Mawphlang Sacred Forest – A Photo Story

Its no secret that India’s northeast is treasure-trove of many fascinating places. Ranging from varied natural wonders, age old archeological remains, living cultural sites of various tribes to religious places of mythological importance, India’s incredible north-east has it all! While on my trip to Meghalaya, I got an opportunity to visit one such interesting place – the Mawphlang sacred forest or Lawkyntang in Khasi. It is approximately 27 kilometers away from the state capital – Shillong.  Local Khasi people of Meghalaya, although now converted to Christianity have always remained nature worshippers. An important aspect of Khasi culture is their reverence for sacred forests. These sacred forests have been preserved and nurtured by the Khasi tribals for ages through strict religious sanctions.

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The road from Shillong to Mawphlang is quite scenic, winding its way through pretty hamlets along the road. After driving for about 40 minutes, the landscape dramatically changed, and I could see green hillocks all around covered with tiny green grass and a dense forest popping out from nowhere! The surrounding area is bereft of trees so this forest looks like an oasis in the grassy desert.

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We took a local guide with us and entered the forest through a small entrance formed by the natural canopies of Rhododendron trees. Just at the entrance, there were a few menhirs; our guide quickly told us that the standing menhir signifies a male while a horizontal stone slab supported on small stones signifies a female.  He was quick to tell us about the ‘strict’ rules of sacred forest that scared us a bit. One can sit on the female menhir for some rest but no one can or should climb a male menhir; the person who dared do so would get elephantitis! Not sure whether he was joking, we reluctantly nodded and entered the forest.

What we saw at the entrance was just a trailer, as inside the forest there were an infinite number of menhirs and funerary mounds / Dolmens, housing relics of the long dead ancestors. Menhirs were often erected in the memory of the dead elderly people who were highly respected in the society for their knowledge. But one can also find other menhirs, smaller in size, perhaps used for sitting while performing ceremonies and some used as platforms for ritualistic animal sacrifices. Khasi tribals visit these on many occasions but especially before going to war. 

Read more about menhirs and dolmens here

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The male menhir

 

 

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Menhir used as a platform for animal sacrifice

 

 

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A group of monoliths

 

 

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A Dolmen

 

 

 

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The forest seemed more of an overgrown megalithic site teeming with Menhirs than a sacred forest. But for the Khasis, the nature spirits and their ancestors are sacred

 

Once inside the forest, we were flabbergasted by what we saw. Such a beautiful sight that it could compete with best of the Hollywood movie sets! We were surrounded by so many different kinds of trees and plants as if it was a live botany lab! The forest got denser as we went further. Owing to the density of the foliage, sunlight could hardly enter except filtered through the thickets of leaves and branches making the gloomy interior of the forest even more mysterious.

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As we walked on the humus carpeted soft forest floor, our guide started giving us information and the scientific names of the plant species we were encountering along our path. Many species of parasitic Orchids, Rhododendrons, and mushrooms of various types could be spotted in abundance all around us. Other plant species that are common in the forest are Rhus Chinensis (Chinese Sumac or Nutgall), Schima Wallichi (Needlewood tree), Lithocarpus dealbatus, Engelher diaspicata (introduced by our guide as butterfly plant as when ruffled, its dried leaves appear like flying butterflies), Myrica Esculenta (box myrtle or Bayberry) and various Lichens. However the star attraction in the forest is the Castanopsis Kurzii trees as well as Khasi pine trees that form the dense canopy and also acts as a host to parasites like orchids, ferns, mushrooms, pipers, climbers and variety of mosses.

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There are so many unusual things in the forest fallen all around that we were tempted to pick them up and take them back as souvenirs especially the seeds of Elaeocarpus Ganitrus or as we know them commonly; Rudraksh. Why not- anyway it is just lying around; I thought. But our guide warned me not to take anything that belongs here outside the forest as these forests are protected by spirits locally called as U Ryngkew U Basa. These are believed to be sent by the Gods to protect the forest from human abuse. To convince me, the guide narrated a past incident when the army officers tried to take out wooden logs from the forest. But the truck carrying the logs refused to move from its place until the logs were unloaded and put back into the forest.

Carrying any of the forests’ belongings outside is believed to anger the Gods and the protective spirit here, which results in a poisonous snake being spotted by miscreant resulting in injury or death. Good behavior and no ill intentions while entering the forest is rewarded by being protected by a tiger or a leopard! Call me superstitious or whatever but not wanting to hurt their sentiments I dropped everything I had collected before leaving the forest. Thank God our guide at least allowed me to take the pictures I had clicked inside in my camera to be taken outside. Jokes apart, I have never seen something this awesome in my life before. I strongly suggest everyone to come here and visit this stunning biological museum of the Khasis whenever you make it to Meghalaya.

 

It is heartening  how nature holds utmost importance in Khasi culture and despite modernization and rampant abuse of nature elsewhere, these forests remain protected by men for whatever reasons. The way these beliefs are deeply embedded in the minds of the people truly speaks how constructive religious sanctions can be at times resulting in the continual development of a responsible society. Some traditions are worth keeping and following

 

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Free and wild growing roots of the trees have spread far and wide for there is no human to interfere here

 

How to reach: Hiring a taxi from Shillong (27 kilometers) to reach Mawphlang is the easiest way to reach. Shillong is less than 2 hours by road from Guwahati – the biggest city in Northeast with regular domestic flights to all major cities in India.

Where to stay: Although staying in Shillong is the most convenient option, a more adventurous traveller can opt to stay in the traditional Khasi huts constructed in Mawphlang village. Adventurous for the reason considering its remote location overlooking a valley, electricity is often a luxury here with not even small shops anywhere closeby!

Best time to travel here: Avoid monsoons for obvious reasons! Mawphlang village is also venue to an annual 3 day festival known as the ‘Monolith Festival’ in March.

Author – Onkar Tendulkar

He can be reached at onkaar7@gmail.com

Turtuk – Living On The Edge

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page-” thus spake the Augustine of Hippo; and since I am a voracious reader, I decided to read a few more pages this year. This reading took me up the long, winding roads of the greater Himalayas, and I found myself wandering in the ‘land of high passes’: Ladakh . While taking one of the lesser explored trails into far north western part of Ladakh, we ended up in the village of Turtuk. Nestled amidst the towering peaks of the Karakoram, this village was once a part of Gilgit-Baltistan region.

When I reached, I found it sitting smug under the warm August sun, wrapped in the thoughts of its glorious past.

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Sun dappled lanes of Turtuk. Time stands still here.

Taken over by Pakistan post -independence, Turtuk, which is hardly 10 km from the Line Of Control (LOC), became a part of India during the Indo-Pak war of 1971 under the able leadership of Major Chewang Rinchen. Settled in the shadow of the famous K2 peak that falls across the LOC, this village has the river Shyok flowing beside it. Its greenery came as a relief to our eyes that were sore after hours of gazing at the black tarmac road, boulders, and white sand on all sides, without any vegetation.

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The Shyok river which gives company till Turtuk, flows across the LOC and meets the Indus. Shyok, which means “Death” in Uyghur, was named thus as it frequently floods its sides, cutting banks causing soil erosion.  Many times the river has wiped out entire villages often forcing villagers to move away and seek home elsewhere. The Shyok has not quietened with time and with an increased volume during the summer, it is impossible to cross the river. People living in villages such as Hunder and Utmaru are forced to use boats known as bips, for crossing it at remote places where there are no bridges.

Turtuk, once part of the inland  trade route (the silk route) for merchants travelling through the Karakoram ranges, was likely to have been an important trading post linked with Tibet, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. However, little recorded history is available of those days and what we now see has been shaped more by  the 1971 war and events thereof. With the closing down of borders in 1971 and the ancient trade routes sealed, the economic lifeline was cut off, choking Turtuk and the other border villages.

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The United Province of Baltistan, divided by recent borders. Interestingly, the area of Ladakh (of which Turtuk and adjoining areas are a part) has seen many partitions before. It started in 9th century CE when it was separated from the Tibetan empire by Beg Manthal of the Yabgo dynasty who conquered Khaplu. Later, in 1834 CE, the Dogra rulers from Jammu annexed it and made it a part of Jammu and Kashmir. Then in 1947, the Indian subcontinent underwent partition, and Baltistan was taken over by Pakistan. Finally in 1971, the Indian army took back the control of Turtuk and three other villages.

Baltistan once was a separate kingdom, and a Central Asian tribe named the Yabgo dynasty, controlled the united province from Chinese Turkistan.  Among the rulers of the western Turkistan, the Yabgo surname belonged to the leader of the  Gaz tribes whose kingdom extended from Afghanistan to Turkistan. The Yabgo reign in Baltistan started from around  800  CE, when Beg Manthal, the 10th descendant of Prince Tung (he started the Gaz dynasty), came from Yarkhand (a part of modern China) and conquered Khaplu. The dynasty’s reign lasted until 1834 CE when Ladakh was annexed by the Dogra rulers of Jammu. The Yabgo dynasty were patrons of art, poetry and literature which flourished under their long rule over the region.

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The family tree of the Yabgo dynasty prepared by the current ‘king’ Yabgo Mohammed Kacho with help from Indian Army.

The descendants of the Yabgo dynasty still live in Turtuk and the family is considered as rulers by the villagers. The ‘king’ Yabgo Mohammed Kacho, a rather down to earth and soft spoken  gentleman, receives all those that visit his former summer home that now serves as a museum with warmth.  Some of his family members remain on the other side of LOC as do many family members of other villagers. Along with this pain, the villagers harbor a regret that the Indian army did not take over the entire Baltistan that fateful night during the war.

Turtuk reeled under two long decades of mistrust arising from a sense of mixed emotions of losing close family members to Pakistan, and add to it the apathy and neglect shown by the Indian government towards these border villages. Finally in 1999, Lt Gen Arjun Ray, who was then the Commander of 14 Corps, started ‘Operation Sadbhavna,’ which aimed at reviving a positive civil-military relationship. Under this operation, the army undertook many projects that ranged  from building schools, developing infrastructure,  to establishing computer and other vocational training centres, poultry farms, programs aimed at women empowerment, providing telephone connections, free medical services and a daily bus service. Today, for the people of Turtuk it is “upar Allah, niche Indian Army.” Turtuk stands as a shining example of how things can work out amicably, when both sides are willing and able to appreciate each others efforts.

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The current ‘king’ Mohammed Kacho of the Yabgo dynasty tells us of the former glory of his ancestors. Of the fateful night when they became Indians and how the Indian army is the best thing to have happened to the villagers. He categorically said that while politicians are the same corrupt players on all sides of the borders, it is the Indian army that stood by them at all times. His former palace was almost entirely looted and destroyed by the Pakistan army because his father had filed a case in the Lahore court against them for illegal occupation. Almost nothing remains of their former wealth and the only evidences seen are in the form of dusty artefacts that are a part of the museum.

Located at an altitude of 9846 feet, the village of Turtuk is inhabited by the Balti people of Tibetan origin. Once one crosses the Hunder area and nears the Balti zone, everything changes drastically: the landscape, physical features of the locals, clothing, language, and culture which is markedly different from the rest of the people in Ladakh. The Balti women are seen wearing colourful floral prints that stand out in contrast amidst the stark mountains all around.

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The villagers in Turtuk. The women are still not so open to being photographed, so didn’t take their pictures. Extremely hospitable, the villagers are always ready to talk and help. 

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Golden heads of barley

Turtuk being warmer, the villagers are able to cultivate two crops in a year. Barley, wheat, buckwheat, peas, spinach, pulses, beans,  and mustard are widely grown. Among livestock that provides milk, meat and wool are the dzos (hybrid of yak and cow), goats, dzomos and sheep. Fruit cultivation is another widespread practice seen in all these border villages and the little gardens abound in apricots, walnuts and few apples that help to augment the villagers’ incomes. Interestingly, there is a Tsarma apricot juice factory in Turtuk that  sells pitted and pressed  apricot juice. Since Turtuk is a strategic military outpost, it was closed to outsiders, even other Indians, until 2010 when the locals weary of  isolation and looking to increase their meagre incomes petitioned for the beautiful valley to open up. As tourists slowly started trickling in, albeit armed with permits, tourism as an industry has started evolving bringing in the much needed cash.

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We were offered these apricots by a lady who was standing in her garden as we walked towards the museum. She plucked them from a tree, washed them in a flowing stream, and offered them to us. As we bit into them we realised we were having the best apricots we have ever had. Juicy and sweet, they were absolutely delicious, and I can guarantee that I have never found such wonderful apricots in the markets of NCR!

Fruit laden trees and vines: apricots and grapes. The villagers sell their fruit and crop produce in the local markets and to the army and sometimes travel to Nubra, Hunder and Diskit to sell their fruits.

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Fields of Turtuk

Baltistan was predominantly a Buddhist region which changed when Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani, a poet from Iran and an Islamic scholar, arrived there in the 13th century CE.  An old mosque near the memorial of Captain Haneef Uddin (Kargil war hero) still stands in the old part of Turtuk. While its exact period of construction remains unknown, it was first renovated in 1690 CE. The mosque has a blend of Buddhist designs, swastikas, and Iranian motifs. Turtuk villagers are mostly Muslims, unlike other parts of the Nubra valley, and 70% of them follow the Nurbakhshi school of Sufi Islam.

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The bridge that one has to cross to reach the old monastery and the mosque

As we walked through the narrow cobbled lanes of the village, we marvelled at the wooden, gaily painted houses that were huddled together, almost as if they wished to escape the winter cold. Some houses showed old carvings on them. As we explored the village further, following the hand-painted map, we found a wooden house that was larger than the other houses and it turned out to be the museum and the king’s former summer palace.  At the entrance gate there was a large wooden eagle hanging, which symbolised the ‘saviour’. As we looked at the house (it certainly didn’t look like a palace), we suddenly noticed the old wooden doors and the wooden carved cornices that still held flaky remnants of colours on them, and it seemed as if these old walls were telling us a story of a kingdom long lost.

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The wooden eagle on the gate of the former summer palace’

Inside the palace courtyard

The worn out wooden pillars, thick wooden beams, delicate arches in wood, bright carpets, all speak of a bygone era

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On the terrace, there is a vineyard !

Left: Photographs of the current ‘king’ Kacho Mohammad Khan, his grandfather and father. Right: A painting of Beg Manthal, who started the Yabgo dynasty rule in  Ladakh in the 9th century CE

Various artefacts in the family museum.

The remnants of ‘king’ Kacho Mohammad Khan’s family wealth are seen in his DSC_0669 own private museum in the summer palace. The collection includes coins, old metal and earthen pots, silver ink containers, shields, arrows used in war, lapis lazuli encrusted sword, paintings, clothes, headgear, footwear, family record books, leopard traps,stuffed heads of hunted animals, along with a donation box for the visitors. The current ‘king,’ who is a writer and lover of books, earns his daily bread by selling fruits and vegetables to the Indian army. He is also likely to be the last king of his dynasty that once ruled Baltistan for more than 1000 years. His only son is more interested in doing business than performing the role of a non-functional king of a non-existent kingdom.

Turtuk, a charming high altitude border village, with its hospitable and friendly people, has steadfastly refused to take part in any attempts at radicalisation, and are solely focused towards creating a cordial atmosphere. Their patience and efforts have borne fruit, and today tourists are coming in from all parts of the world to Turtuk and returning with wonderful memories of love and affection received from the villagers. With hopes of a better tomorrow,  Turtuk can now sit smug and revel in the stories of its past glory.

Author – Monidipa Bose

She can be can be contacted at monidipadey@rocketmail.com

or at

Monidipa

Megaliths of Mallachandram

 “Megaliths were not built for commoners. They signify the emergence of a ruling class or elite who presided over a surplus economy,”

Ravi Korisettar, Retired Professor of Archaeology, Karnatak University.

The mega mausoleums and charming  Chattris (cenotaphs) did have a predecessor in megalithic sites strewn all over the world. Megalithic culture whose remnants in the form of neatly arranged stone slabs encapsulating a burial site is a fascinating insight into a time and culture of which little is known and a lot is speculated. Though there is no consensus on the dates but evidences and a few radiocarbon dates reveal that this culture arrived in the country much later than it did in Europe. Stonehedge was built roughly 5000 years ago !

The term Megalith is derived from two Greek words ‘Mega’ meaning huge and ‘Lithos’ meaning stone. ‘Megalithic Culture’ is an intriguing subject of study in the Archaeological field. In India, majority of the archaeologists trace the Megalithic sites to Iron Age i.e., the period from 1500 BCE to 300 BCE, though there are a few sites dating back to 2000 BCE (close to 4000 years ago). There are more than 2000 prehistoric sites in peninsular India, most of which are neither studied nor documented properly.

The Neolithic people were simple hardworking folks who practiced agriculture, made stone tools and lived in a fairly organized society that had their own belief system. The recovery of pieces of pottery and rice husk along with tools from megalithic sites reveal how strongly the pre-historic people believed in afterlife.  The final stages of megalithic culture that was extant mostly in the Deccan Plateau and the entire South India overlapped with the Sangam Age of Tamil literature. Therefore, one finds references in the Sangam epics about various burial practices

“Those who cremated, those who cast away or exposed the dead to the elements or animals. Those who laid the body in pits which they dig into the ground, those who interred the body in subterranean cellars or vaults and those who place the body in a burial-urn and inverted a lid over it.” (Ch 6.11)

Manimekalai, one of the 5 epics of Tamil Sangam literature

Mallachandram in Krishnagiri is one such megalithic site in Tamil Nadu. Though similar to the megalithic site of Hirebenekal in Koppal district (close to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hampi), Mallachandram remains unknown. It is considered to be an important megalithic site and is home to numerous Dolmens  along with some prehistoric paintings.

Mallachandram is one of the best sites to understand prehistoric settlements as it seems that the site was occupied for a long period of time by various ancient settlements.  The same is evident from the dolmens of different designs. Though it is difficult to ascertain the exact period of the prehistoric settlement here, a rough estimate would be about 3500 years ago. R.A. Cole, an archeological investigator who did extensive studies on the megalithic tombs of Coorg/ Kodagu had the impression that these structures may have served as altars or temples. Whereas, the accepted theory beyond the construction of the dolmen and other megalithic structures is that they are associated with burying the deceased and this theory is time and again substantiated by the findings of skeletal remains when these structures were excavated.

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Dolmen is a megalithic structure which since prehistoric times is believed to have been used for burials of the dead. A Dolmen structure comprises of a cap-stone, floor-stone and four vertically standing stones.

Menhirs are monolithic undressed/dressed stones planted vertically into the ground, which can vary in height and structure size from small to gigantic. Few researchers believe Menhirs to be associated with burials, while many relate them to the Solstice.

megalith3The mysterious Mallachandram dolmens, numbering more than 200 have survived the test of time and are standing tall. Majority of the dolmens here are of porthole type except for a few earlier ones, and they can be categorized into four types. The most common type of dolmen found here is surrounded with dry masonry stone circle called dry masonry walled cists. The second type of dolmen found here is surrounded with dry masonry stone circle and menhirs (standing stones). These menhirs have been beautifully dressed to have similar shape. The third type of dolmen here is the dolmenoid slab cist, which are very few in number probably indicating that these were the graves of the leader/ king/ god man of these people. The fourth type of dolmen is plain, devoid of structures around it. Another interesting structure seen here is the one with a central standing stone surrounded by a stone circle.

4. Dry masonry wall cist
Dry masonry wall cist
4a. Dry Masonry wall cist
Dry masonry wall cist
5. Dry Masonry wall cist with Menhirs
Dry masonry wall cist with menhirs
6. Dolmenoid slab cist
Dolmenoid slab cist – A square or rectangular grave box pit
7. Earliest kind of Dolmen
Earliest kind of dolmen
8. Standing stone surrounded by stone circle
A standing stone surrounded by a stone circle

There are prehistoric paintings in white, seen on the inner walls of a few dolmens. Most of these paintings depict scenes of hunting and activities from daily life with some paintings of various animals. All the dolmen structures are spread across two hills near the village of Mallachandram. The dolmens on the first hill seemed to be more disturbed when compared to the dolmens on the second hill. This site has survived vandalism owing to the low quality stone used here for construction of dolmens and the presence of many other sources of stones around. A little further from the dolmen site is an ancient quarry.

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Prehistoric paintings on the walls of the dolmens
9a. White Prehistoric paintings
prehistoric painting on the walls of the dolmens
10. Ancient Quarry Site
Remains of an ancient stone quarry
10a. Ancient Quarry site
An Ancient stone quarry

Mallachandram is an interesting megalithic site with formations that have evolved and replaced the other over time. This site needs to be subjected to further archaeological studies and investigations. But before that, Mallachandram’s megaliths need to be protected and preserved.

How to reach :  Mallachandram is about 3 km away from National Highway NH44, about 25 km from Hosur towards Krishnagiri is Samalpallam, take left near Samalpallam to reach here.

Reference and suggested reading:

  1. “The Megalithic Culture in South India” by B.K. Gururaja Rao

 

Author – Dhiraj Shenoy. He is a travel blogger and blogs here

He can be reached at dhiruguri@gmail.com

Kalpavriksha and Its Depiction in Art and Architecture – An Overview

Moolatho Brahma roopaya, madhyatho Vishnu roopine,
Agratha shiva roopaya Vruksha rajaya they Nama.

My salutations to the king of trees.
Whose root is the form of Brahma,
Middle is the form of Lord Vishnu,
And top is the form of Lord Shiva.

Aswatha sarva papani satha janma arjithanicha,
Nudhaswa mama vrakshendra, sarva aiswarya pradho bhava.

The holy fig tree pushes away, all sins earned,
In several hundred births, and Oh king of trees,
Please grant me all different types of wealth.

Rig yaju Sama manthrathma, sarva roopi, parathpara,
Aswatho Veda moolo asou rishibhi prochyathe sada.

Great sages go in search of Aswatha,
As it is the soul of Rig, Yajur and Sama Vedas
And takes all forms, greater than the greatest,
And is the root of all the three Vedas

Vyaktha avyaktha swaroopaya, srushti sthithyantha karine,
Adhi madhyanth soonyaya vishtarasravase Nama.

Salutations to the very stable one,
Who has clear and unclear forms,
Who creates, looks after and destroys,
And who does not have beginning, middle and end

– Ashvatta Vruksha Stotram

Ashwattha is synonymous with our country and its symbolism. The figs are the most commonly found trees in the country and also the ones that are worshipped the most. Ficus religiosa / Pipal / Ashwattha tree was considered sacred and worshipped from the times of Indus Valley Civilisation but it is the Ficus bengalensis / Banyan / Vata that gained more prominence later and ended up as our national tree. While the Buddhists reclaimed the Ashwattha as the Bodhi tree, the Hindus clung onto the Vata. Associated with Yama, the Banyan is considered the botanical equivalent of a hermit for it can provide shade but cannot support new life or provide food. It is timeless like the soul and so the great sages, even Shiva, chose its vast canopy to contemplate under. They are tree shrines as idols were consecrated below these trees and even today women go around these trees longing for eternity of their marriages in the memory of Savitri who lost Satyavan under a Banyan and later regained his soul from Yama. Incidentally, the British named the Banyan tree so, as they noticed members of the trading community (Banias) gather under its shade for many a meetings.  The figs were the first among trees to be considered the Kalpavriksha – the wish fulfilling tree of the ancient scriptures that provided fruit and nourished the first people on the planet and the giver of immortality.

The concept of Kalpavriksha emerged from nature worship that has been an integral part of all ancient cultures of the world including India. The strong belief that trees, like us, possess a soul of their own has led to such reverence that if we look around we can still find groves that are held sacred. They are believed to be the abodes of departed souls and divinities that bring us good luck in the form of rain, sunshine, good harvest, increasing herds, and fertility blessings for women. While most tree spirits are considered amiable, there are some that are also seen as malevolent, the “evil spirits,” or the “ap-devta.” Such spirits cause harm, hence people avoid going near the trees that harbour them. One good impact that these beliefs had was protecting many trees from being mindlessly cut down for their wood.

My discussion here will revolve around the concept of kalpavriksha spanning a timeline of a few hundreds of years. How it started from the notions of nature worship, influenced religions, and still continues to be an integral part of our social, religious, and cultural heritage.

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Let’s begin with some of the oldest civilisations of the world. The ancient Egyptians worshipped Sycamore trees, which they thought were homes of the sacred spirits. The dense, lush trees are one among the oldest species of trees and are known for their longevity and hardiness.  Seen in the picture here is an Egyptian making a regular offering of food, such as, cucumbers, grapes, and figs, to the tree. Pic source

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Ficus religiosa on different Indus valley seals. The last seal shows a goddess standing inside a pipal tree and the priest is clearly wearing a headdress made from the branch of a peepal tree. These seals with their emphasis on the peepal tree and various animals show a distinct reverence for nature.   Source  Source  Source

In ancient Indian literature, Kalpavriksha is referred to as Ashwattha, or the seed of life that produces nectar (the water of life), which is our very own Pipal tree. The Vedas (Upanishad part) describes it as :

The roots upwards, the branches downwards, thus stands the eternal fig tree; The leaves of which are veda songs; Upwards and downward its branches are bending; Nobody on the earth is able to conceive of its form, either its end, or beginning, or duration.”

In India, the sacred kalpavriksha refers to both the ficus varieties  (religiosa and bengalensis) that is both the Pipal and the Banyan. So next time you see a Vata or an Ashwattha in your neighbourhood, take some moments off to remember that you are looking at a tree that has been venerated right from the beginning of our civilisation. A long journey that is still continuing in the form of little shrines that are still extant under the roadside ficus trees along the streets of our country.

The wish fulfilling tree or Kalpavriksha in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism

Kalpavriksha also known as kalpadruma or kalpataru is said to have appeared during samudramanthan along with Kamdhenu. The tree can bear all kinds of fruits, hence it is associated with different trees, varying according to  the local vegetation. Thus, mahua, champak, pipal, banyan, tulsi, shami, parijata, and even coconut trees are often said to be the earthly manifestation of the heavenly kalpadruma. Kalpavriksha (of five types)are said to be located in the gardens of Indraloka with the devas and asuras at perpetual war over the wish fulfilling trees. Kalidasa’s “Meghadutam” tells us that kalpatarus yielded garlands, clothes, and provided for all fineries for the women in Alaka, capital of Kubera’s Yaksha kingdom. Thus, while bestowing immortality, we find that kalpavriksha also provides for all our material desires.

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Samudramanthan as depicted in a mural in Orchhha.  Notice the Kalpavriksha above the posse of animals. Picture courtesy: Jitu Mishra 

 

A 3rd century BCE pillar in the form of a banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) found in Besnagar, can be said to be the earliest representation of a kalpavriksha with the various symbolisms that we associate with it. The tree has a kalash or a pot full of coins, a sack tied with a string, a conch, and a lotus hanging from it, signifying the goddess of wealth or Lakshmi devi. Thus, we can say kalpavriksha is a giver that stands for growth, generosity, and prosperity.  It is therefore not surprising to find it as a common motif on the Gupta and Satavahana era coins. (Picture source).

 

The Bodhi tree is a sign of knowledge, as it is a well known fact that Buddha attained enlightenment under this tree. The above depiction of the Bodhi tree is seen in Sanchi. While we can say the Bodhi tree depicts knowledge, the kalpataru on the other hand denotes wealth and benevolence, along with spiritual guidance for those that seek it. Picture Courtesy: Jitu Mishra

In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism we find that the kalpavriksha is not a deity by itself, but rather a way to reach God. A giver, it grants wishes pertaining to both material and spiritual types. While providing us with shade, fruits, nuts, wood, and the life giving oxygen that purifies air, kalpavriksha also helps human minds to focus on attaining spiritual enlightenment. Thus, by glorifying kalpavriksha, we are in reality deifying an aspect of nature, and celebrating its immense contribution to our daily lives and existence.

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Kalpavriksha in  Adalaj stepwell, Ahmedabad. Here we find  a kalasha bearing the kalpavriskha that forms a beautiful creeper like pattern (very reminiscent of the alpona that we draw during our pujas back home in Calcutta). Photos credit: Jitu Mishra

Ancient texts, such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, frequently mention a term, chaitya-vriksha. Interestingly both chaitya-vriksha and kalpavriksha are similar in concept. Chaitya-vrikshas are tree shrines with dense leaves and fruits that provide shelter and food for all living beings. These are open air shrines with railing or fence like structures that cover the tree trunks, or sometimes the tree is placed on a pedestal. Various tree spirits known as yakshas and yakshis, and sometimes even the nagas, are believed to live in these trees. They are worshipped as protectors of both human beings and gods alike. It is interesting how our ancestors acknowledged the importance of trees in our lives and venerated them in various ways.

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Worshipping the chaitya vriksha, a jack-fruit tree,  as we see at Sanchi. Picture credit: Jitu Mishra

According to mythology, kalpavriksha or kalpadruma, was gifted to Aranyani, a daughter Related imageof Shiva and Parvati. The chief aim was to protect the tree, so we often see it being guarded by kinnaras, apsaras, and animals, such as lions, peacocks, etc. Interestingly, from simple depiction of the Bodhi tree and Ashvatta, in the later part of Indian sculptures we see a more complex depiction of kalpavriksha that with their beautiful floral patterns make us wonder at their aesthetic beauty. On the other hand it has become increasingly difficult to rightly distinguish the tree it might be representing. In the picture – The deities Nara and Narayana sitting under a Badri tree, 5th c. CE Gupta period, Deogarh. Source

Thus we see Buddha meditating under a Bodhi tree, Shiva imparting knowledge under a Banyan tree, and Krishna standing under a Kadamba tree. Guru Adi Shankaracharya was also known to have meditated under a kalpavriksha, which is a mulberry tree located in Joshimath (Uttarakhand). Other trees that we find culturally significant are jackfruit, amalaka, haritaki, lemon, vilva or bel, neem, sandalwood, mango, and banana. All these trees are known to have medicinal properties, besides other uses in our daily lives. What better way to celebrate the benefits of nature, than to worship it.

In Jainism, we find the kalpavrikshas help in fulfilling wishes in the early stages of the cosmic cycle, and the 10 kalpavrikshas grant 10 different desires that include nourishing food, good music, ornaments, utensils, among others.

Artisitc representation of the Kalpavriksha in Jainism. A wall painting of a tree on red backdrop.

The wall painting of Kalpavriksha in Saavira Kambada Basadi, Moodbidri, Karnataka. A Jain kalpavriksha.(Photo from Wiki by Vaikoovery)

 

Interestingly  forms of Kalpavrisha are also depicted beautifully in the mosques of Gujarat. Left: Jama Masjid, Ahmedabad and Right: Ceiling of the Jami Masjid, Champaner. Pictures courtesy: Jitu Mishra

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Kumbharia Jain Temple, Gujarat. Picture credit: Jitu Mishra. 

The Jain goddess of wealth, prosperity, and fertility is Ambika yakshi, who is always shown seated under a mango tree. Source  Source

The tree of life in Christianity and Islam

The concept of the Tree of life is a part of the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic versions of the creation of life, commonly termed as the Genesis.

Interestingly, the Islamic concept of tree of life that we see woven on silk carpets or sculpted on monuments, is likely to have been largely influenced and derived from the Sassanian and Assyrian art forms depicting the World Tree/ tree of life.

  

A mid 19th c. CE Islamic prayer rug from Iran/Persia showing the tree of life within a pointed niche, a mihrab (first on left). It appears distinctly inspired from the Assyrian Aserah (Mother Tree/God’s wife, a symbol of fertility) on the right  Source Source 

 

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Various depictions of the tree of life on Islamic monuments of Gujarat. Pictures courtesy: Jitu Mishra

 

In Islamic literature, the tree of life is termed as the Sidra or Tuba which grows in Paradise (seventh heaven, placed at the right side of God’s throne). Being sacred, we find it depicted in mihrabs on rugs and otherwise. The tree marks the limits of heaven, and angels cannot cross this boundary. The Sidra has its earthly manifestation in a deciduous shrub that grows in Arabia and India, known as Zizyphus jujuba (bears edible fruits known as the red date or Indian date).  While the Quran refers to it as only ‘the tree’, and forbades Adam and Eve to taste the fruits of this tree, it was Satan who referred to it as the tree of immortality/life.

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Beautiful curled foliage with floral patterns arising from a thick central stem representing the Tree of life in the Sidi Sayyid Mosque in Ahmedabad. Here we can see that a palm tree is depicted at the top. Pictures credit: Jitu Mishra. 

 

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Mughal version of the gardens of heaven as seen in Fatehpur Sikri. Pictures courtesy: Jitu Mishra

 

In Christianity, the Old Testament is likely to have drawn inspiration and derived frombanylonia the old Babylonian concept of the tree of life, known as the tree of Ea or Ukkanu that grew in Eridu, the Babylonian name for paradise.  A Babylonian seal which is now in the British museum (seen here on right: source) It shows two figures on two sides of the tree of life, stretching their hands ready to pluck the fruit, with the serpent (representing the cycle of life and death in Babylonian times) standing behind the woman. Another Babylonian cylinder, now kept in the Museum at the Hague, depicts a garden with a palm tree at the centre, surrounded by other trees and birds. There are two figures plucking the fruit, while a third figure is holding the fruit, looking as if speaking to the other two. It is quite likely that these symbols were later adopted in the Bible by the Christians and Jews, and later also in the Quran.

       

Left: Holy Mary with the Child on the tree of life by Nicholas Froment, 1476, (“the burning thorn bush”) in Aiz Cathedral, France. Here the bush is shown on a hilltop signifying the world mountain. Source Right: The tree of life in a Sweden church, 11th c. CE. Source    

Left: Tree of life on floor mosaic, 8th c. CE, Jericho. Right:Tree of life on an arched doorway. Both are likely Christian depictions.  Source Source

Sacred trees or the tree of life from different parts of the world

 

Left: A tree of life From a Mexican manuscript, (Goblet d’Alviella).  Right above: Sacred pine of Silvanus (Roman folklore). Right below: The Egyptian goddess Nu̔ît in her sacred sycamore bestowing the bread and water of the next world.  source

 

German Folk Art… details and color - stencil or screen print

Left: Yggdrasil—the Norse world-tree, 1847. Source Right: tree of life in a German folk art. Source

While we see that the tree of life is a universal symbol of worship and its depiction since time immemorial has changed form and figure, it is the most recognizable symbol in Indian art and architecture. Whether it is a temple, or a mosque, or a church or a chaitya or a jain derasar, the Kalpavrisha is somewhere there proclaiming how everything in the world is ultimately connected.

(The cover picture is the depiction of tree of life at Akbar’s Mausoleum in Sikandra. Picture courtesy: Self) 

Author – Monidipa Bose

She can be contacted at monidipadey@rocketmail.com or at Monidipa

Katarmal Sun Temple – Interesting, Intriguing, Invisible

passerby mentioned the name ‘Surya Mandir of Katarmal’ when I was whiling away my time in Kasar Devi near Almora in Uttarakhand. I had earlier thought that Konark was the only Sun Temple in India but over a period of time it was known that there are Sun Temples in Modhera, Gujarat, Martand, Kashmir and also in the small town of Osian in Rajasthan.

Katarmal is a small village that lies on the Ranikhet road in Kumaon and the temple can be accessed by a 20 minute walk from the main road. We set off on a Royal Enfield Motorcycle from Almora in the morning and were pretty famished by the time we reached the hamlet of Kosi. I was quite excited about the prospect of seeing this 12th Century wonder that was said to be left half built.

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Legend says that ‘It was built by the Pandavas in one night and when the first rays of the morning lit the sky, the construction was halted and it has remained so ever since. This is the land of the lores of Pandavas. That and the fact that the terrain of this region has proved to be uninviting for the invaders. Except for an abortive attempt by a Rohilla chieftain and the Anglo-Tibet war, Kumaon has not witnessed any major battles. Though the region has always been engulfed by internal strife between the Kumaonis and the Garhwalis.

A dilapidated signboard by the ASI on the dirt track increased the sense of wonder and the first glimpse of the temple complex did not disappoint at all. It was a grand and colossal structure that oddly reminded me of the Parthenon in Greece!

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There were 44 small temples surrounding the main shrine but none of them had any idols inside them. Some of them seemed to have been damaged in an attack but as I have mentioned there is no history pertaining to the same. Some of the smaller shrines seemed to be leaning, while one of them was only balanced on a single pillar. I wondered if the Archaeological Survey of India did anything other than just putting up 3-4 boards in and around the temple complex.

From 7th Century AD to 12th Century AD Kumaon witnessed a sustained period of great temples being built by various rulers. The Katyuri dynasty has been credited for most of them, and even this Sun temple was built by the Katyuri king Katarmalla. The main deity of the sun temple is Surya –  called Vraddha Aditya (Old Sun God) here.

 

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Vraddha Aditya or Surya, the main deity. Picture courtesy: Mr Niraj Kumar Verma

 

The temple is perched at a height of 2100 m on a small hillock with an endless view of the valley on the front side. It has been designed such that on few days especially during the equinoxes, the first rays of the sun fall on the deity inside the Garbhagriha. There’s a small hole punched in one of the temples from where the first light permeates through and casts its light on the idol making it a glorious sight.

 

An azure sky behind the main temple creates a perfect backdrop. The setting is quite spectacular with a cool breeze blowing even on an otherwise hot day in May.  Various temple pieces like the Amalakas are found scattered in the courtyard. There is a spectator too, a lone tree that continues to witness the glories and vagaries of time. 

 

The temples of Kumaon from this period used huge stones instead of bricks, some of them so humongous that only the Gods are believed to have carried them so far ! (Perhaps thats why the local legend of so many of these temples to have been built by the Pandavas). These stones were quarried from the nearby valley and hauled upto the site where they were cut and carved. This temple is said to be one of the biggest and tallest in the entire Kumaon region. The style of architecture of the temple is Nagara style.

 The temple had intricately carved wooden doors and pillars that were shifted to the National Museum in Delhi after the theft of a priceless 10th century idol from the temple premises.

 The wooden door and pillars of the Katarmal Sun Temple displayed at the National Museum in Delhi. Pictures courtesy: Mr Niraj Kumar Verma

What really surprised me is that inspite of being both a rare and renowned heritage site with close proximity to the very touristy Almora, we met no other visitor during the time that we were there. There was no restaurant or dhaba near the temple and it sure looked like a place that no one cared about.  As a nation, we really don’t seem to be quite proud or caring of its rich heritage and culture. The same tourists who go gaga on seeing monuments when in a western country are not even aware of the rich architectural heritage that lies in their vicinity. Although I must admit; the monuments in our country are rarely well maintained and even basic facilities sometimes don’t exist at heritage sites.

Author – Shubham Mansingka

The author is a travel blogger and can be reached here

 

 

Ziro Valley – An Apatani Enclave

They say that behind everything beautiful there is some kind of pain and I couldn’t agree more especially when it came to visiting the remote Ziro Valley of Arunachal Pradesh in India’s Northeast. After 3 flights i.e. Mumbai- Delhi- Bagdogra- Guwahati, a 10 hour bus journey in the dark of the night to Itanagar, the state capital and another 4 hour bumpy ride by a shared a Sumo, I reached Ziro. 

But one look at Ziro valley and I regretted none of the above. It was love at first sight. Pretty villages (locally known as Basti), randomly shaped terraced paddy fields, lush green bamboo groves, surrounding blue hills… Ziro is a picture perfect location. 

 

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The spellbinding sight that is the Ziro Valley, Lower Subansiri district, Arunachal Pradesh

 

Once in the valley, we preferred to stay with an Apatani family in old Ziro rather than staying in a hotel. Hotels in Ziro are as it is far and few with basic facilities. Precisely the reason why increasing number of travelers coming to Ziro prefer homestays and the Apatani tribals that inhabit this picturesque valley are very friendly. Homestays are a beautiful way for tourists to closely observe and experience the day to day life of the tribals, talk about their culture and explore the local delicacies over glasses of Apong while providing income opportunities to the locals sustaining their unique lifestyle. Apong is a rice or millet beer that is prepared in almost every Apatani house on a daily basis.

 

An Apatani house, Bulla Village, Ziro Valley. Despite the diversity in almost everything in Arunachal Pradesh, one thing that remains constant is the internal layout of an Apatani house. A central hearth topped by a hanging wooden platform  on which grains / meat / wood is kept to dry. Hence the hearth is probably the most important feature of an Apatani house as it serves many purposes.

There are not many conventional places of interest in Ziro for an average tourist but there is a lot that the valley offers to those who love nature and are interested in the rich tribal culture of the NorthEast. All the Bastis here turn into living museums during the Apatani festivals of Morung (in January), Myoko (20th to 25th March is the main ritual period but festivities continue till 20th April) and Dree (5th of July). 

 

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These are Babos that are erected during the festival of Myoko in front of the houses of Apatani tribe. These signify the number of unmarried male members in the house. Babos are also a sign that the house belongs to a believer of Donyi-Polo and not Christianity

 

Apatanis have since ages been nature worshippers and followers of Sun and Moon. Due to rampant conversion of tribals by the Christian missionaries and out of insecurity of losing their indigenous culture to a foreign religion, a new faith called Donyi-Polo was founded in 1970’s. Mr. Talom Rukbo and other scholars came together and institutionalised their faith continuing with their age old traditions albeit in a more systematic way. In the process of resurrecting their indigenous faith, many oral traditions were written down and rituals and practices were documented. 

Today almost 60% of Apatanis and 30% of Arunachalis (approx 3-3.5 lakh) follow Donyi-Polo while the rest of the Apatanis have converted to Christianity. The Apatanis have converted in the hope of a better life and some due to their poverty and inability to continue with the financially draining rituals of Donyi-Polo. 

While walking the narrow alleyways of various Apatani Bastis, one possibly can not miss out on the striking members of the Apatani society- its old ladies, lovingly called ‘Aane’. Apatani old ladies wearing huge nose plugs and bearing facial tattoos have always been a subject of fascination not only for the domestic but also the international tourists. As the story goes, yesteryear beautiful Apatani ladies were made to wear the plugs to make them look unattractive to the neighbouring Nyishi tribal men who would often kidnap the very lovely Apatani ladies by raiding their villages. Due to modernization, this practice was abandoned for good in 1970. Now the nose plugs, locally called ‘Yaping Hullo’; can be seen in the noses of only the old ladies who have been wearing them for years.

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An Apatani Aane with a Yaping Hullo – More the beauty, bigger the nose plug

The most unique feature of the Ziro valley is its sustainable and highly productive agricultural practices. Agriculture without the help of any animals is unique to Apatanis and is highly labour intensive in nature. They follow a practice of paddy and fish farming in the same field. After the rice crop is harvested, fish seeds are introduced in the paddy field till they grow big and are then sold in the market or used as food by the Apatanis. 

The endless paddy fields of the Ziro Valley

Apatani practices wherein man and nature co-exist harmoniously might soon reward Ziro with the UNESCO world heritage site tag. The proposal for the same was submitted by India to the UNESCO in 2014 and is currently in the tentative list of world heritage sites as ‘Apatani cultural landscape’.

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A view of Old Ziro

However not everything is hunky-dory in the Ziro valley. Like with everything else in the world, Ziro has its own share of problems. Large scale conversions are causing a demographic imbalance in the valley. Its no secret that despite having an anti-conversion law in place in the state, scores of missionaries throng the tribal belts on tourist visas, their activities going unchecked mostly. The catholic churches discourage the converts to carry on with their age-old customs and practices. Donyi- Polo followers are often wrongly portrayed as Satan worshippers by the Church to attract more converts. As a result, Ziro valley has in the past gone through small scale conflicts between the two communities, some even involving burning and destruction of Donyi-Polo altars by the miscreants. 

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An Apatani Nyibu, a Shaman cum priest who performs rites and rituals. A Nyibu must be proficient in Miji, knowledge of religious beliefs  and practices that are orally transmitted. Miji is believed to be the blessing of God of Knowledge, Charung. Though Nyibu is not a hereditary position it is nevertheless dominated by men. Emergence of women as Nyibu  has been accepted by the Apatanis lately . Also notice in the picture above how Apatani men tie their hair in a knot just above the forehead ‘Piiding’ using a metal rod called ‘Piiding Khotu’

Another problem that the society is facing is that the new generation of Apatanis are moving out to bigger cities for education and jobs. This has led to a manpower shortage within the Apatanis and they have to depend on labourers from Nepal and other states for agriculture. Today’s old generation is probably the last of Apatanis we might see working in the fields as there is little to no involvement of younger generation in the worldwide appreciated efficient agricultural practices of Apatanis. Thus the UNESCO tag is coming at a critical juncture and might be able to reverse this trend of migration among the Apatani youth.

There are other places of interest in the valley and most of them revolve around nature. They include the pine groves famous for their massive trunks, Tarin high altitude fish seed farm, a naturally formed 25 feet Shivalinga in Kardo forest, Kile Pakho- the highest point in Ziro, Donyi-Polo temples in Hija, Hari, Hong and other Bastis, the twin hillocks near Mani Polyang, cave like formation of large rocks known as Tai Lampii, underground bunkers created by the Indian Army during wars near Keliya village. In addition, one can also visit the District Museum in Hapoli (New Ziro) and the Handicraft Emporium for deeper insight into the arts and crafts of the Apatanis.

A walk in the Hapoli market should not be missed as it is interesting to see the unconventional things sold there like rats, dried squirrel, bamboo shoots and the Apatani favourite vegetable, the fiddleheaded fern found in abundance along the roadside on the outskirts of Ziro.

Hapoli Market, New Ziro – Along with beef steaks, rats are a local delicacy. Bamboo shoot is the most widely used raw food item in the entire North-East. Also seen here are Daos, Arunachali daggers and bamboo mugs on sale at the Government Handicraft and Handloom Emporium

There is so much to see, so much to do and so much to explore in Ziro valley. We absolutely didn’t realise how our 2 days passed away and it was finally time to say goodbye to the beautiful Ziro and move to my next destination, Daporijo, albeit with the promise of coming back soon!

 

Author – Onkar Tendulkar

The author is a travel blogger and blogs at travel-o-freak07.blogspot.com

 

 

Traversing the Ganges, from Old Times to New – Part II

Once upon a time, when man did not bind waters for his own selfish needs, rivers moved freely. They traversed borders, crossed countries, beginning from one and ending in another; sometimes merging with rushing brooks, and sometimes branching away into runnels. They formed a network of  waterways, which seamlessly interwove varying cultural, religious, and social patterns in its flow. These patterns blended into each other, creating a vibrant cultural heritage. One of its most eloquent expressions is found in the Bhatiyali songs of Bengal. These are folk songs of the Majhis (boatmen) and Jeles (fishermen) that speak of love, longing, desire, pain, and a calm acceptance of death. Songs that play on the shimmering strings of tranquil waters.

Rivers were always an intrinsic part of life in Bengal and Bangladesh. The irrigating streams that meandered through the fertile land helped to yield ‘sonar fosol’ or golden harvest year after year. These rivers were so integral to those who lived on their banks that their waters came to symbolise the meaning of life itself. As one rowed through life, the river banks became allegorical to various stages in life, starting with birth, moving on through love, pain, happiness, and this journey ended in death: O Majhi Re, Apna Kinara Nadiya Ki Dhara Hai… 

Fishermen, whose very existence revolved around the waters, would go on long trips and were separated from their families for days, weeks, and sometimes months. During this time their only companion would be the endless river, its waters merging with the deep blue sky in the distant horizon. In such moments of absolute solitude, the fishermen would search for the meaning of their existence. The Bhatiyali songs reflect these dilemmas woven into the backdrop of music of the lilting waters.

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Majhis in Bengal.  Picture credit: Jay Shankar

In this concluding part, as we continue our journey from Kashi, we will travel across the calm waters of the Ganga in Bihar and Bengal that softly murmur the haunting notes of the Bhatiyali songs, sung over centuries by the fishermen.

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The Adi Keshava and Sangamesvara temples at Rajghat, at extreme east end of Varanasi, where Ganga leaves Kashi behind and moves eastwards towards Bihar. Here the rivulet Barna or Varuna meets the Ganga. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.

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Ruins of the 18th century river side palace of the Nawab of Bengal, Qasim Ali Khan, at Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh. The building was well planned with magnificent airy verandas (Heber, 1825).  According to Vishnu Purana King Gadhi, maternal grandfather of Maharishi Jamdagni, one of the Saptarishis, originated from this area. At that time Ghazipur had thick forests with several ashrams. This was also an important centre of Buddhist teachings, as evident from the various remnant stupas and pillars from that period. Painting by Sitaram 1814.

Bihar and Jharkhand

After Varanasi, the next important city on the banks of Ganga is Patna (ancient Pataliputra) in Bihar. This city is considered one among the oldest continually inhabited places, and mentions of this city start around 2500 years back in various Buddhist and Jain scriptures. Recorded history mentions the city alongside Raja Ajatshatru in 490 BCE. Patna has seen the coming and going of Mauyras, Guptas, Delhi Sultanate, Mughals, Bengal Nawabs, and the British.

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Bird’s eye view of Patna city and the Ganga. On the opposite bank is the city of Hazipur where river Gandak joins the Ganges. Painting by Sitaram 1814

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The famous Gola ghar or granary in Bankipore, Patna, near the Ganga river bank, painted by Sitaram in 1814. This structure was constructed in 1786 but was almost immediately abandoned because of a faulty design. The doors at the bottom were designed to open inwards with the result that as soon as grains were poured in, the doors would not move, and it was not practical to remove the grains from the top. The structure was therefore abandoned, its doors and the hole at the top were sealed, and it was termed as “Garstin’s Folly” (the architect was Captain John Garstin). With passage of time it fell into decay but was later renovated and is now a tourist spot, which provides a beautiful panoramic view of Patna and the river Ganges flowing nearby.

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Inside the Opium godown in Patna, on the Ganges river bank.  Interestingly this was originally a Dutch factory and the building could be from the Dutch era. Painting by Sitaram 1814.

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Ruins of a beautiful domed chatri in the once lavish palace-garden complex built by Mir Jaffar in Patna, as seen from the Ganga. Mir Jaffer betrayed the last Bengal Nawab Siraj ud Daulah, and helped the East India Company take over the Bengal province in 1757. Jaffar was rewarded by the Company with the rule of the province, where he remained their puppet king until his death in 1765. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.

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After Patna, the Ganga gently moves on and this is the riverside view of Munger or Monghyr (identified currently with Mod-giri, a name mentioned in the Mahabharata), painted by Sitaram in 1814. The riverside shows embankments with pillars, probably to prevent floods.  The bangla chala or Bengal roof, so favourite of the Mughals and the Rajputs, are a common sight on buildings here. All buildings (mostly large garden houses and palaces) in Bihar and Bengal that were built by the riverside had large doors and windows for the obvious reason, to let in the cool river breeze.

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Sculptures at Patharghat, by the banks of Ganga. Patharghat in Bhagalpur district of Bihar, is near the ruins of Vikramshila monastery. It has several cave temples and Vaishanava carvings dating back to the Gupta period, 5th c. CE. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.

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Pal tola nauka or boats with sails, on the Ganga. Seen here are the Rajmahal hills in Jharkhand that date back to the Jurassic era, when they were created due to volcanic activities. The Rajmahal traps cover parts of Jharkhand, Bengal, and Meghalaya. In the upper parts of these hills in Jharkhand live the Sauria Paharia tribes, while the Santhal tribes have settled in and cultivate the valleys. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.

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This picture by Sitaram (1814) shows vividly how tracking was done on the Ganges (it is still done the same way), especially when travelling upstream, against the prevailing water current and wind. Tracking (gun tana, in Bengali) is done when the Majhis get down from the boat and pull from the river bank using ropes. A laborious process, it is also extremely difficult for the Majhis to pull such heavy boats against the water and wind current.

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The interior of Jami masjid or Akbari mosque at Rajmahal  (Bengal) overlooking the Ganges. Painting by Sitaram 1820 Source: British library. 

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Ruins of the palace of Shah Shuja by the river Ganga in Rajmahal (Bengal), engraved by James Moffat in 1800. Shah Shuja was the second son of Shah Jahan, and the governor of Bengal, Orissa, and Bangladesh, during his father’s reign. Source: British Library.

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Gauda (Gaur), the once proud capital of the Sena and Pala dynasties, was completely destroyed and plundered by invaders time and again . The city fell into disuse once the capital was shifted, and until today the area remains a mass of ancient and medieval ruins. Seen here, in Sitaram’s painting is the ruinous five storeyed Feroz Shah Minar, built by Saifuddin Feroz Shah, the Sultan of Bengal (1488-90). The Minar has been recently renovated.

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Silk farming in Murshidabad district near the Ganga bank, as painted by Sitaram in 1820. Seen here are two men extracting silkworms from a frame, preparing silk cocoons, and winding silk on spindles.  Murshidabad in Bengal is well-known for its fine silk, which is light and easy to drape. Silk weaving in this region started during the early 18th c. CE under Mughal patronage, when the erstwhile Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, moved his capital from Dhaka to a place on the eastern bank of the Ganga river, and named it Murshidabad. Along with the Nawab came the art of depicting themes that showcased the lives of Nawabs on silk, which was known as Baluchari, and this trend continued in the region until early 19th c. CE under the Company rule. In 19th c. CE, flooding of the region by Ganga resulted in Baluchari weavers shifting and setting up shop in Bishnupur (Bankura district of Bengal). Murshidabad is still famous for a variety of silk fabric that is adorned with old and modern motifs, while Baluchuri weave which is equally well known, survives separately.

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Sitaram here shows the palace at Murshidabad, the Aaina Mahal, at left; at the centre is the Diwan Khana, which was the banquet hall for entertaining the British; and at the right is the Imamabara built by Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah.

After the town of Murshidabad, Ganga branches off into two main streams, Hooghly that flows towards Calcutta, and the other stream that enters Bangladesh meets the Brahmaputra river and is known as Padma. The famous Farakhha Barrage, which has been the bone of contention between India and Bangladesh for many decades stands at this juncture, controlling the waters of this mighty river.

The Ganges delta showing how the river fans out near the bay, and the various tributaries that meet the Ganga on her way to the sea. Source

Our travels will now follow the Hooghly river and move on to the next big city, Calcutta or Kolkata.

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Char chala temples on the banks of Hooghly river at Santipur in Nadia. Nadia also known as Nabadwip had once been one of the most well known sites for pilgrimage and universities in eastern India. However, when the river changed its course, it swept away the the old town, and the Raja was forced to move his capital to Krishnagar. Painting by Sitaram 1820-21.

The tranquil Hooghly river in Nadia source

Belur Math near Kolkata, on the western bank of the Hooghly river. It is the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission and was founded by Swami Vivekananda in 1897. The temple architecture infuses Hindu, Christian, and Islamic motifs, signifying unity amidst diversity.  Picture credit : Jay Shankar

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Dakshineshwar

Dakshineshwar Mandir near Kolkata, on the eastern bank of the Hooghly river. It is a Nava-ratna or nine-spired temple, showing the typical chala (roof) form of Bengal architecture. It was built in 1855 by Rani Rashmoni and houses Bhavatarini, a form of Devi Kali. Surrounding  the main mandir are twelve identical Shiva temples in a row, a Radha-Krishna Mandir, a bathing ghat on the river, and a Naubat Khana where Ramkrishna Paramhansa once lived. Pictures credit: Jay Shankar

Calcutta or Kolkata, once the capital of British India, archaeologically dating back to the Mauryan era, is located on the banks of the river Hooghly.  source

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The famous Howrah bridge over the Hooghly river, a name almost synonymous with Calcutta. It was commissioned in 1943 and is the sixth longest cantilever bridge in the world.  Photo credit: Nandini Dey

Just before reaching Calcutta, the Hooghly turns south west and enters an old channel of the Ganges at Nurpur, from where it glides down further south to form an estuary and meet the sea at Bay of Bengal. The streams here fan out to form a large delta and there are many points of the mohona (meeting point of sea and river). One such point is the Sagar Island, through which the Ganga supposedly enters the Patal (netherworld).

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Mohona at TaalsariPhoto credit: Nandini Dey

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Mohona at Mandarmoni. Photo credit: Nandini Dey

Mohona at Ganga Sagar where Devi Ganga enters the netherworld. It is the end point of a long journey that started amidst the wild terrain of the Gangotri glacier, and finally comes to rest amidst the tranquil waters of the sea, where the river and sea merge into each other and become one Source

Defiling the Ganges

“What we do not consume we poison. Sometimes we do both. Perhaps that is how we shall end, by consuming the poisons we have created.” ― James Rozoff

Ganga is an integral part of India’s culture; a part of both life and death for most Indians, yet this very lifeline is being slowly poisoned. Right from its source until its end point the river is dying a slow death owing to the daily pouring in of sewer water carrying human wastes, industrial toxic wastes, and human activities like washing of clothes, bathing, and bathing of animals. Various age old religious customs lead to throwing in of food, flowers, or leaves, often packed in plastic packets into the river, which are also responsible for its pollution. It is also a part of traditional belief that cremating on the banks of the Ganga, and immersing ashes in it will give moksha. In Varanasi alone, almost forty thousand cremations take place annually, many of those remain half-burnt. Some communities in India also practice water burial, especially of young unwed girls, while some do not have money for a proper cremation, and the dead bodies are simply made to float away, causing serious water pollution.

Macabre: Bodies are seen floating in Ganges river near Pariyar. Officials do not suspect a crime, but instead believe the dead were given water burials

Unclaimed bodies in a tributary of the Ganga: our “unholy” beliefs source

Garbage beside the Ganga: A mother’s agony source

Bathing in the “holy waters” filled with plastic that is choking the river. We revere with so much irreverence Source

Gangajal- impure but holy. Drinking the very poison that we have created Source

Reports say that daily an estimated 3000 million litres of untreated sewage enter the Ganges. By the time the river reaches Kashi, where some more sewage and toxic wastes are disposed into its waters, Ganga turns into a churning mass of sewer water. Is it a wonder then that Ganga is the sixth most polluted river in the world. According to a recent report, “In the Ganga basin approximately 12,000 million litres per day (mld) sewage is generated, for which presently there is a treatment capacity of only around 4,000 mld. Approximately 3000 mld of sewage is discharged into the main stem of the river Ganga from the Class I & II towns located along the banks, against which treatment capacity of about 1000 mld has been created till date. The contribution of industrial pollution, volume-wise, is about 20 per cent but due to its toxic and non- biodegradable nature, this has much greater significance.” reference

State wise division that shows the amount of sewage pumped into the Ganga source

The industrial units that are adding to the unholy mess source

Besides pollution, dams and associated irrigation projects on the Ganga have also raised concerns by endangering the habitat of aqua fauna. The pollution is not only killing the river, but also taking away the life that pulsates within its waters, and this is evident in the near extinction of the many species of aquatic animals, including the famous Gangetic dolphin. According to a report by the CAG in 2009:

Ganga is in grave danger from 600 dams (operational, under construction, or proposed). They will obstruct the natural flow, diverting water into tunnels to power turbines, but will also have cascading effect on the livelihood of communities and the biodiversity and stability of the surrounding natural ecosystems. Downstream communities also face the danger of flash floods when water is released from the dams. Not only that, if all the ongoing and proposed hydroelectric projects in Uttarkashi are completed as proposed by the Centre and State governments, the Ganga will get diverted into tunnels just 14 km from its origin in Gangotri. The river will remain tunnelled continuously for 130 km up to Dharasu near Uttarkashi. Environmentalists say tunnelling of the river for such long stretches would result in loss of flora, fauna, fertile soil and minerals.  59% of Bhagirathi and 61 percent of Alaknanda will dry up if all the dams are built. The 330 MW hydroelectric project on the Alaknanda lies in the buffer zone of Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, which houses the Nanda Devi National Park and the Valley of Flowers. Both are inscribed as UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. At least 34 dams on Bhagirathi and Alaknanda should be scrapped in order to protect Uttarakhand’s biodiversity, says the Wildlife Institute of India .” Source

The damning dams on the river Source

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The impact of pollution on the various lives from a case study (the flora, fauna and humans) ~slide 25  Source . Another case study on the Ganga pollution can be read at this link

A closer look at the unholy mess Source

Plans for cleaning the Ganga (the deadline 2018 already has been declared as void, and the project will need more time for completion) source

Swami Nigamananda had to die to stop illegal sand mining in Uttarakhand Source

Recently in 2014, the central government launched the namami Gange project with an aim of cleaning the river, and 20.4 billion rupees have been allocated for the clean-up. Few days back the Uttarakhand HC has declared Ganga as “a living entity,” giving it rights equivalent to a human being. The project and the court ruling are certainly praiseworthy and need all kinds of support (Indians certainly need to look beyond their religious and ideological differences in such instances, and it is truly disheartening to read some of the comments on various newslinks about the Uttarakhand ruling). Besides the various projects, it is also the duty of common citizens to wake up from their long slumber and their callous “chalta hain” attitude, raise awareness on the grave issue of Ganga pollution, and take part in the movement wherein defiling of the Ganges is completely stopped. Floating diyas on Ganga to get wishes fulfilled, or taking a bath to cleanse our sins in the polluted waters isn’t taking us anywhere, nor will it save the river that we revere as our mother. We need to be seriously committed towards freeing the river from the immense burden of pollution that has been killing it. For it is a very simple equation: if Ganga lives, India lives; and, if it dies, so does India.

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(Sita Ram’s paintings and pictorial details are from the book J.P. Losty’s Picturesque Views of India: Sita Ram)

Author – Monidipa Bose

                                She can be contacted at monidipadey@rocketmail.com or at MoniGatha

Godavari … Gautami … Dakshin Ganga

The Queen of Deccan Plateau, spanning Maharashtra, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, in length, second only to the celestial Ganga and in spirit ,the Ganga herself reincarnated at the Brahmagiri is the celebrated river goddess of peninsular India, the mighty Godavari.

Literally meaning ‘the one who nourishes cows’, Godavari is a giver in all respects. Flowing with abundant waters for nearly 1500 kilometres, she is the eldest and most capable daughter of Sahyadri. Godavari is revered as one of the seven important rivers of this land along with Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri from ancient times.

Gatha Saptashati, a collection of Gathas, with rustic emotions was composed by King Hala of the Satavahana Dynasty on the banks of Godavari. Though it is essentially love poetry; the lyrical anthology is an ode to the flora, fauna and rural life of Deccan. In the Gathas, the waters of Godavari have been used as a metaphor for the flow of love and desire.

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Godavari originating in Western Ghats near Nasik, flows through the entire Deccan plateau, aggregating waters of several tributaries and passing through Eastern Ghats, to meet the Bay of Bengal near Kakinada. A long, coast to coast journey, through hills and forests, civilizations both modern and ancient, of welcoming pilgrims and nurturing life

Origin

Tryambakeshwar, at the origin of Godavari is one of the 12 Jyotirlingas, an important place of worship of Lord Shankar. Godavari starts her divine journey, through city of Nashik, one of the designated places for Kumbh. Godavari is also known as Gautami here owing to the legend of sage Gautam bringing the sacred Ganga river to the Deccan plateau and hence is known as ‘Dakshin Ganga’ meaning Southern Ganga.

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Trimbakeshwar Temple, Nasik, built with black basalt, was constructed by Shrimant Balaji Bajirao, the Nanasahib Peshwa, in 1786. The Shiva deity installed in the temple at that time was decorated with the world famous Nassak diamond. The stone was appropriated by the British during the 3rd Anglo-Maratha war. Pic credit Nirdesh Singh

Trimbakeshwar (Tryambakeshwar, Trambakeshwar) takes its name from ‘Trimbaka’, which means ‘The Lord Who has Three Eyes’. This is a place of Tri-Sandhya Gayatri, the birthplace of Lord Ganesha. Godavari forms the southern boundary of Dandakaranya in Ramayana whereas Panchavati, the place where Ram and Sita stayed during their exile is now a part of Nashik. Trimbakeshwar is also considered to be one of the holiest places to perform Shraddha. The Nirnaya Sindhu mentions Trimbakeshwar as the place where Sahyadri Mountain and Godavari River exist, purifying the entire earth planet.

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Kushavarta Kund at Trimbakeshwar Temple – The symbolic origin of the River Godavari. This is where the waters of the three streams Godavari, Gautami and Vaitarna meet to form Godavari. Pic credit http://www.holydham.com

Built between the 2nd century BCE and 2nd century CE by Jain traders and Kings for Buddhist monks, the Trirashmi Leni are some of the oldest caves of Maharashtra. Though popularly known as Pandav Leni, the caves have nothing to do with Mahabharatha. Most of the caves are Viharas with one Chaitya and represent the Hinayana sect of Buddhism. The caves are a wonderful example of syncretism between Jains and Buddhists in spirit and Indians and Greek in stone and sculptures.

The richly sculptured Trirashmi caves or Pandav Leni near Nashik. Pic courtesy Manisha Chitale

On the banks of Godavari in Nashik stands the Kalaram Mandir with black idols of Ram,

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Kalaram Mandir, Nasik. Pic credit http://www.industrialtour.com

Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman. Built in 1788 by Sardar Rangarao Odhekar after he had a vision of a black idol of Lord Ram floating in the waters of Godavari, this temple played an important role in the Dalit Movement. In 1930, Babasaheb Ambedkar launched the Kalaram Mandir Entry Satyagraha and stormed the temple thereby ending restriction on the entry of certain castes in the temple.

From right at its source Godavari waters seem to have witnessed pathbreaking movements leading to emancipation of the common people.

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Located in Niphad tehsil of Nashik district, this wetland was formed due to the silt and water accumulated from the nearby Gangapur and Darana reservoirs. It has been declared a bird sanctuary due to the presence of a large variety of avifauna. Pic credit Jitu Mishra

Meanwhile, downstream, the birds chirp, and flamingo flocks swing in blue skies at the Nandur Madhameshwar Bird Sanctuary.

The Deccan

Once past Kopargaon, through the parched lands of Marathwada in Maharashtra, Godavari provides the much needed touch of water.

Just before Paithan, she meets with Pravara. This Pravara-sangam is itself a visual delight. Pravara has a special place in every Maharastrian’s mind. Just before the confluence, Pravara passes through Nevase. This is the place where Sant Dnyaneshwar, the child prodigy of Maharashtra penned ‘Bhavarth-Dipika’, commonly known as ‘Dnyaneshwari’. One of the most revered and complete commentary on Bhagvad Geeta, since early thirteenth century.

Dyanenshwar, at the tender age of 16 was one of the most brilliant and accomplished Yogi. His life story with his three equally enlightened siblings, the arduous childhood, the unfettered faith in Vithal the God,  and attaining the difficult Sanjeevan-Samadhi  before touching twenty  years of age , he was the indeed the path breaker in the continuous tradition of Marathi  saints. There will be very few households in Maharashtra, who will not have a copy of ‘Dyaneshwari’ on the pedestal. Godavari is blessed to have the fortune of raising this extraordinary son of soil in her backyard.

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Temple dedicated to Dnyaneshwar at Alandi, Pune.

All ancient key cities or capitals are on the banks of prominent rivers. Paithan , or the ancient Pratishthan is not an exception. Godavari, blocked at Jayakwadi, flows seamlessly around Paithan. Paithan, as some experts believe, was the capital of Satawahan, the original royal dynasty of Maharashtra. It finds mention in the navigation and trading bible called ‘The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea’. Paithan remained an important city of trade and administration even during the time of later dynasties such as the Chalukyas and Yadavs.  Paithan and its surrounding areas are of great archaeological interest, as it provides continuous settlement pattern over 25 centuries to say the least.

And Paithan is equally celebrated for that special silk fabric in beautiful bright colours

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Pic credit http://www.utsavpedia.com

and real gold or silver borders, famously called as Paithanee Sarees. Parrots and peacocks form some of the central motifs in this hand woven silk cloth. Handed down as a heirloom and a must-have in the wardrobe of every Marathi Mulgi, Paithanee is a much sough after saree and fabric both in India and the world.

River of Faith

Paithan had a long tradition of Marathi saints starting from Dyaneshwar, Eknath and many others like Namdev, Sant Janabai, Changdev and others in the vicinity.  These saint poets and thinkers of medieval times including Tukaram , Dasganu , Chokha mela, initiated the Bhakti  or Varkari movement which later flourished and is still in practice. A whole corpus of lyrical ‘Abhang’ and ‘Owee’ in Marathi language can be attributed to this tradition. Abhang are poetic compositions in Marathi, centred around worship of Vitthal or Vithoba, with philosophical message. These compostions actually brought the Sanskrit based ‘Darshanik’ knowledge to common people. Bhakti tradition literally got the Godavari of Indian philosophy to the doorsteps of everyone through this vernacular literature. Bhakti movement also insisted on removing the caste barriers and thus discarding the rigidity in social behaviour. It is almost like Godavari has blessed this Bhakti and Varkari sect with her ever nourishing waters.

The meandering stream of Godavari, traverses the Marathwada, taking in waters of Kundalika and Purna, flourishing this sacred land which also belongs to Nath Yogis.

Nath Sampraday a pan India sect of Shaiva worship, is one of strong branches of the tree called Hinduism. The banks of Godavari are dotted with Nath monasteries and temples right from its basin in Maharashtra to its delta in Andhra. Offshoots of Sahyadri in Nagar, Nashik and Aurangabad have several Nath places of worship. Nath Sampraday finds reference in several literary traditions and books. Disciples of this sect are termed as Nath, Siddha or Yogis. Gorakshnath, Matsyendranath , Gahininath are some of great sages of this lineage.

 Datta Sampraday another equally important faith stream, popular on the Deccan plateau also finds its important places in the Godavari basin. Datta sect is closely linked with Nath Tradition, but worships a Vishnu incarnation.  Mahur, Karanje are places of worship for Datta devotees which are in upper basin of Godavari. Mahanubhav sect which also finds its roots in the same region around Godavari is almost like a combination of Nath and Datta cults. Waters of Godavari have given life to these various streams of philosophies and cultures.

Reaching Nanded, Godavari prepares to leave Maharashtra and enters the present day Telangana. Nanded by itself is a prominent place in Sikh history. There stands the majestic Takht Shri Huzur Sahib Gurudwara reminding all about the bond shared by Punjab with Maharashtra. Around 250 years back, when Guru Gobindsinghji, the tenth Sikh Guru chose Nanded as his last abode. This is where he passed the authority to Guru Granth Sahib and put a stop to the human Guru Tradition.  Ever flowing Godavari has witnessed this transition with mute admiration.

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Takht Shri Huzur Sahib Gurudwara at Nanded. Pic credit Nirdesh Singh

Taking a sharp turn to south, Godavari continues till she meets her southern affluent Manjara. Manjara drains the passage between Godavari and Krishna, bringing in the flavours of Karnataka.

Godavari now a substantial flow, turns north, to pass through some of the holy places saraswatisuch as Basar and Dharmapuri.  Basar is famous for its unique Gnana Saraswati temple, one of the two temples in India dedicated to the Goddess of Learning and Knowledge. The other temple is in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Children are bought to this temple in Telangana to write their first letter, a symbolic initiation into the world of learning known as ‘Akshara Abhyasam’. Passing through Nizamabad and Macherial districts of Telangana, Godavari once again touches south eastern border of Maharashtra.

The Jungle Lore

Now entering the Mahakantar, the great jungle region, Pranhita river, the biggest tributary of Godavari meets her near Sironcha.  Pranhita carries with her waters of Satpura ranges and whole of Vidarbha to merge with the sacred stream of Godavari. Sacred town of Kaleshwaram is at the confluence.

Skirting the Maharashtra border, moving through Sal forests and  roars of tigers, Godavari receives her another major tributary. Indravati flows through thick forests of Chattisgarh, passing through craggy hills of Vindhya, and carrying the fading flute tunes of Gond tribals, is a force to reckon with.

Another tributary of Godavari called Sabari, which meets the main river further downstream also comes from thick wooded belt of Chhatisgarh-Odisha border. And interestingly, Indravati and Sabari are interconnected naturally through a ‘middleman’ stream !

From this point onwards, Godavari flows in southerly direction and enters Andhra Pradesh. Taking in waters from some more tributaries like Talperu, now at the confluence with Kinnarseni, stands Bhadrachalam, a prominent place of Rama Bhakti. This temple town has rich association with the river. Godavari’s enormous expanse here is awe inspiring.

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Sree Sita Ramachandraswamy Temple of Bhadrachalam built by Kancharla Gopanna, famously known as Bhakta Ramadas. The Bhadra Hills and its surrounding areas are mentioned in Dandakaranya as the place where Sita spotted the golden deer and got abducted from. Pic credit http://www.templediary.in

This lifeline of ‘Dakkhan’, has seen rise and fall of several empires on both sides of her banks. The Yadavs, Rashtrakutas, Vengy Chalukyas giving way to the Kakatiyas of Warangal and then with wheels of time turning, to the Islamic kingdoms of Bahamani, which further split into 5 Shahi sultanates.

Moving ahead, Godavari enters the Eastern Ghats, the mountain ranges close to the eastern coast of India. It takes a twisting and turning ride through the green blue Papikonda hills, gushing through the sloping hills, flanked by high rising mountains and carving a deep valley the river continues its eternal journey. On feeling the whiff of sea breeze, Godavari impatiently crosses the mountain terrain to come out in the open and spread at Rajahmundry, a prominent city of Andhra Pradesh. The massive bridge here on Godavri measures 4 KM.  This is third largest bridge in Asia and is an attraction by itself.

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Godavari at Rajahmundry as seen from the Godavari or the Rajamundry – Kovvur Bridge. This is Asia’s third longest road-cum-rail bridge. Pic credit Nirdesh Singh

The Merger

Moving past Rajahmundry, Godavari splits into 2 major branches, Gautami Godavari and Vasishtha Godavari, which further splits into 2 more branches each and with these four arms she embraces the Bay of Bengal. The delta region of Godavari is known as Konaseema. A scenic landscape with swaying palms and green paddy fields stretching across.

Gautami Godavari branch merges with the tides, at Kakinada. Yanam near Kakinada is an erstwhile French colony and part of Pondicherry union territory. Earlier in 18th century this area saw rise of several Dutch colonies doing Indigo trade. Later, the Dutch handed over this colony to the French.

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Sunset on Godavari at Yanam. Pic credit Nirdesh Singh

The Vasishtha branch meets the sea near Narsapur, again a temple town and former Dutch colony.

The silk thread of Paithan, finds a coastal counterpart here, on the banks of Godavari

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Uppada being woven on a handloom. Pic credit http://www.uppadapattusarees.com

again. Uppada , a small beach town near Kakinada, has made mark in the world of silk saris. The Jamdani style of weaving from Bengal combined with patterns and motifs of Andhra has given rise to Uppada Pattu, a distinctive fabric style. Extremely light weight, contemporary in design and style and its fine silk makes Uppada a great choice over other exorbitantly priced silks.

Epilogue

We have now traversed almost the entire south central India, from west to east with this river goddess, a journey through time and geography!

Over several towns, temples and traditions, Godavari banks also host several festivals throughout the year. The sacred and massive Kumbhmela in Tryambak to Godavari Pushkaram festival in Telangana and Andhra, from the Adishesh devotees gathering for Nagoba Jatra at Pranhita confluence to the Antarvedi fair, the cultural celebrations have bloomed in abandon on the Godavari water front.

Godavari has marked the borders for kingdoms and helped win battles for the kings. She has devastated her banks with raging floods at times and has also blocked herself with dams to fulfil the quench of her children.Godavari has inspired sages, saints and poets and her tranquil waters have given solace to the seekers. But she is not without her woes.

Beginning of the End 

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Dowleswaram Barrage built by Sir Arthur Cotton. Pic Credit Wikimedia Commons

During the British Raj, Sir Arthur Cotton, an irrigation engineer changed the face of Konaseema in Andhra by building an Anicut, The Dowleswaram Barrage. This first-of-its-kind barrage was completed in the year 1885 and diverted the flood waters of Godavari to farmlands. He later built another barrage over Krishna River turning the delta into one of the most fertile regions of the country. Even today, the people of Konaseema in Andhra revere Sir Arthur Cotton as a deity. Unfortunately, only parts of the original barrage remain for it has been remodeled as the modern Godavari barrage. While the original barrage had fish lifts and passes, the new one does not have these features robbing the downstream people of not only the much needed silt and water but is also hindering the migration of the Pulasa / Hilsa fish, one among the 228 species of fish that swim in the waters of Godavari.

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The remodelled Godavari Barrage at Dowleshwaram near Rajahmundry. Pic credit Wikimedia Commons

While a few barrages and irrigation projects were much needed in the region, today it boasts of a slew of projects that has fettered the river over its long course. According to MoWR (Ministry of Water Resources), so far nearly 921 Dams, 28 Barrages, 18 Weirs, 1 Anicut, 62 Lifts and 16 Powerhouses have been constructed in the Godavari basin for irrigation, diversion or, storage purpose. The basin has 70 Major Irrigation Projects and 216 Minor Irrigation Projects. For how long will we able to squeeze the river of its resources and water, one wonders.

According to this disturbing report, about 20,000 people from 6 gram panchayats,

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Pic credit moonchasing.wordpress.com

predominantly tribal, in Malkangiri are cut off from the main land for several years, first by the Machkund Hydro electric project and then by Balimela Project. They hire a ferry to get to mainland and in 2010, this ferry was targeted and attacked by the Maoists. The biggest threat to these tribals and their houses is not from the naxalites but from the ambitious Polavaram project that plans to interlink the Krishna and Godavari rivers. If at all the project comes through which is stalled from past four decades then Malkangiri will be submerged along with few other tehsils of tribal Odisha. Just a few of the many devastating side effects of irrigation projects and dams. Siltation, loss of biodiversity, submergence of forests and most of all drying up of areas downstream are other major issues facing the people and its river.

From a surplus river to a deficit river, From clean swells of water to being critically polluted, From nurturing revolutions to facing massive conflicts; the Dakshin Vahini Ganga, Goda Mai as she is fondly called is fettered and frail and needs her sons and daughters today much more than ever before.

Authors – Manisha Chitale and Zehra Chhapiwala

Manisha can be contacted at manishachitale@hotmail.com

Zehra can be contacted at zchhapiwala@gmail.com