Kursi pe baithne wale full-pantwallahs (Those who wear trousers and sit on chairs) know the Ganga as a fraught triumph of Indian engineering, declared as India’s national river in 2009. The fisherwomen of Bhagalpur in Bihar know their reach of the Ganga as a married goddess and sister river to six other rivers. The hilsa fish, the Anguilla eel, and the Bengali shrimp know the river as a freshwater refuge from the salty sea.

The Bihari boatman knows his reach of the Ganga as a sanctuary for smooth-coated otters and the critically endangered blind dolphins, cousins of the Amazonian pink boto and the Yangtze River’s baiji, which disappeared from this world by 2006. The Dalit fisherfolk know it as the mother of Toofani Baba, their stormy guardian.

The Jains know it as the former home of the forgotten port city of Champa, where their spiritual teacher, Mahavira, liked to wander. The Muslims know the river as the place where tazia is immersed on Muharram to celebrate the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson and his seventy-two companions. The Sufis know it as the locality where Murshidabadis still celebrate, with crocodile-shaped rafts, the day when the Iranian saint Khwaja Khizr walked across the water on a large fish and saved the Nawab’s life.

The Sikhs know the river as the backdrop to hallowed gurdwaras, like Gau Ghat and Kangan Ghat in Patna. The Buddhists know the river as the metaphor through which the Buddha illustrated many of his teachings – such as the importance of leaving the raft behind once you reach the farther shore, even though it has carried you safely across the water.

The activist Rakesh Jaiswal knows his stretch of the Ganga in Kanpur as a river plagued with toxic tannery waste, harsh enough to make human skin disintegrate. The National Waterways Act, 2016, knows the river in its current shape as an obstruction to the rapid transport of coal and goods. The Ethiopians might know the river as the site of a ruined tower built by a Mughal-era Ethiopian slave-king on the India–Bangladesh border.

Surfers might know the river as a tidal bore site: good surfing! Old-timers know the river as the home of tasty fish like the hilsa, pabda, and mahseer: good eating. And many know the river as the place where the ashes of their ancestors disappeared.

Is your Ganga like Bengali writer Adwaita Mallabarman’s Titash River, which curves like a bow, and is bordered in the rainy season by a village which resembles “the world inside a rainbow”? Or is it like Kannada poet Chandrasekhar Kambar’s village pond, Mother Ganga, where “generations of flies, fleas, bugs of every kind/breed in endless motion, in unbroken exchanges of give and take?” If you live beside it, is it more like your kitchen sink and bathwater?

In March 2017, Haridwar’s Mohammad Salim fought illegal mining and stone crushing alongside the Ganga by appealing to the law. In response, a high court in Nainital, Uttarakhand, gave us yet another way of knowing the river. It conferred upon the Ganga and its tributary the Yamuna, the legal status of a human or “living human entity...with all corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities”.

The court appointed three custodians for the river – the chief secretary, the advocate general, and the director of Namami Gange, a five-year plan initiated in 2014 that aspires to enforce protection of the river. A few days later, the court extended the “living human entity” status to include all their “tributaries, streams, every natural water flowing with flow continuously or intermittently of these rivers”. However, in July 2017, the Supreme Court suspended the earlier judgment, declaring that the Ganga and Yamuna are not living entities.

The Uttarakhand court was trying to help the river – to bring it into a framework where its needs could be measured and met. But their anthropomorphisation raises many questions. For starters: did the living goddess Ganga briefly receive a promotion or a demotion? If she had been found human, would this change the way we make requests of her, or what she requires of us?

As environmentalist Ashish Kothari asked, does the decision imply that she is a dependant needing protection and, if so, what does that make us? Perhaps the decision would have meant that we are peers, but considering how humans sometimes treat each other, is Gangaji more or less protected now?

In 2000, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen proposed that a new geological epoch had commenced. He called it the Anthropocene because humans have reached the level of impact formerly reserved for great planetary events. Human hands have touched the moon, the mythic and astronomical neighbourhood of Akash Ganga, the Milky Way. Human waste now pours steadily into the river – more than a billion litres of waste flows into the Ganga every day.

Human feet can now reach downwards to touch the river’s bottom, where Patal Ganga was once said to flow. (“Akash-pataler tofat”, the difference between heaven and hell, an old Bangla proverb goes.) The Ganga’s current state impels us to revisit a question that the river has been begging people to ask over and over, for aeons, well before Manu’s ark ponderously came to nestle on Badrinath glacier, where he recreated the human race after the flood and shackled it in superstitions about gender and caste.

A Vedic hymn suggests that a land without the Ganga is like a sky without the sun. But the Vedas were composed during a more expansive time, when India was a loose collection of tribes and kingdoms isolated by frontiers. The Indo-European invaders, to paraphrase historian Steven Darian, were fighting to establish domination over the indigenous people, and inundated the earliest Vedas with their masculine sky gods and their reverence for wheeled chariots.

“The remarkable thing is the speed with which the indigenous values – those of the Indus civilisation and the earliest inhabitants of the Ganges Valley – find their way into the Hindu scriptures, starting from the Vedas,” writes Steven G Darian. Within half a millennium, roughly between 1200 to 700 bce, as the nomadic Aryans learned how to cultivate rice and barley, and the art of shipbuilding and navigation from the indigenous people, they used these skills to penetrate and farm in the jungles of the Ganga Valley.

Sacred texts began to ripple with reverence for the earth, for the mother goddess, and for plants. All three were held in equal reverence, for they were seen as equivalent, allowing humans to grasp the interconnected nature of life.

In the oldest hymns, the paramount river is the Saraswati, now an invisible riverbed spanning western India and parts of Pakistan. As the Saraswati dried, the Vedic people moved eastwards to the fertile and sparsely populated Gangetic plains, where they started growing rice 4,000 years ago; much of the Saraswati’s sacred imagery in the Vedas was later transferred on to the Ganga.

Currently, the Ganga River basin is one of the most populated in the world. In India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, more than 500 million people live in the Gangetic basin. The river irrigates 47 per cent of India’s farmland: rice, lentils, sugarcane, mustard, jute. If the Ganga were to falter (which we are causing the river to do), the food supply of India would falter, and there would be nowhere eastward for more than one billion people to move.

Before the Ganga was a human being, she/they were many other beings, animate and inanimate, young and old, life-giving and sometimes unfathomably menacing: a tree; a pot; a dashing woman holding a pot; a snake; half woman, half snake dancing in Shiva Nataraja’s dreadlocks; full woman dancing in Shiva’s dreadlocks on the male half of the body of Ardhanarishwar, who is depicted as half female; an adolescent led by the sage Bhagirath; a fertile goddess who birthed Kartikeya, the god of war; one who lounged under a lotus umbrella; a river dolphin gracing the lintel of a palace; a doorpost; a crocodile with a child in its mouth under the wheel of time.

She/they were depicted – surely with astonishment, and probably with awe – in the maps of foreigners, albeit initially misplaced. In mythology and legend, we can find a river yielding up gold, and when Columbus landed in Central America thousands of years later, he believed he was only a few days away from the golden Ganga.

In our current age, finding an accurate map of the Ganga River system in India is almost as difficult as in Columbus’s time. In 2017, the Survey of India started operating according to a new law. Any maps of India published in India must first be sent there. Often, the maps languish in their office for several months. Nine out of ten times, they send the map back with corrections and changes.

Often, they look like the kind of simplistic maps used when we were schoolchildren. Showing Tibet is a no-no, as is showing the borders. Violators risk forty-five days in jail and a fine. Children are growing up with distorted maps of the country. This is an incredible paradox at a time when Google Maps offers such exquisite detail.

Traditionally, Gangaji was the one who did not honour boundaries – she was the place where bodies disappeared, the place where a rigidly bound society slipped off its boundaries. Today we violate her boundaries, half-disappeared and sewage-choked, strapped up with barrages and dams. In the old days, sages would learn how Gangaji changed during the monsoon season. Now, the river’s personality is determined more by the opening and shutting of the barrage gates.

Time and water are both flowing faster. For millennia, most of the rain in the subcontinent has fallen within one hundred stormy hours during the three-month monsoon season in northern India. With each passing year, more rain falls within a shorter time span. According to the World Economic Forum, out of sixty-seven surveyed countries, India is the most vulnerable to climate change.

As peak rainfall becomes more intense, landslides – already an existential threat to thousands of mountain villages – will become more common. The monsoon crops, chief among them rice, will be alternately drowned and starved, and the summer crops will die if more irrigation cannot be drawn from the limited water table. But a lot of solutions exist.

Through this troubled landscape winds the mighty river, now glimmering, now dull, now out of sight. Each day, with our excreta, our disavowal of balance and responsibility and our acceptance of the legacy of industrialisation, we are writing a dark chapter in the biography of this ancient goddess, the eternal life force, the Ganga River.

Superhuman River

Excerpted with permission from Superhuman River: Stories of the Ganga, Bidisha Banerjee, Aleph Book Company.