In Varanasi, India the boat rides on the Ganges River are part of the spiritual experience and the film introduces the audience to the river, an auspicious event called “Dev Diwali,” and one particular boatman, whose main source of strength and survival comes from the Ganges.

The full moon of the autumn month of Kartik is celebrated as a special day throughout much of India, but as usual, Banaras (also known as Varanasi) is a little different.  This short film captures that sense of specialness. Many thousands of oil lamps appear on the banks of the Ganges that day—called not Diwali but Dev Diwali—and there’s a huge bump in the pilgrim trade.  The festival is remarkably new, in some parts densely choreographed. Yet the film gives us a chance to encounter the moods, perspectives, and daily realities of one of the boatmen who ply the river that day and every other.

John Hawley, Ph.D., Professor of Religion, Barnard College, Columbia University
Synopsis: 

Varanasi, India is one of the holiest cities, located in the northeastern part of the country. People from all over India, even the world, travel to Varanasi to bathe in the Ganges River to wash away their sins and purify their souls. Along the river embankment are boatmen who row tourists up and down the Ganges during Dev Diwali, a festival celebrated 15 days after the national holiday of Diwali. The boat rides are part of the spiritual experience on this holy day, and the film introduces the audience to the river, this auspicious event, and one particular boatman, whose main source of strength and survival comes from the Ganges. Somani has another film with New Day called Crossing Lines.

Reviews

Life on the Ganges is a vibrant film about the ethnoscape in and around the Ganges River. In her brief and impressive characterization, Somani’s succeeds in giving viewers darshan of one of the most sacred sites in all of India. Her portrayal of the life of Ganges boatman reveals both their economic hardships as well as their steady devotion.

Deepak Sarma, Ph.D., Professor of Religious Studies, Case Western Reserve Universit

Indira Somani's short film Life of the Ganges gives the world a glimpse of the holy city of Varanasi. Instead of focusing on deep traditions of the city, the work focuses on a recent spread the beautiful ritual of Dev Diwali. We learn that more than 50,000 clay lamps light up the banks of the Ganges on this day and the spectacle brings many people from near and far as spectators. This visual treat is offset by the voice of an aging boatman who tells us of the river as a mother and goddess.

Sanjeev Chatterjee, M.F.A., Professor of Cinema and Interactive Media, University of Miami

Beautiful imagery captures Hindu devotion along the banks of the sacred Ganges River, considered a goddess by those who travel from afar to worship her and to be cremated on her banks, and also by those who live in Varanasi and make a living plying boats for pilgrims.  The film thus simply depicts how the river goddess sustains both religious and economic life, inspiring hope even amidst poverty in one of India's oldest and holiest cities.

Tracy Coleman, Ph.D., Professor of Religion, Colorado College

Vivid and direct, “Life on the Ganges” manages in a short span to convey the sincere devotion of the Hindus who live and work along the sacred river, while evoking the precariousness of that life for those who must make a living plying boats for tourists. Somani poignantly juxtaposes scenes of a boatman’s humble home life with his young boss’s cavalier assessment of the job’s long hours and lack of a “retirement system.” 

Tim Lubin, Ph.D., Professor of Religion, Washington and Lee University

"Like her physical presence, the Ganga's meaning for a civilization of hundreds of millions of people is an immensity that can be appreciated only in the gesture and the moment that is small, humble and consecrated by attention to her living symbolism. Indira Somani's Life on the Ganges immerses the viewer in one such story that partakes of the life-giving reality of this river to its children. In the life and words of Gowri Shankar, a boatman who awaits the festival days and the arrival of devotees who will give him business, we become witness to the inextricable harmony of the material and the spiritual, the aesthetic and philosophical, the everyday and the cosmic, that is Hindu life. In a time when the Gangetic civilization has become an object of exploitation by sensationalistic media giants hungry to exoticize and demonize the other with crude and false slogans like "City of Death,"  Somani's effort reminds us that no gesture or action is too small or unimportant in a culture steeped in reverence and gratitude. Students will find much to learn and appreciate in this short film. In showing us Ganga as Mother to its people, it also conveys to us a sense of Ganga as Guru to us all."

Vamsee Juluri, Ph.D., Professor of Media Studies, University of San Francisco

"Indira Somani's work helped me see the Ganges anew -- the lives around it, the lives dependent on it. Her journalist's eye is evident in every shot and the story of one particular boatman is rendered with intimacy."

S. Mitra Kalita, M.S.J., Award winning journalist and author
Director's Commentary: 

Many films have been made about the pollution in India, particularly, how polluted the water sources have become.  With this film, I captured a different side of the Ganges River, and why visiting Varanasi and bathing in the river still remains a spiritual pilgrimage.