Cover image for Sacred waters : a pilgrimage up the Ganges River to the source of Hindu culture
Sacred waters : a pilgrimage up the Ganges River to the source of Hindu culture
Alter, Stephen.
Personal Author:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Harcourt, [2001]

Physical Description:
368 pages : maps ; 24 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DS414.2 .A557 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



This is an account of a journey taken in India. The destination is the source of the Ganges, the holy and most famous of Indian rivers. It is a physical journey, involving train rides across the vast plains and passages on foot far into snow-covered valleys and mountains. It is also a spiritual journey, taking a man deep into the heart and soul of the ancient religious culture of India.

Stephen Alter, who was born in the Himalayan foothills, crosses many miles, and several millennia, to search for the source of Indian religion. Along the way, as he reaches one holy spot after another, meeting grounds for pilgrims, remote towns, and forgotten temples, he delves into the myths and traditions of an antique land. He explores the tales of heroic derring-do, evil and good, and recounts the great stories of death, warfare, passions, and sacred wisdom that animate the vibrant history and religious traditions of India. As every pilgrim learns, a spiritual search involves travel but ultimately returns to the inner self. Sacred Waters is a richly told narrative of a beautiful land and of a man's interior journey, and is for readers everywhere who seek to plumb their own spiritual sources.

Author Notes

Stephen Alter is writer-in-residence in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies at MIT, and was the director of the writing program at Cairo's American University. He is the author of four novels and a memoir, All the Way to Heaven , as well as another travel book, Amritsar to Lahore , a bestseller in India.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Alter invites readers to join him on a double journey, deep into the Indian subcontinent and deep into the Hindu faith. Simply as a travel chronicle, the narrative sparkles, every episode rich with sharp detail and piquant incidents. We sit by the smoky fire of a wild-looking but gentle sandhu and meet a Muslim guijjar in search of a camera to photograph a herd of buffalo decimated by lightning. But Alter delivers more than unlikely characters in memorable landscapes: myth by myth, he unfolds the secrets of a complex spiritual heritage. Each step of the journey occasions reflection on the ancient Hindu stories that have long nourished this land. Respectful but unsentimental, Alter highlights inspiring truths recorded in Vedic scripture but also exposes the increasing commercialism of the religion. Surprisingly, the spiritual culmination of the pilgrimage comes neither in the waters of the Ganges nor in a Hindu shrine. Rather, it comes high in the Himalayas, in the Valley of Flowers, where the author finds himself enveloped in solitary but transcendent peace. --Bryce Christensen

Publisher's Weekly Review

In his latest travel memoir, Alter (Amritsar to Lahore) tracks the inexorable path of "progress" and various human responses to it. Progress is embodied in the roads and new dams that exist where before there were only footpaths for Hindus traveling to the "four main sources of the Ganga a journey known as the Char Dham Yatra." The once arduous mountain pilgrimage used to take devout Hindus up to four months, but now, in public buses or air-conditioned coaches, it might take a couple of weeks. Alter begins his journey on foot, traveling through the Himalayas, in whose foothills he was born. Seeing himself not as a mountaineer but as a pilgrim who "becomes one with this terrain," undertaking "tapasya," Hindu for surviving on "whatever the forest provides," Alter, writer-in-residence at MIT, describes political, socioeconomic and ecological changes in the terrain and people he encounters. One man calls a series of dams in Tehri "temples of the future," while another describes the same as "sacrilege, modern technology obstructing the inexorable current of a holy river." Well-versed in Hindu mythology, Alter (an atheist, himself) infuses the book with spiritual tales. It was the author's goal to evoke a fast disappearing way of life and topography, to show spiritual interests eclipsed by material ones. With vivid descriptions of the many people, villages, dharamshalas, shrines, ashrams and Indian customs so foreign and seemingly inaccessible to most Westerners, Alter achieves this end, portraying a landscape before it is effectively trampled by what is called "progress." (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The Ganges, India's major river and spiritual shrine, rises in a rugged region of the Himalayas bordering Nepal. Its tributaries have been a source of pilgrimage for centuries. Alter, an American born of missionary parents and raised in this region-he described growing up between two cultures in his fine book, All the Way to Heaven-made four short treks over a one-year period on various pilgrimage routes to the river. Here he describes his experiences and observations in great detail, giving special emphasis to mythology and folklore. He encounters a variety of people along the way, including sadhus (both convincing and otherwise in his judgment), merchants, shepherds, poachers, an occasional Westerner, and other pilgrims. Because this area is so remote and so little known abroad, the book would find a wider readership if it had illustrative materials to complement Alter's skillful prose and deep understanding, though the end papers include maps. For larger public and academic libraries focusing on the Indian subcontinent and its cultures.-Harold M. Otness, formerly with Southern Oregon Univ. Lib., Ashland (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.