With winter now well and truly in full swing in England and with India and the sun on my mind, I delved into my tea cupboard to make some ‘authentic’ Chai (read all about that here) and finally settled down to catch up with the rest of the country to watch BBC’s documentary following the journey of Sue Perkins travelling down the Ganges from its source in the mountains to where the mouth of the river meets the sea. I had seen so many varying reviews and comments on Twitter about the series that I was keen to see it for myself.
India has had a piece of my heart since I travelled there last year and remains in my top favourite countries – it was fascinating, engaging, eye-opening and full of the warmest and friendliest of people, breathtaking architecture and a stunning plethora of colours, smells and noise. On my trip, I travelled around beautiful Rajasthan for just under three weeks and this in itself is a vast area to cover. I don’t think I realised quite how vast a country it was. I’m longing to go back: to do the houseboats and backwaters in Kerala, the relaxed beaches of Goa, the national parks, wildlife and tea country in the north, and of course the incomparable Varanasi. If India wasn’t already top of my travel bucket list, it most definitely is now after watching this.
Of course the scenery and filming itself was always going to be incredible. From panoramic aerial views over the mountain landscape at the source of the Ganges to fast pans through the bustling, colourful and chaotically beautiful streets of Varanasi and poignant close up shots of faces and the diverse people she meets along the way, I feel the programme gives a compelling and honest picture of India as a country.
Sue Perkins meets wise and holy mountain hermits who have created their home in the highest points of the mountains away from society and civilisation, and visits the Mahesh Maharishi Yogi Ashram in Rishikesh, a place made famous by the Beatles’ visit in the 70s which put Rishikesh firmly on the map and introduced the Western world to Indian spirituality. She dances with the shunned-from-society transgender Hirja tribe in Kolkata, gets blessed by holy naked Naga Babas, assists in a tiger patrol by the forest department to save the Bengal tiger from extinction, and witnesses a typical funeral at Varanasi’s most prestigious funeral pyre/cremation ground where bodies are traditionally burned on open fires by the river so that their souls can be released into a different realm.
And finally her journey culminates, as she is swept along amongst what she describes as a literal ‘sea of humanity’ in the purest of terms towards the mouth of the sacred goddess of Mother Ganga (the Ganges). The sheer throng of people seems insane – millions of people have left their homes and often families behind to make this long pilgrimage here, truly a once in a lifetime journey, to bathe in the sacred water and its powers. It’s quite shocking to see the masses of people bathing after having seen raw sewage literally flowing into the water from its banks and discovering just how filthy and dangerously polluted it is. For many devout Hindus, however, the physical condition of the water is separate from the spiritual power it holds…Each to their own! I don’t blame Sue one bit, therefore, when it’s just her toes that she delicately dips in the water…
Throughout the short series, I think Sue Perkins emits a refreshing blend of authenticity and much needed humour: she bonds with the locals, pokes fun at herself, and address the serious nature of the situations all in one. The programme really is a fascinating insight into such a beautiful, extraordinary, contradictory and fast evolving country. With its population set to reach the highest in the world by 2020, it leaves you speculating about its ever growing modernity, the contradictions of old traditions and new developments, and the fragile future the country holds.
Image credit: BBC