India: Ganga Sagar Mela – This Popular Indian Festival Is Sinking Into the Sea

Pilgrims submerge themselves in the holy water where the River Ganges meets the sea.

By Catherine Davison      8 November 2019

Why you should care

This beach celebration in India is running out of beach. Climate Surprises: This OZY series captures the global warming-induced changes you’ve never thought about.  

Sitting in the gardens of the Kapil Muni Temple on Sagar Island, Sanjay Das seems unperturbed by the fact that the temple over which he presides is not, in fact, the original. “Three or four have already been lost in the sea,” he says, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the nearby beach where thousands of pilgrims have come to pray and submerge themselves in the waters.

At the confluence of the holy River Ganges and the Bay of Bengal, Sagar Island attracts millions of Hindu devotees each January for the Ganga Sagar festival. Last year, in the space of two days, an estimated 3 million Hindu pilgrims came to bathe in the holy waters. 

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The Kapil Muni Temple, where pilgrims come to offer prayers, has been relocated farther inland several times.
Source Catherine Davison

However, Sagar Island — and with it, the future of the festival — is under threat. Rising sea levels and coastal erosion are encroaching upon the land all across the Sundarbans, a delta of tiny islands nestled between east India and Bangladesh. The Kapil Muni Temple, where pilgrims offer prayers after a dip in the sea, has been moved several times to avoid being submerged.

While researchers argue over the extent to which climate change is to blame for the disappearing land, a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has a stark prediction: If current trends of warming and Antarctic ice melt continue, sea levels globally will rise by as much as one meter by 2100 — this would submerge most of the Sundarbans.

Pilgrims drying their saris after washing them in the sea.
Pilgrims drying their saris after washing them in the sea.
Source Catherine Davison

Still, Das is not worried. The millions of pilgrims who have visited this year’s festival came to pray, “so the temple will be protected,” he says.

Pilgrims bathe in the holy water where the river meets the sea.
Pilgrims bathe in the holy water where the river meets the sea.
Source Catherine Davison

Others are less sure. About a mile away, Chandan Senapati, walking along the beach outside his house, stops suddenly and squints at the blue expanse of water just visible on the horizon. “The sea is coming,” he predicts ominously.

It is a calm, breezeless day and the water, sparkling serenely in the evening sunlight, shows no sign of movement. But scattered debris and the odd remains of a building poking up among the sand dunes indicate that this was not always the case.

Ten years ago this beach was Shivpur, a thriving fishing community situated a few miles inland. In 2009, a tidal surge from Cyclone Aila submerged the village and left devastation in its wake. The Senapati family home was destroyed, and the pond they used for fresh drinking water and fish farming was flooded with salt water.

Although Aila was the last major disaster to strike Sagar Island, all of the islands in the Sundarbans are subject to regular floods and tidal surges, and cyclonic storms have been increasing in intensity over the past 50 years. Sagar Island has shrunk by about 20 square miles in the same space of time, and has seen an influx of displaced climate migrants from nearby islands such as Ghoramara, which has all but disappeared underwater.

The state government is now attempting to halt the erosion by building sea walls along the southern coast of the island; a sandbank built in 2018 now separates Shivpur from the flat expanse of beach leading to the sea. 

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Rampada Senapati, 46, and his sister-in-law, Madhumita Senapati, 39, bathe in the pond outside their house. The pond was flooded with saltwater during Cyclone Aila in 2009, leaving it useless for irrigating crops and farming fish for months. The family believes that climate change will eventually render the island totally underwater, forcing them to migrate to the mainland.
Source Catherine Davison

When asked what he thinks the future will look like for his children, Chandan shrugs helplessly. “God knows,” he says. “They will move. Maybe to Kolkata. But they cannot stay here. In 50 years’ time, these islands will just be seawater.”

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Like all islands in the Sundarbans, Sagar Island is slowly sinking, with sea levels rising year-on-year. Source Catherine Davison

And then, the bright and beautiful Ganga Sagar festival will be just a memory.

  • Catherine Davison, OZY Author