Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
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RIVERS: JULY 01, 2001

Looking for the river

Ranjit Hoskot

The lost river

I have always been fascinated by rivers, by the purling and weaving of their waters, the fractal patterns that represent them on satellite maps, the way some of them dwindle to a stream in summer while others lie silent beneath a sheet of ice in winter. This fascination is perhaps explained by the fact that I belong to an ethnic group which takes its name from a lost river. One that flowed in north-western India long ago, before the earth swallowed it up; the only signs of its passage today are a dry course, a salty marshland where its delta had been, a tapestry of legend and a people who have carried its name wherever they have gone.

Over the centuries, my people have migrated to parts of the subcontinent and the world far away from their original home in the north-western highlands of Gandhara and Kashmir: the Saraswat brahmins, fire-sacrificers and originators of chants, children of a lost river. Carried across time and space through their diaspora, the Saraswati has become a metaphor of loss and survival, an absence that is an affirmation. A compelling trope, abandoned by geography but resurrected in culture through language and music, the memory of a civilisation and the echo of a landscape.

Manoj K. Jain

I look for the river in the miniature paintings of the Basohli and Kangra ateliers, imaginative terrains of passion and grief in which every wavelet and leaf has been stylised by a painterly eye that regarded detail as the covenant of truth. I look for the river, also, in the vachanas of Basava, who sings of his beloved Kudala-sangama-deva, Lord of the Meeting Rivers; and in the thumris of Siddheshwari Devi, their poignancy redolent of the ghats of Varanasi. I look for the river, again, in the films of Ritwik Ghatak, which trace their protagonists' journeys through the melancholy yet also sublime topographies of "Titash Ekti Nadir Naam" and "Subarnarekha".

The river as sacred presence

The river has always occupied a central place in India's material life and sacred culture. In common with the other riparian civilisations of antiquity, the civilisations of the Indus and the Ganga valleys developed a water cosmology, a belief in the waters as the origin and sustaining principle of life. In this account, the river is both an energy of increase and a karmic allegory: as the former, fed by seasonal rains and mountain thaws, it guarantees fertility to the land; as the latter, it provides a template for the cycle of human life, beginning with birth as a spring, passing through maturity as signified by the cohesion of tributary energies and closing with dissolution in the ocean, only to be followed by a regeneration through evaporation and rain.

The Greek merchants and mercenaries who arrived in India between the fifth and the first centuries BC recorded their sense of awe at our rivers. Coming from a terrain whose rivers would count as scarcely more than streams by Indian standards, they were amazed by the visual grandeur, the swift currents, the uncharted length and the unfathomable depth of the Indus, the Ganga and the Narmada. The Indic religious imagination was not slow to embody these significant presences in divine form. We first hear of apsaras or water goddesses in the Rig Veda, where they appear as guardian figures of the river-treasury, quick and vital but also dangerous and unpredictable.

The nadi-devatas or river-goddesses of later times evolved from the Vedic apsaras: more benign than their precursors, theirs is an iconography of fertility and abundance. Four images of nadi-devatas, each accompanied by a special totemic vehicle, appear in the temple of the sixty-four yoginis at Bhera Ghat, on the Narmada: here, we see Ganga with her makara or horned crocodile, Yamuna with her tortoise, Saraswati with her peacock, and Narmada herself, on a makara pedestal. Each river-goddess carries the archetypal vessel of plenitude, the purna-ghata.

The river as road

The association of rivers with treasure is precise. In the early monsoon economy, the river's alluvial deposits rendered the land fertile, made agriculture possible. The river was also a road in itself, and a guide to the land-routes. Indeed, northern India's earliest historic cities were established, at the beginning of the first millennium BC, along the Ganga-Yamuna system: Indraprastha (modern Delhi), Hastinapura and Kosambi on the Yamuna, Varanasi on the Ganga.

By Mauryan times, a network of trade-routes connected the north and east of the subcontinent with the south and west. The main trunk road began at Tamralipti, the celebrated port situated near modern-day Kolkata and passed through the ancient city of Champa, Pataliputra (modern Patna) and Varanasi to Kaushambi. From there, a branch led to Bhrigukaccha (the Bharuch of today) on the mouth of the Narmada, by way of Ujjayini (present-day Ujjain). The principal westward land route then ran along the Yamuna from Kaushambi to Mathura and then via Indraprastha, Sakala (modern Sialkot), Takshashila and the Kabul valley to Central Asia. The southward route passed from Ujjayini to Pratishthana in the Deccan (modern Paithan in Maharasthra), and so across the Deccan plateau to the lower Krishna and the great southern urban centres of Kanchi and Madurai.

The river-pilots of the Ganga, the Indus and the rivers of the Deccan braved such perils as pirates, sandbanks and submerged rocks to convey goods and passengers across the subcontinent. The goods included spices, sandalwood, gold and gems from the south; silks and muslin from Varanasi and Bengal; musk, saffron and yak-tails from the Himalayan foothills. Iron came from Jharkhand; copper from the Deccan, Rajasthan and the western Himalayas. Salt was brought inland from the coast; sugar was taken from the moister and warmer regions to the cooler and drier ones; rice was exported to the north-west.

Manoj K. Jain

India's river-routes were used by merchants, scholars, artisans, monks, warriors and pilgrims. The economic and cultural exchanges in which they engaged, as they criss-crossed the subcontinent, produced the interpenetration of terrain and culture that Richard Lannoy describes as sacred geography in The Speaking Tree. Every Indian river acts as a re-telling, punctuated at every bend and pool by sthala-puranas or place legends, shrines and temples, each proffering a lively and alternative version of the events framed in the orthodox Ramayana and Mahabharata narratives.

The river as crossing

The river has also been a crucial pivot in political life. Immortalised as a garden of paradise in various mythic traditions, the land between the rivers has been a coveted prize too: in India, the agrarian histories of the Ganga-Yamuna doab in the north and the Krishna-Tungabhadra doab in the south mark the waxing and waning of imperial destinies. A recurrent archetypal narrative in Indic mythology is that of the war over water: the tradition abounds in tales of battles fought over the location of dams and barrages, the diversion of rivers and the flooding of the enemy's territory.

The storm-god Indra's killing of the cloud-dragon Vritra, recounted in the Rig Veda, has been interpreted as the destruction of a barrage over the Indus and the release of the dammed waters. Again, in the Rig Veda, we read of the triumph of Sudas, king of the Bharatas, over a confederacy of ten kings: the latter attempt to divert the course of the Parushni away from the Bharata territory, identified as a stretch of the modern Ravi, and Sudas foils the conspiracy. Such tales remind us that the dynamic tension among economic and political interests around rivers is not a leitmotif of the modern polity alone. The struggle of those attempting to preserve local habitats shaped by long intimacy with riverine environments, against those who would destroy them in the name of totalising economic and political processes, was being waged even four millennia ago in the subcontinent.

If the Indian river is an active principle in the material world of desire and need, it has also been regarded as a symbol of the sanyasin's path, a symbol of the decision to renounce the world of desire and need. In the Indic tradition, the pilgrimage centre is often located on the banks of a river, or at a confluence of rivers: it is called the tirtha, the ford or bridge from iha to para, this world to the other, from samsara to moksha, the world of appearances to enlightenment. By the same token of imagery, the Jaina spiritual liberators are known as the tirthankaras, the ford-makers, those who carry us across the river of life. And again, by the same token, the Buddha presents himself as a ferryman or river-pilot, who helps the self to cross towards the transcendence of the further shore. Such powerful archetypal images are not easily desecrated: they remind us of our millennial connection with the river; they also remind us that we ought not to poison with industrial effluents, and choke with cyclopean dams, the flowing energy that sustains us.

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