Audio segment

Reporter's Notebook


    Mark Twain’s travels in India are a source of endless fascination. In 1986 he reached Agra where he discovered a ‘memorable scientific discovery that in certain ways the foul and derided Ganges water is the most puissant purifier in the world.” What he in fact witnessed was an experiment conducted where cholera germs were killed after just six hours by immersion in Ganga. (More about this later)

     Munni Sircar, a housewife in Kolkata, remembers many customs relating to Ganga jal and its supposed medicinal qualities when she was growing up in Kolkata. Her grandmother used to walk down to the Ganga ghat close to their house, bathe and then walk back home and do her pooja every morning, every day, whether in winter or during the monsoon. Little Munni used to ask her why she had to go every day and bathe in the river. Grandmother explained that, ‘If you bathe in the Ganga every day, it will cleanse you of all sins. Not only sins but diseases also.’

     ‘So when you told me about this Mysterious Factor X, I suddenly realized that people of my grandmother’s generation really believed that. Even the pooja bogh, the food offered to the gods and goddesses, used to be cooked in Ganga water because it was thought to be clean, absolutely clean and pure.’

     A man would be hired to go and fetch water from the Ganga. ‘Every fifteen days this man used to come. It was his job to go to the Ganga and fetch water and store and fill up that copper drum. We kind of thought that whenever food had to be cooked for the gods or goddesses or some kind of pooja, it has to be cooked in Ganga water.’

     This is tantalizing stuff. Is there, could there perhaps be some truth to the old belief that there is indeed something special about Ganga jal - the water of the river? The obvious place to start is in the Himalayas.

     There are a lot of theories, none of them backed up by hard science: wild plants, abnormally low temperatures, radioactivity, velocity.

     But they’ll soon be history anyway because the Tehri Dam will effectively destroy whatever the Bhagirathi may be bringing down. That leaves the Alaknanda, but no scientist seems very interested in investigating that river and its myriad streams. Again, the lack of interest is curious.

Besides, it’s all a bit moot anyway. Since 1854, the Ganga Canal has siphoned off almost all the winter flow of the river at Haridwar. If there ever was or still is anything special in the waters of the river it would have long since been diverted at Haridwar for irrigation.

     So end of story? Not quite! Enter one DS Bhargava to upset the entire applecart.

     ‘Ganga has some special properties that I call the Mysterious Factor X.’

     Devendra Swaroop Bhargava is now a retired professor of Hydrology from Roorkee University. In the 1980s and 1990s, Bhargava published many papers in respectable international journals, arguing that Ganga has special chemical and biological properties that allow the river to absorb organic wastes at an astonishingly high rate due to a remarkable ability to re-oxygenate itself. One that stuck in my mind was the claim that animal bones submerged in a tank at IIT-Kanpur had been dissolved within three days.

     His arguments and conclusions set me off on a parallel yatra to find out if the broader claims that the waters of Ganga purify men’s souls and prepare them for the next life, have some basis in scientific reality. I don’t pretend to have discovered the Mysterious Factor X, a title Bhargava and I made up together as a convenient shorthand back in 2001, but I have uncovered enough to suggest there is urgent need for some major research project to resolve a host of unexplained loose ends that cannot be dismissed as ‘old wives’ tales’ or just ‘blind faith’ with no scientific basis.

     ‘Ganga water does not putrefy.’ This is just the first of Bhargava’s astonishing assertions. Putrefaction occurs when there is an absence of oxygen, causing pathogens (harmful bacteria) to grow. This is what makes water stale and smell. Bhargava is adamant because, ‘studies show pathogens do not survive in Ganga jal.’ (This is what Twain had observed at Agra)

In the 1980s, he carried out a simple experiment with two beakers of Ganga jal. The first he boiled, then added pathogens once the water had cooled. The pathogens survived and the water putrefied. The other beaker he did not boil and the pathogens died. But Bhargava was unable to isolate and so identify the substance present in either beaker. He therefore concluded that whatever had been removed by boiling must be volatile in nature.

     Bhargava didn’t carry out his field experiments in the Himalayas, but in the plains, and not once but all the way down from Kanpur to Varanasi! So whatever was or is present in Ganga either can survive Haridwar and the Ganga Canal or else has a completely different origin! Nothing to do with the source of Ganga in the Western Himalayas - he doesn’t rule out the foothills which recharge the river between Haridwar and Kanpur - or the great tributaries: Gandak, Ghaghara or Kosi which flow down from the Nepalese Himalayas. But since these huge rivers enter Ganga east of Varanasi, whatever Mysterious Factor X they could contain would have had no effect on Bhargava’s experiments or his other conclusions.

     ‘It has to be something it picks up along its course.’ Bhargava’s going so fast one Sunday morning I have to struggle for oxygen myself! ‘In other words something in its own river bed?’

     ‘Yes, something unique to Ganga.’

     Bhargava notes that if left alone most rivers have a surprising ability to purify themselves. They are able to replenish themselves with oxygen and so break down most of the organic waste dumped into them. But Ganga can also purify itself ten to twenty times faster than its neighbour the Yamuna.

     Bhargava says Ganga has these extraordinary self-purifying abilities, specifically ‘because of its high content of dissolved oxygen (DO), extraordinary high rate of re-aeration, long DO-retention abilities, and the very fast assimilation of the putrefiable organic matter that has been discharged into the Ganga river.’

     Ganga can therefore absorb a lot of human and animal wastes. Bhargava in fact claims the river removes fully sixty per cent of all organic matter in the first thirty to forty minutes, while other rivers take days. ‘There is something in Ganga that kills pathogens twenty-five times faster than any other river!’

     In our first conversations in 2001, Bhargava had suggested temperature was an important factor, but when challenged in 2004 he agreed that doesn’t really hold up because whatever he discovered happens in the plains. Here there’s really no significant difference between Ganga and any other north Indian river. They’re all shallow, essentially flat, - so the current is sluggish at best; are baked by the unrelenting sun; and receive extraordinary increases in volume of water - and hence oxygen - once a year from the annual monsoon. Size is also not a determining factor because Ganga is by no means the largest river in south Asia.

     A lot of what Bhargava has long been saying - often in the wilderness because his papers have been published almost exclusively in the West - makes sense. Obviously, whatever is present in Ganga jal cannot come from Gaumukh because it is present as far south as Varanasi, and it is organic because it dies when boiled.

     In many ways he’s replicated and confirmed a seminal paper by ME Hankin, the Chief Medical Officer for Agra, that was published in 1896 by the Institut Pasteur in Paris. Then as now, the Institut Pasteur was the authority on bacteria. Although English was his native language, Hankin’s study was indeed first published in French, and only subsequently translated back into English.
     For several years I could not find a copy of Hankin’s original. I was dependent on Bhargava’s summaries, in print and in person.

     Hankin had observed that ‘what protects the Indian people from getting infected with some water-borne disease in spite of their drinking (for religious rites) even the sewage-contaminated Ganga water, has been a question that has been baffling the minds of environmental technologists, scientists, and physicians, for a long time.’ This, Bhargava argues, is because people develop immunity over time, although I think that answers only one part of the question and doesn’t take into consideration either his or Hankin’s observations.
     This is Bhargava’s abstract of Hankin’s thesis:

     “Dr E. Hanbury Hankin’s research of the nineteenth century relates to the disinfecting/antiviral power of the Ganga’s water. Hankin (1896) reported that cholera microbes did not survive for long in the Ganga’s waters. He conducted his studies on the Ganga at Varanasi, where he collected samples below the cholera-infected dead bodies that had been thrown into the Ganga, and found that the cholera microbes died within a few hours of their contact with the Ganga water.”

     He then goes on to summarize Hankin’s tests, which he himself would essentially replicate a hundred years later. ‘Hankin inoculated cholera microbes in two beakers - one containing Ganga water and the other containing sterile distilled water - and noticed that the microbes died soon (in less than three hours) in the beaker containing the Ganga water, whereas no great change took place in the living concentration of cholera microbes even after 48 hours in the beaker containing the distilled water.

    “Hankin, however, noticed that the Ganga water lost this strong disinfecting property after it had been boiled in an open container. For some of his observations... it is noted that the Ganga water, even if not heated, will, in less than three hours, kill any cholera microbes that may have been added. However, the same water, if heated, lacks this power. Hankin therefore attributes the disinfecting property of the Ganga to the probable presence in it of some volatile material (Hankin, 1896).”

     Hankin’s conclusions are the same as Bhargava’s. The only difference is that Bhargava concludes that the Mysterious Factor X exists in the river bed itself. It makes sense. It accounts for why he can replicate his test right the way down the river to Varanasi. For the rest, one must travel further down the river, wait and see.

     Two weeks later at his ashram in Bilhaur, south of Kannauj, Swami Ramesh Chanda Das seems to confirm Bhargava’s theory.

     ‘It is gandhak - sulphur - and that’s why no germs can live in this water or pollute the water. Gandhak is found in the river bed.’

     ‘Why do you think no scientists have yet discovered it?’ I’m a bit sceptical.
Ramesh Chanda is not!.

     ‘Whatever is said in the Veda scriptures, we consider that the truth. I don’t know why the scientific people are not getting their information from the Vedas and other places. It is written there, this sulphur is the only thing which is keeping this river’s water unique.'

    Ramesh Chanda’s argument is dashed the following week by AC Shukla, a professor at Christ Church college in Kanpur.

     ‘Yes, there are sulphur springs in Ganga. But sulphur kills off everything, the good as well as the bad. And there is something in Ganga that is very beneficial called bacteriophage which would be killed off if sulphur was really present in such massive quantities. So I don’t think the Mysterious Factor X can be sulphur.’

      ‘What is a bacteriophage?’ I’ve never heard the term before. Dr Shukla is economic with words. They’re precious things, not to be wasted in useless verbiage. He takes a sip from his tea before addressing my question.

     ‘Ganga is unique because of this bacteriophage. It comes from the Gangotri glacier and flows downwards. This bacteriophage has the capacity to totally kill off bacterial pathogens. This phage grows so vast and so rapidly that it can spread throughout the entire length of Ganga from Gangotri to Ganga Sagar in just twenty four hours!

     ‘Twenty four hours? Twenty six hundred kilometres? That’s phenomenal!’

     ‘The growth of this killing virus is very rapid. It comes up in the water, it grows and multiplies and then vanishes automatically in twenty four hours time.’

     Presumably leaving no trace. Here today, gone tomorrow and Ganga has been swept clean of disease. Extraordinary!

     So have scientists been able to identify this bacteriophage?

     ‘Yes, it’s called bacteriophage Gangeticum.’ He says that a Canadian researcher (Shukla doesn’t know his name, but I now know it has to be the French-Canadian Felix d’Herelle) identified this bacteriophage in the mid-twentieth century. But what existed then can no longer exist today because there will soon be no more continuous flow of Ganga out of the Himalayas. The Tehri dams will be the death of Ganga’s extraordinary self-purifying capacity.

     Dr Shukla is adamant that water from the Nepalese Himalayas, which feeds into Ganga lower down through the great Gandak, Ghaghara and Kosi, cannot by definition carry this special bacteriophage. It can only come from Gaumukh and Bhagirathi. At the time it seems stupid to ask why.

     He dismisses Bhargava’s theory that the Mysterious Factor X could exist in the river bed throughout the plains. I explain that Bhargava has found Factor X from Kanpur to Varanasi and in the last twenty years.

     ‘That’s impossible, because the flow is no longer continuous. If you interrupt the flow of the river at Tehri or Haridwar then the phage can no longer travel down the river into the plains. There is a time-space connection. This may have happened fifty years ago, but conditions have totally changed today. Fifty years ago, you could put a few drops of Ganga jal into polluted water and it would kill all the bacterial growth. It has been recorded.’

     So there are all these tantalizing theories that seem to cancel each other out. I’ve hit a brick wall. Then I receive an email out of the blue from a colleague.

     ‘I’ve just met an Indian scientist and he’s got something very important to tell you about the Mysterious Factor X and Ganga,’ she wrote.

     A rapid exchange of emails and a few days later I was talking on the phone to Dr Jay Ramachandran, the founder of Gangagen, a biotechnology company named in honour of ME Hankin’s discoveries, with research laboratories in Palo Alto and Bangalore. Ram, as his friends call him, has done enormous work on bacteriophages. Dr Shukla had introduced me to the word. But it was Ram who made it real and could answer all my impatient questions.

     On the phone he explained: ‘Bacteriophages are literally bacteria eaters. They can destroy a virus such as cholera before it’s even got out of bed. If you study them under an electron microscope, they look like those moon lander spacecraft. They have long legs that attach to the bacteria host. They penetrate and destroy the chromosome and multiply exponentially. In thirty minutes one hundred phages become ten thousand, and so on.’

Now go and look at the three diagrams on the Gangagen Website.

     Instinctively, Indians may always have known about phages. Ram reminds me that many temples have a little tank outside where people wash themselves and some of them have developed a reputation as curative powers. ‘This could be due to phages.’

     Ram also sent me the original French and English texts of ME Hankin’s papers from 1894-96. I could finally read for myself what Bhargava had been talking about. But there are still many unanswered questions. Most of my scientific colleagues in the United States are very sceptical. Why have they never heard about bacteriophages? Most of them assume Ram must be claiming his discoveries would kill all diseases in Ganga, from skin rashes to low-grade intestinal infections.

     A little history: in 1917, the French-Canadian scientist Felix d’Herelle, working at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, was asked to investigate the outbreak of dysentery which was afflicting soldiers fighting in the First World War in northeastern France. He quickly found that the dysentery was caused by the shigella bacteria. He cultured the bacteria to study their growth and noticed that sometimes clear areas could be seen on plates of bacteria. He recognized the significance of the clear areas (plaques). Something was killing the bacteria. D’Herelle wondered if he could use whatever it was as a treatment to cure the dysentery.

     He took samples of a patient’s stool, filtered out the bacteria, spread the mixture out on glass plates, and lo and behold one morning the plate was clear. The bacteria had vanished. There was no trace left. D’Herelle had a moment of epiphany: ‘What caused my clear spots was in fact an invisible microbe, a filterable virus, but a virus which is parasitic on bacteria.’

     This was the pre-antibiotic era. Unless one had natural immunity there was no way anyone could survive. So when d’Herelle published his paper on how he had cured dysentery in a whole village with bacteriophage treatment, it drew a lot of attention and literally dozens of companies were formed to sell phages.

     For ten years, bacteriophages were all the rage. D’Herelle’s success stimulated commercial production of phages for treating a broad variety of bacterial infections both in Europe and in the United States. D’Herelle came to India, and phage therapy was tried with impressive results in Punjab and Assam. The number of cholera deaths plummeted. But few doctors in India or elsewhere understood how bacteriophages actually worked, that bacteria could indeed also build up resistance, ‘capture’ phages and turn them back on themselves.

     Then in 1934, the American Pharmaceutical Society published a less than ringing endorsement. It concluded that phage therapies were inconclusive. Simultaneously antibiotics became widespread. Antibiotics were inexpensive, easy to produce and could be used to fight any bacteria.

      The British in Assam next abandoned phage therapy for different but no less revealing reasons. The health authorities in India wanted to make proper sanitation their top priority. So any therapy that reduced the emphasis on the need for better water and sewer systems was seen as threatening. I think a lot of professional scepticism in the West today still reflects that view. Ironically, phage therapy continued to be used and developed successfully in the Soviet Union, right up to its collapse in 1989.

     ‘Today the boot is on the other foot. There’s a “perfect storm” brewing,’ Ram told me in his office in a Bangalore suburb.

     ‘More and more people are developing resistance to antibiotics. I saw it myself at AstraZeneca.(he used to be CEO for their Asian operations. It’s becoming increasingly uneconomic to develop new drugs. So I think phages are the way of the future. They’ve been keeping bacteria in check for three and a half billion years!’

    In person Ram puts me to shame. At age seventy, he’s tall, fit and bears a striking facial resemblance to the Austrian classical music conductor Nicholas Harnoncourt. For many years his mandate at AstroZeneca was to develop therapeutics for tuberculosis and malaria, two of the most serious diseases in the developing world.

     ‘So I was very much involved with infectious diseases. And what I saw convinced me that antibiotics are not the solution, that we have to look for alternative therapies.’ When he retired he simply kept on working because he was so worried at the growing ineffectiveness of many antibiotics.

     Ram confirmed that what Hankin had discovered back in 1894 were indeed bacteriophages in (both) Yamuna and Ganga. Bhargava had never said much about Yamuna.

     ‘First of all you have to remember that all this happened over a hundred years ago. He was working in very primitive conditions although he was pretty convinced that he was doing the right thing by the standards of the day. He was using the latest equipment - ceramic filters, that Louis Pasteur had developed to filter out the bacteria and debris. He then took a culture of cholera-causing bacteria, and when he added water from the Yamuna and Ganga he observed that within three hours, the bacteria were dead.’

   “Hankin boiled the river water and then added the pathogens. They survived and multiplied. How come? Because the bacteriophages had been killed off by the heat. Although phages are remarkably heat resistant, above a certain temperature their structure simply breaks apart. There was nothing left to kill off the bacterial pathogens.

   “Hankin instinctively realized that both rivers contained something that killed cholera bacteria, although it would only be identified as a bacteriophage twenty-odd years later with the invention of the electronic microsope. Ram says bacteriophages are micro-viruses rather than bacterial anti-bodies and are present everywhere on the planet. In fact they are the most abundant entities on the planet. It is estimated that there are ten raised to the power of thirty one - an astronomical number - bacteriophages on the planet. And in fact the bulk are in the oceans. If you go to any ocean and take a millilitre of sea water you will find between one to ten million bacteriophages.

     There are phages for all bacteria. A cholera phage can only attach to a cholera bacteria, an E. coli phage only to that specific E. coli and so on. They simply bide their time until they can sense that bacteria. But when they do, all hell breaks loose. The moment the phage gets into the bacterium it multiplies exponentially. In a few hours you can have billions of bacteriophages but almost no more bacteria. They’ve fled. Bacteria are always looking for something or someone to feed on, so those that survive will disengage, move away to comparative safety, until sooner or later the appropriate phage finds them out again, and the whole process starts all over again. This is why there’s usually a state of low level truce with bacteria kept in ecological control.

     ‘Why can’t we see bacteriophages in the water?’

     ‘It can hang around in shady waters for years, but you won’t notice it because there is no host. It will only express itself when there is a bacterial host.’ So the bacteriophage doesn’t disappear after twenty-four hours, as Shukla had stated. It simply becomes dormant.

     One of the major problems in using phages as therapeutics has always been this extraordinary specificity. The phage that will kill cholera will not kill shigella dysentery even though they are both diarrhoeal diseases. And one that kills shigella will not kill typhoid, and so on. The challenge is to perform the diagnosis of the infection properly, and then match the right phage to that infection.

     Unfortunately, this specificity simply wasn’t understood back in the 1920s. The physician had to properly diagnose the infection. He had to know if it was cholera or shigella or some other type of diarrhoeal infection, Montezuma’s revenge or whatever. And then find the appropriate phage to treat it. This was a very difficult proposition. Even today it is complicated, in those days it was practically impossible because they didn’t have the right tools, specifically the electron microscope, which had yet to be invented. So the inappropriate phage was often applied to the wrong bacteria. Predictably, it failed to do the job.

     The development of penicillin effectively ended the use of bacteriophage. Penicillin was and still is the miracle panacea because it’s a broad spectrum antibiotic. The physician can therefore say ‘ahah-infection-fever-penicillin.’ So most physicians simply said forget about phages, we’ll go with antibiotics. Doctors also didn’t understand that phages can only kill bacteria. Back then, for example, doctors wanted to use phages to kill herpes. But herpes is a virus. So failure and discredit of the bacteriophage for more than fifty years. Until today, when doctors are quickly encountering massive bacterial resistance to antibiotics that have cost a king’s ransom to develop. Hence the re-emergence of the lowly bacteriophage.

     All rivers contain phages. There’s nothing special about Ganga. Hankin found phages in the Yamuna at Agra. Bhargava reported he had found this Mysterious Factor X at Varanasi and Allahabad. So the theory they are somehow unique to Himalayan waters or to below-normal temperatures is a red herring. Because bacteriophages exist throughout the entire river, damming or diverting the flow of the Himalayan Ganga at Tehri or Haridwar will probably have no impact on their presence, and therefore on the ability of Ganga to purify itself.

     But any radical alteration in the state of the river, such as massive chemical pollution, or a complete breakdown of oxygen due to algae or other vegetal growth could have very negative consequences. The persistence of bacteriophages is undoubtedly affected by temperature and direct sunlight. It’s reasonable to assume that a significant increase in salinity or another chemical change could also be disruptive. The trouble is we just don’t know how or what.

     The bacteria which phages feed on can come from human sewage, or from human bodies when they bathe. The human body in water in fact acts as a catalyst. The higher the concentration of bathers the more food for the phages to feast on. So wherever there are major bathing festivals (the various Kumbh Melas) and high numbers of bathers (Varanasi, Allahabad) phages will flock.

      ‘When you have a Kumbh Mela, I really believe that phages help. When sixty million people bathe in a small area, huge amounts of bacteria are rinsed off from their bodies. Suddenly the bacterial concentration is very high. Even though the phage concentration is initially very low, the chance of the proper bacterium meeting a phage is very likely. Having found out its prey, the phage will multiply and the whole area suddenly becomes rich in phages. So a few days after a Kumbh Mela you should find a lot of phages there.

     Music to my ears! The 2003 Ardh Mela at Nasik (on the Godavari river) confirmed Ram’s hypothesis. ‘Six million people bathed there. We took water samples and found about eight or nine different phages in that water,’ just about what you’d expect when several million take a ‘holy dip’ together.’

     As more people bathe in Ganga, the river seems to acquire greater powers of self-purification. Environmental purists would be horrified, just as the British in Assam health authorities were horrified at the idea of downplaying sanitation as their number one health priority.

     To some it may also sound like an open invitation to encourage people to dump untreated sewage into Ganga. No one is advocating this. But maybe one doesn’t need to get quite so hung up on expensive and complex sewage treatment plants that are heavily dependent on electricity. Settling ponds and bacteriophages seem a low-cost and effective alternative to high-tech methods - using nature to repair the damage man has done to the environment.

     An environmental science colleague in the United States is worried that if the bacteria are wiped out then all the phages must also be killed. He bases this on what happens to wildlife. But Ram says the analogy is wrong. My colleague is confusing ecology and microbiology. Phages bring the bacteria back down to within acceptable levels. They don’t eliminate them entirely. There’s no need. The phages can take a breather until the next alert. When the bacteria are back within acceptable levels, the phages have done their work.

     Which is why there are never any cases of mass epidemics at bathing festivals such as the various Kumbh Melas or Kartik Purnima or Makar Sankranti. Western common sense and hygiene insist there must be. But there never are because phages have killed most of the bacteria within twelve hours. ‘The devastation is exponential!’ as Ram says.

     At Varanasi, the Sankat Mochan Foundation laboratories report E.coli levels millions above permissible World Health Organization levels. And yet there are no resultant pandemics. Skin diseases, stomach disorders, but no devastating epidemics. This might well be the reason why.

Today, Gangagen has built up a library of over four hundred and fifty phages. Ironically, Gangagen gets many of them in the raw sewage collected from hospitals in Bangalore. ‘Human shit is a wonderful thing because it contains most of the phages we need to treat common epidemics like cholera, typhoid, gastro-enteritis. We shouldn’t try to banish shit from our lives, if it contains the very microbacteria that prevent us getting sick.’

     I find it strange that so few Indian scientists seem intellectually interested in phages. Fragmentation of scientific knowledge? Ignorance? Jealousy? Ram thinks all of the above. Many Indian scientists simply separate out science from their religious beliefs. They accept and pass on to other subjects. Ram says: ‘I have known many particle physicists who will not move to a new place unless the stars are in the right position. They simply accept this is how it has to be. Once the astrologer has reassured them they can go back into the lab as if nothing has ever happened. Total divorce between the two.’

     The bacteriophage is undoubtedly a part of the Mysterious Factor X. But it’s not the entire explanation. Bacteriophage is indeed Bhargava’s ‘disinfectant’ that kills cholera and dysentery germs. They’re not however unique to Ganga. The extraordinary high rates of re-oxygenation that Bhargava identified may be. But they are two completely distinct phenomena. Bhargava’s mistake was to confuse and collapse them into a single phenomenon because he had misread a badly-printed copy of a hundred year-old journal in French.

     Hankin writes that his discoveries were made in the Yamuna, in Agra where he was Chief Medical Officer. He could see bodies literally rotting on the banks of the river. So he carried out his series of simple experiments with samples from Yamuna and at local wells. Hankin also took comparative readings in Ganga, but at Allahabad. He saw with his own eyes that the cholera germ was present in epidemic proportions at Agra and at Allahabad. He nowhere writes that he observed cholera at either Haridwar or Varanasi. Bhargava simply misread the French. This is where much of the problem begins. Bhargava assumed Hankin has carried out his experiments only in Ganga and came up with his startling - and false - claims for Ganga jal.

     Bacteriophage explains why there are no pandemics in Ganga. But the true Mysterious Factor X, the quality that Ganga possesses that no other river does, is perhaps its extraordinary rate of re-oxygenation. Bhargava found Ganga has a rate many times greater than Yamuna. The question is why? Nobody to my knowledge has even attempted or hinted at a plausible answer. Neither temperature nor velocity offer a remotely convincing answer. It’s back to something in the actual river bed.

     If Bhargava hadn’t gone on to document the extraordinary re-oxygenation rates of the river and its ability to dissolve organic matter fully twenty-five times faster than any other river in India or elsewhere in the world, he’d probably be just a footnote in scientific papers. But he did discover these attributes! And they argue that there is something other than bacteriophages in the water. The river does have some extraordinary rejuvenating powers.

     Miah M. Hussainuzzaman, a young geomorphologist I met in Kanpur in December 2005, mentioned he was researching for arsenic in the area. ‘How did it get here?’ I wondered.

     ‘Probably brought down thousands of years ago, lying dormant ever since. Then other chemicals - maybe man-made, maybe totally innocuous like oxygen - interact with it. The original material suddenly stirs, changes its nature. It’s called geochemistry,’ Hussainuzzaman casually explains, then goes on to more esoteric subjects.

     But my interest has been piqued. Bhargava’s eyes would have lit up - something in the river bed. The germ of another theory has been sown!