On the Banks of the Ganga

When Wastewater Meets a Sacred River
Kelly D. Alley
Explores the collision of sacred purity with environmental pollution of the river Ganga (Ganges)


In this rich ethnographic study, Kelly D. Alley sheds light on debates about water uses, wastewater management, and the meanings of waste and sacred power. On the Banks of the Ganga analyzes the human predicaments that result from the accumulation and disposal of waste by tracing how citizens of India interpret the impact of wastewater flows on a sacred river and on their own cultural practices.

Alley investigates ethno-semantic, discursive, and institutional data to flesh out the interplay between religious, scientific, and official discourses about the river Ganga. Using a new outward layering methodology, she points out that anthropological analysis must separate the historical and discursive strands of the debates concerning waste and sacred purity in order to reveal the cultural complexities that surround the Ganga. Ultimately, she addresses a deeply rooted cultural paradox: if the Ganga river is considered sacred by Hindus across India, then why do the people allow it to become polluted?

Examining areas of contemporary concern such as water usage and urban waste management in the most populated river basin in the world, this book will appeal to anthropologists and readers in religious, environmental, and Asian studies, as well as geography and law.

Kelly D. Alley is Associate Professor and Director of Anthropology at Auburn University. In addition to being a prolific writer, she has conducted research on public culture and environmental issues in northern India for over a decade. Alley is currently overseeing a project to ameliorate river pollution problems in India.

Praise / Awards

  • "Within a spate of recent publications on religion and environment, there is nothing quite like Kelly Alley's fascinating study of Hinduism's sacred river Ganges as 'wastescape.' Alley's layered methodology traces myth and ritual, science and politics through the river's past and present. Based on years of difficult, tenacious fieldwork, this book depicts multiple, un-reconciled meanings of Ganga as divine all-purifying mother goddess and carrier of bacterial load and toxic effluents."
    —Ann Grodzins Gold, Syracuse University
  • "Bravely and forthrightly, this book addresses serious and puzzling questions about how the religious category of purity relates in practice to political, ethical, and legal concerns about pollution."
    —Anne Feldhaus, Arizona State University
  • "A tour de force! A seasoned fieldworker, with powerful theoretical mind, addresses the pressing issue of what happens when cultural relativism is confronted by human rights and environmental issues by focusing on the Ganga, a source of both cosmological purity and of deadly pollution. It should be read by all those interested in the place of culture in environmental, ecological, and development issues, regardless of one's geographic specialization."
    —Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, University of Wisconsin at Madison
  • "Recent years have witnessed a florescence of exemplary environmental scholarship across a range of disciplines. On the Banks of the Ganga is a signal contribution to this literature. In focusing on the contested notions of purity and pollution and the cultural politics of waste management in India's sacred city of Banaras, it demonstrates, as few books have, the power of ethnographic research to elucidate environmental debates. As a contribution to the emerging field of environmental anthropology, On the Banks of the Ganga is unparalleled."
    —J. Peter Brosius, University of Georgia
  • "This book represents a continuation and summation of Alley's important work on  how the intersection of religious, scientific, political, and other discourses determines the ecological future of a region, in this case, as centered on the Ganges. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the cultural dimensions of ecology in general, and of India's environmental situation in particular."
    —Lance E. Nelson, University of San Diego, Editor of Purifying the Earthly Body of God: Religion and Ecology in Hindu India
  • "Kelly Alley has given us a remarkably intricate story of the lived reality of purity and pollution in the most sacred river of India, the Ganges. She is not only doing groundbreaking work in the intersections of culture, ecology and religion, she is paving the way for scholars to be engaged in environmental movements of historic significance."
    —Mary Evelyn Tucker, Bucknell University
  • "A prophetic exemplar and trenchant analysis of the conflicting cultural, bureaucratic, and industrial interests stymieing solution of the 21st century's major environmental problem: rampant water-resource pollution. A sophisticated, innovative urban anthropology."
    —Owen Lynch, New York University
  • "Alley skillfully uses the problem of wastewater effluence into the sacred Ganges as a vehicle for a sensitive appreciation of bureaucratic, scientific, and religious perspectives on contested facticities. She highlights the fact that environmental strategies will stumble where they do not have the understanding of dominant consumers, and makes clear that the dissonance among technocratic and religious voices makes a united ecological movement to 'clean' the Ganga unlikely."
    —Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, University of Chicago
  • "The book is exemplary in its patient, detailed parsing of one of the most powerful examples of the sort of colliding cultural categories and definitions which ethnographers face more often than many are willing to admit."
    Journal of Anthropological Research

  • ". . . truly pathbreaking. Based on more than eight years of tenacious fieldwork at Varanasi, Kanpur, and other sites along the Ganges, the book is not only a sensitive portrayal of the problems, conflicts, and solutions to a significant environmental problem of our times but also offers a perceptive view of Indian spirituality and its conflicts with issues of the material world. . . . [O]ffers unique and interesting insights about cultural practices and beliefs in a civilization which has been subjected to centuries of colonial rule and in which elements of the past are juxtaposed with the present. Using the Ganges as a case study, this book demonstrates the complexity of issues in a developing country such as India and is likely to be useful to students, research scholars, environmentalists, policymakers, and others."
    Journal of Asian Studies

  • "...in a manner that commands respect, Alley provides an empirically grounded, as well as theoretically astute, model of how to combine culture and ecology, and how to negotiate an analytical path between widely different environmental meanings and practices."
    The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

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Copyright © 2002, University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 312pp.
  • 10 photographs, 1 table, 3 maps, 2 illustrations.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2002
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-06808-1

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  • $37.95 U.S.