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Down by the river

10 November 2017

BBC/Folk Films Ltd

Serious quest: in The Ganges with Sue Perkins, the comedian and TV personality presented a three-part journey down the sacred river (BBC 1, Thursdays)

Serious quest: in The Ganges with Sue Perkins, the comedian and TV personality presented a three-part journey down the sacred river (BBC 1, Thursdays)

“DUST thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Despite the ancient power of such All Souls’-tide proclamations, it would seem, recent TV documentaries suggest, that it would be more scientifically accurate if we replaced the term “dust” with “water”. In The Ganges with Sue Perkins, the comedian and TV personality presented a three-part journey down the sacred river (BBC1, Thursdays).

She offered us her personal engagement with what she saw and felt, her gags in no way overwhelming the seriousness of her quest. For this was less a travelogue and more a pilgrimage, as she allowed us into the rawness of her father’s recent death, and her acknowledgement that, while being not at all religious, she values what she can only describe as “spiritual experience”.

I wonder whether, by the end of the journey, she would still make so firm a distinction. The Hindu rituals she witnessed throughout, and to whose power she attested, must have made her question whether you can draw such a neat, Western, post-Enlightenment line.

One of these days, perhaps, I will make my TV programme on why orthopraxis is far more significant than orthodoxy. Perkins saw that getting caught up into the inherent power of the action might be more important than sorting out a logically coherent abstract philosophy of believing, before you dared get involved in the ritual.

As she observed the myriad ways in which the river was revered as a goddess, Mother Ganges, she was alert to its crucial paradox. It is revered as the source of cleansing, bathing, and drinking, and as an efficacious means of washing away your sins, and yet it is appallingly polluted — more a huge open sewer than a nursery of marine life.

She mused on the interface between physical and metaphysical: does the river hold charism for the faithful despite its horrific filth and stench — or even because of them? Will the efficacy survive the current long-overdue strategies to try to clean it up, or will it be compromised by the clear light of reason?

David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II (BBC1, Sundays) chronicles life and death on an unimaginable scale, in the most glorious colour and definition. The second episode, focusing on the deep ocean, was even more eye-opening than the first. We now know that this environment, to our minds entirely inhospitable, contains more life than anywhere else on earth.

Circumstances that would appear to make existence impossible teem with extraordinary creatures, ranging from the stuff of nightmares to the transcendently beautiful. On the ocean floor, life and death are inextricably interrelated: the evidence grows that the cataclysmically destructive sea-bed volcanoes blast from the earth’s core the mixture of chemicals which, under extreme pressure and temperature, causes the spontaneous creation of hydro-carbons: molecules that form the basis of all living creatures.

And we now know that Jupiter and Saturn also have deep seas; so even if we succeed in our efforts to extinguish all life on earth, the Almighty may have another card up his sleeve.

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