Srikar Gullapalli '13 and Brian Lemanski '14 were given a National Geographic grant to study how pollution of the Ganges has affected religious practices.

Srikar Gullapalli ’13 and Brian Lemanski ’14 were given a National Geographic grant to study how pollution of the Ganges River has affected religious practices.


(Editor’s note: This article was written by Alicia Klepeis)

Although the Ganges River is considered sacred and purifying to Hindus, pollution and damming have contaminated those beliefs, according to initial findings by Srikar Gullapalli ’13 and Brian Lemanski ’14. Previous scholarship has indicated that Hindus believe the river’s sanctity could not be fouled by human actions, but Gullapalli and Lemanski have found that the opposite is true.    

The students spent 59 days this winter traveling along the banks of the Ganga (the Hindi name for the Ganges River), conducting field research into how pollution has influenced Hindus at seven major shrines. They also studied how uses of the river are changing, and found that some Hindus have stopped bathing in the river and drinking from it as frequently. “However, the most surprising thing was how people were saying things like ‘Mother Ganga [the goddess who personifies the river] has left this place because we scared her away with our pollution,’” said Lemanski.

Their project, titled “Voices of the Ganga — The Interplay of Religion and Pollution,” was chosen out of a pool of 150 applications for a prestigious $5,000 Young Explorers Grant from the National Geographic Society. Their selection at age 21 is even more impressive because “the average age of a Young Explorer Grant recipient is 24,” according to Barbara Moffet, senior director of communications at the National Geographic Society. They received supplemental funding from President Jeffrey Herbst’s office.

Gullapalli — a mathematical economics major from Bangalore, India — and Lemanski — an environmental biology major from Albany, N.Y. — developed the project entirely through their own initiative. Upon meeting their first year at Colgate, they had discovered a shared interest in conducting research in India that looked at “how people interact with their environment,” Lemanski noted. After refining their idea and grant proposal, in spring 2012 they approached religion professor Eliza Kent. She helped them develop a survey, which they used to interview approximately 140 people — from residents living and working along the river, to the Swami Avimukteshwaranand (who is soon to be one of Hinduism’s primary religious leaders).

Wanting to study “political action regarding the Ganga’s current state,” Gullapalli said, the students met a grassroots group in Varanasi who had successfully lobbied their local government to close a sewage pipe that had been flowing into the river. They also consulted with Dr. Vinod Tare, convener of the National Ganga River Basin Authority, a governmental entity. Along the way, they collected 35 liters of water samples.

Lemanski is analyzing the water samples for pollution, looking for pesticides, Polychlorinated Biphenyls, and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. Both Gullapalli and Lemanski will use Geographic Information Systems to create maps to show what’s happening along the river, such as what chemicals people are exposed to at specific locations. They plan to use an online interactive tool and smartphone app to display their findings.

Following Lemanski’s water analysis, Gullapalli will use their survey data to measure the causal effect of pollution on the religious experience of citizens living along the riverbanks. “Interviewing these people gave a face to the [pollution] data. Behind all these numbers and figures are people’s lives,” said Lemanski. The students plan to share their findings with the greater academic community through research journals.

“We did research that we both felt strongly about, made life-changing relationships, and now are working with National Geographic to disseminate our results in an effort to evoke change,” Lemanski said.