On our last full day in the Pancheshwar area, we partnered with an association of local angling guides, village representatives, and government officials to clean the banks of the confluence. We spent the morning collecting a wide variety of trash into large piles – bamboo washed down from upstream construction during the monsoon floods, plastic bottles and bags, the charred logs from funeral pyres, clothes, bags of personal items from cremation ceremonies, and miscellaneous household items. The piles will now sit for a few days to dry before being properly sorted – plastic to be sent to the nearby big city, wood and fabric to be burned, and metals to be reused or recycled.
The assortment of things we collected was a good window into the change that has come to the area in only the past decade or two – plastic in all its forms, the consumption of modern products, the collection of things before there’s a system to deal with the associated refuse. And, at the same time, it was a window into the traditions that remain – the cremation of bodies on the banks of holy rivers, the respect for and belief in the natural world’s ability to provide for and to process the human lives that rely on it, and the colors of things. Pancheshwar is, like most of the rest of India, a place where accelerating change is pushing up against a culture and a way of life that has endured, shaped, and symbolized human development on the subcontinent for millennia. It was powerful to feel that between our hands.
Giving back to the area also allowed us to show our immense gratitude and respect for what the Saryu, Kali, and surrounding communities had given us. For nearly a week, we received so much – gracious hospitality, the comforting coolness of the river, the pull of powerful fish, the perspectives on scale and time, and so much more. We needed a way to give back.
I hope that we can make the cleanup work we did an annual event – something at the heart of what we do as a school when we come to India. I hope too, in a somewhat selfish sense, that the confluence we cleaned exists for more than a few more years. Traditions, annual and otherwise, define the place. We felt that. In the temple across from where we worked, the Baba, or holy man, blew the holy shell as we wrapped up our work. Connections surrounded us.