Book Reviews

The Ganges: Along Sacred Waters by

Aldo Pavan

Thames & Hudson (UK and USA)

Many of the great rivers of the world are imbued with spiritual significance, but none so much as the Ganges as it runs from its sacred source high in the Himalayas through the religious heart and holy places of Northern India to its final consecrated sites on the shores of the Bay of Bengal. Pilgrims and holy men, priests and paupers, and ordinary citizens by the millions seek solace, absolution, and enlightenment in its grayish-brown waters. To follow its course from beginning to end is a profound moral as well as physical journey of understanding through this vast, teeming country.

Noted photographer and travel writer Aldo Pavan takes us there in his beautiful new book about this most sacred of rivers. With more than 250 color photos supplemented by a fairly sparse but quite useful and insightful text, he carries us deep into the flow of life—and death—in its waters and along its banks.  His images range from stunning mountain landscapes to tranquil beaches, from magnificent temples to the simplest of shrines, and from colorful pilgrim crowds to solitary worshippers and holy men.

Pavan’s journey begins high in the Himalayas, at the very source of the Ganges, the Gangotri Glacier below towering Mount Shivling. His photos portray the sheer rawness of the river as it takes shape from little more than a trickling mountain stream to a torrent rushing downward through the rocky, sparsely vegetated terrain.  One especially striking picture of it coursing down a path strewn with boulders and chunks of glacial ice captures perfectly the primal energy as well as the purity of its beginning.

Raw though it may be, the river is also perhaps at its holiest here, where the ancient gods are said to have called it forth. The pilgrims and the sadhus, or holy men, who come here are among the hardiest, the most devoted and determined. They make the difficult journey over months and even years to bathe in these frigid sacred waters and to worship on these stony riverbanks. Here they endure a bare, cold, and often solitary existence, and some remain for rest of their lives. To look deeply at their faces and into their eyes, as Pavan does in several remarkable close-ups, is to feel the intense spirituality of India itself.

He follows the river downstream to the hill station of Rishikesh and then to Haridwar, where it finally exits the mountains and starts its more languid journey across the flat North India plain. Here the more popular pilgrimages begin, with large crowds of worshippers and the attendant proliferation of temples, ashrams, and ceremonies along the riverside. This sharp transition from the cold and spare asceticism along the river’s earlier course is fascinating, and Pavan’s photos and text accurately convey it.

From here Pavan treads more familiar ground as he portrays the great Hindu shrines such as Varanasi, with its well-known funeral ghats, temples, lavish palaces, and colorful crowds of worshippers performing their ablutions in the holy waters. He takes a detour up the Yamuna River, one of the Ganges’ main tributaries, to include striking photographs of the great Muslim monuments such as the Taj Mahal, Emperor Akbar’s mausoleum, and Delhi’s Qutb Minar mosque. Then further down the Ganges at Patna he focuses in on the famous Maha Bodhi temple and its Buddhist devotees, nicely rounding out the picture of India’s great religious diversity and the sacred river’s central role in it.

The river disperses its strength and energy, though not its spirituality, as it divides and spreads through the vast Ganges delta to reach the Indian Ocean. Pavan records its final placid flow to the sea and the last, modest shrines on Ganga Sagar Island where the journey ends.

The book will leave the reader with many sharp, fresh new images of India and a much fuller appreciation of the Ganges’ central place in its heart and soul. We have Pavan—as well as its talented publishers Thames & Hudson—to thank for such a beautiful and unforgettable journey. 

Reviewed by James D. Rosenthal