SACRED WATERS: A Pilgrimage Up the Ganges River to the Source of Hindu Culture

Stephen Alter, Author . Harcourt $25 (384p) ISBN 978-0-15-100585-7

In his latest travel memoir, Alter (Amritsar to Lahore) tracks the inexorable path of "progress" and various human responses to it. Progress is embodied in the roads and new dams that exist where before there were only footpaths for Hindus traveling to the "four main sources of the Ganga—a journey known as the Char Dham Yatra." The once arduous mountain pilgrimage used to take devout Hindus up to four months, but now, in public buses or air-conditioned coaches, it might take a couple of weeks. Alter begins his journey on foot, traveling through the Himalayas, in whose foothills he was born. Seeing himself not as a mountaineer but as a pilgrim who "becomes one with this terrain," undertaking "tapasya," Hindu for surviving on "whatever the forest provides," Alter, writer-in-residence at MIT, describes political, socioeconomic and ecological changes in the terrain and people he encounters. One man calls a series of dams in Tehri "temples of the future," while another describes the same as "sacrilege, modern technology obstructing the inexorable current of a holy river." Well-versed in Hindu mythology, Alter (an atheist, himself) infuses the book with spiritual tales. It was the author's goal to evoke a fast disappearing way of life and topography, to show spiritual interests eclipsed by material ones. With vivid descriptions of the many people, villages, dharamshalas, shrines, ashrams and Indian customs so foreign and seemingly inaccessible to most Westerners, Alter achieves this end, portraying a landscape before it is effectively trampled by what is called "progress." (Oct.)

Reviewed on: 10/15/2001
Release date: 10/01/2001
Paperback - 384 pages - 978-0-15-602748-9
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