The River Aire, a polluted waterway that sluices through Bradford, a racially troubled city in northern England, seems an unlikely spot in the Hindu cycle of reincarnation. But the 6,000-strong local Hindu population is seeking permission from Bradford City Council to turn the river into a "symbolic" Ganges--India's holiest river, which is believed to wash away sin and release the soul from the body for its heavenward journey. It is believed to be the first time that Indians living overseas have tried to create a Ganges substitute. "Many families cannot afford the journey to India," said Gupta, who is chairman of the World Council of Hindus in Yorkshire. "We wanted a site where we can say farewell to our loved ones with grace and dignity."
The Ganges flows 1,600 miles from northern India to Bangladesh, and is worshipped as the mother goddess of India. The Bradford river, which is popular with anglers, trickles into life north of Skipton in the Pennine hills and runs a mere 100 miles before it empties into the River Ouse. But Gupta argues that with the necessary leap of faith, the Aire will serve just as well. "The most important thing is where your mind is," he explained.
Hindus believe that the Ganges was brought to Earth by Lord Shiva, who knotted his hair, received the water on his head and allowed it to flow harmlessly to the ground. In Varanasi, the heartland of the Hindu religion, thousands of pilgrims walk into the Ganges every day in the belief it will cleanse their sins. Cremation pyres line the ghats, or man-made banks with steps leading to the river, as the bodies of those who die in the holy city crackle and burn.
The site proposed by the council--a piece of waste ground beneath Apperley Bridge on the outskirts of Bradford--is far removed from the ancient wonder of Varanasi. The muddy brown river littered with refuse, a used car lot, and the training ground for the city's soccer team are the only views. But Gupta is optimistic. "It is a nice site. ... it is easy to get to."
The project, if approved by local authorities and the Environment Agency, will further contribute to Bradford's multicultural image.
The population of 486,000 includes 71,000 people of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin and 12,000 from India--many attracted to work in Bradford's textile mills in the 1950s and 1960s. The city is segregated along racial, ethnic and religious lines. Last summer, Bradford was one of four northern English cities wracked by rioting involving whites and South Asians.
The troubles have been widely blamed on agitation by right-wing groups. But a report commissioned by the city council found that communities were ghettoized, that children left school with little knowledge of other cultures and that intolerance was growing.
Such prejudice was evident in the George and Dragon, a quaint 18th-century pub that overlooks Apperley Bridge. Asked about the river proposal, Mick Rhodes, a construction worker playing a slot machine during his lunch break, said: "I do not like it." "Round here is scenic. It is a white area, and people do not want coach loads of ethnics coming down and throwing their ashes in the water," he added, to murmurs of approval from his drinking colleagues.
The local council is approaching the application cautiously. "I can assure people that no decision on such an issue would be made without the fullest possible consultation with the local community," said Anne Hawkesworth, the council's environment executive.