As the first gray slants of dawn creep over ancient Varanasi, a city hoary with tradition and Hindu spiritualism, the banks of the Ganges stir from their slumber slowly and reluctantly, as if in wary anticipation of the furnace-like heat that the day promises.

The dobis, or washermen, are up first, furiously pounding their laundry on flat rocks at the river's edge in a race with the rising sun. Then come the pilgrims, by the hundreds at first and then the thousands, to immerse themselves in the sacred water at the bathing ghats and absolve themselves of sin.

Cremation pyres flicker brightly in the dim light and primitive dhows laden with sand from the opposite shore inch across the river with flat sails beseeching the slightest ripple of breeze.

It is a tableau as old as recorded history, replayed countless times along the 1,560 miles that the river courses from its headstreams in the Indian Himalayas to its mouth in the Bay of Bengal.

But the 20th century is choking the mighty Ganges, polluting it against the erroneous belief that it is so sacred it cannot be polluted, and depleting its flow in the face of a creed that says it is inexhaustible.

The city of Varanasi alone spews 20 million gallons of raw sewage directly into the Ganges every day, and the scene is repeated in hundreds of cities and towns along the river that have never even considered proposals for treatment plants.

Upstream in Kanpur and other industrial cities, uncounted tons of industrial wastes containing chromium, mercury, magnesium and other toxic substances are dumped into the river, but no studies have even been made to determine the effects on the river.

Water for irrigation is indiscriminately pumped out of the Ganges during the dry season, resulting in sharp drops in the water level, which exacerbate the pollution. Unchecked deforestation in the Himalayas and the resulting soil erosion is further damaging the Ganges, according to environmentalists.

In this religious capital of Hinduism, where 6 million of the devout bathe every year, the remains of 35,000 human bodies--many of them only partially burned--are dumped annually into the Ganges in the belief that the immersion of the ashes relieves the immortal soul of the endless cycle of birth and rebirth.

Moreover, the cadavers of thousands of cows are thrown into the river each year, and many float bloated on the surface until devoured by vultures.

For all of the befouling and a growing awareness during the last two decades that the Ganges is posing an increasing health hazard to the 200 million people in the fertile Gangetic plain who depend on it for their existence, there has been no popular movement to curtail pollution and reverse the river's deterioration.

Now, however, the chief priest of a prominent Hindu temple here and a San Francisco-based foundation that grew out of the environment-conscious administration of former California governor Jerry Brown have united to organize a Save the Ganges project whose ambitious goal is to change ancient attitudes about the river and clean up its waters.

Veer Bhadra Mishra, 45-year-old priest of the Sankat Mochan temple to the Hindu monkey diety, Hanuman, began the project early this year with the U.S.-based Friends of Ganges Fund of the Tides Foundation in San Francisco.

"We have no delusions about the task ahead of us, but the situation is not that hopeless," said Mishra, who also is a professor of hydraulic engineering at Banaras (Varanasi) Hindu University, in an interview. He noted that the Hudson River once was declared biologically dead but was saved through aggressive pollution control measures.

But Mishra conceded that his biggest obstacle is religious tradition and mythology surrounding the Ganges.

In Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva, one of the major gods, brought the water goddess, Ganga, to earth to redeem the souls of worthy mortals. But when she started to fall in a torrent, Shiva caught her in his hair and let her fall through the plains in trickles that flowed to the Bay of Bengal. Shiva's locks of hair represent the network of tributaries that feed the river from the Himalaya Mountains.

It is the ambition of every devout Hindu to visit Varanasi once in a lifetime and, if possible, to die there and be cremated on the banks of the Ganges. Every day, millions of Indians bathe in, drink and offer prayers to the waters of the Ganges, and many carry it long distances to their family altars.

"It is obvious as anything that the Ganges is being polluted, but people don't want to believe that it can be polluted," said Mishra, noting that recent coliform counts here showed 30,000 per 100 milliters of water, and fecal coliform counts of 1,180 per 100 milliliters, while in Kanpur, coliform counts of 10 million per 100 milliliters have been registered.

The central water pollution board regards any coliform count above 10 per milliter as unsafe.

One of Varanasi's huge waste water outflow pipes gushes raw sewage into the river just 100 yards upstream from the municipality's main drinking water intake pipe.

Just as the dobis refuse to believe the water is unclean, Indians of all walks of life regard talk about the Ganges' pollution as a sacrilege.

V. S. Mehra, an articulate, English-speaking owner of a prosperous fabric exporting business here, bristled at suggestions that the river had become unsafe.

"The foreigners come here and say the Ganga is so dirty, but it is not dirty. In the center it is pure. You have to have faith in it," Mehra said, challenging a visitor to take a bottle of the river water to a laboratory for analysis. He recounted an apocryphal story often heard here that a bottle of 200-year-old Ganges water and a bottle of new water were tested in an American laboratory and found to have the same purity.

Sitting cross-legged on a terrace overlooking the famous Manikarnika burning ghat, where bodies shrouded in white silk and cotton are burned on flaming pyres around the clock, Kalaish Chandra Chowdhury scowled at the notion that the 25,000 corpses he consigns to the flames each year could contribute to the pollution of the Ganges.

"The water is clean because it is moving past this place every day. It is changed, and there is new water from the Himalayas," Chowdhury said.

Chowdhury, the latest progeny of a dynasty of dom rajas (cremation czars) who for centuries have controlled all cremations here--and who have prospered from the sale of burning logs, shrouds and the bamboo frames used in the funeral pyres--has single-handedly blocked for 10 years a proposal backed by Mishra and other environmentalists to install a municipal electric crematorium.

The city authorities maintain that the electric crematorium would burn bodies more efficiently than Chowdhury's overworked burning ghats, and eliminate the putrid, half-burned cadavers that are thrown into the river.

"This is a sacred place, and people want to be cremated with sacred fire. There is no need for an electric crematorium," said Chowdhury, adding that he planned to go to court to fight the city's proposal.

Chowdhury denied claims by Varanasi municipal authorities that 10,000 half-burned bodies are pushed into the Ganges each year because his workmen douse the pyres before the minimum three hours needed for complete burning. However, as he talked with a reporter, wild dogs could be seen at the water's edge gnawing at unburned parts of bodies.

But although the human and animal bodies that can be seen floating in the Ganges almost any day may be the most dramatic illustration of the problem, Mishra said, the greatest threat to the Ganges is from industrial and municipal waste.

Varanasi, a city of 1.1 million, does not have a single sewage treatment plant, and one plant at the university has not been operating for years. A lateral sewage pumping system designed to transport waste downstream also is not functioning because, city officials say, replacement parts cannot be found.

Marilyn Montgomery, a member of the administrative committee of the Friends of the Ganges Fund, complained that several Indian government agencies had developed a "perfect system of nonaccountability," but that the fund and its local parallel organization, the Clean Ganges Campaign, would continue to press for construction of a treatment facility.

But Montgomery and Mishra both said the movement's main thrust will be in arousing public opinion.

"We can't tell people that the Ganges is not pure, because they won't believe it, and it offends them. But we can tell them not to pollute the Ganges' purity, not desecrate the goddess Ganga, and that is the course that we have to take," said Mishra.

An information campaign just being launched includes street theater productions that emphasize the dangers to the river while not offending religious sensibilities; documentary films; a women's health clinic that will deal with medical problems related to impure water; a floating information center on a brightly painted houseboat, on which groups of Indians will be taken on tours of the river and shown the effects of pollution, and the use of folk singers and story tellers to push the cleanup campaign.

"The love for the Ganges is there, and that is what we have to exploit. The very people who go down to the ghats every morning and bathe and pray to the river are our greatest source of strength. They are the ones who will have to put the pressure on the government to do something," Mishra said.