Chasing Rivers, Part 2: The Ganges | Nat Geo Live

( intro music ) ( Aarti chanting ) Pete McBride:Mother Ganges.( Aarti chanting ) Pete McBride:This river
supports 400 million people.
The river is believed to have
curative powers,
it can wash you of your sins,
bring you closer to God,
but of course,
there’s a great paradox.
They don’t think
they can actually hurt it,
because it is their God.They said ‘The river is sick
but it is still God’.
( Aarti chanting ) ( applause ) Pete McBride: I wonder
what would happen if we took a river
that was actually believed to be sacred. It could… it was actually believed
to be a goddess or part of a living entity
that was part of religion.The Ganges River
is 1550 miles.
It supports 400 million peopleand is believed to be
sacred by one billion Hindus.
So, we decided
to follow the river,
start all the way at the top,
as far as we could go.
This is basically
the epicenter,
21,000 foot Shivling peak,
which is believed to be
the center of universe
in the Hindu world,
where Lord Shiva came down
and slowed the river
from the heavens to the Earth
through the locks of his hair.
We decided
to go past Shivling,
which is in the back.All the way to the top of
Gangotri glacier,
into the Garhwal region
of the Himalaya,
up near the China and
Pakistani border.
We weren’t even allowed
to bring satellite phones, they were afraid they are using them
for terrorism activity. So, three of us came up to
this very remote region in an attempt to climb
this peak…right there, Chaukhamba IV.Never climbed before,
22,500 feet high.
This is a little out of
my climbing range
to be honest.
( laughter )Well these two guys,Jake Norton, he found
Mallory’s body on Everest.
Dave Morton, he has guided
all seven summits.
Combined they’ve stoodon the top of Mount Everest
nine times.
Seemed like
pretty good company.
I was actually a little nervous,
they were just going to drag me into anything. And we got up to the top,18,000 feet
of the Gangotri glacier
and we were getting prepared
to climb this unclimbed peak.
We were gonna do
water samples up at the top
and… an unpredictable
monsoon pattern rolled in.
Jake could detect it hours
before it happened. ‘What are you talking about?
The weather is great.’ Sure enough this weather
started rolling in.At 4 pm, it started snowing.It snowed three feet
in 12 hours.
Did count 36 avalanchescounting through the night
a mix between thunder,
artillery, distant drones, and someone banging a drum
over my head. So, we packed up our tents. We had to leave much of
our stuff and basically fled. Hiking out with
no trail down the glacier, with heavy packs,
is challenging, especially when you have to
fight it through three feet.In retrospect,
we left our ropes,
which maybe wasn’t
the smartest thing
as we were crossing
a lot of crevasses.
But we were challenged,
it was either tent or ropes.
‘What are we gonna do here?’So, we came down
and negotiated safely
through some of these
and made it back to the safety
of this little tiny ashram,
this place where a guy named
Silent Baba lives.
It is at 14,000 feet.Silent Baba is a really
interesting guy.
Many believe that
further up the Ganges you go,
it is more sacred.The river is believed to have
curative powers, it can wash you of your sins, they can– it can bring you
closer to God. Well, Silent Baba decided, he is going to go all the way
to the top and live up there, at 14,000 feet
and in addition to prove that
he is that devoted, he is not going to speak
anymore. So, he doesn’t talk.And if you look at his
front yard,
basically below Shivling,
you can see the wild ibex
leaping about
and jumping across.
This is one of the spots
that I took a water sample.
I will show you
some of the water sample data
as we move downstream.So, unfortunately these guysare big… sponsored,
Eddie Bauer athletes.
They were bummed
we didn’t climb,
I was somewhat
secretly relieved
that I didn’t have to go
up that mountain.
( laughter )And we found…
negotiated our way
back down the Gangotri glacier,it took us four days.And to give you an idea of how powerful
this Ganges River is…There was a glacial outburstfrom another one of its
that literally tore through
this area called Uttarkashi
and you can see
how populated it is
once you descend out of
the Upper Garhwal region.
It killed 6000 people.And then once you leavethe very upper highlands
of the Ganges
you come down to this
remarkable dam, the Tehri Dam.
The largest dam in Asia.
Very controversial!
Mostly controversial because
if this river is God
and you dam a river
that is God, you dam God. What becomes of God,
is it still sacred? So many ask that
on a spiritual level. It also submerged 40 villages
and displaced 100,000 people. But it does produce 200,000 megawatts of electricity which is very important in… in a developing nation,
of course.Just downstream is Devprayag,
a very spiritual place.
Officially on the map,this is where the Ganges
The river on the left
is the Bhagirathi,
that’s the source river,
that’s the river we went up.
The river on the right
is the Alaknanda.
You can see
the difference between
what a dam does
and what a dam doesn’t do.
On the right
is the natural hue,
the sediment carrying
loads, etc.
That emerald green again,
clear water coming down
on the left
because of the dam.
When you get below Devprayag,down into some of
the more populated foothills,
this is around
Rishikesh and Haridwar.
You start to see the reallove and adornment
of the river.
This is called Aarti,it’s a daily ritual
in the Hindu culture
where they come to do
offerings and sing songs
and offer flame.Flame which equals light,
which equals humility
in front of your gods.And they basically come out
every single day at 5 o’clock
and give this river
a group hug.
And it’s beautiful.
It’s really beautiful.
But of course,
there’s a great paradox.
They don’t think
they can actually hurt it,
because it is a God.Well, they may do offerings
and are unaware that they are putting plastic
in the river, that’s bad. So, the people that adore it
are also partially killing it. Now, just to give you a flavor, some sights and
sounds of Aarti, I’m going to play you
a short video. ( Aarti chanting ) ( Aarti chanting ) ( Aarti chanting ) I’m gonna keep moving
you downstream, try to get us
to the end of this river…Remarkable river
when you get up in the air.
But to give you an idea
how hard that is in India,
helicopters and aircrafts are
used for the military only.
This took me
two years to get this flight.
But you are able to see
from the air,
kind of the beauty,
the marvel of the Himalaya
and as this river descends,
and through the terraced
and populated areas.I mean to think this river
supports 400 million people.
And we wanted to do
something different too. We didn’t–
I wanted to document it and try to raise awareness,
but I also wanted to… to do some testing to prove
‘Is this– people claim it’s the most contaminated
river in the world and what is this situation with
this water. How bad is it?’So, we brought some
water testing devices.
This is actually
in front of Agra,
the Taj– in Agra
in front of the Taj Mahal.
Many people…maybe some of you have been
to the Taj Mahal,
but nobody goes out here.This is the most putrid riverI’ve ever stepped my foot
in my life.
I mean, it was garbage
and crap everywhere
and there was a half-eaten
dead monkey floating by me.
Nasty, nasty water. And, they do say that
the Gangajal, the Ganges water is powerful,
it is curative, there is something
special about it. I’m like ‘Really?
We need to figure this out’. As early as 1896, the British were actually
putting cholera bacteria into
Ganges water and it was dying. So, the Ganges had
a power to it, a curative power that was in fact… unusual.But here in the Yamuna River,
this is what our data showed.
This is the oxygen,
dissolved oxygen content.
If you are above 8, on a river
with dissolved oxygen,
which all the species and
plant and flora need,
you’re a healthy river.Well, right there at Yamuna
in front of Agra, it was zero.
Basically, a dead river,
and just to give you an idea
of what happens
on the inverse,
we tested for 21 heavy metals,this was one of the,
just the higher ranges.
The yellow line
is the safety line
for human interactions,
of course, I was standing
knee deep in the river
that is just laden with zinc,
just one of the many
heavy metals it was high.
So, not a healthy river,
but what’s interesting isthe oxygen level came back,you saw that dip,
it came back up.
So, somehow this river,on some level
is restoring itself.
We jump back over to Kanpur,where you see people,
of course, treating the river
much like a laundromat.Nobody was swimming here
in Kanpur,
they said ”The river is sick,
but it is still God’.
First signs of fishing we saw.
This is in part
because we started coming
into the Muslim religion
that is mixed
in the section of Ganges here.
The Hindu religion,they are all vegetarian
and won’t fish or allow it.
but in this area
we saw some fishing.
And then we also wanted to see
some of the industry.
Kanpur was basically built
as a textile town,
by the British.Great access
because of the Ganges river.
So this is a leather tannery.There are 400
running tanneries in Kanpur
and they produce 8%
of the world’s leather supply.
Much of us are probably
wearing their leather.
It goes to our fine shoes.Most of it it’s buffalo,
some cow. Yes, the cow and buffalo
are sacred, but if you are not Hindu,
you can work in this industry.When you are in the tannery,this is one of the
cleaner ones.
They are actually following
They have to recycle
the water now…
by government.70 tanneries were
shuttered down
by the government, but it is
one of the most toxic places
I’ve ever been in my life.This was like walking into
a bottle of ammonia.
My nose almost exploded
when I walked in here.
I mean,
they are basically bathing
in this heavy metal
called chromium,
which is a very toxic,
very nasty, uh, heavy metal. It creates lung cancer,
liver failure, kidney damage
premature dementia. And in 2013,
they did a study… that they are basically
pumping out 79 million gallons of contaminated water
into the Ganges around Kanpur. And they only have a capacity
to process 45 million gallons, so only half of the water
is getting cleaned.This is a worker
outside of a tannery
trying to bathe himself off
and he is kneeling on
basically a pancake of
dried chromium.
Outside, the kids are playing
a gleeful game of cricket,
the national sport,and they are playing
on a field of
chromium laden leather scraps.( sound of water pumps
and motors ) ( sound of industrial dryer ) ( children shouting ) ( sound of flowing water ) ( sound of machines ) Pete McBride: It makes me
think about my leather shoes in a whole new way.Like I said we tested
21 heavy metals,
I just want to give you
an idea what it’s like in Kanpur
where the tanneries are,
that’s chromium.
It spikes right off the roofeven with
all the new recycling
that the government
is trying to do.
We move downstream,
Indian traffic jam.
Very typical.
India is a spectacular place.
It is so rich in humanity.Practicality sometimesand functionality,
doesn’t always work,
but it is overcome with
it’s really wonderful.We moved into Varanasi.It is one of the oldest
inhabited cities in the world.
People have been living here
for 5000 years.
Again, one of these
Aarti ceremonies.
Varanasi is considered sacred,they perform Aarti
in sacred cities.
Again fire equals
light equals humility,
people coming from the banks
to watch it.
And then just downstream,
you can come here to pray
and round the corner,
people come to die.
All this work
and a bunch of essays I wrote
were published on
the National Geographic magazine
‘Proof’ blog recently.I’m just going to read you
the opening sentence
of the blog that went
with the Varanasi story.
“When you step off
a wooden boat
onto the banks
of the burning ghat
in the oldest of India’s citiesand you weave through a maze
of funeral pyres hissing,
steaming and
spitting orange embers
into the inky nightand you feel
the metronome clang of bells
vibrating inside your chest
and a wave of furnace-like heat
consuming everything
in its reach,
you realize
how removed you truly are
from the ritual of death.”That was the most
run-on sentence I’ve ever written in my life,
but I liked it. ( laughter ) That was in the evening
in the burning ghat.This is in the morning,
back here
at 4:30 in the morning.Very challenging to get access.You are not supposed to
photograph here.
It took me three days
to get access.
Very powerful place to be,
you see…
the goats eating flowers,
the dogs,
that’s a femur bone.These are all the ashes and
bodies that have been burned.
And the belief is that if… you are burned
on the bank of the Ganges, and in Varanasi specifically,
and your ashes are throwninto the Ganges river,which you are seeing
right here that is human ash,
that you will achieve
a level of Moksha
in the Hindu religion.And Moksha means,
you will break
the cycle of
birth and rebirth.
You’ll not come back
into this world,
you’ll not come back
as a cricket or cow or
another human, whatever.You will actually
go to heaven.
So, many people actually
will come to die in Varanasi, it is that important to them
to reach heaven this way. And one challenge though,
of course is burning all these bodies uses
a tremendous amount of wood. It can take 1100 pounds of
logs to burn one large body. 50-60 million trees from the Himalaya
are getting cut down. You see them getting barged up
to the burning ghat here, very complicated situation.And of course this is
a very common sight
when you get further
This is just 200 yards
from the Ganges,
this is a very typical drainage.Of course,
it stems much in part from ‘the Ganges is God’. I mean, the Ganges is
going to clean itself. That isn’t a big deal
if you pollute God. God is all-powerful. God is however we perceive it.We moved further downstream
all the way to Patna,
a place few people go.And of course, we left the
crazy monsoon storm
with three feet at the top
and we entered into a cyclone.
We figured, what the hell,we’ve gotta make it
to the end though.
It was raining so hard,
my eyelids were peeling back.
I felt like I had a
sand blaster on my face.
It didn’t stop these guys.These guys are out
celebrating at full tilt
a festival called Durga Puja,good over evil,
and they build big,
big statues of
their deities and
they bring them down
and of course,
they offer them to Ma Ganga,
mother Ganges.
Offer these offerings
to the God.
Of course,
the river is bigger now. It has got a bigger current,
it is wider. But all of these offerings
just sort of float and collect on the banks. And many of them have
led paint and plastic, and what not. They are not
all biodegradable.Further downstream,
we moved across
into Bengal, the last state
on the Ganges.
Durga Puja continued and raged
through the night here.
All the villagers were
building their statues and
coming and giving offering,
putting ghee on the mouths and
then carrying them,
and then
throwing them in the Ganges
as a great offering.
In Calcutta,
on the southern edge,
in the Indian side of the delta,we’ve now come
about 1500 miles.
This is one of the
main shipping lanes
for Calcutta and a very
typical scene, you have
somebody praying,
somebody drinking water,
somebody washing their hair,somebody collecting
sacred Gangajal,
they are going to bring back
to their village.
Back to our water data, this whole concept of
the river coming back to life is interesting because there’s a thing… they are
calling it the X-factor. They believe it is related to
bacteriophages, that… if all these people come
into the river everyday, and they are treating it
like a bathroom, why are they not
getting sicker? Well, the oxygen level
does return and the oxygen
actually helps to… to support
these bacteriophages, which eat bacteria. And that’s one theory why these epidemics, cholera
epidemics haven’t occurred with one million people coming for certain festivals
and what not. So, there is some element of
the curative power to this river. And after six weeks, travelling 1550 miles,
roughly three vertical miles, in theory,
we were free of sin because, believe me, I did wade, walk, swim, fall in the Ganges
many times on this trip. Yes, I was free of sin
and I was free of 35 pounds. I lost a bit of weight. It is a good
weight loss program.We reached the Bay of Bengal,it’s Sagar Island
where you can come,
give an offering to Ma Ganga,to the river,to this pack of stray dogs,
that all are related.
( laughter )So, there is the Ganges,just to give you
a little overlay of
the locations
and the water testing.
This is the
heavy metal testing.
You see some heavy spikes
on the Yamuna River,
which is basically
flushing out
New Delhi and all the
industry there.
Agra, of course,
is the lower part of that.
So, it somehow digests a lot
of that heavy metal input
and puts it at bay
to a degree,
but it’s not gonna last.Now, the new Prime Minster
of India, Modi, has actually budgeted,
and this is very new,
it is very recent, $340 million to clean up
the Ganges. So, there is some hope. There are people listening
and paying attention.This was some of our
other testing.
Nitrates are very high
at the top of the river,
this is probably blowing
in from China,
from fertilizer.You can see the temperaturebasically steadily dropand this is oxygen,
the main one.
So you see the river
try to come back to life,
which is unusual,
but it slowly,
it turns into nearly a
dead river at the end.
But I want you
to remember not the river for its data
or its contamination, I want you to remember for
its sounds, so I have one more Indian video, it is
just a minute and half long. ( walking through snow ) ( sound of pouring tea ) ( sound of flowing water ) ( chanting ) ( music ) ( sound of flowing water ) So all the rivers in our–
all the water in our rivers and our ecosystems, our water
table is very limited. And no matter whether you
live in Washington D.C. or you live in Colorado,
where I do, or you live in India, I’d like to urge people
that I think all these rivers and all our
water systems should be sacred because they all are scarce. Thank you very much. ( applause ) ( outro music )

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