India's Ganges, a holy river of pollution
Author: John Chalmers
But the pollution that bedevils the river could do untold damage to the bodies of the faithful who will bathe in the Indian city of Allahabad over the next few weeks.
Ram Surat Das, a barefoot old man, emerged from a crowd of Ganges bathers on Saturday holding a steel pot of water.
"I'll use this for drinking and cooking and get some more tonight," he said. "It's absolutely clean. Of course it is, it's Ganges water."
So far he has survived the physical onslaught of raw sewage, rotting carcasses, industrial effluent, fertilisers and pesticides that infect the river from the Himalayan foothills to the Bay of Bengal.
Experts say pollution is to blame for a host of diseases - hepatitis, amoebic dysentery, typhoid, cholera and cancer - among the roughly 400 million people who live in the vast Gangetic basin.
According to a recent official report, a so-called Ganga Action Plan which was launched with great fanfare and at huge expense 15 years ago has met only 39 percent of its primary target for sewage treatment.
It said that less than half of the grossly polluting industrial units lining the 2,500-km (1,560-mile) river had installed effluent treatment plants, and over 18 percent of them did not function properly.
"The authorities claim that almost all industrial units are diverting their effluent to treatment plants...but the ground reality is that their claim is exaggerated," said Anil Kumar Tiwari, an environmental science lecturer at Allahabad University.
He said 250 million litres of sewage is produced from Allahabad every day, but the city has the capacity to treat only 100 million litres before it spills into the river.
POLLUTION INCREASES DOWNSTREAM
Allahabad is the sacred meeting point for the Ganges and the Yamuna, a river which becomes heavily contaminated as it oozes past the country's capital, Delhi.
An Environment Ministry report says the Yamuna's biological oxygen demand - a measure of water pollution - is around 50 mg per litre, some 17 times higher than the acceptable limit.
When pollution places a high demand on oxygen less is available for organisms such as fish, and the process of bacterial decomposition is slowed down.
The city's eight sewage treatment plants have the capacity to clean just half of the total outflow. But the ministry says the dilapidated sewer system prevents even that amount from reaching the treatment facilities.
Pollution then multiplies as the river moves downstream because very little fresh water is generated between towns.
Agra, home to the Taj Mahal mausoleum, uses more chlorine to clean water than any other city in India, and it also has the highest number of patients with water-borne diseases.
Upstream from Allahabad, a rag-tag of riverside tanneries in the city of Kanpur spew out effluent rich in chromium content, which experts say is carcinogenic.
It is common Hindu practice to scatter the ashes of the dead in the Ganges.
And it is considered particularly auspicious to die in the ancient city of Varanasi, where hundreds of corpses are burnt on the banks every day. Many bodies are pushed into the water without being burnt.
There is, however, one saving grace.
P.K. Khare of Allahabad University's Botany Department said the Ganges has an indigenous self-cleansing property due to the presence of bacteriophage, a self-multiplying micro-organism which eats away at bacteria.
But the university's scientists are far from complacent. They have opened a special exhibition at the Maha Kumbh Mela to make the public aware of the dangers facing the Ganges.
"For us the Ganges is not just a river, the entire Indian philosophy and culture comes from this river," said Tiwari. "To preserve the sanctity of the Ganges we need to beat pollution."