Delhi-based firm Morphogenesis has recently completed a proposal for a project that will rehabilitate and develop the ghats (a flight of steps leading down to a river) and crematoriums along a 210-kilometer stretch of the Ganges, India’s longest river. The project, titled “A River in Need,” is part of the larger National Mission of Clean Ganga (NMCG), an undertaking of the Indian Government’s Ministry of Water Resources which was formed in 2011 with twin objectives: to ensure effective abatement of the river’s pollution and to conserve and rejuvenate it.
The Ganges is venerated as a living goddess by India’s 966 million Hindus who strongly believe in the river’s self-healing properties; to have one’s ashes scattered in the river is symbolic of achieving eternal liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. But the hard reality of dumping tons of incompletely cremated bodies, not to mention gallons of industrial effluents and raw sewage, has caused India’s national river to become the world’s most polluted. While the Ganges sustains a tenth of the world’s population, it also causes an estimated 600,000 deaths annually on account of water-borne diseases. With increasing densification of Indian cities—two cities from the country already feature in the top eight of UN Habitat’s recent list of world’s densest cities—there also exists an urgent need to provide spaces for community building and public engagement.
Morphogenesis’ urban intervention, in an effort to address these pressing issues, aims to sustainably redesign India’s historic interface between the river and human habitation, while simultaneously turning the city inside out to provide riverside civic spaces.
Hindu tradition dictates that its followers connect with the Ganges at several significant stages of their life, whether it’s the anointment of a newborn with the river’s holy water, the initiation into the faith through the Janeu (sacred thread) ritual, an individual’s wedding ceremony, or their eventual cremation at its banks. Morphogenesis recognized that in order to deliver a culturally contextual solution, they would first need to study and understand this ritualistic cycle: “where people will gather, where they will wait, where they will be mourning, where there will be celebration.” The firm developed their design with the ultimate goal of becoming one with the river—closing the circle of life around the Ganges through the sensitive coexistence of a varied program.
Morphogenesis worked on a total of 33 ghats and 20 crematoria along the stretch of the river between the holy cities of Allahabad and Varanasi. While looking at the rejuvenation of the river, prime design concerns included the erosion of the river bank and flooding. The firm noted how deforestation along the river-bank, resulting from the need for wood for traditional pyre cremations, had scoured the land-water edge and reduced it to a “silted quagmire.”
This directed Morphogenesis to propose hume pipes to stabilize the bank, while they redesigned the crematoria—and the pyres themselves—to reduce the amount of wood needed to just thirty percent of the traditional requirement. This provided the added social benefit of lowering the cost of cremation, which the firm found was often higher than the annual income of a household.
The firm turned to a study of the vernacular in an effort to find ways to treat the riverfront: Ghats were the natural answer since they lend themselves to stabilizing the river-edge while providing an interface for human engagement with the river. Morphogenesis’ design of the ghats combined the use of several typologies of platform to account for diverse functions: extended ones to access water-transport at all levels, smaller ones for daily rituals, and large performance stages for events.
The provision is such that all activities use water in a controlled way, hence leading to reduced pollution: Platforms were designed to be supported by colonnades to make sure that the river flow remains uninterrupted. In addition, changing quarters were provided close to the ritual bathing pond.
The ghats’ varied program is organized sectionally—different levels cater to different activities. This segregation is based on flood-levels: While bathing spaces occupy the lowest rung, public gathering spaces and amenities are conceptualized at safe higher levels, with ritual spaces sandwiched in between. The firm reintroduced the historic Chaupal seating structure—gurus would deliver lectures to their pupils under the shade of a tree—to provide for places of community interaction; reforestation employed resilient plants that worked with the varying levels. The design also incorporates informal and pop-up temporary retail to make sure that ghats remain active through the day and the year.
In an attempt to add to the ghats’ traditional religious function, Morphogenesis designed the new developments to be wifi-enabled; the firm envisions the ghats as important urban spaces for discourse and dissemination of knowledge. The ghats will also run almost entirely on solar power: Solar panels are installed atop “Smart Columns,” which act as shading devices while simultaneously fulfilling the essential functions of providing drinking water and internet connectivity. Furthermore, locally-available and low-maintenance materials were used to reduce ecological impact: the flooring will utilize porous stone to enable water to percolate through, while the structures will be predominantly built in brick.