Notes From the Banks of the Two Yamunas

By Randall Honold

I had the pleasure of spending the first two weeks of December in India, co-directing a study abroad trip with John Shanahan and Michele Morano of our Department of English. We took 13 undergraduates to Delhi and Mumbai, plus the obligatory day trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.

It was John’s and Michele’s first visit to the country; my sixth and third with students. Our aim was to plunk students down into places undergoing rapid ecological (in the expansive sense) change and practice paying attention to what’s happening there. It wasn’t about “understanding” India as much as being among some of its dimensions and letting them press upon us. Every place has a fractal quality, inexhaustible with complexity and the ability to overwhelm, but megacities make this truth obvious. We were overstimulated almost every day and it’s an understatement to say we were tired when we got home!

While being bored in India would take some effort, I nevertheless do something brand new every time I’m there. Wangling reasonably compliant co-travelers adds to the adventure. So, given the environmental interests of many in our crew, we arranged to get an up-close look at the Yamuna River, which flows from the lower Himalayas, bisects Delhi, and comprises the main tributary of the Ganges. The Yamuna plays important roles in Indian mythology, literature, religion, history, and now in the political ecology of the region. Overwhelmed and underfunded, sewage processing facilities fail to keep up with the output of 20 million (give or take a Chicago) human bodies, resulting in the continual flow of untreated or insufficiently treated effluent into the river via ten sources. A small contribution to the pollution stems from human cremation. The Nigambodh Ghat, where Hindus have been ritually burning their dead for 3000 years, has gas-powered crematoria, but devout (and affluent) families prefer a sandalwood pyre, the remains of which are placed into the waters. We spent some time in solemn observation of the preparation of one pyre and politely declined the offer of a boatsman to take us on an excursion. Here the river has an inky blue sheen and a complex aroma with top notes of rot, ash, and shit. What parts of the shore that aren’t cemented over are muddy with a few scrubby plants along the barriers. The only nonhuman life in sight are scavenging gulls. The Yamuna, here, is by any definition, not a river. It has no oxygen. It supports no life.


What a contrast we found only a few kilometers north, on the other side of the dam at Wazirabad! There the river was still just that – glistening and rippling and sustaining a robust marsh ecosystem. In our brief time at this spot we saw multiple species of shore birds, fishers in the distance evidently having some luck, and a family setting out a picnic spread.

yamuna north

Efforts to clean up the Yamuna are ongoing. The tales we heard of impediments to river conservation were familiar: not enough funding, politicians breaking promises, increasing shoreline development, volatile chemical dumping, and general public ignorance. While we didn’t head back to our lodgings at the end of the day overly optimistic about the future of the Yamuna, we nevertheless shared a kind of grim realism that the scale of work it will take to bring back and sustain the health of this focal place and so many more like it is necessary and possible. May the two Yamunas become one again.


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Filed under Nature, Urban Ecology

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