Hindu scriptures describe a special place of the gods on the sacred Ganges River, a place that the god Shiva chose as his headquarters upon descending from the heights of the Himalayas. It was called Kashi ("City of Light") about 3,000 years ago, then Banaras for many years and, today, it's the city of Varanasi. Dying in Varanasi and having one's ashes scattered in the river is said to promise deliverance from the cycle of rebirths. For Hindus, washing their sins away in the holy river and drinking its waters are seen as great acts of deliverance.
Before sunrise, a long line of people pushes its way through the narrow, twisted streets. The scene is straight out of a Fellini film: There are grotesquely overweight women draped in bright-red muslin, naked beggars with close-cropped hair and bodies covered with white ash, bald sadhus carrying giant, ochre-colored umbrellas made of dried palm fronds, shy little salesgirls with bowls of coconut pieces, vermilion powder and hibiscus flowers, and cursing rickshaw drivers dodging sacred cows. They are all making their way down to the ghats, or steps leading down to the river, to participate in ritual bathing and to pray. "I am the promise and the memory, I am the silence about all secrets of the world," the faithful murmur.
There is an indefinable smell in the air, a mixture of coriander, goat droppings and incense -- and the sweet smell of human flesh. It is still the cremation period, especially at Manikarnika Ghat. Only a few hundred meters separate the steps from the area where men, women and children are taking their morning baths and even cleaning their teeth in the Ganges. Swollen animal corpses, as well as human body parts, often float by in the current within view of the pilgrims. The cremations must be done quickly, and not everyone abides by the rule that only ashes can be thrown into the water. But worst of all, businesses and households pollute the river with untreated sewage, pesticides and excrement.
The Ganges is also a goddess for Veer Bhadra Mishra. The silver-haired 73-year-old is a devout Hindu, a pre-eminent representative of his religion. He inherited the title "mahant" ("spiritual leader") from his father, and he has been the head of the Sankat Mochan Temple since he was 14. But Mishra is also a scientist. He specializes in hydraulic engineering and teaches at Banaras Hindu University.
Given his dual roles -- the man of faith who believes in the healing powers of the Ganges, and the man of science who knows that sewage can spread disease -- it seems almost inevitable that he would have a split personality. But he is able to keep the two apart. "It's nonsense to ascribe some sort of self-purification powers to the river, as some Hindus do. We have readings that clearly demonstrate that the Ganges is criminally polluted and full of dangerous pathogens," Mishra says angrily. "That's why I have made it my life's work to turn the Ganges into a clean river."
Mishra founded the Sankat Mochan Foundation, a non-governmental organization devoted to cleaning the Ganges, in 1982. The charismatic scientist traveled through Europe and the United States, where he found many supporters. The United Nations honored him with an environmental prize, and Time named him a "Hero of the Planet." When former US President Bill Clinton visited India, he asked to be seated next to Mishra at a banquet. "Indian bureaucracy has always ensured that all progress occurred at a snail's pace," Mishra says.