“Ganges: The Many Pasts of an Indian River,” by Sudipta Sen, Yale University Press, 2018, 464 pages, $30
The Ganges is one of the world’s great rivers, and India’s most sacred river. “Ganges: The Many Pasts of an Indian River,” by Sudipta Sen, is a study of the river.
The book is part history, part meditation, and part religious study. Sen looks at the history of the Ganges River basin and explores the river’s impact on India’s culture. He examines how three of the world’s major religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam — affected those living in the Ganges River basin, and were in turn affected by the Ganges.
The river emerges from the Himalayas gathering size and strength until it empties into a wide delta at the Bay of Bengal’s northern coast. The river is considered sacred; fed by other sacred rivers. Its waters are considered healing.
Ironically, despite today’s contamination, Sen reveals there may be rational basis for the belief. Trace chemicals from the river’s sources and a bacteria-eating virus inhabiting the river’s banks clean the water of harmful diseases — given enough time. Sailing-era British ships filled water casks from the Ganges because the water stayed drinkable longer.
Sen starts at the beginning and goes to the end. The book’s opening chapters start at the river’s sources and cover the ancient pre-history of the river. Subsequent chapters move downstream and later in history. The book concludes at the river’s mouth, during the opening years of the British Raj, ending in the late 19th century.
Sen reveals the central role the Ganges basin played in India’s history. Indian civilization grew among the fertile soils of Northern India’s plains through which the river and its tributaries flow. He catches the ebb and flow of the indigenous empires that grew there, and shows how they confronted outsiders.
Northern India was part of a greater Eurasian culture. It was located on caravan routes linking China with Europe. Trade always played an important part of life in the Ganges basin. Sen shows how this region confronted waves of would-be conquerors, from Alexandrian Greeks through sailing-era Europeans.
“Ganges” is a book which works on many levels, offering insight into the forces that shaped modern India.