June 5 is World Environment Day and the theme for 2023 is ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’. Every year, 400 million tonnes of plastic is produced worldwide and half of that is designed to be used just once, after which it is dumped into landfills or waterways. Plastic waste chokes the rivers of India, builds marine debris in the oceans and pollutes everything from our air to water to food.
The riverine network of the Ganga is the second-largest plastic polluting catchment in the world. The Gangetic delta is incredibly fertile and subsequently, it is densely populated. As a result, the river carries plastic waste across its 2,500-kilometre journey from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal.
But plastic is a relatively new entrant to the ecosystem of the Ganga; India only began to produce plastic as polystyrene in 1957. So what did the mighty river look like before it began to be inundated with this ubiquitous pollutant? We looked back over 100 years ago and found photographs of a pristine and powerful Ganga. These images from the 19th and early-20th centuries show us what we stand to gain by restoring this lifeline to its former glory.
Gangotri glacier, Uttarakhand
Recalling his reaction upon reaching the glacier believed to be the source of the Ganga, photographer Samuel Bourne wrote, “We reached our destination at last, and I felt a degree of satisfied curiosity, and I ought to consider myself a privileged mortal in being permitted to gaze on this the first visible issue of the mighty and holy Ganges from the vast ice beds which cradle its birth.” In 1866, Bourne undertook a Himalayan expedition through the unexplored regions of the higher mountain ranges. He is regarded as the first photographer to document the Gangotri glacier.
Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh
The Sati Chaura Ghat on the southern bank of the River Ganges in Kanpur is an important religious and historic site. It gets its name from the practice of Sati, which is believed to have been performed here in pre-colonial times. After the Revolt of 1857, the site was renamed ‘Massacre Ghat’ when Indian rebels attacked and killed hundreds of British officers and their families here.
Benares, Uttar Pradesh
Two things stand out about these old photographs of Varanasi: the clear air allowing for spectacular visibility and the peaceful ripples in the undisturbed water. Above we see the view from the famous Dashashwamedh Ghat, and below is a view of the Panchaganga Ghat, believed to be the confluence of five rivers: Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Kirna and Dhootpapa. Today, the highest concentration of microplastics in the Ganga is found in Varanasi or Benares. As the sacred city continues to draw millions of pilgrims each year, it suffers from proportionately high levels of air, water, noise and light pollution. In the past couple of years, the boats and rickshaws of Varanasi have switched to CNG fuel in an attempt to restore the clear skies over the Ganga.
This is an image of a bridge over the Ganga called Tolly Nullah or Hastings’ Bridge. This view of Kalighat is from an album by Samuel Bourne titled Views of Calcutta and Barrackpore. The Kalighat area is most famous for its temple to Ma Kali, which was only a small structure in the 17th century when the British first arrived. By the 19th century, when this photo was taken, it had become densely populated with a constant traffic of devotees, pilgrims and artists plying their trade.