By Altaf Qadri

More than 2,000 years ago, a powerful king built a fort on the banks of India’s holiest river, on the fringes of what is now a vast industrial city.

Today, little of the ancient construction remains, except for mounds of rubble that tannery workers pick through for bricks to build shanties atop what was once the fortress of the great King Yayati.

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Above: The confluence of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers, which is officially accepted as the start of the River Ganga, is illuminated at twilight in the town of Devprayag, in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand.

And Kanpur, where Yayati built his fort, is a city known for its leather tanneries and the relentless pollution they pump into the Ganga.

For more than 1,700 miles, from the Gangotri Glacier in the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, the Ganga flows across the plains like a timeline of India’s past, nourishing an extraordinary wealth of life. It has seen empires rise and fall. It has seen too many wars, countless kings, British colonials, India's struggle for independence and the rise of Hindu nationalism as a political movement.

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Above: The Milky Way glows above the 6856-metres-tall Bhagirathi peaks as seen from Tapovan, at an altitude of 4500 metres in Uttarakhand.

In India, the Ganga is far more than just a river. It is religion, industry, farming and politics. It is a source of water for millions of people, and an immense septic system that endures millions of gallons of raw sewage.

To Hindus, the Ganga is “Ganga Ma” and a centre of spiritual life for more than a billion people. Every year, millions of Hindus make pilgrimages to the temples and shrines along its shores. To drink from it is auspicious. For many Hindus, life is incomplete without bathing in it at least once in their lifetime, to wash away their sins.

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Above: Schoolgirls walk along a road overlooking Tehri Dam in Uttarakhand. The Tehri Dam built on the Bhagirathi river is India's highest dam and supplies power and water to numerous Indian towns and cities. The Bhagirathi river is one of the two sources that form the River Ganga, the other being the Alaknanda river.

But all is not well with the Ganga.

Pollution has left large sections of it dangerous to drink. Criminal gangs illegally mine sand from its banks to feed India’s relentless appetite for concrete. Hydroelectric dams along the river’s tributaries, needed to power India’s growing economy, have infuriated some Hindus, who say the sanctity of the river has been compromised.

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Above: Indian Hindu pilgrims walk on a pontoon bridge before dawn at Sangam, the confluence of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna, and mythical Saraswati during Magh Mela, a festival that attracts millions of pilgrims every year, in Prayagraj, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. In the run-up to the bathing festivals, extra water is released upstream and tanneries are temporarily closed to clean up the waters of the Ganga. But pollution officials say that it is unsafe to bathe in the Ganga anywhere near Prayagraj.

And over the past 40-some years, the Gangotri Glacier — the source of almost half the Ganga's water — has been receding at an increasingly frightening pace, now losing about 22 metres (yards) per year.

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Above: Mouni Baba, a Hindu holy man, fetches water from a stream at the feet of Mount Shivling in Tapovan, at an altitude of 4500 metres in Uttarakhand. Mouni Baba, on a silent vow, has been meditating in Tapovan for years, even during the long months when winter makes the place inaccessible. Tapovan is located just above the Gangotri Glacier.

For millennia, the Gangotri’s glacial meltwater has ensured the arid plains get enough water, even during the driest months. The rest comes from the Himalayan tributaries that flow from the colossal chain of mountains.

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Above: A Hindu holy man meditates near Gaumukh, a snout of the Gangotri Glacier at an altitude of 4000 metres in Uttarakhand. Gaumukh, which literally means the head of a cow, is rapidly moving backwards as Gangotri Glacier has receded considerably for the last few centuries. Research has shown that Gaumukh has retreated around three kilometres in two centuries.

As the Ganga flows across the plains, its once-clean and mineral-rich water begins collecting the toxic waste from the millions of people who depend on it, becoming one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Millions of litres (gallons) of sewage, along with heavy metals, agricultural pesticides, human bodies and animal carcasses, are dumped into the Ganga every day.

At times, officials try to fix things but vast stretches of it remain dangerously unhealthy.

Still, to Hindus, the river remains religiously pure.

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Above: A crowd gathers for a prayer ceremony dedicated to the River Ganga in Varanasi, one of the Hinduism's holiest cities in India. For millions of Hindus, Varanasi is a place of pilgrimage and anyone who dies in the city or is cremated on its ghats is believed to attain salvation and is freed from the cycle of birth and death. Some of the world's largest religious congregations are marked in Varanasi, a city along the River Ganga, also known as one of the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.

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Above: An Indian Hindu family walks on the shallow banks of the River Yamuna, covered with chemical foam caused by industrial and domestic pollution, during Chhath Puja festival in New Delhi. Despite the river being accorded the status of a living human entity by an Indian court, untreated sewage and industrial pollutants have turned it into one of the most polluted rivers in the world. The Yamuna is one of the major tributaries of the Ganga.

Every year, tens of thousands of Hindus bring the bodies of their loved ones to be cremated at the Ganga in Varanasi.

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Above: A worker who helps cremate bodies sits by the body of an elderly man, wrapped and weighed down by a large rock, before throwing the body into the river Ganga as per his final wish, on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi. Tens of thousands of corpses are cremated in the city each year, leaving half-burnt flesh, dead bodies and ash floating in the Ganga.

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Above: People wait for their turn to cremate a body as piles of logs arrive on boats at Manikarnika Ghat, one of the oldest and most sacred places for Hindus to be cremated, on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi.

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Above: Funeral pyres burn at Manikarnika Ghat.

After Varanasi, the Ganga continues its eastward journey through endless farmland as it nears the coast, eventually splitting off into ever-smaller rivers in the great wilderness of her delta. The biggest river, the Hooghly, heads south towards the sea, passing through Kolkata, the largest city in eastern India. Once the capital of the British raj, known as Calcutta, today the seething metropolis is home to nearly 15 million people.

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Above: A fisherman boat moves past a floating hotel on the river Hooghly, a distributary of the River Ganga.

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Above: A man carries a bucket of water while people wash utensils, brush their teeth and bathe in the polluted waters of the Hooghly, in the backdrop of the landmark Howrah Bridge in Kolkata.

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Above: Indian Hindu devotees prepare to immerse an idol of goddess Durga in the Hooghly. Hundreds of thousands of idols are immersed into the Ganga and other rivers across the country on Durga Puja festival, causing serious concerns of environmental pollution.

Eventually, its waters spill into the Bay of Bengal.

Up near the Gangotri Glacier, a genial Hindu holy man who goes by the name Mouni Baba (shown above in one of the photographs) and spends much of his life in silent meditation sees all of mankind reflected in the river.

“Human existence is like this ice,” he said. “It melts and becomes water and then merges into a stream. The stream goes into a tributary which flows into a river and then it all ends up in an ocean. Some (rivers) remain pure while others collect dirt along the way. Some (people) help mankind and some become the cause of its devastation.”

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Above: An Indian fisherman wades through shallow waters to reach the banks of the river Ganga after sundown in Bhagalpur in the eastern Indian state of Bihar.

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[Bleed image]: A Hindu pilgrim takes a holy dip on Makar Sankranti festival on Sagar Island, an island in the Ganga delta, in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal.

— All images courtesy of Altaf Qadri for The Associated Press