A Lake of Fire, A Runaway Goddess, and the Perils of Climate Change in India — The Revealer

A Lake of Hearth, A Runaway Goddess, and the Perils of Local weather Change in India — The Revealer

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(A canal from Bellandur Lake in Bangalore, India is roofed in poisonous suds. Photograph credit score: MANJUNATH KIRAN through Getty Photos.)

“When the shut of the thousand aeons has come and life has been spent, there befalls a drought of a few years that drives many of the creatures, of dwindling reserves and ravenous to their dying. . . . The Hearth of Annihilation then invades . . . [and] burns down all that’s discovered on earth. . .”
—Mahabharata (c. 500–200 B.C.E. Translated by J. A. B. van Buitenen)

When the Water Burns…

On February 17, 2017, the two-mile-long Bellandur Lake in my hometown of Bangalore, India caught fireplace. Blueish-red flames broke out on the water. Smoke billowed from the water’s floor, carrying the putrid odor of uncooked sewage and acrid chemical pollution throughout the Iblur village at its shore. For a number of years earlier than this fireplace, dense white foam coated the lake. The floor of the water, an oily sudsy smelly gray, might solely be glimpsed when the froth broke up. Due to the hearth, timber on the lakeshore, inexperienced a decade earlier than, had been now ashen, ghostly relics. Smoke blackened the partitions of a shrine devoted to the goddess Kateriamman, a wilderness goddess, revered because the keredevaru, or the “Goddess of the Lake.” It charred the branches of the sacred Peepul tree and the snake shrines beneath it. The winds that swirled via the hillsides of town blew a soapy froth into the streets, the place it coated autos and pedestrians alike in a stinging sudsy movie. 

A month after the hearth, somebody despatched me an unaired video interview for a Bangalorean tv community with a lady named Gauri. She was a middle-aged girl of the Tigala (horticulturist caste) and a resident of Iblur village. Within the interview, she haltingly stated she had grown up close to the water in a conventional horticultural household. She spoke powerfully of her recollections of the once-verdant panorama: there had been lovely sacred copses of inexperienced timber and the lake’s blue waters had been studded with pink lotus blossoms that her household harvested to worship the goddess Kateriamman.

Standing in entrance of the small temple, Gauri recalled the as soon as crystal-clear underground stream that bubbled beneath the deity and flowed into the sacred lake. She evoked the Hindu poetic myths of the sacred area, in Sanskrit termed the sthalapurana, or “the myths of sacred place,” to explain the world. Seen behind her had been the poisonous suds that had engulfed the sting of the once-beautiful physique of water. 

Gauri gestured despairingly towards the fiery lake and the shore plagued by plastic luggage, feces, lifeless fish, and refuse. She exclaimed, “The lake is burning. We reside on this world of filth. This sthalapurana has change into a terrifying story.” She paused, rendered breathless by the stench of the water, a mixture of sewage and chemical bleach. She requested, her voice rising in anger, “Do you see this mess? The water burns…My lungs are on fireplace! Have a look at it… What hell (naraka) is that this?” She then pointed to the temple and cried, “The Lake Goddess is now absent, raped by these builders! Perhaps She has run away from this hell!”

Belandur Lake on Fire

(Firefighters extinguish a fireplace on Bellandur Lake. Photograph credit score: MANJUNATH KIRAN through Getty Photos.)

Rocked by a paroxysm of coughing, drained from grief and anger, she requested with rising apprehension, “How can anybody reside with out water? What life is that this?”

Water in Hinduism

The lack of water is a potent query for a faith like Hinduism, the place water is considered a divine fluid and a present of the gods’ grace and kindness. For Hindus, water is sacred, the origin of all actuality, providing a way of lucent chance, a brand new rising, a delivery and a rebirth. Of the Hindu Vedic corpus, the oldest textual content, the Rig Veda, complied about 3700 B.C.E. speaks of water, (often called ap in Sanskrit,) as primordial, contained in an egg from which the whole lot else was born. The world was stated to have been “initially water with out gentle” the place “there was darkness, wrapped round by darkness, and throughout was water” (Salilam apraketam; Rig Veda X.29.3).

The Rig Veda additionally means that a number of gods embody water. Apas is the god of waters. Indra is god of the storm. Varuna is god of the sky and upholder of pure legislation, a god referred to within the texts straight and not directly as related to water. And eventually, we discover Parjanya, the god of the raincloud, who represents water within the type of rain, which sustains life on Earth and creates a bridge to the heavens. Hindus think about the water falling from the heavens to Earth — together with the monsoon rains that soak the subcontinent and kind rivers and lakes — as a cloth and religious bridge between the 2 realms of life and dying.

Rivers and water our bodies are female goddesses in Hinduism, identified for his or her fertility and sweetness, who had been made to descend from the heavens by human vows and penances, bringing ample life to India’s arid earth via their pure waters. Ethical filth, or what Western traditions name sin, often called papa in Sanskrit, is perceptible as bodily filth in these pure waters, all of that are seen as evocations of the good river goddess Ganga, air purifier of all beings.

Hindus have assimilated water into their on a regular basis lives, the place its otherworldly origins are made stronger and but extra manageable. Hindus use water to wash the idols of the gods (abhishkam), to eat as sacred water (tirtha), and to purify the world at massive (prokshanam). Water is thus primeval and important in Hinduism – an elixir of earthly life but in addition a sacred being with lifetime of its personal. Water purifies our bodies and ritual areas. It cools parched folks and deities alike.

However water as a godly being additionally wants care and nourishment.

The stress that Gauri’s despair factors to – between the importance of water in Hinduism on one hand, and the sordid, polluted state of water in lots of populated areas of the subcontinent, on the opposite – forces us to replicate on Gauri’s existential query of a parched life the place watery divinity is desiccated. In cosmological phrases the query is without doubt one of the potential homelessness of the gods: the place can the gods go when their houses are desecrated by air pollution? In actual world phrases the query is of the existence of life on the planet: if water is life, what’s a life with out water?

From the Metropolis of Lakes… 

Just a few centuries in the past, Bangalore was house to a thousand or extra sacred lakes and man-made rainwater catchment ponds referred to as “tanks” within the native English. So ubiquitous had been these our bodies of water that Bangalore was identified in antiquity as kalayananagara, or “town of lakes.” Each lake had a resident god or goddess, its personal keredevaru (gods of the lake) who locals worshipped utilizing the lake’s water and the produce grown round it. 

These water our bodies identified collectively as kere in Kannada, mixed with the sacred river Cauvery, fashioned a distinctive watery ecology within the Deccan plateau area. Canals often called rajakaluve (royal canals) led from one kere to a different alongside pure streams, distributing extra water by gravity through test dams and locks and thereby permitting your complete area to absorb rainwater and forestall flooding. Removed from rivers and oceans, the agrarian space that’s now Bangalore trusted this riparian system. 

Bellandur Lake in the 1980s e1633461906446

(Bellandur Lake in 1989. Photograph courtesy of Praveen Singh through The Information Minute.)

Agaram Lake, a big physique of water upstream from Bellandur, has additionally been coated with poisonous foam in recent times. Archeologists have discovered stone tablets at Agaram’s shore, coated in slime, with inscriptions relationship to the ninth century that talk of its utilization for consuming water and agriculture. Enlightened medieval rulers of Bangalore, together with feudatory lords reminiscent of Kempegowda (roughly 1513- 1570) and Muslim rulers reminiscent of Hyder Ali (1720-1782), excavated kere and constructed rajakaluve to avoid wasting and transport rainwater. Setting up lakes and canals had been religious endeavors for leaders of all faiths, guaranteeing punya or benefit within the karmic scale. Kings gave the lakes as sacred items, often called bittuvate, to the gods. In return, the gods granted them the correct to farm by the lakes and to fish from them.

Within the Nineteen Seventies, there have been nonetheless 285 of those sacred lakes in Bangalore, making town self-sufficient in its water wants. 

…to the Parched Metropolis 

However right now, Bangalore has fewer than 80 lakes.

Within the Nineteen Nineties town grew to become house to a profitable Info Know-how business. Often called “The Silicon Valley of Asia,” Bangalore has since been topic to unchecked urbanization. The numerous software program firms that sprung up through the dotcom growth of the late Nineteen Nineties attracted tons of of hundreds of expert IT professionals from throughout the nation, with hundreds extra unskilled migrants shifting from villages and small cities to town in quest of work. In consequence, the metropolis’s inhabitants doubled between 2000 and 2020 from 6 million to 12 million.

In line with research by the Indian Institute of Science within the metropolis, speedy urbanization and improvement is making town uninhabitable. There was a 1005% enhance in paved surfaces and a decline of 88% within the metropolis’s vegetation between 1973 and 2016. The dimensions of Bangalore has greater than tripled in simply over a decade to 800 sq. km– almost half the dimensions of London — swallowing open land. Builders, in collusion with corrupt metropolis authorities officers, have encroached upon the sacred kere system, dumping building rubble and uncooked sewage into the lakes.

And so, Bangalore can now not maintain its water sources. The town is perennially thirsty.

The Price of Thirst 

Daily, Bangalore pumps 1.4 billion liters of water via its pipes, however nonetheless fails to fulfill town’s wants by over 800 million liters. Rolling managed droughts are a actuality of metropolis life, particularly within the more and more scorching summers; the federal government publicizes which neighborhoods will get a few hours of water provide each few days. 

Most of Bangalore’s consuming water comes from the sacred Cauvery River that’s over 60 miles away from town. The Bangalore Water Provide and Sewerage Board was established as India’s first water-supply administration board and, as such, it carried the onus of carting the Cauvery to town, which is elevated over 1,500 ft above the river. The scheme grew to become operational in 1971 with enormous pumping stations to pump the water uphill. 

By 2016, town had pumped 1,400 million liters of water a day from the Cauvery River. And this water comes at a prohibitive price: $48.9 million in 1993, $150 million every year between 1997-2002, and $450 million in 2013. Right this moment, town nonetheless suffers from a water deficit. Because of its unchecked improvement and speedy development, town now requires 1,700 to 1,800 million liters day by day from the Cauvery River. In summer time, the demand shoots as much as 2,100-2,200 million liters day by day. And over 1,000,000 liters are misplaced per day from leakage and theft. That is no well-kept secret; a number of experiences on the state of Bangalore water provide describe the urgency of water shortage and the disruptive results of water insecurity on residents’ lives. 

Bangalore overpopulated

(Bangalore, India. Photograph credit score: Getty Photos.)

As early as 1991, regardless of the fixed and dear pumping of Cauvery water to town, water was so scarce that residents began digging personal piped borewells into town’s aquifer, the place they hit clear, pure water at 100 ft. Bangalore has no legal guidelines stopping personal drilling and lots of new communities constructed on town’s edge get all their water wants met by draining the aquifer.

Many roadways within the metropolis developed enormous sinkholes  that swallowed buildings complete because the groundwater was sucked up via these large straws, destabilizing the earth beneath town. 

Right this moment, as town inhabitants climbs to over 12 million, borewells sink deeper and deeper into the earth. Borewell operators say they have to now dig 1,000 ft to hit water, nearly as little as the River Cauvery. Because the water desk within the aquifer sinks, the kere get drier and drier as gravity drains the lakes, rivers, and swamps to feed the aquifer.

The story of Bangalore’s galloping water shortage and the mismanagement of its water sources, raises the query of whether or not we will nurture nature. Have we so polluted these pure sources that they will now not get well? Can we come to grips with the intersecting and multiplying issues of local weather change? Is it attainable to extend the capacities of faith, spirituality, and ethics to fulfill these challenges?

On the Fringe of the Abyss…

A small darkish granite picture of the deity Kateriamman sits within the temple at Bellandur. She is each the goddess of the lake and, because the priest of the temple tells me, the goddess of the sting, enu nalli, as a result of her temples sit between land and water, between the wilderness and the cultivated. However Kateriamman sits on one other edge as properly—the sting of the abyss of whole ecological collapse.  

An Indian water disaster is looming and Bangalore can be floor zero for it. On June 19, 2018, the Nationwide Institute for Remodeling India, an Indian authorities assume tank, warned that India’s water scarcity is perilous. Over 600 million folks can be affected by it. In creating international locations like India, girls are often tasked with foraging for water for the household, usually carrying it for miles. Water shortages will most probably have an effect on girls and the city poor, girls like Gauri. 

As students of Hinduism have famous, in Hindu texts there’s a shut but oppositional hyperlink between dharma (righteousness, responsibility, justice; from dhr, or that which sustains) and the despoiling of the Earth, notably of water. When dharma declines, human beings despoil nature.

The lakes of Bangalore have been ruined by speedy city improvement. Land costs within the metropolis skyrocketed 1,000% within the final twenty years, and so the land underneath the water of the lakes was extra worthwhile to builders than the waterbody itself. There was a scientific if erratic course of over the previous 30 years to deaden the lakes, to desiccate them, in order that they are often encroached upon much more. Over 100 lakes have been misplaced since 1970 to encroachments by the Bangalore Improvement Authority, to actual property builders, to rubbish dumps, and to unlawful buildings.

The remaining lakes which have water, reminiscent of Bellandur, are dumping grounds for building rubble, outfalls of sewage and industrial pollution, and poisonous algae, although they’re surrounded by among the most costly actual property in India. An estimated 500 million liters of untreated sewage reaches Bellandur Lake day by day, mixed with a cocktail of chemical compounds from small-scale manufacturing – mills, printers, dyers, and metallic works vegetation – making a “poisonous neighborhood” round it. Individuals who reside across the lake cough consistently, and infrequently get bronchitis and different lung ailments.

The price of this air pollution is staggering. The World Financial institution famous that in 2017 India spent over $600 million treating water-borne ailments. With growing air pollution, a large public well being disaster is brewing in India’s metastasizing cities. 

At Bellandur, the worldwide and intimate violence of local weather change and improvement have come house to roost. Prime Minister Modi’s excessive profile 2014 Swachch Bharat (“Clear India”) marketing campaign to tackle India’s air pollution collided together with his authorities’s concentrate on business, modernity, and improvement, main the marketing campaign to be relegated to a couple well-circulated photo-ops of elected officers wielding new brooms in already clear streets. In the meantime, Indian air and water air pollution elevated, protected forests had been illegally logged and mined, and cities had been trashed.

Specialists worry that Bangalore will quickly be uninhabitable. And although town municipal authorities has claimed it can clear up the lakes in 2022, and the Nationwide Inexperienced Tribunal has issued authorized notices to the entire companies concerned, the lake continues to be a poisonous mess. Municipal leaders have been apathetic at greatest and negligent at worst, even blaming the Tigala horticulturists by suggesting that they set the fires to clear vegetation. The town authorities additionally claimed there was no poisonous odor on the lake and that the air was clear, although citizen activist teams simply disputed such claims, calling Bellandur an enormous “septic tank.” 

Manjunatha, a shopkeeper within the neighborhood of Iblur, stated, “Points reminiscent of a serious fireplace or poisonous foam or an insufferable stench have change into a typical phenomenon on this space. When these occurred for the primary time in 2015 and 2016, they had been enormous spectacles. However these days these seem to have change into a brand new ‘regular’ in our space.”

Gauri and others who reside close to Bangalore’s remaining lakes say the keredevaru, the divine beings that inhabit water, have fled due to the air pollution and the dearth of care for his or her houses.

The place do water gods go when the world is desiccated? How do Hindus, within the inventive complexity of how they worth, outline, specific and apply ethics, strategy the Age of Local weather Disaster? Or, merely put, is the Hindu non secular creativeness being eviscerated by local weather change? 

If, as Mohamed Meziane not too long ago famous, secularization is a defining function of modernity’s delivery, then it’s pure to ask: did secularization engender local weather change? Is secularization an uncomfortable inheritance of colonialism and in addition a set of eroding ecological processes? This doesn’t indicate that we merely critique secularism, or unthinkingly pivot to toxic Hindu fundamentalism. Moderately, we should reject fundamentalism and its unholy alliance with fashionable neoliberal improvement. Re-turning to faith, we’ve to ask ourselves: what does the ethical stewardship of this Earth contain? And might faith afford us a vocabulary and techniques to enact such stewardship that restores our ecological sources? 

A Method Ahead…

Gauri’s lakeside requiem calls for from us, on the very least, to take water significantly, as anthropologist Stefan Helmreich suggests, as “good to assume with.” As many anthropologists have argued, we have to re-center water as pure and elemental to life, together with non secular life. Fascinated with water inside the context of faith means that religions like Hinduism must be re-examined in gentle of the present environmental disaster, as faith helps to form our attitudes towards nature in each acutely aware and unconscious methods.

Religions present fundamental interpretive tales of who we’re, what nature is, the place we’ve come from, and the place we’re going. What folks do about their ecology depends upon what they give thought to themselves in relation to nature. And spiritual worlds create moral and ethical frameworks that construction how we consider nature as both exploitable or as needing stewardship.

As life on the planet is unraveling in methods each seen and unseen, Gauri’s elegy for the runaway goddess means that the delicate understanding of the lake as a sacred being worthy of safety has dissolved within the face of contemporary city improvement. The query that Gauri leaves us with is that this: can folks of religion reconstruct an understanding of the wilderness as sacred to win the ecological battle in opposition to the forces of improvement? Can we pledge to revive the planet sufficient to steer the goddess to return to the lake?


Tulasi Srinivas is professor of anthropology, faith and transnational research on the Marlboro Institute of Interdisciplinary Research at Emerson School. Her subsequent guide The Lacking Goddess, focuses upon girls, water and eco-violence in her hometown of Bangalore.


Concerned with extra on this subject? Try the quick documentary The Burning Lake by Tulasi Srinivas.


The writer want to provide these acknowledgements: I’m grateful to the Luce-ACLS fellowship in Faith, Journalism and Worldwide Affairs which I acquired in 2017-18, for permitting me time to consider Bangalore’s burning lakes. The Luce-ACLS invited me to provide a keynote at a convention at Arizona State College, the place I developed some preliminary concepts for this paper and a few enduring friendships sharing issues for the surroundings. I’m notably grateful to Toby Volkman of the Luce Basis and Prof. Ann Gold for his or her beneficiant mentorship. My colleagues at Emerson School—Dean Amy Ansell, Professors Wyatt Oswald and Jon Honea—have been invaluable mental companions. Prof. Jack Hawley, whose friendship has been such a present, invited me to talk at Columbia College within the South Asia seminar sequence, which developed this text additional, as did Prof. Tuhina Ganguly at Shiv Nader College for his or her Monsoon sequence, and Prof. Vandana Madan at Delhi College. I’m grateful to all of them. Moreover, I thank Vishwanath Srikantaiah of Biome Environmental Options, Bangalore for his time and assist. And eventually, my gratitude to the editors of the Revealer for inviting me to contribute this piece.

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