Sold down the river

| Updated on: Jun 02, 2017




Between the glaciers and the sea lie the vast plains. And that’s where the Ganga, shackled by faith, rituals and tokens of modern development, looks out of character

They have put the magical mountain river inside a tunnel. It is still called Bhagirathi in the hills of Tehri Garhwal, Uttarakhand, where it mixes in serene synthesis with Bhilangana, another deceptively deep and diabolical river with currents that can suck you into whirlpools faster than you can blink. The old Tehri town is under water, it has disappeared. There is no trace left of the River View Hotel run by anti-dam activist Jagdamba Raturi across the dilapidated bridge where they first made the cofferdam, even as they submerged vast tracts of pristine forests, meadows, valleys, fertile land and mountains to build the Tehri Dam.

That the multi-crore dam supplies only an iota of what was promised in terms of electricity, or that its water is allegedly being used to flush toilets in Delhi, proves how big is still beautiful for the giant-killers of development and mass displacement. Indeed, if you ask a local, or an official, what if there is an earthquake above 8.5 Richter scale in this seismic fault line across the big dam, and what if Haridwar and Rishikesh disappear in case of an earthquake, they simply wink and look the other way. One of them said, “That will be apocalypse now. There will be nothing to say once it happens.”

Hindu ‘saints’ claim that Bhagirathi — still not called Ganga in the Himalayan hills — should flow unshackled. That its water never rots; there is an inner eternity and medicinal purity in its water. Exactly the opposite has happened in Tehri, where it has become an artificial reservoir, damned into cages.

After Tehri, the Bhagirathi moves into the hills and foothills like a tamed river, cannibalised by machine and man. And as the plains move in, like the hydra-headed serpent with bestialities and brutalities, beyond Rishikesh, where it still flows and is blue, the river disappears inside the holy city of Haridwar, and turns into a dirty, shoreless nullah, loaded with faeces, remains of the dead, puja samagri , non-biodegradable garbage, plastic, chemicals and effluents. Hence after, it is tamed, domesticated, turned into a goddess, a mother, a deity, a divinity, into whom the whole world can dump filth and ugliness. From this point on, there is no redemption for the river: she is now Mother Ganga, Ganga Maiya, Namoh Ganga, Namami Ganga.

Not so beyond Uttarkashi, Harsil, Darhali and Gaumukh, very close to the Tibet border, where the sound of waterfalls drowns your voice. And where the young, fragile, vulnerable Himalayas move into the sky, even as the waters of the river enter deep inside gorges, gurgling through zigzag mountain rocks — fierce, free and fast at places, and serene at others. The water shimmers with the sunshine, changing contours and directions and turning wayward, following no map, no calendar or compass, as untamed, primordial as ever, celebrating the most elemental freedoms of a sublime river in full, unbridled flow.

The river becomes a thousand streams and waterfalls, becomes thesis, antithesis, catharsis, synthesis, refuses to follow a defined trajectory, completely at home in its turf. At Harsil there was a Mandakini Dhaba near a bustling waterfall that would swell during winter nights and only men drunk on country liquor would dare to cross a thin tree branch that posed as a ‘wooden bridge’. The dhaba has disappeared and the landscape has changed. The dhaba was named after actress Mandakini of Raj Kapoor’s Bollywood hit Ram Teri Ganga Maili ; she, it is said, shot for a wet dance under the waterfall here, dazzling and ‘pure’ in a white sari — a recurrent obsession of the filmmaker.

From Yamunotri on one side of the Himalayas, the Yamuna begins its epic journey, and is savagely turned into a sewage drain in the plains. From Gaumukh and Gangotri, on the other side, the Bhagirathi makes its beginning, finding its finale in the Bay of Bengal: Gangasagar. Does the Hindu soul really find redemption in the swirling bowels of the ocean?

Beyond Darhali, Gangotri is the temple town beyond which there is a long, dangerous trek to 10,000 ft, where the origin of the river becomes a moment of magical realism. You have to cross Bhojwasa and Chirbasa, two points of rest in this trek of about 18 km. The glacier is rapidly receding due to global warming. Experts have made a dark prophecy: that one day the river will become a monsoon river — it will only flow when it rains, since the glacier would have disappeared.

Bhojwasa is named after the tree on the leaves of which ancient manuscripts were written. The trees disappear, and so does the oxygen in the air, as you trek beyond Chirbasa, and a vast, empty, silent expanse arrives. There is nothing but the magical cruelty and beauty of the Himalayas, almost bereft of trees. Only the river flows in its many avatars.

As you trek up, you can see the river moving through thousands of cracks, becoming twin sisters — one dark and muddy, the other clean and sunny — chatting with each other, rippling through the meadows and valley, losing its body and flesh into the waterfalls which appear and disappear as magically. All rivers, from Jahnavi to Bhairavi, and, later, Alaknanda and Mandakini, they are all Bhagirathi here and there; they all must become one in their unruly journeys.

She is in her elements here at her birthplace. She is free. Indeed, if you look at the architecture of the Himalayas between the glacier and the temple town, you can see that she is wild and young, flowing through the million locks of Shiva. This is Shiva-Bhagirathi territory. And it is a rollicking love affair.

At Gaumukh, the blue and muddy glacier is constantly cracking under your feet, even as chunks of ice float through the huge mouth inside the glacier. If you are courageous enough to walk through this trembling and melting mass of ice, you might reach Tapovan. There used to be a story that a woman tapasvi lived alone at Tapovan; and even if 20 people landed up, she would have food for them in her handi. Later, locals say, she had a kidney failure, and had to be transported through this deadly downhill trek to the plains for emergency care. Life is extremely tough here for wanderers and seekers in exile.

Of the many mythical narratives about the river, one is magical. That a prince called Bhagirath sat on a long tapasya to bring Ganga to Earth in order that his ancestors find salvation at Gangasagar. He realised that she will come with such force that will destroy the planet. So he started tapasya , pleading with Shiva to take her in his locks and control the impact of her arrival.

Shiva agrees, falls in love with this wild beauty, celebrates open adultery, and refuses to release her. Hence, Bhagiratha goes on another fast to get her released, which Shiva accedes to, and she arrives on the day of Gangadashami at Gaumukh and Gangotri. The myth goes that the moment she descends, she is so furious and fast that the water rises at Varanasi.

Hence, as she follows Bhagiratha’s rath , she ditches him yet again and disappears in her playfulness. And dismantles the samadhi of Jahnu, a saint. Angry, he gulps her down and imprisons her in his navel — another subtle, erotic revelation of sorts. So Bhagiratha goes on a final tapasya to free her. And, thereby, her epical journey begins to the ocean, even as she is caged, domesticated, ravaged and brahminised in the plains.

Amit Sengupta is a Delhi-based writer and academic

Published on January 12, 2018

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