
The most exciting land features through this pancake during the first weeks on the flatwater were the riverbanks. As the Ganga wanders many kilometers across the plain every year, it carves into the banks. The flow and depth of the water is greatest along the outside of the bends, so we were naturally inclined to follow the same path. Along certain sections of the bank, one finds sand eroded in magnificent ways, forming miniature Bryce Canyon hoodoos, cracks and ridges that tumble with the breeze.
Certain stretches where the sand is loamy, the erosion happens less gracefully. As the river eats away at the bank below waterline, large sections slowly succumb to the pull of gravity. When they can no longer keep hold, massive chunks plunge into the river, sounding like a sumo wrestler doing a cannonball from the 10 meter platform and sending out big waves into the flow. Many of us were nearly pummeled by these hunks of earth as we paddled beneath them. On nights when we camped close to the bank, on waking up we found the river closer to our tents by a substantial margin.
The sand also created exciting features in the water. The Ganges is known as one of the most sedimented rivers in the world. At many points it is kilometers wide, but it holds less water than the imagination lets on. Often the river is just one maybe two meters deep over the sandy bottom, and as the sand moves from the mountains to the plains to the sea it forms waves. These waves build like ripples on a sand dune until they can no longer support the burden of the sand against the current, then they migrate. As the sand moves it forms a void at the bottom of the river, and on the surface, one sees the water over that void drop. A strong whirling current quickly forms around that space and the surface of the river boils. The sand moves this way as part of the river, holding a tremendous load of water itself and offering passage for the river’s waters to seep into the aquifers below the surface.
Back above waterline, where the riverbank cliffs are more stable, little birds, bee eaters, dig burrows into the sandy faces, feeding on the swarms of flies, bees, and other insects around the river. At times we found cities of bee eaters–flocks in the thousands–and they flew around us in frenzied flight, like schools of fish swimming in air.
Out of these swarms one would see a flash of black and white, like a dalmation with wings. At first the sight sent chills through my forearms it was so awesome. A kingfisher, pure white with black speckles hovered over the river, watching the fish below, invisible to me. Then it dove, straight, never wavering into the water, rising again in a split second, gobbling on its catch. I saw more kingfishers in two days than I had seen all my life.
When the river braids and wanders about the planes, innumerable sand islands form in the flow. On these islands, particularly the small ones, migratory birds and birds of prey gather when they are not hunting. Cranes flying south from Siberia awkwardly danced in stilted polkas on the banks, egrets and herons did the same. Some skittish sand birds that I did not identify zipped around digging for grubs and worms. Black kites kept watch for fish and rodents, closely flanked by tawny eagles.
As we got lower on the river, we reached a number of sedimentary waves in the earth, rising some 30 or 40 feet above the river, deposits from floods over thousands of years pushed up and shaped by the wind and the monsoons. These sand cliffs burst with life. Terrapins and snakes enjoy the afternoon shade at waterline. Parakeets, parrots, and kingfisher flash their bright colors in the banyan trees, vines, and bushes that hold onto the sandy faces with all they can muster, bee eaters and pigeons occupy caverns that dot the escarpment.
Along these cliffs, we saw at least 15 eurasian eagle owls who look just like great horned owls. They swooped out of the trees as we paddled through, looking at us with their googly eyes. Here owls could gain some elevation above the river, a rare occurrence in the floodplain, and from there they could hunt the bounties of smaller creatures all about.
Perhaps the most exciting wildlife we saw was in the water. We spotted tens of river dolphins, a species that shows tremendous resilience to survive the Ganges’ water. These dolphins are brown in color. They have elongated snouts, and where their oceangoing kin have a large dorsal fin, these river dolphins have just a murmur on their backs. They are also nearly blind, which is no surprise considering one can barely see the end of their paddle blade in the turbid water. They travel with echolocation and feed on mostly fish.
Bursting up from the water, dolphins always give a feeling of delight as they emerge from the river, and after a few days seeing them, it was taken for granted that a shout of joy meant another dolphin sighting.
All this wildlife is an astonishing reminder of how many creatures we share the river with. Although we didn’t see them, we were told that elephants and tigers live in the jungles along foothills where the river leaves the mountains.
The name “River of Life,” although apt, is surely an understatement, because with all the life involved with the river, there is plenty of death. The river truly shows its essence as thousands of Hindus come everyday to its banks to cremate their loved ones and send them into the care of the goddess Ganga.
Funeral ghats, where people go to burn their deceased relations on huge wooden pyres can be seen all along the river. At first I expected to be haunted by this, but after many days bearing witness to funeral after funeral, and even after seeing unburned human remains in the river, I felt somehow at ease and even impressed with this way of honoring life. In this cycle people acknowledge both the beauty and nature of the river and the final remains of people who have had a chance at life, releasing them to the elements. I have to admit that when I die, being burned in an epic fire and set afloat a river that begins in the ice of the Himalaya and ends in the Sundarban mangrove forests… it doesn’t sound bad at all.
It belongs to noone
Yet to everyone
It gives a place
No wonder here
They call it Ma Ganga