The Age of Dissolution

by Bidisha Banerjee

Walking the Ganga river, from holy bacterial stews to crystalline glaciers: Shiva, eclipses, and the IPCC.

“The Age of Dissolution” was commissioned by Triple Canopy as part of its Immaterial Literature project area, supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts.

All photos AP/Reuters.


At the beginning of time, the great gods churned the ocean and found the nectar of immortality, only to have the demon-god Rahu steal it and gulp it down. The sun and moon gods tattled to Vishnu, who beheaded the demon; his body perished, but his head, having absorbed the nectar, had become immortal. Since then, whenever he can manage it, Rahu, the lord of petroleum mining, fertilizers, chemicals, stock markets, and destructive growth—that is to say, the lord of contemporary India—swallows the sun and the moon. But they always sail back out of his gaping throat and rearrange themselves in the sky.

At 6:24 a.m. on July 22, 2009, I stood with seventy thousand people hip-deep in the gray, gluey mud of the Ganga, swirling with ashes, flowers, sloughed-off sin, and fecal bacteria.1 Although the sun had stumbled into a stratus sky only an hour ago, the clouds gave way and starlight began to play on the opalescent tides. We battled a compulsion to stare straight into the cosmic misalignment; we mutely implored the sun to pass through Rahu’s mouth, throat, and neck once again. Varanasi’s monkeys had turned their backs to the sun as soon as the strangeness started, and the flight patterns of the city’s birds became as erratic as ruffled feathers. The total solar eclipse was a cosmological epic, the longest such eclipse in this century. The darkness revealed itself most fully to North Iwo Jima, an uninhabited island off the coast of Japan, where the eclipse lasted six minutes and thirty-eight seconds. Varanasi, where darkness lingered for three minutes and ten seconds, had cloudless skies and the best view in India. No eclipse will outlast this one until the year 2132.

1 In modern India, the river is known as Ganga, which rhymes with cowabunga. Hydrologists and foreigners still sometimes use the name by which the ancient Greeks knew the river: Ganges.
We gasped. God’s eye had morphed into a diamond ring. The national networks would obsessively replay this moment, like a cosmic DeBeers commercial.

At Tulsi Ghat, one of the city’s hundred stone-stepped entranceways into the river, more than a thousand of us pressed close, clapping and cheering with the rapidly darkening sun. Our quotidian star glows at 10,800 degrees Fahrenheit, but a total eclipse reveals the sun’s own atmosphere, the corona, white-hot at 3.6 million degrees and poised to slice vision out of an upturned eye. Some viewers wore cardboard 3-D glasses. One family peered through an X-ray of a child’s femur—deeply opaque, as long as the light didn’t pass through the white bone. Looking through my rectangle of welder’s glass, I wasn’t sure that I wouldn’t go blind. The afterimages return to me again and again, dim yolks; to this day, certain radiant surfaces (glinting buttons, a refrigerator’s bright white reflection, the liquid rays of sweat running down a cold plastic bottle) have the power to bring them back.

Bit by bit, the moon’s shadow slid over the sun, hooding its glow until only the thin corona encircled the erasure. Some call this sight God’s eye. “Sita Ram, Sita Ram,” I mouthed along with everyone else, hoping that the once-human deities would annihilate the rumblings of my belly, ritually empty except for a sneaked cup of predawn tea. In the few seconds before the moon extinguished the sun, a flash ate through a lunar valley. We gasped. God’s eye had morphed into a diamond ring. The national networks would obsessively replay this moment, like a cosmic DeBeers commercial.

That darkness reigned long enough for a boatman’s wordless song to propel his oars to the middle of the inky, glittering river. It was long enough for me to screw my eyes shut, clamp my nose against the fecal bacteria, and dip my head with everyone else’s under the warm water. I expected to be revolted, but I wasn’t. Hindus worship the filthy river as a goddess, and during my childhood in Kolkata, my great-grandmother and grandparents had regarded both feces and the gods with a singular affection—two parts awe, one part comedy. Nyar, nyar nyareshwari, tumi go ma parameshwari, my great-grandmother used to croon about a legendary queen’s impressive bowel movements: “Turd, turd, supreme darling turd, you, my mother, are the empress of all beings.” Head held under the dark water, I imagined unclamping my nose. With my right nostril I would breathe in the river’s might and muck, with my left breathe out the mantra vibrating up and down the currents: “Sita Ram, Sita Ram.”

When I came back up, the scene was playing backward—the boatman departing, the shadow sliding off the sun, the diamond ring iridescing. The horrific, seductive misalignment of the world, compressed into three minutes, could be—was being—reversed. Everyone was cheering and taking a ritual second dip. A few exulting men swam out toward the vast center of the river, their bare chests tiny and distant, as if bobbing out at sea. Even after the sun reemerged, I didn’t want to leave the water. The light was so powerful that it penetrated my retinas and reached into my gums. I had a scorched flavor in my mouth well into the evening.

The blind Gangetic dolphin, once profuse in the river’s waters, is hard to find these days, as are the Gangetic shark and crocodile, or gharial. The Asian elephants, tigers, lions, rhinoceroses, Indian antelope, sloth bears, and floricans, common three or four hundred years ago, have been driven from their habitats.

A VEDIC HYMN suggests that a land without the Ganga is like a sky without the sun. But the Vedas were composed during a more expansive time, when India was a loose collection of tribes and kingdoms isolated by frontiers. In the oldest hymns, the paramount river is the Saraswati, now a dry riverbed spanning western India and parts of Pakistan. As the Saraswati dried, the Vedic people moved east, to the fertile and sparsely populated Gangetic plain, where they started growing rice four thousand years ago; much of the Saraswati’s sacred imagery was transferred to the Ganga, which has the most densely populated river basin in the world. In India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, one thousand people per square mile, 430 million people total, live in the Gangetic basin. The river irrigates 47 percent of India’s farmland: rice, lentils, sugarcane, mustard, jute. If the Ganga were to falter, India’s food supply would dwindle, and there would be nowhere eastward for the country’s one billion people to move.

The blind Gangetic dolphin, once profuse in the river’s waters, is hard to find these days, as are the Gangetic shark and crocodile, or gharial. The Asian elephants, tigers, lions, rhinoceroses, Indian antelope, sloth bears, and floricans, common three or four hundred years ago, have been driven from their habitats and hunted to a fraction of their former abundance. Meanwhile, India’s human population has expanded almost fourfold since independence in 1947. Higher temperatures and sea levels may prove to be threats on par with hunting and deforestation. India is up to two degrees warmer than it was one hundred years ago, and the country may need to bear an additional two to seven degrees by the end of the century. In 2001, NASA satellites showed that the Gangotri glacier, which supplies the Ganga’s headwaters and which has been receding since 1780, had begun melting at an unprecedented rate, its nineteen-mile length retreating half a mile since 1975. Glacial lakes in the western Indian Himalayas have been growing five hectares—more than ten football fields—per year. Outburst floods, which can be sixty times worse than conventional ones, are increasingly common downstream. In Uttarakhand, where Gangotri lies, 10 percent of the state’s glacial lakes are considered potentially hazardous.

Time and water are flowing faster. For millennia, most of the subcontinent’s rain has fallen within one hundred stormy hours during north India’s three-month monsoon. Each year, more of the rain falls during fewer hours. By the end of the century, thirty hours may account for more than half of the total rainfall. As peak rainfall becomes more intense, landslides—already an existential threat to thousands of mountain villages—will become more common. Monsoon crops, chief among them rice, will be alternately drowned and desiccated, and summer crops will die if more irrigation cannot be drawn from the limited water table.

On the afternoon of the eclipse in Varanasi, I’d walked until I found the dried-up river Varuna, which, along with the river Assi, gives Varanasi its name. Flowing until about 1998, Varuna is just a canal now, choked with plastic diapers, rotting vegetables, construction waste, and sewage sludge, attended by a small army of pigs and goats snuffling about in the mounds of garbage. Day laborer Chotu Kumar Bharti, a member of India’s Dalit (once called “untouchable”) caste who lives in a riverfront slum named Gangotri Bihar, joined me as I walked past the sewage. We discussed the eclipse. When I asked him what the Ganga might look like in 2132, he laughed. “On TV, wise people are saying that the world will end in 2012. Everything will be covered in water.”

In the Mahabharata, an epic poem about polyandry, fratricide, and nuclear-scale weapons, the sage Markandaya claims that, at the end of the age, “Rahu will swallow the sun unseasonably.”

It’s easy to scoff at “wise people” for misreading the Mayans, but climate science isn’t free from misreadings, either. While I was in India, rumors—now discredited—were flying that the mighty river might be gone within a generation. A 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had suggested that all Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035. As it turned out, the original source, a paper from 1991, had estimated that all nonpolar glaciers might disappear by 2350. This typographical confusion was not cleared up until January 2011, six months after my trip. Relying on the error, I baited my host in Varanasi, Veer Bhadra Mishra, a hydrological engineer and spiritual leader of the city’s second-holiest temple, by telling him that the river might dry up in thirty-five years if nothing was done to stanch the melting of glaciers. He remained skeptical, even though his concern for the Ganga is beyond question: He has spent much of the past three decades working to clean the river, starting a foundation that is hoping to use algae to eat the five hundred thousand gallons of raw municipal sewage dumped into the river each day. (Mishra often calls the river Gangaji, using the honorific reserved for eminent people and deities.) “You’re talking like a politician,” he told me, insisting that climate change was America’s problem. “And even if the glaciers melt, Gangaji is mostly rain-fed.”

Neither the supposed end-time vision of the Mayans nor the the climate-chaos auguries of the IPCC compare to the Hindu concept of Kaliyuga, the age of dissolution, which we currently inhabit. Some say this end time began in 3102 BCE, others say it cannot be dated. In the Mahabharata, an epic poem about polyandry, fratricide, and nuclear-scale weapons, the sage Markandaya claims that, at the end of the age, “Rahu will swallow the sun unseasonably.” Some Hindu astrologers believe that the end of Kaliyuga is nigh upon us, and anticipate a daylong eclipse and an unexpected monsoon that will herald a more virtuous age.

As I stood in the Ganga at Varanasi while Rahu swallowed the sun, the virtuous age felt far away. The swallowing was seasonable and lasted much less than a day; the monsoon, far from appearing unexpectedly, was late, stunting crops throughout the region. The auguries of the climate modelers seemed somewhat less hazy than those of the mythological sages, and yet just as difficult to imagine. As a social ecologist born at the mouth of the Ganga and trained in the United States, I felt an odd responsibility to imagine the river’s future as clearly as I could. I decided to follow the Ganga north, into the Himalayas, where the changes were occurring fastest. I thought the best way to start envisioning how the river might survive, or end, in the next 123 years would be to travel with the Ganga worshipers to Rishikesh and then to the mythically pure Gangotri glacier, where the goddess Ganga had entered the earth. What I found in the Himalayas would push me to go farther downstream over the next two years, and as I traveled the river from source to mouth, I began to wonder whether those like me, galvanized by the idea of the river drying up in our lifetimes, were starved for a kind of clarity that our information age, with all its uncertainties, cannot provide.

Pilgrimage Above Rishikesh

Bam! Bam! Bhole!” The words thud out as if involuntarily from deep within the chests of the thousands of pilgrims straining up the mountain path that leads toward the Temple of Blue-Throated Shiva. It’s ten at night and I’m sitting on a rock half a mile above the fast-running shadow of the Ganga and the New Age mecca of Rishikesh, where yoga retreats and backpacker hostels flank the site of the ashram where the Beatles meditated with the Maharishi. Varanasi is 530 miles downstream, and the glacial headwaters of the Ganga, the farthest point on this seasonal pilgrimage, are upstream another 150 miles.

Fifteen miles below Rishikesh lie the lights of Haridwar, where I’m staying and which I’m trying to return to before morning. The Ganga has been both trained and tamed there: The British constructed the first Ganga canal in Haridwar in 1855, diverting much of its strength toward irrigating the Doab, a twenty-three-thousand-square-mile strip of land between the Ganga and Yumuna rivers. Still, the Ganga moves forcefully enough that railings have been built on its banks, preventing swimmers from being swept away. In Haridwar, you can understand how the word Ganga, meaning “swift-goer,” came from the Sanskrit root gam, “to go.” The city is devoted to the river’s spiritual and hydroelectric might, and between the end of summer and the beginning of fall, during the monsoon, more than a million Indians make a pilgrimage to Haridwar. “It’s a hydrological engineer’s dream,” Mishra had told me in Varanasi. “So much water, such great slopes. And it’s the abode of the gods.” Pilgrims often stop off at the pond known as Brahma Kund, which is believed to contain the nectar of immortality secreted away from Rahu by the other deities.

Pilgrims have been coming to Haridwar for thousands of years. The seventh-century Chinese tourist Hiuen Tsang recorded what is still the city’s nickname: the Gateway to the Ganga. Though most tour buses stop at Haridwar’s temple, some pilgrims still walk twenty-six miles north to Rishikesh, then nine more to the Temple of Blue-Throated Shiva. Many of them are farmers, construction workers, or migrant laborers, and most are male. In their zeal, they sometimes overturn vehicles blocking the highways. They take their name, kavars, from the bamboo containers they sling from their shoulders on wooden poles, carrying Ganga water from Haridwar or Rishikesh to the temple of Shiva to thank him for saving the world not once, but twice.

At the beginning of everything, the first story goes, the gods and the demons heard that the nectar of immortality was concealed in the ocean. Only by cooperating would they be able to find it. So they stuck Mount Meru (then the center of the universe) into the ocean and wrapped the King of the Serpents around it. The gods grabbed the serpent-king’s head, and the demons his tail; each side shook its end of the serpent, and together they churned the waves for a thousand years. Finally, they found not just the nectar of immortality but also its obverse—a poison so deadly that it would destroy the world, all the gods included. No one knew what to do with it, so Shiva swilled it, only to have it lodge in his throat, which turned a blazing blue. Shiva must continuously slake that poisonous heat in order not to release it into the world.

Pakistanme girjaye bam! ” Let bombs fall on Pakistan! “Chal bam, chal! ” Fire, bombs, fire! I can almost see Rahu’s gleaming eyes amid the procession of flashlights and lanterns.

The second time Shiva saved the world, it was from Ganga herself. An ancient king performed a meditation strong enough to persuade the goddess to come down to Earth in the form of a river, but neglected to consider that the force of the torrent would be so great as to destroy the world. Shiva, in his high Himalayan stomping grounds, interceded. He caught the river’s fall from heaven in his unruly locks at Haridwar, allowing Ganga to flow through Earth without shattering it.

Today, instead of bamboo containers, most pilgrims sport plastic canteens. Hundreds of young men carrying torches storm pass me on the way to the Shiva temple, where they’ll pour out their holy water. Their faces are streaked with fire, and their chant is unrelenting: “Bam!” Hail, Lord Shiva! “Bam!” Hail, followers of Shiva! “Bhole!” Hail, happy-go-lucky lord! “Bam!” Left foot. “Bam!” Right foot. “Bhole!” Left again. “Chal bam, chal!” Onward!

I had echoed the same cheer that afternoon, when I hiked up from Rishikesh, where packs of pilgrims bought orange T-shirts—several shades brighter than the saffron that signals holiness—printed with images of the Ganga riving Shiva’s tangled locks in bulk at the bazaars. As we trudged up the mountain, only the canteens of holy water kept us from looking like a walking forest of carrots. Some of us wore flip-flops, others wore sneakers, and still others went barefoot. Two or three determined souls had perfected an inchworm-like motion that left their knees dusty and bleeding. When I asked a young woman who was crawling on the ground, a board strapped to her breasts, why she was doing it, she looked back silently at her parents. “She wants something from God,” they said. “Chal bam, chal!” The cheer had given me a second and then a third wind.

After four hours of walking uphill through dust and mud, past troupes of black-faced langur monkeys, several hundred slippers abandoned where they had worn out, and stick-thin policemen carrying stretchers bearing the burlap-wrapped corpses of two pilgrims, we turned downhill with the trail, heading for the temple. We herded into a cramped bazaar filled with a hundred lantern-lit stalls, each selling identical goods. There were innumerable stamped, sealed, plastic cups filled with Ganga water, which gave off a hygienic, bluish-white glow, alongside red hibiscus flowers glistening like blood, and packets filled with tiny white balls of candy.

The crowd stopped moving. The Temple of Blue-Throated Shiva had just closed. We had shown up during the private bathing of Shiva’s cosmic privates. Like the hundreds of thousands of Shiva statues in temples throughout the country, this one bore a black stone phallus, which was bathed several times a day. What would happen if the poison ever got that far?

I sat down on a sack filled with pilgrims’ footwear. (Shoes are unclean, so temples must be entered barefoot.) This was the first break I’d allowed myself. Ahead of us, the line had stagnated inside a caged-in metal bridge, and I felt my claustrophobia kick in. A fellow pilgrim suggested breathing exercises; everyone else waited patiently. After an hour the line stirred. We made it over the bridge and trooped up the white marble steps and into the inner sanctum. Prolonged communion with Shiva was impossible; we had less than five seconds to pour Ganga water onto the god’s phallus before we were pushed away by the unyielding flow of pilgrims. We left the shrine with canteens still half-full. A priest in white robes fed us ash from a holy fire that never goes out and ushered us out of the temple. The ash lodged in my throat. As I tried to choke it down I was struck by the irony of the ritual: The Himalayas that had given birth to Ganga, the swift-goer, were drying up, and here we were, squirting Shiva with holy water hundreds of times each hour. “Faith and rationality are like two banks of the same river,” I remembered Mishra saying, while quizzing me about the possibility of getting carbon credits for his algae scheme. “Paying equal attention to both ensures a happily flowing life, and a happily flowing Gangaji.”

The ash is still glued to my trachea as we begin hobbling down the mountain again. As I’ve been catching my breath on the rock, the pilgrims have multiplied in number and sonic power. An implacable parade of flip-flops, tennis shoes, loafers, and bare soles are slapping against the rocky trail, and the joyous chanting has splintered into menacing non sequiturs. “Bam! Bam! Bhole!” is undercut by scattered cries of “Pakistanme girjaye bam!” Let bombs fall on Pakistan! “Chal bam, chal!” Fire, bombs, fire! I can almost see Rahu’s gleaming eyes amid the procession of flashlights and lanterns, as Lord Bam, happy-go-lucky Shiva, is transformed into a nuclear warhead.

Gangotri Glacier

Two days later, I traveled to the Gangotri glacier, the rapidly melting source of the Bhagirathi, one of the two glacial streams that join to form the Ganga. I longed to see the glacier’s terminus, where ice and debris hang in the shape of Gaumukh, the “Cow’s Mouth,” before it disappeared. The British East India Company sent an expedition to the source of the Ganga as early as 1808, but the expedition failed to reach Gaumukh and declared that the Ganga “emerges from a spot beyond human reach.” (In the eighteenth century, British surveyors had emphatically declared that the Ganga was a man-made river, originating from ancient canals.) The region remained unmapped until 1935, and the highway to the town of Gangotri wasn’t built until 1984. Even today, cell-phone reception cuts out past town. To reach the 13,500-foot-high glacier, I would have to walk eleven miles without passing a rest-house. For six hours I rode toward the trailhead in the backseat of a shared jeep with a plastic vial of Ganga water dangling from the rearview mirror and a religious chant playing on repeat. My companions were men and women who lived in tiny villages along the way to Gangotri. The vial lurched this way and that as we stopped and started along the muddy mountainside roads, waterfalls splattering the roof and windows, a landslide halting us for two hours. No one paid much heed; as long as the water was there, we were safe.

“So painful indeed is this track, that it might be conceived as meant to serve as a penance to the unfortunate pilgrims with bare feet, thus to prepare them and render them more worthy for the special and conclusive act of piety they have in view as the object of their journey to these extreme wilds.”

Two hours from town, we picked up Mangal Singh, the man who had agreed to guide me through Gangotri National Park. Mangalji is a small man with a narrow face, broad shoulders, and a Charlie Chaplin mustache. His chocolate eyes glowed as he told me he did his “B.A. and M.A. at the same time”—when he was fifteen, he’d successfully enrolled in both the intro and the advanced classes at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. Immediately, he informed me that he had discovered more than eighty trails in the state of Uttarakhand, trained the Indian army in the art of scaling glaciers during India’s Kargil war with Kashmir, and walked the length of the Ganga with a German scientific expedition researching the river’s ecology.

At the end of the road lies the town of Gangotri, a clot of shops and priests where buses bearing pilgrims arrive every afternoon. They go to the temple of the Ganga and walk down to the riverbank to marvel at the googley-eyed statue of King Dashashwamedhya, the one who brought the river down from heaven through his centuries-long meditation. For most pilgrims, this is far enough. Long before sundown, they climb back into their tour buses. A handful of people, however, make it to the snout of the Gangotri glacier, one of the holiest spots in Hinduism—Hinduism being a religion in which almost every treetop, cairn, and riverbank is, technically, sacred.

The first segment of the eleven-mile trek to the glacier is an upward-sloping exposure chamber, vast and isolated. Distant snow-capped Himalayan peaks drift into view now and then, but the barren foothills—craggy, sulfurous heaps of rocks and dust—dominate the landscape. Against this relief of massive lifeless rocks, the Ganga, known here as the Bhagirathi, is a delight: a clear, narrow stream, bounding with energy and potential. Thirsty creatures dot the mountainside—black snake and ibex, bulbuls and monals, white birch and juniper. After hiking five miles in five hours, Mangalji and I reached Chirbasa, a nursery of silver pine, spruce, blue fir, and cedar; the Nepali guards invited us to stay, but Mangalji wanted to keep going. We were aiming for Bhojbasa, a makeshift camp four more miles away. We walked through a pine forest, dark and dense after the bald terrain we’d been traversing, and Mangalji told me that there used to be more forested paths along the trail, but pilgrims cut down the trees for firewood. Below us, a pika scampered away, already on guard.

The altitude made me lightheaded and slow. I had to rest frequently under rocky overhangs, measuring my distance from one patch of starry wildflowers to the next, from one stand of pines to another of grizzled birches. I breathed heavily, my whole mouth open, and forged ahead only because it would be shameful to collapse. The words of James Baillie Fraser, a Scottish traveler and watercolorist who in 1815 trekked to the town of Gangotri with his brother, an officer in the East India Company, to chart the origins of the Ganga, spurred me on: “So painful indeed is this track, that it might be conceived as meant to serve as a penance to the unfortunate pilgrims with bare feet, thus to prepare them and render them more worthy for the special and conclusive act of piety they have in view as the object of their journey to these extreme wilds.” Gangotri glacier has receded more than a mile since Fraser tried—unsuccessfully—to reach it. I walked on, wondering how long the object of my pilgrimage would endure.

I had never climbed so high before. Mangalji found a rough archa leaf and insisted that I chew it, which brought to mind the part of the Ramayana—the epic about Rama, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu—where a monkey-god revives Rama’s dying brother with Himalayan herbs. The archa tasted just leafy, with no distinguishing characteristics or immediate effects, but I kept it in a corner of my cheek, drawing it out, eager to absorb a bit of the unworldly landscape. Finally, after eight hours, it became clear we couldn’t reach Bhojbasa before nightfall, and so Mangalji and I settled into a shack owned by trail workers, where we slept in the same crude bed.

I couldn’t shake the thought that, while the gods had been busy guarding the sun, Rahu had swallowed the Ganga, filling its riverbank with a zombie river composed of whatever fetid water had dripped from his throat.

That night, I dreamed of a bird I’d seen near a house I once shared in south India—the Asian paradise flycatcher, a small white bird with a long, white, ribboning tail. I’d seen the bird first in the forest in Kerala, then in the garbage heap next to my window in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. I knew that wilderness could exist anywhere, not just in the wild. But the next morning, I was filled with tranquility and wonder. When I woke up I noticed graffiti on the wall of the shack—crudely formed Hindi letters reading WATER IS LIFE.

As we plodded along the icy, burbling river that morning, I met a cigarette-smoking swami known as Maharaj. He wore sunglasses and tennis shoes, and was accompanied by four portly women from the neighboring state of Haryana. The party had turned back after seeing a crack in the ice. “I would have had to roll these four along like drums,” Maharaj said. I asked him whether he thought the glacier would melt within his lifetime.

“It’ll take longer,” he said confidently. “At least fifty years. But even after she’s gone, those of us who truly love her will still be able to see her.”

I asked what he meant.

“Most of you are living in Kaliyuga, ” he said. “Only a few of us have escaped into Ram Rajya, the age in which we can think completely for ourselves, where our mind is free. We are free of Kaliyuga.”

But Maharaj had not transcended the physical world entirely: “We used to take the snow, melt it with some jaggery, and eat it as a snack,” he said. “Today, we can’t do that anymore. The snow is greasy and black from vehicle exhaust.”

A few minutes later Mangalji and I reached a field of boulders, which travelers had piled up like cairns. Ahead gleamed the snout of the glacier, the river thundering out of its icy encasement. In every photograph I’d seen, this spot had looked barren, discolored, stony. But as I sat there, cross-legged, I marveled at the spots of color pulsing all around me: tiny pink, yellow, and purple wildflowers, complex leaf patterns, and minute crickets that looked as drab as dead leaves until they unfolded their ruby wings. I poured my Ganga water on a small shrine made of rocks.

I felt good, if not enlightened. The pilgrimage hadn’t been so tough—just a series of bus rides and walks, and a long haul at the end. I tried to imagine the whole sweep of the river, across time and across the country—the British East India Company sailing down the Ganga into Kolkata, my birth city, which they made the capital of their empire, floating logs, opium, and slaves down the river that had received the ashes of my great-great-grandmother, millions of devout Hindus, and Charles Mingus; the industrial effluent from tanneries mingling with corpses, sewage, fecal bacteria, and increasingly salty tides carried in by the rising sea. The Ganga was still alive, in spite of everything. But I couldn’t shake the thought that, while the gods had been busy guarding the sun, Rahu had swallowed the Ganga, filling its riverbank with a zombie river composed of whatever fetid water had dripped from his throat.

Hindu scriptures predict that sometime during the age of Kaliyuga the Ganga will slip underground, into hell. Maybe the river is indeed lurching forward toward a dry end—not by 2035, but perhaps by 2132, unless Rahu loosens his grip on the oil wells and stock markets and the climate stops changing so fast. In the meantime, I wanted to gather some holy water from the embryonic river—Hindus believe that even a drop can purify sins—for my grandmother and her family in Kolkata, so I took out a few small bronze vessels. Just as I was kneeling down, a giant chunk of ice fell from the snout into the Ganga. I looked more closely and noticed chunk after chunk dislodging from the crevasse-ridden glacier. I was horrified. But then I heard Mangalji whooping, and turned to see him catch a block of melting ice. I held one of my bronze jars underneath his cupped hands, and he let the water drip into the vessel. I took a sip. Ordinary melt-water tastes recent, infused with yesterday’s precipitation. This water tasted original, like dew from the last ice age.