When Water is Both Holy and Polluted

What happens when a body of water that is worshiped for its spiritual properties is also one of the most polluted rivers in the world?

120 million people travelled to Allahabad during the Maha Kumbh Mela this year to wash away their sins and attain salvation at the intersection of the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers. The Kumbh Mela is the world’s largest religious gathering, a mass Hindu pilgrimage which takes place every three years where holy men, devotees and even foreigners gather to bathe in a sacred river. A dip in the river during Kumbh Mela promises purification. The Kumbh in Allahabad is considered by Hindu devotees to be the holiest of all the Kumbh Mela sites, and a Maha Kumbh Mela happens only once in 144 years, making this year a particularly auspicious one.

For many pilgrims, bathing during the Kumbh Mela represents the culmination of a dream. Explains one female devotee: “We came all the way for the darshan of Gangamai (Mother Ganga) and for the holy bath. The bath is one of wish fulfillment, my lifelong desire to wash away sins.”

But the water quality of the spiritually purifying holy Ganga River has deteriorated to dangerous levels, driven by population explosion along the river basin and inadequate management of industrial and agricultural growth. In addition, when religious festivals like the Kumbh Mela bring over 100 million additional people to the river, contamination due to pollution and waste is inevitable.

As a result, this year’s Kumbh Mela pilgrims were greeted in Allahabad with signs, billboards and other promotional materials introducing the concept that some religious rituals and other activities pollute the river.

These materials were designed by JHU∙CCP, in partnership with the ad agency Lowe Lintas, for the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG). NMCG is the implementing arm of the National Ganga River Basin Authority which is part of the Ministry of Environment and Forest. This initiative was funded by the Indian Ministry of the Environment and Forest as part of a project to provide communication support to the Mission for a Clean Ganga.

The project aims to strengthen awareness of how human activities can have a negative impact on the sacred river. It seeks to increase public understanding by including a broad range of stakeholders in the conversation about cleaning the Ganges River. Religious leaders, government officials, NGOs and community-based organizations and media are being engaged in the project’s activities to make clean-up efforts effective, and to ensure that behaviors change as a result.

With so many people gathering in Allahabad for the Kumbh Mela, it offered a particularly good opportunity for JHU∙CCP to begin introducing the idea that human actions impact the river.

The Kumbh pilgrims were exposed to three sets of messages on the outdoor materials: messages that established and reiterated the grandeur of the Ganges River; messages that highlighted simple actions that pollute the river; and messages that depicted individuals pledging not to pollute the Ganges.

During the Kumbh, JHU∙CCP staff informally surveyed the visitors in Allahabad. They found that the materials were generally well-received and that most people stated the take-away message to be “keep Ganga clean”. In addition, in comparison to previous pilgrimages, the grounds surrounding the Ganges were visibly cleaner and most people followed the proper methods of disposing waste.

JHU∙CCP’s campaign during the Kumbh Mela lays the groundwork for the broader activities of the project. And while much work is needed to restore the Ganges River to its original, unpolluted state, the 120 million pilgrims who attended the Kumbh, and millions of other individuals around the world, agree that this holy river is certainly worth the effort.

View photos of the materials created by JHU∙CCP for the Kumbh Mela, and the crowds at the Ganges River.

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