Sue Perkins undertakes an epic journey along the Ganges. Sue is on the final stretch of the river, where a new India is being built right before her very eyes.
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This is the Ganges,
a river like no other on earth.
Its waters bring life to hundreds of millions of people across India.
Turn! Other way. That's not good. That way.
To a billion Hindus, it's the immortal mother goddess,
who'll wash away a lifetime of sins.
I'm going to explore the length of this beautiful, contradictory,
and rather pungent river.
I don't even know what that smell is.
From its source high in the Himalayas...
This is why my make-up is so flawless.
..through some of the most crowded,
chaotic and exciting places in the world.
Is this the queue for the toilet?
It is? God, I've got a wait on me.
I'm on the final stretch of the river and it feels as if a new India
is being built right before my very eyes.
This is Trumpian in its blingtasticness.
People are pouring into the cities, looking for work and better lives.
So what do you want to be when you have qualified?
Whilst out in the country,
farmers and fishermen struggle to make ends meet.
Have you ever seen tigers?
SHE SPEAKS OWN LANGUAGE
What?! On the boat? On this boat?
You don't like tea? You're Kolkatan and you don't like tea?
As India changes, the Ganges is under threat as never before.
-So this is raw sewage?
So what does the future hold for the great Ganges
in the India of tomorrow?
I'm so sorry. So sorry.
People always talk about rivers as being timeless,
but you completely get a sense of that.
This could be the 18th century, the 14th century.
It just happens to be the 21st.
My first stop is the ancient city of Patna,
capital of Bihar state, in the north-east of India.
From here I'll work my way down the Indian branch of the Ganges,
called the Hooghly, through the great city of Kolkata,
then onwards through the Sunderbands, to the Bay of Bengal.
So, I'm on the Ganges, but don't be, you know,
bamboozled by these soft skies and perfectly still waters.
Less than half a kilometre that way is one of India's biggest,
most vibrant, and fast-expanding cities.
Lying on the southern bank of the Ganges,
Patna is one of the oldest cities in India and was once the centre
of the British Empire's lucrative opium trade.
Now that the Imperial drug lords have left,
Patna produces something far more intoxicating -
The streets are crammed with schools and colleges,
and bright young things eager to learn.
Oh, that's how a main substation relates to a distribution transformer!
What's even more exciting is that many of these colleges are teaching
young women skills that would have once have been only for the men.
How are you?
This is the Patna Institute of Technology,
a girls-only college teaching young women to be engineers.
What is happening?
They're running this handle.
Left to right.
Left to right.
OK, this bit I can do. This bit I can do.
These girls have come from all over Bihar to learn the skills
that India's supercharged economy needs to grow.
Today's lesson is filing.
So describe what it's like where you live.
-So a dairy farmer?
-Ah, yes, yes.
I'm hoping that's the international sign for...
Yeah, otherwise I'm in real trouble.
Otherwise, that's a major domestic incident here.
Is he very proud that you are in the city
and you are learning how to do metalwork?
-So what do you want to be when you have qualified?
Working on big projects?
You want to build a bridge?
What would you like to be when you graduate,
when you complete college?
-You're going to be a railway driver?
-That is everyone's childhood dream - is to be a railway driver.
You could be the first railway driving model.
I can imagine,
you're at the helm of this incredible sleek train,
fixing some more stuff, "Back off, lads, I know how to do this."
Fixing more stuff, bit of filing, hair's going.
-I have many dreams. I have many dreams.
-You really do have many dreams.
But mainly, I choose railway driver because it is
inspiration for other girls.
And why is it important for you to be successful, as a woman?
That's why I choose.
That seems pretty comprehensive.
Pretty cool. And for you,
is it important as a woman to be successful and to have all these skills?
Why stay at home when you could be
the world's first modelling railway driver?!
Would you like to stay in India, or would you like to travel?
Where in the world would you most like to go?
Now, I hadn't have thought Switzerland as a holiday destination.
And where would you like to travel to?
You close your eyes and you dream of London?
That's weird because most people in London close their eyes and dream of
India. So what does London look like in your dream?
Well, the house prices might come as something of a shock!
Best not mention that.
20 years ago, there were just three of these colleges in Patna.
Now there are 18, with plans for double that in the next five years.
Are you ready for an outing? Yeah?
Do you fancy getting a cup of tea?
I think these girls will reimagine the future of India.
Is it me or do all the men look a bit nervous?
Have you got enough room there?
Is my bottom too big?
SHE BLOWS RASPBERRY
Just let me just...
SHE BLOWS RASPBERRY
..spread out a bit.
College is over for the day,
so the girls take me down to the Ganges for a bite to eat.
So you sit, sit on the beach?
-Oh, what do you do?!
-No, no, no!
-Do you come here with boys?
-Yes! She does!
What do you want? What does everyone have?
90 rupees? Let me see. If that's the price of fun,
I'm prepared to pay it.
Hello, gorgeous. Hello, gorgeous.
Change is in the air,
these young women dream of professional lives,
building bridges and driving trains all over the world.
But I wonder, will they find men who share those dreams?
So what sort of men would you like to marry?
What is your ideal man?
That's a good man. That's a proper man.
That's a lot of demands she is placing on one human being!
Will you marry for love?
Will that be the main reason you marry? Because you feel love?
-So not for love? So, what?
Because it's a good match, is that why?
-You'll get married because they are a professional person and it's a good match?
So your parents won't put you into a good match,
you'll put yourselves into a good match?
-So your parents will decide?
So even, you have your education, you go and live in the city,
after all that, your parents will decide who you marry?
What if you don't like him?
It's just a bit...
The new India only goes so far.
They are free to choose careers,
but their parents will still choose their husbands.
What are you even...? How do you even...? How do you even...?
What is that?!
I've hung out with you all afternoon
and now she breaks that out! What?
I call this the hungry tortoise.
I've had such a wonderful afternoon.
The great thing about... I say kids, they look like children, of course,
they are young adults. Some of them are, sort of, 21 years old...is...
I'm sort of more playful than they are.
They haven't got time to, you know,
roll around in the sand and make fart jokes,
and eat ice cream until their bellies swell.
Come on, come on, come on then.
You want to see how India has changed, in just a generation,
then you just don't need to look any farther than those young girls, really,
because, in the space of ten, 20 years,
they've gone from being pretty much chained to the home,
and domestic duties,
to being able to travel around the world with a set of skills, that,
quite frankly, I'm envious of.
I can't even file, for goodness' sake!
Jump now! Ahh!
I'm leaving the smoggy streets of Patna behind and heading out into
the countryside, where millions of small farms
are watered by the Ganges and her tributaries.
India is a nation of independent farmers
and Bihar state is one of its most productive regions.
But in recent years, the industry has struggled, as incomes fall
and people leave the land for new lives in the cities.
So I'm somewhat going against the flow of traffic.
Whereas everyone is trying to leave the agricultural heartlands
of Bihar and move to the city,
I'm heading into the rice paddies and the agrarian heartland.
I'm off to meet an extremely sexy farmer called Mr Kumar,
sexy because he, for some time,
held the enviable title of the man who grows more potatoes
per hectare than anyone else in the world.
Yes, ladies, prepare to be amazed.
In a country with over a billion mouths to feed,
farming is hugely important.
So when a group of humble farmers from one village in rural Bihar
smashed world records for growing crops,
it was headline news all over India.
Welcome to Darveshpura, also known as the miracle village.
So this is the bustling heart of Darveshpura.
And I'm here to meet the big one, the prince of potatoes.
Titan of tubers.
COW MOOS Hello.
Namaste, Mr Kumar.
How are you? Nice to see you.
Now, much as I'd love to chat,
there's a whole field of potatoes that I'm desperate to see.
-Will you take me?
After you, you show the way.
Oh, I can breathe, Mr Kumar.
The country air.
Very proud, upright stance, Mr Kumar.
A sort of thousand-yard stare.
You sense he could sense potato blight from 20km away.
As a young man, Mr Kumar left the farm
to seek his fortune in the big city.
But he hated the crowds,
so he came home and enrolled on a new farming course,
replacing expensive chemicals with lots of muck and hard work.
-This is yours?
-Here are all your babies.
They look good. Don't tell anyone,
but I think your potatoes are way better than their potatoes.
Unless that's your field, in which case, they're all amazing potatoes.
So this is the field that created the biggest yield of potatoes in India?
Mr Kumar grew a mountain of spuds,
nearly doubling the existing world-record.
So you try to keep it natural and organic,
which is quite different from lots of other farms across India,
where there is a very heavy use of pesticides.
So these look ready to harvest.
They are majestic potatoes.
Look at that!
I could never hope to grow anything as wonderful as that.
The fertile waters of the Ganges make Bihar
one of the most productive regions in India,
but Mr Kumar struggles to find young men willing to work on his land.
So that's interesting, so you can't get the labour,
so for the first time you've had to rely on machine tools to do the work?
Sensing an opportunity for some easy money,
I offer to help Mr Kumar with his manpower problem.
Yeah, got you.
That bit I've got, it's the getting down.
It's the getting down there.
That's a very intense on the hamstrings, it really is!
Yes, there's a burn, isn't there? Do you feel that?
As it stands, Mr Kumar,
would you be employing me to work in your potato fields?
That laughter's mocking. That's the international language of mockery.
Mr Kumar's tubers made him a minor celeb.
He became the pin-up boy for traditional farming.
He gave hope to India's army of small farmers
struggling to survive in the new industrialised economy.
So how has winning all these prizes changed your life?
Or HAS it changed your life?
Gentlemen, your silent scrutiny has been thrilling.
Thrilling! Keep it up.
Come on, let's move.
It may seem like...ahem, small potatoes,
but what Mr Kumar has achieved makes the difference between feeding
your family or moving to the city to find work.
With India projected to have the world's biggest population by 2022,
1.4 billion people,
I think it's going to need all the Mr Kumars it can get.
South of Patna, the Ganges splits in two.
Part of the river flows on through Bangladesh to the sea,
but I'm going to follow the Indian branch, called the Hooghly,
onwards to the great city of Kolkata.
It was once the greatest city in the Orient,
home to the mighty East India Company
and jewel in the crown of the British Empire.
Now it's a sprawling mega-city.
This is my second visit to the city
and it's surprisingly good to be back.
I don't know whether it is time or amnesia,
but I find myself really loving Kolkata.
Maybe I had that feeling the first time around,
but I sort of feel a little bit more inured to the noise,
and the heat, and the smell, and the madness,
and it feels much more familiar
and much more like a place where you want to spend time,
as opposed to a place which is just terrifying in all of its extremes.
I came to Kolkata two years ago to film a documentary about the city...
..and one night, I met a little girl who completely captured my heart.
One of the highlights of my last trip was meeting Geeta
from the Hope foundation and some of the street kids of Kolkata.
But one in particular, really stayed with me,
the rather naughty nine-year-old Rakhi,
so I really wanted to, this time around, catch up with her, see how,
if, her life has actually changed in the intervening time.
I joined a patrol with a charity called the Hope Foundation,
which helps homeless kids have a chance in life.
When you finish school, what would you like to be when you are grown up?
Rakhi was living on the streets, with her father, brother and sister.
Their mother had died.
What a way to make somebody proud.
You're going to be a brilliant doctor?
Yeah? Will you be the best doctor in all of India?
Everybody will know.
I will come back to see you and I'll say, "Where's she gone?"
And you'll say, "I don't have time to see Auntie Sue
"because I'm too busy being a great doctor."
She will give time.
Now I'm back at the Hope Foundation to meet Geeta again.
Whom are you going to hug?
This is Rakhi, all grown up, and this is her
older sister Rekha.
I've not seen you for ages.
Where do you want to sit? Where do you want to sit? Where is good?
Let's sit here.
Rakhi is now in school,
her fees paid thanks to a donation from a Bengali family
living in the UK.
So, you go to school every day?
That's all right, you're allowed... You have to have some time off.
That would be insane. So where do you sleep at night?
Where do you go at night?
On the footpath.
-On the footpath?
And where do you sleep at night, Rakhi?
Remember I saw you on the streets before?
Do you still sleep there?
THEY SPEAK OWN LANGUAGE
But it feels that something's not quite right.
Rakhi's not the same engaged little girl she was last time I saw her.
She seems subdued, distracted.
I've seen how tough life on the streets can be,
so I ask Geeta what's going on.
So...Geeta, it doesn't take a genius to work out
that Rakhi is a very different kid...
-A very different kid from the one I met two years ago.
And I'm not an expert, but her body language, she's very nervous.
She's agitated by things around her. She's easily distracted.
-She keeps looking behind, to see if anyone is behind.
Can you fill me in as to why that might be?
There are some constant boys,
you know, who are calling her at night,
to come with her, and that scared her.
She has now come to know that she has to protect her body.
-But reality has started hitting her heart,
so that is reflected in her face.
I could tell from the way she is, particularly around men.
When she came into the computer room, very stressed and suspicious
and incredibly vulnerable,
and I think that's really hit me and really upset me, obviously,
-Yeah, it is true.
-Because I'm an idiot,
and because I only get the context for a second and I leave.
And that snapshot stays with me and, of course, things change.
You can't live, as you say, you can't live on the street.
Your older sister is good, yes?
She takes care of you?
Do you think anybody can take care of you, Rakhi?
Geeta tells me the girls could have a place in a boarding school,
but Rakhi is scared and doesn't want to leave her father.
That's a scary thing.
So now you think that all boarding schools will have ghosts?
I think in my head I had a
very defined idea of how seeing Rakhi again would be.
I thought that I would run up to her and this bubbly, sparkling,
sort of, effervescent little human that I met would just
rush to greet me.
I think I had no real understanding of the complexities of Rakhi's life
and the reason that she didn't go to school wasn't actually because the
opportunities weren't there.
She didn't go to school because she didn't want to leave her dad.
Her dad who, you know,
was widowed and earning what he could by selling utensils,
and who has focused his entire life on bringing up his family.
It's such a hard decision for those kids - do we go to boarding school?
Do we get to become doctors and teachers? When, actually,
really all we want to do is be around our only surviving parent,
and to give them something of what they've given us.
And I'm just such an idiot because...
..fun doesn't exist on the streets when you're an adolescent kid.
Danger does. And, as Geeta said, that child that I met doesn't...
..doesn't exist any more, and that's...
very, you know, very hard to think about that life.
But these are useless. You have to not be upset.
You have to do. So Geeta is the person to do
and she is the person that...
..I'll talk to about...
..trying to make a difference.
Can I come and see you again?
Can I come and see you again?
-When you're a bit taller?
When you're in school, whichever school you choose.
Yeah? I will come and see you.
All right? Deal?
All right. I will think of you.
And I want you to be safe, and I trust that Geeta will help,
and your dad will help you make the good decisions.
Life in the city can be cruel
and yet all the locals call Kolkata the City Of Joy.
All life is here, crammed into its teeming streets.
It's a tolerant, extrovert, exuberant city,
on the banks of the mighty Ganges.
And I'm on my way to meet one of its most extraordinary communities.
In the UK, if you have a baby shower, then I guess you invite family,
great aunties, a couple of grandmas.
This is India and things are just a little bit more colourful.
So here, top of your invite list would be the Hijra,
part of the country's transgender community.
I think this is one blessing that I'm going to really enjoy.
Nice to see you. Are you Aparna?
-I'm Sue. It's really nice to meet you.
This is Aparna Banerjee and her merry band of Hijra.
Now, what's going on up there?
There's a lot of looking up here.
There's a baby, a newborn,
so we are going to give blessings.
And, as usual, the traditional badhai.
So we are going to dance, we're going to sing,
we are going to have a chat. You can come down.
I would love to.
Oh, I have lucked out.
The Hijra tradition goes back thousands of years to the palaces
of the great maharajas.
They're sort of Bengali transgender fairy godmothers,
if you can imagine such a thing.
They go to christenings and weddings,
and dispense blessings for cash.
Already, this beats a dry bit of Victoria sponge
and having to chat to your Auntie Mabel.
Are you Mr Roy? Namaste.
Thank you so much. Mr and Mrs Roy have invited the Hijra
in to bless their newborn baby.
All my family.
-Where is the baby?
I was going to say, is she sleeping? Not for long!
-She's a girl.
-How old is she?
Six days only.
I'm terribly sorry, I've given her a really bad sort of side parting for her blessing!
She's so beautiful.
She is the grandmother, OK?
-She is the grandmother.
-A very proud grandmother.
All christenings should be like this.
I'm loving the end of that.
Can I hold her? Is that OK?
I'm in love.
Although I'm slightly worried that this baby might have hearing issues
because any other child would have woken up to this din.
She's going to wake up in about three hours thinking,
"I had the weirdest dream."
What she said!
The blessing cost 51,000 rupees, that's about 600 quid.
For a lifetime of prosperity with all the singing and dancing
thrown in, I think it's money pretty well spent.
This is the blessings they are doing, they are giving us.
The Ganges is never far away from life's most important moments.
It's like a cross between a, sort of, gate-crashing and a party,
a spiritual event
and a business transaction.
It's really fascinating.
People believe that welcoming a new baby by us...
..is very meaningful for their future life,
for their career, for their ambitions,
and for their life prospects to live with.
And do you believe that? Do you believe when you are come
-you are giving the baby a special energy?
-I believe that.
Aparna is 35. She was born a boy to a good family in Kolkata.
Like many of the Hijra, she no longer has contact with her parents.
We really don't have anyone of our family to bless.
So none of you have family that you still see
because they have rejected you or...?
So these are our family.
-So our blessings really works.
So all your heart and your soul that would go into telling your
family that you love them
go to a stranger's child, or to a new wedding.
Yeah, this is a spiritual kind of a thing,
kind of a belief, and if I think economically,
this is our only source of income.
So if a baby survives well...
..that's actually a repute to my own custom, tradition...
I guess. And they'll pass the word on, saying, "Our baby is thriving.
"You need to get the Hijra to come."
-It's good business.
-No, we keep on coming, actually.
We keep on, we have a follow-up system, actually.
Do you? How often do you turn up now?
You keep an eye on the baby?
Come on, baby. Flourish!
Every time you come, do they have to pay?
But, you're right, it's one of the best ways to earn money.
Imagine earning money from giving blessings and joy.
You brought a lot of joy.
This baby is the best behaved baby in the whole of India.
Thank you, thank you very much.
She is the calmest... Look at the little...
Little first going, "Please make the tambourine stop."
Look at her.
Very proud. Nice to see you, sir.
Thank you. Thank you.
Top Gun, very good, I'm loving it.
He's the Tom Cruise of Kolkata.
Tom Cruise! Tom Cruise!
Thank you. Thank you, nice to see you.
Mwah, mwah, mwah!
Chai? I think we're having tea. Chai? Why not?
Do you want tea?
-Do you want tea?
-I don't like tea.
You don't like tea?!
You're Kolkatan and you don't like tea?
This is terrible.
-Cheers to the tea.
-Cheers to the tea.
Another great blessing.
I don't think it's going to take too long to play a game
of which house is the Hijra house.
Is it this custard one, the yellow one?
-You see? First time.
The Hijra all live together in a big yellow house in the west of Kolkata,
about 40 of them in all.
Their temple is a vision in gold.
Oh, my word.
This is Trumpian in its blingtasticness.
This is amazing.
This is our room where we actually pay offering in the morning, every day.
So after that we can move to our own house, wherefrom we start, we work,
we gather together, and we have fun.
So we can move there. Please come.
I wasn't expecting it to be so metallic.
The Hijra have a complex place in Indian society.
In ancient times, they were revered in royal palaces as magical beings.
Then, inevitably, under the British, they were criminalised.
-Finally, in 2014,
the courts gave them legal status as a third gender,
offering them protection under the law.
Now some people accept them, but many still despise and fear them.
She is my guru. She is my guru, she is also my guru.
You're surrounded by gurus.
Look at all this. Granny guru, guru, guru.
The gurus, or older Hijra, are the heads of the house.
It works a little bit like a co-operative,
with the younger Hijra paying their gurus for guidance.
Communities like this are a place of safety.
Being a transgender, being a Hijra by profession,
being an activist in this community,
I found this is the only place
where I actually get the oxygen to survive.
People don't discriminate.
People tell me every day, "Oh, you are looking awesome."
So, this compliment is something which I need every day to breathe.
-To dream for tomorrow.
This is something... This compliment.
But in public places, from the mainstream society,
we always get discriminative words, slang, abusive languages,
so if we just keep on pondering on those words,
we're just going to die.
You have created a family here,
you know, because some of you have lost your biological family.
You've managed to create something really wonderful, which is tolerant,
and open, that accepts everybody without labels,
without religious labels,
without sexual labels...
It's a perfect commune, as far as I can see.
To welcome me to this extraordinary family,
we break out the dressing up box.
I'll get you a sari.
-Is it sari time?
-Yeah! It's sari time!
Sari time, OK.
This is one of the most joyful, beautiful,
heartbreaking communities I've ever visited.
I love the Hijra,
but I can't help but feel that all the dancing
and singing and glamour are there to mask the sadness of being rejected
by their families and their loved ones.
All I can say is, it's their loss.
I'd love to have these girls in my family any day of the week.
I hope you enjoyed, had fun.
You know I did.
You know I did, so much.
Thank you so much for everything.
I'm not a member of Hijra, so I can give no blessings other than
thank you, thank you. You are all marvellous.
This is much more valuable than any other blessings.
Bless you. Good luck.
I still can't get over the fact that someone is called Julie Walters here.
You're called Julie Walters?
I'm leaving the glorious chaos of Kolkata
and travelling south - to where the Ganges meets the sea.
I'm heading to the Sundarbans, near the Bangladeshi border,
which is one of the world's richest and most fragile ecosystems.
It's also home to India's most dangerous theme park,
It certainly beats a mouse in Florida.
Thankfully, they've made it easier for me to know which boat to get on,
although I did nearly hop on the real housewives of Chelsea.
South of Kolkata, the Ganges flows into the Sundarbans,
the world's largest river delta.
It stretches across the Bay of Bengal.
The Sundarbans reserve is one of the most important and protected nature
reserves on earth, 10,000 square kilometres of mangrove forests,
tidal creeks and low-lying islands.
In India's overcrowded landscape,
it's a vital sanctuary for all sorts of wildlife
and a popular ecotourism destination.
That was the biggest cat I've ever seen!
That was a cross between a cat and a tiger.
That was a tat! It was huge!
But the most important of all, behind that fence,
a population of endangered Royal Bengal tigers.
I'm heading out with the forest department's tiger patrol
to see what it takes to protect one of the world's most endangered cats
in a country with so many people.
If you want to know what tiger protection looks like,
check out that suit.
I'm not sure how I pictured the Elite Tiger Force,
but Dad's Army is what I'm getting.
But there's not much Dad's Army about what they have to do.
Every day, they head into the
reserve to maintain the perimeter fence that
keeps the tigers in and the people out.
Much as I'd love to help, I've been advised to stay on the boat.
96 kilometres of fencing?
-That's a lot of fencing to maintain.
-Because if there's a breach in any part of that...
-Up to your hip?
-Yeah. It's very risky.
Let's face it, if you're up to your midriff in mud...
You're not going to run anywhere, are you?
Any breaches to the tiger fence must be repaired immediately.
If I were to get through the net,
and walk into the forest,
how long do you think I would last?
-That's good to know.
-If it is there.
I want you to know, I'm not going to do that.
The wardens fix remote cameras to
the trees to monitor the health of the tiger population.
It's extraordinary to me
that they're going out into one of
the most dangerous places in the entire world,
and one of them just has a... You know, a little scythe.
Strong guys. I've got a lot of respect for them.
For all its simplicity, the reserve
is a remarkable conservation success.
It's now home to a stable population of around 100 tigers.
And that's not all.
By protecting the tigers at the top of the food chain,
they have repaired an entire ecosystem.
The tigers keep the deer population in check,
allowing the trees to grow
and providing a habitat for all the other species.
The tigers are the guardians of the forest once again.
The natural order of things has been restored.
There's no doubt that I'm feeling
there's a sense of joy, actually,
that there exists on earth, still,
a place where the tiger holds sway,
where nature is left as it should be.
Quite frankly, we should get as far
away from the Sundarbans as possible.
If only life were so simple.
The Sundarbans, on the Indian side alone,
is home to more than four million people.
I'm staying on Bali, one of the bigger islands,
where the people have to live and
work right next door to a thriving wild tiger population.
I tell you, it's not a trip for the braless, this.
This feels like a million miles from the chaos of Kolkata.
Life here is slow. People farm,
collect honey in the forest,
and fish in the tidal creeks that ebb and flow through the mangroves.
It looks beautiful.
But what's the betting there's a catch?
I'm joining Kalpana and Dinunda on a fishing trip.
They used to be farmers, but the land is poor, so,
like many people here, they now make a living from the sea.
Before we start, Dinunda blesses the boat
and asks for protection from the goddess of the forest, Bonbibi.
She's neither Hindu nor Muslim,
but watches over everyone who ventures into the forest.
Can Bonbibi protect you from tigers, do you think?
Does she save you?
The tigers are fearsome hunters.
They hide in the thick mangroves and leap onto the boats.
Like many of the local families,
Dinunda and Kalpana have a permit
that allows them to fish inside the tiger reserve.
But it's too dangerous for us, so we'll try our luck outside.
So when you have been fishing, have you ever seen tigers?
What? On the boat?
On this boat?
And then it just... It came out, did it?
From the water?
And missed you by this much?
Did you? You did?
You saved the day!
Does it put you off fishing? Does it make you think, "I want to do
"something else with my life"? Because it's so dangerous?
I think it's a combination of Bonbibi
and you being very quick with a paddle to the tiger's face.
I can see why they want to fish in the reserve.
The rewards are good, but the risks are enormous.
On a good day, 40 crabs. Really bad day, ten crabs.
Today, no crabs. There's no crabs.
They had a very lucky escape.
But there are more tiger attacks here than anywhere else in India.
No-one knows exactly how many people are killed by tigers each year
because many of the deaths go unreported.
But there's at least one fatal tiger attack here every week.
So here in the village, Friday night is theatre night
and even the entertainment is tiger-themed.
That's the best response I've ever had for a piece to camera.
So the subject matter of this play is a tiger god, who,
when you enter the forest, demands a tax or payment of a human life.
So the villagers pray to the benign goddess, Bonbibi,
who will offer them protection.
It might seem like a myth, it might
seem irrelevant to modern day living,
and yet I was supposed to meet Kalpana and her husband tonight,
and their niece has died because she was bitten by a king cobra.
So this isn't the stuff of fairy tales -
this is the stuff of real life here on the island.
I don't think I've been anywhere in
the world where man's relationship to nature is more tenuous,
where man's foothold is more shaky,
and that's, perhaps, why Hindus and Muslims join together to worship
Bonbibi, because her message is simple, clear.
Take only what you need and you'll thrive.
Take too much - you won't survive.
Today is a very special day.
Tom Selleck of Sagar Island there.
Yeah, I'm in.
I'm in. Look at me go. I'm in.
On Sagar Island, in the mouth of the river,
millions of people are gathering to
bathe in the cleansing waters of the Ganges.
I've never fully understood the phrase sea of humanity,
but you get this incredible feeling
that you need to wade with your hands through it.
You all right? Good? I could tell
what he had for dinner last night,
let alone breakfast this morning. That was very close.
Very loud. Very loud.
This is Ganga Sagar Mela, the annual Hindu festival,
which takes place here on Sagar Island.
This is the point where the mighty Ganges meets the sea.
With six million people coming here,
it's the second largest human gathering anywhere on the planet -
just pipped to the post by the melee you get on Oxford Street when
they're discounting televisions on Black Friday.
I say six million - it's six million and one now this numpty's arrived!
The pilgrimage here is one of the most important in all of Hinduism.
People travel from across India for this mass cleansing.
To bathe in these waters not only
cleanses you of a lifetime's sins,
but also sorts out the previous 14 generations of your family.
Now that's what I call a deep clean!
If you want to know what true devotion feels like,
and if you want to know what it's
like to experience the full gamut of the Hindu religion,
if you want to know how important this incredible river is
to these millions upon millions of people, then you should come here.
But do bring earplugs.
As well as being one of the world's most sacred rivers,
the Ganges is one of the most polluted,
flooded with human and industrial waste.
India's government have promised to clean up the Ganges,
so this year there's a strong environmental message,
imploring people to worship the river in a new way.
This year is a very special mela. It's an environmental, green mela,
and you can hear the loudspeakers blaring.
They're basically sending the message out for people
not to put plastic bags in the water, not to burn fires,
not to defecate in its waters,
and it's a really important message
because, without that in future years to come,
they won't be praying to Ganga, they'll be praying for it.
Is this the queue for the toilet?
It is? God, I've got a wait on me.
To provide relief for the river and the people,
they've built 12,000 toilets.
Yup, I know exactly how he feels!
At night, Koushik, my guide,
tries to explain the complex
relationship between Mother Ganges and her many children.
What is interesting as an outsider is how this river can be so revered
and yet so abused at the same time.
So it can be worshipped, and yet people will treat it like a toilet,
like a waste bin.
The Ganges is our mother. Mother takes away everything.
That was the basic idea -
that I can do anything in sight and the river takes it
from me and cleans me.
I understand. So the idea, basically, is that anything goes
because she can't be damaged, she can't be hurt, she can't be angry.
-It's just love.
-It's love, yeah.
Yeah, it's pure love and slowly, like,
we have started to misuse that love.
It's like taking advantage of the Sweet Mother Ganga.
I'm here from dusk till dawn on the biggest night of the week.
Two million people are expected to
bathe in the Ganges as the sun comes up.
So, Koushik, can you explain the significance,
particularly, of tonight?
Tonight is one night where the full moon goes into the next day
and Saturn crosses into the next room.
-The next house?
And that makes changes to the destiny of people.
So this is a particularly auspicious full moon.
-So that's why we've got millions of people congregating to
-take their dip at first light, I guess?
The festival is like an epic Hindu Glastonbury,
full of the most extraordinary people.
We've had Coronation Street, Sesame Street - this is Baba Street.
Sort of like an Indian version of Naked Attraction.
I think I'm going to go for the one in box C.
These are the Naga Babas,
or naked holy men. They have rejected the physical world,
including clothes, to be closer to the great Lord Shiva,
one of the most powerful gods.
They live in the Himalayas and smoke mountains of weed.
For a small offering, they'll bless you
with a whack of a peacock feather wand.
They seem to be getting bashed on the head.
I'm going to see how long it takes
for me to get full spiritual concussion.
I feel I should know your name, I've seen your winky, but there you go.
Thank you so much. Thank you.
From the intense aroma that's going on,
I think Baba is Hindi for really stoned nude man.
-Your country money give.
-Yes, you want money?
Your country money give.
My country gives money. How much money?
Your country's money.
No, your country's money.
Yeah, your country's money.
He wants your country's money.
No, I don't have my country...
That was a full... That was a beating!
That was actually a beating.
There was a lot of colonial angst he needed to get out there.
Hello. That's an open stance in my world.
That's a very... That's a posture.
All of it. All of it for you because that...
-No hundreds left. Gone, gone.
Some of the most expansive testicles I've ever seen.
It feels like half of India is here, waiting for the sun to rise.
Whole villages have made the pilgrimage here en masse.
I think, normally, amongst this volume of people,
half of whom seem to be in a semicircle around me,
I'd feel maybe a bit intimidated, but the atmosphere's very mellow.
This is not just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me,
more importantly, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
for these people, who've come from miles away with little or no money.
This is an extremely unique devotional experience,
so it's a total privilege.
It's mental, but it's a total privilege.
Namaste, ladies. Namaste.
Can I ask where you're from?
I'm around 40.
I like this. I like this estimation of ages, it works for me.
I wish you a happy dip.
As dawn approaches,
you're swept along in a tide of
humanity towards the beach and the sea.
It strikes me that the Ganges is the victim of the cruellest irony,
that the reverence of all these people,
and the devotion that you see at
its banks is the very thing that is killing it.
And yet, here, there's real hope.
This green mela has started to
really introduce the idea to the devout
that you can worship at its waters,
but be environmentally respectful.
I first met this river 1,500 miles away,
in the highest mountains on earth.
Just me, some donkeys, and a very grumpy baba.
It has led me through the lives of some truly wonderful people.
And it ends here, under a rising sun on a brand-new day,
and two million people sharing this extraordinary communion with an
immortal goddess and a sacred, filthy, amazing river.
The Ganges is at such a crucial, pivotal point in its history.
For those who've come here, the believers, this is the mother river.
There is nothing that the mother
can't accept, no amount of pollution,
garbage and ill-treatment.
But the other school of thought is, of course,
this river is a living thing that is being damaged by commerce,
by industry, by the rapid expansion of India.
And that's where the choice lies -
which version of the Ganges do you want?
The mythology or the reality?
And that's a decision India has to make.
But while I ponder that, it's time I got my feet wet.
That is poo there, isn't it?
I think in the West we get trapped in our thoughts
and I think the joyful,
extraordinary thing about a
pilgrimage is you walk through pain,
and you walk through feelings,
and each step that you take moves your consciousness on.
And I've understood that before, as a theoretical concept,
but standing here in these quite dirty waters,
I'm proud. What a long way I've come.
Sue's first stop is the ancient city of Patna, capital of Bihar state, along the banks of the Ganges. It was once the centre of the British Empire's lucrative opium trade. Now that the imperial drug lords have left, Patna produces something far more intoxicating - education. Sue visits the Women's Industrial Training College, a girls-only college teaching young women to be engineers. She hangs out with some of the students, and they tell her of their dreams to build bridges and drive trains all over the world.
Leaving the smoggy streets of Patna, Sue heads out into the countryside, where millions of small farms are watered by the Ganges and its tributaries. India is a nation of small famers, and Bihar state is one of its most productive regions. Sue heads to Daveshpura, also known as the miracle village, to meet a farmer called Mr Kumar.
South of Patna, the Ganges splits in two. Part of the river flows on through Bangladesh to the sea, but Sue follows the Indian branch, called the Hooghly, onward to the great city of Kolkata. This is Sue's second visit to the city. One of the highlights from Sue's last trip was meeting Geeta from the Hope Foundation and some of the street kids of Kolkata - one in particular that stayed with her was the rather naughty nine-year-old Rakhi. Sue catches up her to see how her life has changed since. All of life in Kolkata is crammed into its teeming streets, and Sue meets one of its most extraordinary communities - the Hijra. She joins them as they have been invited to bless a newborn baby.
Sue leaves the glorious chaos of Kolkata and travels south to where the Ganges meets the sea, and she heads out with the forest department's tiger patrol to see what it takes to protect one of the world's most endangered cats - the Bengal tiger - in a country with so many people.
Sue also stays on Bali Island, where people have to live and work right next door to a thriving wild tiger population. It feels like a million miles from the chaos of Kolkata. Life here is slow, and people farm, collect honey in the forest and fish in the tidal creeks that ebb and flow through the mangroves. It looks beautiful, but there is a catch - tigers hide in the thick mangroves and leap on to the boats. Sue joins Kolpana and husband Dinanda on fishing trip and hears their stories of lucky escapes. But Sue also learns that there are more tiger attacks here than anywhere else in India. No-one knows exactly how many people are killed by tigers each year, because many of the deaths go unreported. But there's at least one fatal tiger attack here every week. Yet remarkably, the people of this region want the tigers to thrive, as they are the guardians of the forest.
Sue's final destination is Saga Island, in the mouth of the river. Sue is here from dusk till dawn on the biggest night of the week, where two million people are expected to bathe in the Ganges as the sun comes up. Sue meets Naga Babas, or naked holy men, along with pilgrims who have travelled from all corners of India to be here on this auspicious day.
Swept along in a tide of humanity, Sue heads towards the beach and the sea. Under a rising sun on a brand new day, Sue shares with two million people an extraordinary communion with an immortal goddess and an amazing river.