101 days of stand-up paddling

Kumaran Mahalingam talks to NAVEENA VIJAYAN on his life-changing expedition along the Ganga with Shilpika Gautam

Published - January 31, 2017 05:51 pm IST

Inside an empty coffee shop, Kumaran Mahalingam, a geologist who holds three Limca Book of Records titles for stand-up paddling, hurries me through photos taken during his recent expedition along the Ganga. He and Shilpika Gautam from the U.K. recently became the first in the world to paddle a distance of 2,688 kilometres along the descent of the river in 101 days between October and January. They were part of a group of four that whittled down to two; thanks to the extreme weather conditions and uncertain journey crossing eddies, rapids, mushy waters from the source of the Ganga in Gaumukh to the mouth of the river in Ganga Sagar.

The photos are reminiscent of scenes from Castaway, Life of Pi and TheBlue Lagoon , except that Mahalingam and Gautam are on paddleboards, and equipped with smartphones, packets of Parle-G, a DSLR camera, Sports HD WiFi-enabled 1080P action camera kit, first aid travel kit, UV protection sunglasses, camping kit, and so on.

The photos show Mahalingam sleeping on the board even as it slowly bobs on the river, cooking with sadhus on river banks and directing a herd of cattle swimming from one side to the other. At this photo, he stops, gulps down his filter coffee, and painfully recounts an incident — he had to repeatedly hit a cow on its nose bridge. “It was pulling the paddleboard down with its muzzle. If I had let her continue, I would have fallen into the river, and she wouldn’t have survived for long in the water. The villager who was swimming with the cow (the only way to cross to the other side) asked me to hit her so that she would produce enough adrenaline to swim faster. I cried, but had to do it. The cow was crying in pain.”

Such incidents, he says, gave him a peek into what life in a few rural pockets of India was like. Days passed, and Mahalingam paddled his way rhythmically through the river that sometimes was as still as glass and, at others, as rough as a raging monster. He passed a bunch of young boys in Rishikesh, who used magnets to fetch coins thrown; mounds of plastic waste and blobs of grime that plagued the section of the river in the cities, and, occasionally, floating limbs. “I started withdrawing from the feeling of belonging to this world. I cared less and less about my problems, and became one with the river,” he says, with a blank expression.

One of the photos features Gautam, with a half-burnt corpse a few feet away from her paddleboard. “There were days when we would go to sleep watching the burning pyres on the banks,” he says. What irked Mahalingam was seeing people take a dip, and drink mouthfuls of the same polluted water. “There are a lot of places that have been subjected to ‘religious pollution’. Even the plates in which they do aarti, especially in Rishikesh, are plastic-coated!”

Mahalingam, who had explored 29 water bodies in India before taking up the Ganga, was waiting for an opportune project to explore the river that supports almost half of India’s population, more than 140 fish species, 90 amphibian species and several wildlife species.

“As a geologist, outdoor teacher and Nature enthusiast, I wanted to understand the current status of the wildlife, water quality, people, irrigation system, geology and river dynamics, religious significance, economy, pollution and environmental concerns along the Ganga.”

So, when Mahalingam saw the call for participants to be part of the Ganges SUP Expedition in a magazine last year, he took a non-paid, three-month sabbatical from work. “Through this project, I wanted to focus on raising awareness against single-use plastic and other causes of pollution that are more readily addressable {for example, treatment of sewage waste before it goes into the river}.” At different spots, Mahalingam and his team sampled the water quality. They also interacted with local governance bodies to promote the importance of cleaner water, encouraged young people to get involved in civic issues via adventure sports, and showcased the accessibility of stand-up paddling as a means of creating additional eco-tourism opportunities.

Before he started off, Mahalingam undertook a 10-day survey of the area they were going to paddle in, using Google maps. The plan, as laid out, included a 260-kilometre trek from Gaumukh to Devprayag, where the river Ganga forms, do white-water paddling from Devprayag to Haridwar on inflatable SUP boards, and on hardboards from Haridwar to the sea (crossing river sections in Bijnor, Narora, Kanpur and Farakka). They had to cross five barrages and set up camping tents 49 times through the course of the journey.

“In the stretch between Devprayag and Rishikesh, the currents in the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda were very strong. My teammates fell in and were carried along for quite a bit,” he recalls with horror. “The eddies from the Bhagirathi toppled me as well, but that was my last fall in the journey.”

Records and a river

The world’s first descent in the Ganges by stand-up paddling.

Shilpika Gautam broke the world record for the longest continuous stand-up paddle-boarded distance by a woman in a journey.

First-ever recording of river Gangetic dolphins ( Platanista gangetica ). A total of 867 dolphins were spotted during the expedition, with the support of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) India and R.K. Sinha, known as the Dolphin Man of India.

The project supported the ‘Poop-free Ganga’ campaign with the help of WaterAid India, an NGO that helps local communities access safe water and cleanr sanitation.

The team performed basic water analysis in 10 different spots along the Ganga.

Check out gangessup.org for details.

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