From the hair of Shiva
Climbing mountains and bucking swift waters
in an amphibious jeep, two Americans
find high adventure along India's Ganges
and in her crowded cities and villages
SOMEWHERE in the old red-brick building a shutter banged. Overhead the swish of ceiling fans struggled against Calcutta's hot, humid air. No other sounds punctuated the stilliness as we sat there in the Foreigners Registration Office, waiting.
The Security Police inspector studied a folder containing our passports and our declarations that we had come to India to write about the plain of Ganges for NATIONAL GEOGRAFIC. With a brisk decision he snapped the folder shut.
"Remember", he said, "as you float your Tortuga past Benares, that you will be sailing by what may be the oldest inhabited city in the world." With that he smiled, handed us the documents and we were off on the most colorful adventure of our lives.
Tortuga II was our amphibious jeep, bought from a World war II surplus spot. We had fitted her out with a sink, alcohol stove, bunks, storage space, and even a seat for Dinah, our German shepherd. Drive shafts to the four wheels and propeller at the rear ran through rubber-sealed hholes in Tortuga's steel hull. There was a rudder connected to the steering wheel.
In a similar craft, four years before, we had bounced and sloshed the most tortuous part the 20,000-mile south of Arctic Circle, to Tierra del Fuego.* To make the trip, I had given up a job as an electrical engineer and Helen one as a draftsman.
* An account of the Scheider's Alaska-to-Tierra del Feugo journey,
20,000 Miles South (Doubleday), was published in 1957.
Ganges Holds Key to India's Past
Now in Tortuga II we planned to travel the plain of the Ganges, vast sweep of land and sacred river that is the heart of India's life, history, and highways, carrying us to venerable cities and princely palaces. Sometimes she would serve as our campsite in the countryside, where the only wealth was in the stars. And sometimes her wheeled hull would ride the brown breast of the stately river as we slipped by the swarming, fecund life on the banks.
The story of Ganges and the land it drains, as Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru once said, "is the story of India's civilization and culture, of the rise and fall empires, of great and proud cities, of the adventure of man the quest of the mind..."
First we needed some information on the Ganges and its most westerly outlet, the Hooghly, which flows past of Calcutta. So we called on Capt. W. B. Killick, of the River steam Navigation Company, a genial Briton reputed to know more about the Ganges and its eccentricities than anyone else in India.
The Captain was a stocky individual with quick eyes and a trace of Bristol salt. "Aye," he said, "I know a bit about the Ganges. I've had 30 years on it. What would ye like to know ?"
Briefly we told how we hoped to travel along the river from its source to its mouth.
"Which mouth ?" asked Captain Killick. "There are dozens of mouths to the Ganges, though the Hindus believe that the true outlet is the Hooghly. But ye must have have respect for that river, lad. It's broken the back of many a ship. There was a Japanese vessel here not so long ago that went hard aground. A week later only the masts were visible. And the following week, nothing. The currents dug her grave in 70 feet of mud. And we've never seen. But why don't ye come with me take a look ?"
We had heard about the wall of water that races upstream in such rivers as the Hooghly, created when the capital of the channel is overtaxed by the volume of the incoming tide. But Tortuga was ready for our journey; so we left Captain Killick with a promise we'd take up his invitation on our return.
The Grand Trunk Road that led us from Calcutta on our quest for the source of the Ganges was a narrow, rippling thread of asphalt. This same road, had given up a job as an electrical engineer and Helen one as a draftsman.
* An account of the Scheider's Alaska-to-where bullock carts now clattered, had known the marching cadence of Britsh Tommies and the retinues of British governors general. The mile upon mile of trees that arched overhead and the mango grove where nightly we camped had shaded the mighty Mogul armies of Akbar, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb.
Before that the noble Asoka had sent his missionaries over this same route to spread the brotherhood of Buddhism. And long, long before that, nomads from beyond the Hindu Kush had spread over the plain of Ganges, leaving a heritage of Aryan gods and a physiognomy that makes people of north India more Caucasian than Asiatic.
Where legions of armored war elephants once thundered over the tablelike plains, uninhabited Sikh drivers now pilot their diesel pachyderms, defying everything in front of them - except the sacred cows that plod unconcernedly along the highway.
Helen and I had smiled in Calcutta when brakes screeched and buses swerved and street cars ground to a halt as some cow ambled nonchalantly along Chowringhee, crossing with complete safety where but moments before pedestrians had gembled with their lives. But now, faced with thousands of miles of driving among the two hundred million of India's cattle - one for every two Indians - we didn't think it was so funny.
However, we soon learned the phycology of the road:that you could pass safely in front of a cow, but that a water buffalo must be passed to the rear; that a pedestrian will jump at the sound of your horn, but not until you've almost run him down; that buses will politely move aside, but that trucks will move for no one, not even each other.
As we sped northwestward toward Hardwar, there was a sameness that fused the days, a sameness of delightfully warm winter afternoons and bracingly chill evenings, a sameness of flat, yet undulating country. The villages were never more than a few miles apart, we felt that their bucoic beauty could have changed little in the five thousandor more years of India's known history.
Worshipers Called by Conch-shell Horns
Muted, the call of conch-shell horns filtered through the trees as the village priests summoned the people to worship. Sometimes we could see, against the red sunlight, sariclad woen sprinkling flowers and water over the lingas, the stone symbols that represent the god of Siva to Hindus. Then we could sleep. At dawn the same conch shells, medleyed with creaking well pulleys and the sonorous, deep-toned cowbells, would drift over the plains to awaken us.
Hardwar, at the foot of the Himalayas and a thousand road miles from Calcutta, is a city of priests, catering to the piligrims who each year trek to the source of the Ganges. There we were directed a little a little farther up the road to Rishkesh, when the Ganges spills out onto the plain from its rocky gorge.
At Rishkesh the office the Forestry Service was of perched on a hill overlooking the green water of Ganges. It seemed out of place in a town dominated by monasteries and with shaven-headed priests walking walking about in their saffron robes.
The Forestry Service officer welcomed us cordially and began briefing us before a large map on his wall. In the carefull, pausing inflection common to English-speaking Indians, he said:
"Actually, several rivers make up the Ganges. Two ofthem join at Devapryog, about 30 miles from here. But I think the place you want is the mountain peak near Gangotri, where glaciers form the highest source of Ganges waters. However, I'm afraid you're a bit early for that. The mountain's elevetion is more than 20,000 feet, and the passes are blocked with snow. Even in summer you would have to go on foot for seven days to reach it. But I know a spot where you might have a long-distance look."
He walked to the map and sketched in a road. "It's nearly a day's drive to Kanatal - not an easy drive, either. And even after you get there, Gangotri peak probably will be clouded over."
From Rishikesh the Kantal road veered into the Himalayas, a twisting tunnel through tall, gaunt trees where langur monkeys swayed from the branches, their fur like tarnished silver in the sun. As we climbed, the country changed and the road snaked along the faces of precipices with thousands of feet of nothing below.
Ten miles before Kanatal we left the main road and continued over a dirt trail, muddy and slippery from a recent snowfall. Slides partially obstructed the way, and we edged close to the sheer drops to get by. The road ended at Kanatal, nothing but a lonely, prinecrested ridge projecting from the screen of clouds that obscured Gangotri.
It was too late to return that day, so we parked Tortuga in the shelter of a wind-contorted pine. The altimeter indicated nearly 9,000 feet; as the sun set, the air grew bitter and the jeep rocked in the wind. Chilled, we heated some soup. When its warming effects wore off, we hunched in our bunks. But even that was no barrier tthe penetrating cold, and we spent the rest of night crouched in the seats, fully clothed and swathed in blankets, with a pot of coffee on the stove and the engine runing to keep ot from freezing.
I must have dozed, for I remember being awakened by Helen's excited cry. The clouds were gone. In the pale light of dawn we saw an unbroken chain of dazziling Himalaya. They stretched to either side as far as we could see, sharp and clear, as if cut from paper and pasted against the brightening sky. There, just beginning to know the rosy tint of sunlight, was the birthplace of our river (page 448).
Gange Flows From the Hair of Siva
An ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana, tells show the Ganges came to earth. The goddes Ganga was ordered down to redeem the souls of a group of condemmed princes. But the gold feared the destruction to earth that her descent would cause, so Siva, one of the Hindu trinity, offered to break her fall. He caught her in matted lockes and allowed her to seep out slowly.
The ashes of the princes were washed by the waters of Ganga, and their souls ascended to heaven. Thus it is said that those who bathe in the holy waters of Ganges wil be endowed with virtue and spritual strength.
This story is sung al over India, and any child will tell you that the Ganges flows from the hair of Siva.
For untold centuries the Ganges has been holy to bathe in it, and for those unable to make the pilgrimage, its water is bottled and carried home. It keeps for years without stagnation - so the story goes - and a single drop on the tongue or eyelids of a dying man is believed to cleanse him of sin.
Sacred Water Must Not Touch Ground
When we returned to Hardwar, Helen and I watched these bottles being filled; some were no larger than a thimble. They were ladled full by people who had come on foot from all over India, carrying the ahes of departed members of their families.