Significance of the Ganga as one of our holiest rivers

The meeting of the Ganga with the sea at journey’s end is considered a mystic moment.
Significance of the Ganga as one of our holiest rivers
Photo | Wikimedia Commons

With the spotlight on Kashi for reasons we all know, it’s interesting to look again at its cultural significance. Some come to Kashi to die a ‘holy death’ with the surety of salvation. Death itself is known as ‘Kashi Labh’, the ‘Profit of Kashi’, while Kalbhairav, the city’s fierce guardian deity, is addressed as ‘Kala-kala’, the ‘Death of death’, like his master Shiva.

For at least over three millennia, every Hindu pilgrim to Kashi carried away a small sealed copper pot or two of Ganga water to his far corner of the sub-continent. The pot is kept in his prayer nook or room. Every time there is a death in the family, the seal is broken and a few drops of Gangajal are poured into the dying person’s mouth for his or her salvation. The pots have been steadily replaced by each generation, so the Ganga may literally be found in every Hindu home across India.

No wonder there were salty local sayings about this never-ending ebb and flow of humanity in Varanasi. The modern satirical poet ‘Bedhab’ Banarasi joked, ‘Bedhab kabhon na chhodiyo aisi Kashi dham/Marne pe Ganga miley, jeete langra aam.’ ‘Never leave a place like Kashi, Bedhab, where dying, you have the Ganga, and alive, langra mangoes’.

When in Kashi, this rush of associations made me run impulsively to the Ganga’s sandy edge across from the ghats and wade in deeper and deeper until I could swim a few strokes. My modest cotton tunic and pants ballooned comically in the water and a few people in wooden boats some distance away looked at me for a moment, but only for a moment, since Kashi has seen everybody and everything. A soft plop to the other side made me turn my head swiftly. A small, sleek brown body dived down and I was just in time to catch that veriest glimpse of a Gangetic dolphin.

Treading water, I looked back at the ghats with the illusion of being right in the middle of the broadly curving river, filled by a sense of deep connectedness. It was a sodden, sandy business going back, but the epiphany was worth it. I understood why Adi Sankara, the pillar of Hinduism, rushed forward in exhilaration at his first glimpse and hurled himself into the river, crying, “Mother! Your child from the South has come to you!” I had laughed scornfully at this story as a cool undergrad at Delhi University. But to actually be in the river was quite another thing. The centuries were on the Ganga’s side and it was part of my ‘hard-wiring’. There was no escaping that hold.

This uncontrollable rush of joy towards the Ganga was not unique to me or my infinitely saintlier predecessors. Such spontaneous leaps are not unusual in a regular Hindu pilgrim or even a reluctant one, nor in a suddenly-overtaken casual visitor, for the idea of the Ganga is imbibed “with mother’s milk”, as the saying goes, and celebrated through story, song and prayer in almost every Indian language. The callous modern disregard for the physicality of the river is therefore hard to understand.

Meanwhile, the pilgrim party never stops along the Ganga’s banks. It begins at its icy Himalayan source, Gomukh, with offerings of flowers. As the Ganga makes her way from the snowline down to pine forests, the pilgrim presence picks up volume with many sacred chants at the ashrams along its banks at Rishikesh. While the soul-seekers meditate, chant and pray on the riverbank, another kind of party goes on in the river itself.

Hooting and hollering, river rafters and kayakers bounce on the Ganga between the bronzed rocks on the wilder stretches of the river, in and out of rapids with terrifying names like ‘Golf Course’ and ‘Three Blind Mice’. I, too, have been river-rafting on that stretch from Rishikesh to Haridwar, to experience the Ganga’s girlish, joyful dance as she tumbles down the mountains and enters the plains, where she suddenly sobers in her flow.

From Haridwar, she turns positively wide and matronly as she proceeds further across the endless hot and dusty plains eastwards to Bengal and the sea. Hindus say she swells as she goes with the increasing load of human sin washed away in her as she flows from tirtha to tirtha (a holy place by the water).

The meeting of the Ganga with the sea at journey’s end is considered a mystic moment. However, in a quirky link with the English who founded Calcutta on the Ganga’s estuary, I experienced the river not from a pilgrim place but from a river warden’s boat. The river warden wore a white uniform and a black kepi and his face was wrinkled around the eyes from years of peering intently at the river and its banks, taking in details others would probably not notice. He knew every inch of the river on his stretch, every rock hidden in the riverbed, every shifting sand bank, every tide.

“Do you pray to the Ganga?” I ventured when a silent camaraderie of sorts was established after twenty minutes or so of peacefully watching the river. The warden grinned. “I’m a child of this river, as much as any Bhishma. I am the Ganga, an indivisible part of her while alive. And one day, my ashes will float on her waves and disappear into her.” He chuckled when I shared a very in-house Hindu verse with him from the river’s upper reaches: ‘Before you come here in a pot or a jar/Do spend some time alive in Haridwar’.

Chop and change as we may, there’s no evading the fact that our personal journeys have never ceased to flow with the Ganga.

(Views are personal)


Renuka Narayanan

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