Ganges is a nature documentary series for television on the natural history of the River Ganges in India and Bangladesh. As well as the variety of animals and habitats that are to be found along the river’s 2,510 km reach, the programmes also feature the cultures, traditions and religions of the very large human population that it supports.
For Hindus, the Ganges is a sacred river and a place of pilgrimage, and therefore a deep influence on their religion and culture. Over the course of three episodes, the series is presented as a journey to the source of the river in the Himalayas, along the fertile plains, up to its delta in the Bay of Bengal.
On the plus side the series features some really stunning photography, both of the landscape the river runs through, and of the wildlife found along its course, and the narrator, Sudha Bhuchar, is well-chosen as her English is clear and attractive, and she can also pronounce the Indian names correctly.
On the minus side too often we only get a glimpse of the wildlife, which are simply pictured and enumerated with no more detail; and another problem is that the special-effects photography and flashy editing are occasionally used a little wantonly, adding nothing to the interest, and being rather distracting.
The first of the programmes, taking the legendary mythology surrounding the Ganges seriously, shows how the natural world and the spiritual world have always been entwined in Hindu thought and life, and explains how the gift of life that the river brings is the reason she is held is such high reverence.
The film gradually follows the Ganges back along its course, ascending further into the Himalayan mountains, and encountering some of the fabled sources of the Ganges, and most Holy pilgrimage centres along the way.
Beginning at Kedarnath as the thaw sets in in May and 100,000s of pilgrims start their annual ascent, we go up through Yamunotri – not the source of the Ganges but of its sister the Yamuna – Badrinath, which has one of the holiest temples on the route, and up to Gangotri.
But geographically this is also not the source and the film follows the path up past Gaumukh and on to the Tapovan meadows, which is identified, at least here, as the true source of the river.
All along this route we get glimpses of the varied wildlife that make their home here, from rare photography of the Snow Leopard in the mountains, to the Lammergeier which, with its 3 metre wingspan, is one of the largest birds of prey, and the Langur or Hanuman monkeys in the huge Deodar trees.
It also visits Nandadevi, the second highest peak in India, and the Valley of Flowers which lies in its foothills, and has over 600 plant species, including the Himalayan Balsam which in Spring cloaks the valley in pink, and we also see something of the bird-life that thrives in the valley.
The film then shows the effects of the monsoon hail storms and rains, which give the river half of its flow-waters in just a few weeks, and helps wash down an astonishing 2 billion tons of sediment into the plains of India, making it the most fertile soil on Earth.
The film ends by following the river down from Devprayag, where the Alakananda and Bhagirathi rivers converge and the Ganges finally is identified as a separate river, and through the Holy cities of Rishikesh and Haridwar.
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Some Stills from the Documentary
Sadhu in the Himalayas
Lammergeier on the Wing
Lagur or Hanuman Monkey
Valley of the Flowers