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Human and environmental stories interweave in a meandering meditation on the Ganges River

Ganges: The Many Pasts of an Indian River

Sudipta Sen
Yale University Press
459 pp.
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Invoking the Ganges prompts two very different visions. One imagines a sacred destination for countless devout pilgrims and the site of rituals repeated for thousands of years. Another sees a heavily polluted repository for the sewage and industrial wastes of dozens of Indian cities and yet water source for half a billion people. In this dual vision, the Ganges seems to embody the disjuncture of our time: It is both a dying piece of the planet and an enduring natural symbol of life and absolution.

Sudipta Sen’s Ganges: The Many Pasts of an Indian River invites its reader across the space and time of this iconic riverscape. Through a sweeping yet carefully textured history, the layers of the Ganges’s past assume a life that is both consequential and contemporary. We come to understand the Ganges as an expansive and dynamic social and natural system, and we gain a clearer perspective on the river’s present and potential futures.

Sen begins this history with the ancient and enduring human practice of pilgrimage. Recounting his own journey from Gangotri, where the Ganges begins its descent, to the river’s source at Gaumukh glacier, he asks how it is that this single river came to be imbued with sacred importance—nothing short, he writes, of a “metaphysical threshold.”

He begins to explore this question through the long and dynamic history of myths, which narrate the river’s powerful centrality in both spiritual cosmology and the political imagination. Although the details of the many myths Sen recounts changed over centuries, their core associations with a feminine form of divinity reproduced the river as both a sacred center and a symbolic locus of political legitimacy.

Ganges is neither social nor environmental history; it is inseparably both. Sen challenges us to notice the myriad ways that social and environmental transformation on this riverscape produced one another, often without a clearly linear story of cause and effect. Rather than composing an explanatory history, then, he emphasizes how social and environmental change melded together as ongoing processes. The approach, like the Ganges’s very name, favors dynamism over stasis; Sen notes that the Sanskrit root of Ganges, gam (“to go”), invites us to study the river through prisms of motion, flow, direction, and force.

From pilgrimage and myth, the book moves through the heavily contested archaeological quest to find and discern the river’s material past. That quest guides the reader along the vast tendrils of settled agriculture, reaching back nearly 15,000 years. We are led to reenvision the many lakes, marshes, forests, and grasslands that preceded the Ganges’s present agrarian mosaic, in part through descriptions from the Matsya Purana, a collection of texts that date between the 8th and 13th centuries. These accounts bring lush past landscapes, which today are all but lost, back to conceptual life so that habitat transformation made less discernable in spans of centuries now leaves a more vivid trace.

Sen narrates the dramatic reworking of the plant and animal world in part by tracing equally dramatic social transformation. With settled agriculture came land ownership and taxation patterns, crop distribution mosaics, and consequent trade patterns that remade the riverscape and its social composition. The Ganges and the kingdoms and cities that rose around it organized spiritual and political identity, legitimizing successive imperial projects whose armies, merchants, artisans, and new religious practices carved and re-carved territorial claims.

Late in the book, Sen arrives at the period of European empire building, the time at which more conventional histories of the present-day Ganges begin. With the benefit of a fuller historical arc, we understand more clearly how and why the Ganges was central to the Victorian imperial imagination and why the lower Ganges plains and the Bengal delta formed the heart of the East India Company’s imperial territories in India. It also underscores why countless postcolonial leaders have repeatedly invoked its place, as Sen recounts using Nehru’s words, as “a symbol and a memory of the past of India.”

Ganges is a study of a river as many simultaneous places, temporalities, and experiences. It offers a way of thinking about a river not only as it flows over a landscape but as it assembles and connects aesthetics, territories, habitats, and human beings. In this sense, the book is an invitation to think about all environmental history not only as a story of a changing natural world but also as a story about ourselves.

About the author

The reviewer is in the Department of Environmental Studies and the Department of Anthropology, New York University, New York, NY 10003, USA.