Do the gods pollute? Scientists in India, worried about the public health consequences of immersing idols in lakes and rivers, have been looking anew at water pollution. They hope, and perhaps in some cases pray, to harmonise their medical concerns with some people’s religious priorities.
Most of their research has focused on idols of the elephant-headed god Ganesh, created for the annual Ganesh Chaturthi celebration. Once a fairly quiet, mostly private practice, Ganesh Chaturthi now involves large, public festivals in many parts of the country. Researchers have also looked, a little, at the effects of immersing other idols, especially those of the many-armed goddess Durga.
One of the latest studies is called Assessment of the Effects of Municipal Sewage, Immersed Idols and Boating on the Heavy Metal and Other Elemental Pollution of Surface Water of the Eutrophic Hussainsagar Lake (Hyderabad, India). A team sampled water repeatedly from different parts of the lake, including one spot “immersed with hundreds of multicoloured idols of Lord Ganesh and Goddess Durga”, and another near “the outfall of black-coloured, untreated raw sewage containing a collection of industrial effluents”. Sewage, they conclude, accounts for most but not all of the pollution. High levels of zinc, calcium and strontium “were probably due to the immersed idols painted with multicolours”.