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In the name of God and devotion: Is it really worth taking a dip in toxic Yamuna?

India is a land known for its countless religious festivals and rites. Unfortunately, a majority of the rituals are proving to be harmful for the environment.

By: Radhika Iyengar | New Delhi | Published:November 8, 2016 10:08 pm
Women take a dip in the Yamuna on the occasion of Chhath Puja. (Source: Express Photo by Gajendra Yadav) Women take a dip in the Yamuna on the occasion of Chhath Puja. (Source: Express Photo by Gajendra Yadav)

There are several photographs making rounds on social media that show the river Yamuna layered by a thick coating of toxic froth. The froth reflects the alarming levels of toxicity present in the water. It’s a result of the untreated sewage and chemical waste that’s discharged from countless industries into the river.

What’s equally disturbing is that during Chhath Puja (a festival that worships the Hindu sun god, Surya), scores of devotees unflinchingly immerse themselves waist-deep into the waters of the Yamuna. Holy bathing in a natural water body (along with fasting and abstaining oneself from drinking water) is among the many rituals performed during the festival. Of late, concerns relating to the rising levels of polluted particles in the Yamuna have made international news. Dipping into the polluted waters is like extending an open invitation to an array of diseases from skin and eye infections to even cancer in extreme cases. Regardless of the health concerns though, worshippers in the Capital continue to make a beeline towards the various Yamuna ghats – some specially constructed for Chhath – to show their undying devotion to the Sun god.

This underlines how deep-rooted our religious practices and belief systems are. That believers would go to extreme lengths to convey the strength of their faith – heedless of the impending harm that such an action may have on their health and even life.

In Varanasi, for example, it is an age-old belief that a Hindu can only attain moksha (liberation from the spiral of birth and death) if he/she is cremated at either Manikarnika ghat or Raja Harish Chandra ghat. The conditions at these open cremation grounds, however, are deplorable. Thousands of corpses are burned there every day amidst a background of discarded bamboo biers, filth, cow dung, abandoned plastic bags and human waste. The ashes from the cremation grounds are then thrown into the ‘holy’ Ganga.

Today, the river is among the top most polluted rivers in the world. Experts claim that its water carries more than 3,000 million litres of sewage. Would that stop you from taking a dip in it? For thousands of locals and pilgrims in Varanasi who religiously bathe in revered waters of the Ganga, the answer is no.

Festivals like Durga Puja and Ganesh Chaturthi are also popular among Hindus. Both festivals involve worshiping idols of Goddess Durga and Ganesha, respectively, for weeks before the idols are immersed into natural water bodies.Many of these idols however, are made of non-biodegradable materials like plaster of Paris. The issue of immersion of these idols which are harmful for the environment, therefore, has been a contentious one, however people continue to submerge idols undaunted.

India is a land known for its countless religious festivals and rites. Unfortunately, a majority of the rituals are proving to be harmful for the environment, which are bound to have a negative impact on us as well. But, who is willing to challenge tradition?