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.

Bengal

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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 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

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

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A lifeline that has defined human civilisation. A river that holds a cosmos in itself,  a fascinating  world of flora and fauna, unseen from above, yet pulsating below, under tranquil waters.

(Pic – Yamuna in Agra. Yamuna is the largest tributary of the river Ganges)

In a land where infrequent monsoons are held as the main season, water is as priceless as a flawless jewel, and rivers are considered sacred. From ancient times when man learned to settle down in what is termed as “civilisation,” water has reigned supreme over man’s life, living, thoughts, writings, paintings, culture, religion, and even wars. Rivers are ancient, and their waters have been flowing persistently even before human beings came into existence. Theirs is a separate universe, a little world of their own, which has sired many tales (mythological and folk), history, religion, philosophy, politics, and also in the modern era, technological incursions. The flowing waters of these mighty rivers have witnessed the creation of some of the earliest cities in the world and have seen their destruction too; they have seen the shaping of some the world’s earliest literature and religious texts and the brilliant minds that shaped those; and now the same waters are witnessing their relentless defiling by the very people that had once started their journey of civilisation on those muddy river plains.

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Map of the Ganges valley Source

What’s in a name?

In North India flows a river with many names. Its name is Ganga, rechristened the Ganges by the British, this river is a sacred entity, a focal point of constant reference that entwines life and death for billions of Hindus living in this country since the ancient times.

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The blue pristine waters of the Ganga at Haridwar)

Defying what Shakespeare said about a name not being significant, there are some names that certainly spell magic. They create a reverberation in the mind, leaving an impact like an echo. One such name is Ganga.

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The name Ganga evokes a vision of evening lamps, temple bells, smell of burning camphor, and the chants of Ganga stotram. 

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The Bhagirathi peaks from  Gangotri. Photo courtesy: Jay Shankar

One may wonder how the name that is so intermingled with the lives of billions, came to be known to the world? Let’s take a quick look back. Studies show that it was during the late Harappan period (2000 to 1000 BCE) that the node of Indian civilisation shifted from the River Indus to the areas adjacent to the upper Ganges basin, a land termed as ‘Cemetery H’ (reference).

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The map here shows the names of the rivers, including the Ganges, around which the new settlements grew up, the names of which are found in the Rigveda. Source

The early Rigveda, composed roughly between 1500 to 900 BCE, mentions Jhanavi (Jhanavi is another name for Ganga). However, Ganga gains greater prominence in the later three Vedas. As historian Romila Thapar aptly sums it, “In the Ṛig Veda the geographical focus was the sapta-sindhu (the Indus valley and the Punjab) with Sarasvatī as the sacred river, but within a few centuries ārya-varta is located in the Gaṅgā-Yamūnā Doāb with the Ganges becoming the sacred river.” (reference P. 415).

The first foreign traveller to mention Ganga was Megasthenes (350 – 290 c BCE), in his book Indika, where he spoke of the mighty river and its tributaries, the canal system that helped in irrigation of the Gangetic pain, and its extensive run that ended at Gangaridai (the ancient name for area near the Ganges delta), which he refers to as the land of large elephants (reference).

Ganga also finds mention in Mahabharata, Ramayana, and several Puranas. In Mahabharata she is the consort of  King Shantanu and the mother of Bhisma; in Skandapurana she is the consort of Shiva and the mother of Skanda or Kartikeya, also known as Kumara, the son of Ganga. In Bhagavad Purana, Ganga is shown to have emanated from the lotus feet of Vishnu, following which she acquired a beautiful pink shade. With Brahma, she is always seen accompanying him in his kamandalu, as the sacred water. According to a passage in the Ramayana, Ganga is also the daughter of Himavat and Mena, chief of the mountains and his wife, which makes her the sister of Uma/Parvati (reference).

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How ancient settlements were centred around the river Ganges and its chief tributary Yamuna  Source

The Legend, Mythological representations, and Iconography

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The descent of Ganga Source 

In Hinduism, Ganga is personified as Devi Ganga, and is in her own self a teertha, a link between heaven and earth. Such is her importance that it is believed that by bathing or taking a dip in her holy waters one is absolved of sins, while immersing the ashes in her waters brings the soul of the dead person closer to moksha. Hence she is often referred to as: Patita Pavani or the liberator of all sins.

In the Indian subcontinent, sometimes other rivers are also referred to as Ganga. This gives the rivers a sacred sanctity that shines through the name Ganga. Its name is also invoked in any ritual where water is used, therefore sanctifying all holy waters used for religious purposes.

Referring to other sacred rivers as Ganga has its own disadvantages too, as is seen in the misconception about the geographical origin of the river. For a long time it was thought Ganga originated in Manas Sarovar near Kailash. While there are no clear theories on how Ganga came to be related to mount Kailash, but one line of thought says that it might have started from an ancient Tibetan text Kailash Purana. A small flowing stream which connects the two lakes, Manas Sarovar and Rakshas tal, is mentioned in the Kailash Purana as Ganga chu (in Tibetan the word chu means river). Could this name have led to the notion that Ganga came from Manas Sarovar? One can only wonder and speculate. However, in 1808 while mapping and tracing the route and origin of the Ganges by Webb and Hearsay, it was specifically proven the river did not originate from Manas Sarovar near Kailash .

The birth of Ganga is beautifully depicted in the Bhagavad Purana, which says that Vishnu in his Vaman avtaar pierced a hole with his left foot at the end of the universe. It was through this hole, the pure Brahm Water came into the universe, in the form of the Ganga River. Since it washed the feet of Vishnu while flowing in, it is also known as Vishnupadi, or the one that emanates from the lotus feet of God. Ganga originally remained in Brahmaloka, until Bhagirath brought her down to the earth in order to release his forefathers from a curse, in what is termed as Ganga avtaran. With Ganga threatening to wash away the earth with her force as she descended, it was Shiva who broke her fall by holding her in his locks and taming her raging waters. There are other legends that give varying versions but this one remains the most popular. Since Bhagirath brought her down, Ganga in the Himalayas is also known as Bhagirathi. From the heaven (swarg or Brahma lok) she descends to the earth or prithvi (via Gaumukh glacier), and finally enters the patal (netherworld) in Ganga Sagar.

As Ganga came down to earth from heaven, she is also seen as the means of moving from earth to heaven.  The  Triloka-patha-gamini, or the one who traverses the three worlds (swarg , prithvi , and patal), she is herself a teertha, or the crossing point of existence (that includes all living and dead).

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Ganga avtaran by Raja Ravi Verma. Shiva readies himself to meet the raging waters of Ganga, while Parvati comfortably leans on Nandi watching the avtaran, and Bhagirath looks on with folded palms.  

Ardhanarishwar. Ganga flowing out of Lord Shiva’s matted locks Painting circa 1800 Source

Bhagirath leading Ganga down to Ganga Sagar to release his forefathers who were suffering in patal, Kalighat Patachitra (in print), 19th c. CE. It is believed that Bhagirath led the devi on until Bihar, and when he reached Bengal he wasn’t sure which route to follow that would take him to his forefathers in patal (the netherworld). It was then he requested the devi to take her own route, after which Ganga  decided to branch out in streams (in Bengal there are indeed two major streams, Hooghly and Padma, besides other smaller ones). That created the delta formation in Bengal and Bangladesh.  Finally one such stream led to a point, now known as Ganga Sagar, which took Ganga to patal, and she released Bhagirath’s forefathers from their sufferings.  

In ancient India, Ganga was seen as symbol of fertility, as it provided the daily bread for those that lived on its banks. She is first seen in the Cave V, on a relief in the Udaygiri caves (400 CE), carrying  a pot that symbolises fertility ( a womb), as well as the Brahma’s pot from where both she and Saraswati were born. Ganga is accompanied by a gana who symbolises development and attainment. Her vahana is a makara, a mythical figure with the head of a terrestrial animal (such as an elephant) and the lower body of an aquatic animal (generally a fish, sometimes with floral tail like a peacock). Makara symbolises both the underwater life, and the fear of the unknown, the fear of destruction caused by her uncontrolled waters.

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By the end of the 5th c. CE, Ganga was seen as a devi in her own right, symbolising all rivers in India, and her iconography turned more complex. All Hindu temples had the goddess carved at the door, symbolising ablution in the sacred waters of the river, as one enters the garbhagriha (the inner sanctum). Ganga on the temple door frame with her vahana, attendants, and the dwarpala ~ at Teli ka mandir, Gwalior fort, 850 c. CE

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Ganga in terracotta, 5th century CE. (Gupta Period), Ahichchhatra, Uttar Pradesh. Source

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A red sandstone relief, Madhya Pradesh, 8th/9th century. Very finely carved Ganga in a graceful tribhanga at right, adorned with an elaborate knotted belt, standing on a lotus blossom over a rearing makara, along with a retinue of attendants. Source

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Makarvahini Ganga, Kalighat Patachitra (in print), 19th c. CE

How the course runs:

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Some of the important cities beside the river Ganges as it travels through the northern plains of India and empties itself in the Bay of Bengal near Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta). It provides water to an area of 8,61,452 Sq.km that is equivalent to almost 26% of the total geographical area in India.  Source

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Geographically speaking, the Ganga basin is spread over four countries that include India, Tibet, Nepal, and Bangladesh, covering an area of 10,86,000 sq.km. The extensive area of the Ganga basin Source

Casting aside the nitty-gritty of geographical data, let’s peek into towns and cities that line the course of this mighty river.

Gomukh:

At a height f 13,200 ft amidst the snow clad mountains of Uttaranchal, lies of the snout of a glacier from which the waters of the Bhagirathi rush out with great force. Gomukh literally means the mouth of a cow, and finds mention in the Puranas. It is said that the snout of the glacier from which Bhagirathi emerges looked exactly like the mouth of a cow. However, owing to environmental changes, and the glacier changing its position, the shape of Gomukh opening now remains largely left to one’s imagination. Gomukh, which is a two day’s hard trek from Gangotri, is a Hindu pilgrimage site, and it is not surprising to see sadhus and other devotees bathing or taking a dip in the icy cold waters of the Bhagirathi at its point of emergence.

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 Gomukh, the point of emergence of Bhagirathi at the base of Mt. Shivling. The Gangotri glacier is a receding one, and is moving back at an alarming rate, much to the concern of climate experts. The topography here is rather wild, with hard ice, patches of snow, and large and small boulders scattered everywhere. Picture credit: Saket Kumar

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The glacier spout from which Bhagirathi rushes outPicture credit: Jay Shankar

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Base of Mt. ShivlingPicture credit: Jay Shankar

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Tapovan at the base of Mt. Shivling, the beautiful meadow through which the Bhagirathi flows after emerging from the Gomukh. Picture credit: Saket Kumar.

Gangotri:

It is a small town at 10, 200 ft, popular among the pilgrims that has a temple dedicated to Ganga devi, which was originally built in the early 19th c. CE by  the Gurkha general Amar Singh Thapa. Many sadhus have small kutis here where they stay for most part of the year, pray, and meditate by the riverside. The beautiful, calm surroundings and the sound of the gushing waters of Bhagirathi make it a perfect place for mediation and prayers.

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The evening light on Bhagirathi peaks. Picture credit: Jay Shankar

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The Ganga temple at Gangotri. The evening arti performed under the open skies beside the river in front of this temple creates an ethreal aura that one has to experience to believe. Picture credit: Jay Shankar

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Forceful waters of the Bhagirathi gushing down at Gangotri. Photo credit: Jay Shankar

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The Suryakund waterfall in Gangotri located very near to the temple. Here the Bhagirathi falls from a cliff with immense force, making it an unforgettable sight. Photo credit: Jay Shankar

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The tranquil waters of Bhagirathi by the side of the Ganga Mandir at Mukhba village (near Harshil), which is the winter residence of the Devi when the temple at Gangotri is shut down on Bhai Ditiya, owing to the heavy snowfall that cuts off the place from the lower reaches during winter. Photo credit: Jay Shankar

Rishikesh and Haridwar:

Bhagirathi from Gangotri flows down the valley passing many picturesque locations such as Gangnani, Harshil, to reach Uttarkashi, which as the name suggests, is another important pilgrimage centre with a Vishwanath temple. Harshil is a Maha Prayag, a confluence of nine rivers, with a Vishnu temple located at the confluence of Jalandhari, Vishnu Ganga, and Bhagirathi. Dharali is another place on the banks of Bhagirathi, where the rivers Bhim Ganga and Hatya Harini meet her. It is believed that by bathing at the confluence of these rivers one is absolved of the sins of even Brahm Hatya (killing of human).

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Bhagirathi at Uttarkashi. Photo credit: Jay Shankar

The next important point is Devprayag where Bhagirathi meets Alaknanda, and here the river Ganges is formed. The Ganga which is formed at this confluence contains waters of six rivers, brought in mainly by the Alaknanda that flows in from base of Satopanth and Bhagirath Kharak glaciers, near Badrinath. The waters of Alaknanada contain the rivers Nandakini, Dhauliganga, Mandakini, and Pindar. There are five important Prayags or confluence points on the side of Alaknanda. The five prayags are Vishnuprayag, Nandprayag, Karnaprayag, Rudraprayag, and Devprayag.

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The beautiful green waters of Alaknanda (left) merge with the dark waters of Mandakini (right) at Rudraprayag.  Mandakini that comes from Chorabari glacier near Kedarnath is an important tributary of the Ganga. Photo credit: Jay Shankar

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Devprayag, the birth place of Ganga. On the left is the tranquil Alaknanda, and on the right is the turbulent Bhagirathi . It is here where the  Vedic rituals for Shraddh ceremonies and pinda pradaan take place. Source

From Devprayag, the river now known as Ganga, moves down to reach Rishikesh. Here the river leaves the mountains behind and enters the north Indian plains. There are many temples (both old and new), and learning centres for religious education in this town.

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This place finds mention in Skandapurana (Kedarkhand), while it is also believed that Rama did penance here in Rishikesh for killing Ravana

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The RamJhula in Rishikesh, is a newly built suspension bridge over the Ganges. A little ahead is the more famous Lakshman jhula, where it is said Lakshman had crossed the river using a bridge made of jute ropes. A jute bridge was supposed to have existed in this spot until the late 19th c. CE, as mentioned in his travel records by a famous Bengali travel writer Jaladhar Sen. In 1889, a Marwari businessman from Calcutta sponsored the building of an iron suspension bridge to prevent any further deaths, which was later renovated in 1924 after a major flood.

The next important town beside the Ganga is Haridwar. Here a dam diverts some of the water from the main river to a canal, the waters of which are used for irrigation in the Doab area. The river changes its course from south-west to south east in Haridwar.

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Haridwar is one of the seven holiest places in Hindu pilgrimage. The evening aarti at Haridwar by the banks of the Ganga is a site worth seeing despite the crowd that gathers there everyday

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Har ki Pauri. It is believed that during samudra manthan,  one drop of amrit (elixir) fell on Haridwar in the Brahma Kund, located at Har ki pauri. It is for this reason Haridwar celebrates the Kumbha mela every 12 years, kumbha signifying the pot carried by Garuda, which contained the amrit.

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The murti of Devi Ganga  at Haridwar. This is the original murti, which has been shifted and kept in a side temple beside the ghat, while the main Ganga mata mandir now holds a murti of the Devi with Bhagirath.

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Haridwar as seen and painted by  Sitaram in 1814, while travelling with Hastings (then Lord Moira) from Calcutta to Punjab. From a recent record, it has been said that most of the buildings seen here in the picture still exist, however they are covered by ugly advertisement boards and so cannot be seen from the river anymore. The main river seen here has thinned down now owing to the dam built to divert water for irrigation. 

Prayag or Allahabad:

From Haridwar the Ganga passes the cities of Kanauj and Kanpur to reach Allahabad, where it meets its chief tributary the Yamuna at Triveni Sangam. Here it is said the Saraswati river was also a part of the confluence. The city was known as Prayag in the ancient times and finds a mention in the Vedas, the Puranas and in Ramayana. Later known as Kausambi, the city according to archaeological finds dates back to 700 BCE. It has seen the coming and going of many empires that include Mauryans, Kushanas, Guptas, Delhi Sultanate, Mughals, Marathas, and lastly the British. During Mughal rule, Akbar renamed the city as Illahabad, and built a fort on the banks of the Sangam. The British later changed the name to Allahabad.

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A bridge of boats on the Ganges in Kanpur (then Cawnpore), with two elephants crossing it. A bungalow, few temples, and Sarsaiya ghat are seen on the right side of the bridge on the banks of Ganga. The picture was painted by Sitaram in 1814, while travelling upstream on the Ganga in a bajra with Hastings (then Lord Moira) from Calcutta.

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The Ganga at Prayag. Photo credit: Gency Chowdhury

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The Yamuna at Prayag. Photo credit: Gency Chowdhury

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Prayag during Kumbh mela. Photo credit: Gency Chowdhury

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Prayag during Kumbh.  Photo credit: Gency Chowdhury

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The Allahabad fort built by Akbar at the Sangam. On the left is Yamuna and on the right is Ganga. Far left in the picture, partly seen is a white building which is most likely the Akbari masjid. The magnificent white octagonal structure in the fort seen here from the river, was known as Chalees Satun, and it was destroyed by the East India Company who took over in  1798.  The picture was painted by Sitaram.

Chunar Fort:

After Allahabad the next important city beside the Ganga is Varanasi or Kashi. Between Prayag and Kashi lies the important fort of Chunar on the banks of the Ganga. The fort has been linked to king Bali, Vikramaditya of Ujjain, and Prithviraj Chauhan. While archaeological finds place the fort settlement date at around 56 BC, recorded history starts from the time of Babar. It was taken over from the Mughal subedars by Sher Shah, who married into the subedar family. The fort was won over from him by Humayun, only to be again taken back by Sher Shah. Akbar won it back in 1574, and it remained with the Mughals until the East India company conquered it in 1722.

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Chunar fort. After East India Company took over the fort in 1722, they faced stiff resistance from Raja Chait Singh of Benaras in 1781. In 1791 the fort was made into a sanatorium for the sick and dying European soldiers. The picture was painted by Sitaram

Varanasi/Benaras or Kashi:

The name Varanasi rises from the two tributaries of the Ganga that bind the old city, rivers Varuna and Assi. Rigveda mentions the city as Kasi, which in Sanskrit means the city of light. Regarded as one of the holiest cities, Kashi or Varanasi was supposedly built by Shiva, and it is here that the Pandavas came to search for Shiva in order to atone for their killings during the Kurukshetra war. Buddha also started his preaching from Sarnath, a place very near to Varanasi, which was the capital of the Kashi kingdom during his time. Archaeological findings place the start of settlement in this city at around 2000 BCE (reference). The city is also well known from the ancient times for its religious learning centres, textiles (Benarasi weave on silk is famous), sculptures, ivory, and perfumes.

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Such is the religious significance of this city that it is believed that if one is fortunate enough to die in Kashi, that person will attain moksha. Photo credit: Gency Chowdury

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Ganga aarti on a ghat in Benaras. Photo credit: Gency Chowdury

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The riverfront at Benaras with Panchganga ghat at the centre, and Aurangzeb’s mosque rising above it. The mosque minarets were later removed because of of their instability. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.

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Dasasvamedha ghat in Benaras. The building seen here is the  rest house built by Rani Ahalya Bai. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.

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The palace of the Raja of Benaras that was constructed in 1750 by Raja Balwant Singh. He was the governor of Benaras under the Nawab of Oudh. The Nawab transferred the sovereignty of the city to the East India Company in 1755. Seen above is the State Boat of the Raja of Benaras. Painting by Sitaram. 

From Varanasi, Ganga travels further on, crossing the states of Bihar and Bengal. This part of the journey however, will be told another day. Kumbh13-26 (1)For now, I will leave you at Kashidham with Ganga, where the Devi makes a lovely arc and turns uttarvahini.

 

 

Author – Monidipa Bose

She can be contacted at monidipadey@rocketmail.com or at Moni Gatha

(All pictures used in the post are clicked by the author unless mentioned otherwise. Sita Rams’s paintings and pictorial details are from J.P. Losty’s Picturesque views of India: SitaRam)