Sacred Waters (The Rivers of India)

by Sunil Vaidyanathan 8. May 2009 04:01

Siang River


They may, or may not be regarded as the explorers’ favourite destination and polluted by avarice, neglect and the needs of a burgeoning population they are certainly not an ecological Xanadu; but ask the millions of pilgrims and tourists who converge on the banks of India’s sacred rivers to partake in their promise of eternal salvation and tPilgrims offer prayers on the banks of the Yamuna in Mathura. hey will beg to differ.

 

The rivers are the axis mundi of Hindu belief. The Ganges for example embodies the ‘water of life.’ Hindus believe that bathing in the sacred rivers will result in the remission of sin and will circumvent rebirth, guaranteeing them a berth in the heavens! This is not surprising, considering the importance of water and the dependence of human life on it. As a primordial element, water has inspired myths and legends throughout the world. Every culture and religion has a myth dedicated to water bodies. The Vedas and Puranas state that all inhabitants on earth emerged from the sea. Thus prayers to Varuna (god of the sea) were amongst the earliest prayers composed. The change from Vedic Brahmanism to Hinduism diluted many ancient practices but managed to preserve the sanctity of nature divinities.

 

All major civilizations in the world have sprung up along the banks of rivers and water divinities of various kinds appear in the mythologies of many cultures. The world abounds in sacred springs, rivers, and lakes. Early Egyptian scrolls make references to Hapi, the presiding spirit of the Nile. The annual flooding of the Nile was said to herald Hapi’s arrival. The Nile God who brought fertility to the land amidst periods of prolonged flooding that ravaged the river delta, was both benevolent and unkind. Although male, Hapi was pictured with full breasts and a large belly (representing fertility.) He was usually given blue or green skin to symbolise water.  The Babylonians worshipped the Euphrates and the Tigris as gods and the Greek and Roman renaissance which placed human spirit above religion (virtually abolishing it) surprisingly venerated water bodies.

 

In the Judeo-Christian tradition which generally avoids the adulation of natural phenomenon, there are numerous examples of holy rivers, wells, and springs. The river Jordan is held sacred because it is believed that Jesus Christ was baptized in it by John the Baptist. Islam may have a disdain for iconic imagery, but this did not prevent them from adopting the pre-Christian belief of water being revered as a life force.

 

The Well of Zamzam is located within the Masjid al Haram in Mecca, near the Kaaba (the holiest place in Islam.) Muslims believe that the well was revealed to Hagar (handmaiden to Abraham’s wife Sarah) who was the mother of Abraham's son Ishmael. Hagar, learning that God had ordered Abraham to abandon her in the desert, respected his decision. However, Hagar soon ran out of water, and baby Ishmael began to suffer. Mecca being located in a parched valley has few sources of water. Muslim tradition states that Hagar ran several times in the scorching heat between the hills of Safa and Marwa in search of water. God then sent the angel Gabriel, who scraped the ground, causing a spring to gush out. But historians believe that the well might have been of importance to the pre-Islamic inhabitants of Mecca, and perhaps one of the reasons why Mecca became a pilgrimage site and trading centre.

 

Parasuram Kund, Arunachal Pradesh

While some rivers may have disappeared into subterranean passages, their existence preserved only as myths in the minds of the devout, most survived the vicissitudes of time and the rise and fall of civilizations. In most cultures, the major rivers were conferred with the status of father figures with the tributaries as nymphs.


In the Indian subcontinent the determinant was topography. The broader Indus, Brahmaputra, Sonabhadra, Gogra and a few others are male, while the Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Narmada, Cauvery and Godavari are female. The Puranas proclaim the Ganges, Yamuna, Saraswati, Brahmaputra, Godavari, Narmada, Sindhu (Indus) and Cauvery as the most sacred. But yes, there was a hierarchy and the Ganges dominates the order. Her perennial flow, potent sin washing powers and immense popularity (that made her an integral part of puranic lore) ensured this position and her popularity never waned. Narmada gave her intense competition, but Ganga was not to be outdone and Narmada had to be content with being her subordinate. The Ganges meanwhile continued to receive daily obeisance and pollutants along her course. The prayer rituals on the banks of the Ganges in Haridwar are testimony to this. At sundown, thousands of worshippers pray to the Ganges in a ritual that has been practiced since time immemorial. This popularity also led to the river’s decline and the Ganges and her tributary the Yamuna are now India’s most polluted rivers. 


In our forthcoming book we will take you on a fascinating journey along eight of India’ s mightiest rivers. The journey starts in the glaciers of the western Himalayas. We follow the Ganges and the Yamuna from their glacial sources into the plains of Uttaranchal and continue eastward, until it reaches the Bay of Bengal. We then follow the course of the Narmada and Mahanadi through central and eastern India respectively; on to Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, where we cover all the major tributaries of the Brahmaputra, right from the Indo-China border to the point where the river enters Bangladesh in Dhubri. The southern rivers, namely the Krishna, Kaveri and Godavari River, Paithan Godavari which flow from the west to the east have many ancient Dravidian monuments along their banks. In this photo-essay, we focus on the symbiosis between the sacred rivers and communities that live along them, in a journey that is both magical and distressing. If the pundit and the pilgrim, the politician and bureaucrat, and the millions who depend on the rivers for sustenance can be encouraged to treat the sacred rivers with greater respect, it would perhaps manifest in their rebirth.

Sunil & Shayoni

You can see more images in the gallery section of our website: www.scribesontheroad.com


 

Fishing on the Godavari River Siang River and tributaries
Hooghly River, Kolkata  

 

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