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Water and Gender in Recreating Family Life with Maa Ganga: The Confluence of Nature and Culture in a North Indian River Pilgrimage

Department of Anthropology and Development Studies, Radboud University, P.O Box 9104, 6500 HE Nijmegen, The Netherlands

Special Issues: Inviting papers for a special issue on Pilgrimage

This article studies the meaning of water and gender in the North Indian pilgrimage to the sacred river Ganges. It joins the recent criticism in anthropology concerning the nature/culture divide and aims to transcend that divide by focusing on water, not apart from but as part of social life. Assuming that water’s sociality is gendered, the authors look at how both the river water—itself as a landscape material—and the pilgrims’ engagements with that water are gendered. Starting from the central question: How do men’s and women’s ritual engagements with the sacred female river water (mutually) construct social life? The article investigates men’s and women’s ritual use of water at different sites. It focuses on more than the central pilgrimage shrine and links the sacred river site to people’s homes to know how the moving river water, collected by pilgrims at the shrine, is used in water rituals back home. Trying to counterbalance the male and scriptural bias which is prominent in the literature on Ganges’ pilgrimage sites, the pilgrimage is studied from the perspective of lived religion that takes people’s embodied practices and sensory experiences of nature into account as well as people’s everyday life. By showing how men’s and women’s rituals differ and complement each other, it argues that men’s rituals at the pilgrimage site and women’s rituals at home serve the recreation of the family in a paired way. The argument is built on longitudinal and multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork at the Ganges river shrine in Haridwar (Uttarakhand) and pilgrims’ residence in Udaipur (Rajasthan).
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