Microbiology and rituals in the waters of the Ganges: The matter of life and death

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis explores the waters of the Ganges River as they are mobilised through laboratories and Hindu rituals in Varanasi. Drawing on fieldwork carried out at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic amidst microbiologists and Hindu priests, this thesis argues the Ganges River provides a space to think about science and religion together in ways that are relevant for current concerns about environmental pollution, public health and nationalist politics. The Ganges River in North India is notorious for its sacred-yet-polluted waters. Whilst people worship with, bathe in and drink Ganges water for subsistence and religious purposes, gallons of raw sewage and other waste materials flow into the river daily. While microbiological research using the waters of the Ganges points to the presence of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the water, it also provides biotechnological hopes of cure through the revival of phage therapy. Mediated through Ganges water, this possibility of biomedical cure is entangled with Hindu understandings of the river that took central stage during the COVID-19 outbreak in ways that speak to the health of humans and environments, as well as to the politics of science and religion in contemporary India. I trace ethnographically how Ganges water is worked with in each context, thinking about the affordances of water as a medium for microbes and rituals. After contextualising the Ganges in Varanasi among Hindu rituals and microbiological studies, the first part of this thesis sets out to separately explore bacteriophage viruses and gangajal—holy Ganges water in Hindu ritual contexts. First, I delve into the entwined history of bacteriophages and the Ganges River as a source of microbes, casting light on the larger structural hurdles to phage therapy as a cure in biomedicine. Considering the Ganges water as a matter of ritual concern, I explore the material specificities of this water in Hindu religious contexts to argue for the centrality of water in the structure of daily rituals aimed at purification and healing. Moving towards considering microbiological experiments and Hindu rituals in relation to each other, I then focus on the technical work of experts inside laboratories and temples that produce different possibilities of healing water. Lastly, I explore news coverage and social media posts made during the COVID-19 pandemic that connect science and religion in ways that are relevant to consider bacteriophages and rituals in the current contexts of Indian politics. This thesis frames together humans, microbes, and deities in the Gangetic assemblage through an attention to water as the matter of life and death in microbiology and Hindu rituals.
Date of Award1 Aug 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorPenelope Harvey (Supervisor) & Soumhya Venkatesan (Supervisor)


  • Science
  • Religion
  • Social Anthropology
  • South Asia
  • River
  • Ganga
  • Varanasi
  • Banaras
  • Invisible
  • Mediation
  • Anthropology
  • COVID-19
  • India
  • Ethnography
  • Bacteriophages
  • Ganges River
  • Science and Religion
  • Gangajal
  • Hinduism
  • Microbes
  • Materiality
  • Water

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