Image: Clear spots on the petri dish mark where phages have destroyed bacteria in a sample of water taken from the Ganges River. (Photography by Martine Crandall Hollick)
Hindus have always believed that water from India's Ganges River has extraordinary powers. The Indian emperor Akbar called it the "water of immortality" and always traveled with a supply. The British East India Co. used only Ganges water on its ships during the three-month journey back to England, because it stayed "sweet and fresh."
Indians have always claimed it prevents diseases, but do these claims have scientific substance?
In this podcast sourced from National Public Radio, independent producer Julian Crandall Hollick searched for the "mysterious X factor" that gives Ganges water its mythical reputation.
He starts his investigation looking for the water's special properties at the river's source in the Himalayas. There, wild plants, radioactive rocks, and unusually cold, fast-running water combine to form the river. But since 1854, almost all of the Ganges' water has been siphoned off for irrigation as it leaves the Himalayas.
Hollick speaks with DS Bhargava, a retired professor of hydrology, who has spent a lifetime performing experiments up and down Ganges in the plains of India. In most rivers, Bhargava says, organic material usually exhausts a river's available oxygen and starts putrefying. But in the Ganges, an unknown substance, or "X factor" that Indians refer to as a "disinfectant," acts on organic materials and bacteria and kills them. Bhargava says that the Ganges' self-purifying quality leads to oxygen levels 25 times higher than any other river in the world.
Hollick's search for a scientific explanation for the X factor leads him to a spiritual leader at an ashram and a biologist in Kanpur. But his best answer for the Ganges' mysterious substance comes from Jay Ramachandran, a molecular biologist and entrepreneur in Bangalore.
In a short science lesson, Ramachandran explains why the Ganges doesn't spread disease among the millions of Indians who bathe in it. But he can't explain why the Ganga alone has this extraordinary ability to retain oxygen.