Safeguarding the Ganges

  • Aquaterra guide Sohan Singh Rana leading guests through a run of white water.

    Aquaterra guide Sohan Singh Rana leading guests through a run of white water.

  • A bend in the Ganges as it flows past the town of Tapovan, eight kilometers upstream from Rishikesh.

    A bend in the Ganges as it flows past the town of Tapovan, eight kilometers upstream from Rishikesh.

  • A beach along the Kaudiyala-Rishikesh stretch of the Ganges.

    A beach along the Kaudiyala-Rishikesh stretch of the Ganges.

  • Terraced down a hillside above the Ganges, Atli Ganga features amenities such as a 14-meter swimming pool.

    Terraced down a hillside above the Ganges, Atli Ganga features amenities such as a 14-meter swimming pool.

  • Aquaterra rafting guide Sohan Singh Rana.

    Aquaterra rafting guide Sohan Singh Rana.

  • Aquaterra rafting guide Avval Singh Bhandari.

    Aquaterra rafting guide Avval Singh Bhandari.

  • A perfect stretch of rafting waters on the holy river.

    A perfect stretch of rafting waters on the holy river.

  • Shivpuri and other beaches along the Ganges once bristled with camp tents,

    Shivpuri and other beaches along the Ganges once bristled with camp tents,

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Built with stone, reed, and steel wire in an organic style vaguely reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright, Atali Ganga features 22 ski-resort style cottages and a central lodge set on hillside terraces above the Ganges about an hour’s drive from Rishikesh. There’s a swimming pool that overlooks a bend in the river, a rope challenge course, and a seven-meter climbing wall on the premises, not to mention rafting and kayaking facilities. Kala’s business partner, Manoj Biswas, who manages the property, spent 14 years with the Oberoi Group before striking out on his own, so the amenities and level of service are top-notch. With just the right level of creature comforts, my room reminded me a little of the safari lodges operated by Taj Hotels and &Beyond in India’s tiger reserves—neither too basic nor too opulent.

After a morning on the river, I relaxed with my Kindle and a cup of coffee on the terrace of my cottage, watching a group that was leaving on a 10-day hike troop up and down the hillside. Earlier, I’d tromped a few kilometers through the surrounding sal and teak forest with one of Aquaterra’s trekking guides, so I figured I’d earned the rest. But it wasn’t long before the clamor of the boys from the ITC group lured me down to try a few scrambles up the climbing wall.

Kala conceived Atali as a “complete back-to-nature product,” as he puts it. So rafting and other activities, as well as all meals, are included as part of the package. All-inclusive rates are nothing new, but here, there’s a messianic aspect to the strategy, since the idea of Atali is in part to introduce a new generation of Indians to the outdoors, and inspire them to want to protect it.

“When everything is billed à la carte, people don’t tend to step out,” Manoj told me. “To make sure everybody is able to experience what Atali has, it’s critical for it to be all-inclusive.”

That philosophy, as well as the Oberoi-style attention to detail, has also protected Atali from the ever-present temptation to try to be all things to all customers—an especially difficult problem in India, where agents routinely make false promises to get bookings and leave hoteliers to deal with the consequences. On the one hand, the emphasis on outdoor activities provides an alternative focus to the usual roster of beers, bonfires, and Bollywood. On the other, Atali’s elegant —and permanent—architecture instills a feeling of respect for the river and the hills that the haphazard and transient beach camps, which by their temporariness encouraged the illusion that they had no impact on the forest around them, had always failed to do. Ugliness is the enemy of conservation.

In overcrowded India, though, it will take more than a few good architects to make that problem go away.

I’d known about rafting on the Ganges for several years, but the concern over the industry’s impact on the environment first came to my attention last May, when the sadhus responsible for setting the agenda of the right-wing Vishva Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) spoke out against the business at their annual gathering in the pilgrimage town Haridwar. In their flowing orange robes, dreadlocks, and long beards, the ascetics looked, well, less than scientific, and their claims seemed misguided. Millions of liters of raw sewage and factory effluent spill directly into the Ganges from Haridwar and larger settlements downstream. Yet for the sadhus, it was the rafting camps on the river that had ensured no pure “Ganja jal,” or holy water, could be found in Haridwar, one of the seven most sacred cities of Hinduism.

In a sense, they’re right. As the case before the NGT made clear, nobody conducted a study of the potential impact of the 100-odd rafting camps before granting them permits, and many, if not all, of the companies operating on the river had been violating the forest department rules. Yet zeroing in on rafting, because it happens on the river and amid the protected forest, suggests that islands of conservation can be isolated from the country around them—as if trash, sewage, and industrial poison don’t flow downstream.

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