On Delhi’s Toxic River, Prayers to a Sun Struggling to Shine Through Smog

The four-day Hindu festival of Chhath, which concluded on Thursday, is a celebration of the sun deity Surya during which worshippers fast and make offerings while standing in water.

There was a dire need for the warning, since the river’s water was completely obscured by a toxic foam of industrial waste and sewage. It looked like the morning after a snowy night, and anyone who didn’t know better may have been fooled.

The Yamuna River, a sacred branch of the Ganges that flows through India’s capital, New Delhi, is a popular location for festival celebrations.

The festival season in November always serves as an uncomfortable reminder of how severely polluted the city’s water and air still are. One of Delhi’s primary water sources, the Yamuna, has been polluted to the point where it is no longer suitable to swim in or use for irrigation along its 13-mile path through the city.

Delhi’s municipal government attempted a hasty cleanup of the festival site last week, but the river’s pollution crisis, which has persisted for decades, received embarrassing new attention. To combat the foam, the government dispatched boats to try to sweep it away, bamboo obstacles to prevent its spread, and personnel with hoses to spray the river with clean water.

A reporter in Delhi was seen asking a government employee, “What are you doing?”

I am putting water on the froth right now,” he declared.

Despite the government of Delhi’s warnings that the coronavirus that devastated the city earlier this year remains a threat, the throngs of worshippers who flocked to the riverfront seemed unfazed.

What’s a Little Foam in the Face of Trust, they said.

Taxis, tractor waggons, and big trucks crammed with family bearing traditional sugar-cane offerings rode in to the festival. They appeared wearing everything from dazzling saris to sharp suits. Some even brought their own sound systems, powered by a car battery, and wandered around barefoot.

Even though she hadn’t eaten in three days, Kiran Devi said she wasn’t worried because she planned to break her fast after the final prayer of the celebration. I’m sure everything will be OK once I go in the water.

Some people pushed the foam away with their hands to provide a little space for praying. In contrast, some people were using sticks. It was impossible to avoid the unpleasant smells.

Devi arrived on Wednesday at nightfall, and she and her ten-person family planned to spend the night on the riverside in anticipation of the festival’s concluding event, a worship ceremony held at sunrise.

The majority of the fasting population consisted of women, who prepared the food offerings by filling baskets with radishes, bananas, and coconuts and then burning little clay lamps, called diyas, with ghee. Most of the males stayed and had lengthy conversations.

Her button-selling brother-in-law, 36-year-old Sonu Prasad, added, “When I shower, it goes into a tiny canal, then a huge canal, then it goes into the river.”

It’s a sewer, Ravi Shankar Gupta, Devi’s husband and Sonu’s older brother, stated. But the Sun God promises, “If you will make an offering to me while standing in the gutter, I will protect you for the rest of the year.”

Noise from the Carnival Persisted all Night and Ramped Up Again as Morning Approached.

A group of kids were throwing firecrackers at each other’s feet, causing everyone to duck for cover.

Young people broadcasted the celebrations live on their Facebook accounts. Others picked up the foam and pretended it was a snowflake for their selfies. Numerous tattoo parlours, ice cream stands, and balloon vendors were present. The ubiquitous chai carts, of course.

Young man: “There is no sugar in this, brother, what kind of chai is this?” as he pushes his cup through the crowd to the tea vendor. The chai vendor snatched a bit of sugar and tossed it in.

Final Words

The youngsters were already set up for the night with their own sleeping bags and blankets, and Devi’s family had brought a rug and a few more. Her husband Gupta stated that the couple was staying the night so that they could be at the water’s edge for morning before the crowds arrived.