Raunaq’s river run

Delhi YouTuber Monkey Magic, aka Raunaq Sahni, debuts his photobook, Melodies of India, this month.
(L-R) Sachin with Raunaq Sahni
(L-R) Sachin with Raunaq Sahni

Last October, popular Delhi-based YouTuber Raunaq Sahni, troubled by a storm of personal problems, left his home for a four-month-long soul-searching journey. The plan was to travel through India along the 2,525-km stretch of the Ganges, which starts from the majestic Gangotri glacier in the Himalayas to end in Gangasagar, West Bengal, before it joins the sea.

The expedition proved to be “the walk of my life” for the 26-year-old as he documented both melodies and tragedies — from the deep reverence for the Ganges in the mountains, to its fading glory in industrialised cities, from it breathing life into the places it touches to people wanting to breathe their last on its banks in holy cities such as Haridwar and Varanasi.

The result of this expedition is a 270-page photo-book called Melodies of India that is divided into 11 chapters, each one unveiling the paradoxes and truths of human existence found along the river’s path. Just like different notes make up a melody, for Sahni, it’s India’s cultural differences and diversity that makes it a unique country.

“The photographs will serve as visual testimonies, encapsulating the diversity, traditions and modernisation of India,” says Sahni, who travelled to cities and towns such as Rishikesh, Haridwar, Devprayag, Prayagraj, Kanpur, Bithoor, among others.

View from the mountains on the way from Gangotri to Harshil, Uttarakhand.
View from the mountains on the way from Gangotri to Harshil, Uttarakhand.

Elephants in the moonlight

The Ganges has been “calling” Sahni since he was 18, when he first went on a trip to Rishikesh in Uttarakhand. However, it was only a year later that he connected with the river at a deeper level. “I was filming a man, Sachin, who was walking along the river from Varanasi to Gaumukh. I met him in Rishikesh and took a two-day walk with him to reach Haridwar, crossing through Rajaji National Park, which is known for tigers, panthers and elephants.

(L-R) Raunaq at the home of a sage
(L-R) Raunaq at the home of a sage

As I was walking at midnight through the dense forest, I saw a herd of six wild elephants in the moonlight going across the murmuring Ganges. We also felt the fear of chancing upon tigers. When I reached Haridwar, I craved that feeling of uncertainty again and wanted to spend more time with the Ganges,” says the aspiring filmmaker, who reached two million YouTube subscribers, a million more, after he started posting some videos from his Melodies of India odyssey.

The journey’s melodies

Sahni’s journey started at Gaumukh, at 13,200 feet, which is the snout of the Gangotri glacier. However, being used to the urban landscape of Delhi, the solemnity of the lofty mountains and imposing glaciers intimidated the city boy so he went up there with a yoga group. “When I was sitting in front of the Gangotri glacier, I realised something troubling me that I wanted to let out. I started walking down from the mountain and was murmuring to myself about my problems. Gradually, I started speaking loudly and eventually started shouting at the Ganges. I felt a burden lift off my chest,” he says; he writes about the incident in the first chapter of the book.

On his way forward, Sahni met thugs, gangsters, villagers, sages and many unique personalities. A chance encounter with the “sand mafia” of Prayagraj both terrified and touched him. “I was on the banks of the Ganges in the sandy terrain, and I was told not to bring out my camera to shoot because the sand mafia were there. The scene looked straight out of the movie Pirates of the Caribbean — there were more than 100 boats and over 300 boatmen who stopped and looked at me, the moment they saw my tripod. I told them we are on a padayatra to Gaumukh. The moment you say padayatra, people start to respect your journey because they revere the river and its soil. They even packed samosas, jalebi and water for us,” he says of the unexpected acts of kindness from gangsters; priests, too, invited him to their humble homes and served him lunch.

At Bithoor, UP, on the banks of the polluted Ganges
At Bithoor, UP, on the banks of the polluted Ganges

The saviours in tragedies

As the Ganges descends from the mountains to the plains, Sahni documents the many contradictions that lie in the heart of India, that mirror the realities of the diverse terrain the river traverses. Upon reaching the small town of Bithoor in the Kanpur district, he was shocked to see the river lose its glory to pollution.

“Bithoor is covered in dust and dirt. Here, I met boatman Laal Muhammad Badshah, who after reading Namaaz in a masjid, comes barefoot to clean the Ganges by picking up trash near its banks. He told me that he had prayed to the Ganges that if his sisters got married to men from good families, he would walk barefoot all his life. The river heard his wishes,” he says, sharing one of the slivers of hope in his book.

He writes similarly of Gangasagar in chapter nine, ‘Chaos, Gangasagar’. He writes that “people here breed like insects”. He tells TMS: “I saw poor management at government shelter homes, the ghats were overcrowded, with people pushing each other, boats were overloaded leading to frequent deaths due to negligence, and people slept on roads. I saw a woman worshiping the Ganges while also letting her daughter defecate near the river.”

Sahni’s evocative photographs vividly describe the fight for resources leading to an undignified way of living. Sahni feels his experience along the river has changed him from being a “borderline people’s pleaser” to a more carefree individual who likes to go with the flow, “just like the Ganges”. He ends our conversation reading a few sentences from his book: “I carry Ganges in my heart, and in my mind. Sitting on the banks of Ganges, as I write this, I take a deep breath. Perhaps for me, maybe, this was all what this journey was about — just a deep, deep breath.”

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