Once upon a time, when man did not bind waters for his own selfish needs, rivers moved freely. They traversed borders, crossed countries, beginning from one and ending in another; sometimes merging with rushing brooks, and sometimes branching away into runnels. They formed a network of waterways, which seamlessly interwove varying cultural, religious, and social patterns in its flow. These patterns blended into each other, creating a vibrant cultural heritage. One of its most eloquent expressions is found in the Bhatiyali songs of Bengal. These are folk songs of the Majhis (boatmen) and Jeles (fishermen) that speak of love, longing, desire, pain, and a calm acceptance of death. Songs that play on the shimmering strings of tranquil waters.
Rivers were always an intrinsic part of life in Bengal and Bangladesh. The irrigating streams that meandered through the fertile land helped to yield ‘sonar fosol’ or golden harvest year after year. These rivers were so integral to those who lived on their banks that their waters came to symbolise the meaning of life itself. As one rowed through life, the river banks became allegorical to various stages in life, starting with birth, moving on through love, pain, happiness, and this journey ended in death: O Majhi Re, Apna Kinara Nadiya Ki Dhara Hai…
Fishermen, whose very existence revolved around the waters, would go on long trips and were separated from their families for days, weeks, and sometimes months. During this time their only companion would be the endless river, its waters merging with the deep blue sky in the distant horizon. In such moments of absolute solitude, the fishermen would search for the meaning of their existence. The Bhatiyali songs reflect these dilemmas woven into the backdrop of music of the lilting waters.
Majhis in Bengal. Picture credit: Jay Shankar
In this concluding part, as we continue our journey from Kashi, we will travel across the calm waters of the Ganga in Bihar and Bengal that softly murmur the haunting notes of the Bhatiyali songs, sung over centuries by the fishermen.
The Adi Keshava and Sangamesvara temples at Rajghat, at extreme east end of Varanasi, where Ganga leaves Kashi behind and moves eastwards towards Bihar. Here the rivulet Barna or Varuna meets the Ganga. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.
Ruins of the 18th century river side palace of the Nawab of Bengal, Qasim Ali Khan, at Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh. The building was well planned with magnificent airy verandas (Heber, 1825). According to Vishnu Purana King Gadhi, maternal grandfather of Maharishi Jamdagni, one of the Saptarishis, originated from this area. At that time Ghazipur had thick forests with several ashrams. This was also an important centre of Buddhist teachings, as evident from the various remnant stupas and pillars from that period. Painting by Sitaram 1814.
Bihar and Jharkhand
After Varanasi, the next important city on the banks of Ganga is Patna (ancient Pataliputra) in Bihar. This city is considered one among the oldest continually inhabited places, and mentions of this city start around 2500 years back in various Buddhist and Jain scriptures. Recorded history mentions the city alongside Raja Ajatshatru in 490 BCE. Patna has seen the coming and going of Mauyras, Guptas, Delhi Sultanate, Mughals, Bengal Nawabs, and the British.
Bird’s eye view of Patna city and the Ganga. On the opposite bank is the city of Hazipur where river Gandak joins the Ganges. Painting by Sitaram 1814
The famous Gola ghar or granary in Bankipore, Patna, near the Ganga river bank, painted by Sitaram in 1814. This structure was constructed in 1786 but was almost immediately abandoned because of a faulty design. The doors at the bottom were designed to open inwards with the result that as soon as grains were poured in, the doors would not move, and it was not practical to remove the grains from the top. The structure was therefore abandoned, its doors and the hole at the top were sealed, and it was termed as “Garstin’s Folly” (the architect was Captain John Garstin). With passage of time it fell into decay but was later renovated and is now a tourist spot, which provides a beautiful panoramic view of Patna and the river Ganges flowing nearby.
Inside the Opium godown in Patna, on the Ganges river bank. Interestingly this was originally a Dutch factory and the building could be from the Dutch era. Painting by Sitaram 1814.
Ruins of a beautiful domed chatri in the once lavish palace-garden complex built by Mir Jaffar in Patna, as seen from the Ganga. Mir Jaffer betrayed the last Bengal Nawab Siraj ud Daulah, and helped the East India Company take over the Bengal province in 1757. Jaffar was rewarded by the Company with the rule of the province, where he remained their puppet king until his death in 1765. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.
After Patna, the Ganga gently moves on and this is the riverside view of Munger or Monghyr (identified currently with Mod-giri, a name mentioned in the Mahabharata), painted by Sitaram in 1814. The riverside shows embankments with pillars, probably to prevent floods. The bangla chala or Bengal roof, so favourite of the Mughals and the Rajputs, are a common sight on buildings here. All buildings (mostly large garden houses and palaces) in Bihar and Bengal that were built by the riverside had large doors and windows for the obvious reason, to let in the cool river breeze.
Sculptures at Patharghat, by the banks of Ganga. Patharghat in Bhagalpur district of Bihar, is near the ruins of Vikramshila monastery. It has several cave temples and Vaishanava carvings dating back to the Gupta period, 5th c. CE. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.
Pal tola nauka or boats with sails, on the Ganga. Seen here are the Rajmahal hills in Jharkhand that date back to the Jurassic era, when they were created due to volcanic activities. The Rajmahal traps cover parts of Jharkhand, Bengal, and Meghalaya. In the upper parts of these hills in Jharkhand live the Sauria Paharia tribes, while the Santhal tribes have settled in and cultivate the valleys. Painting by Sitaram in 1814.
This picture by Sitaram (1814) shows vividly how tracking was done on the Ganges (it is still done the same way), especially when travelling upstream, against the prevailing water current and wind. Tracking (gun tana, in Bengali) is done when the Majhis get down from the boat and pull from the river bank using ropes. A laborious process, it is also extremely difficult for the Majhis to pull such heavy boats against the water and wind current.
The interior of Jami masjid or Akbari mosque at Rajmahal (Bengal) overlooking the Ganges. Painting by Sitaram 1820 Source: British library.
Ruins of the palace of Shah Shuja by the river Ganga in Rajmahal (Bengal), engraved by James Moffat in 1800. Shah Shuja was the second son of Shah Jahan, and the governor of Bengal, Orissa, and Bangladesh, during his father’s reign. Source: British Library.
Gauda (Gaur), the once proud capital of the Sena and Pala dynasties, was completely destroyed and plundered by invaders time and again . The city fell into disuse once the capital was shifted, and until today the area remains a mass of ancient and medieval ruins. Seen here, in Sitaram’s painting is the ruinous five storeyed Feroz Shah Minar, built by Saifuddin Feroz Shah, the Sultan of Bengal (1488-90). The Minar has been recently renovated.
Silk farming in Murshidabad district near the Ganga bank, as painted by Sitaram in 1820. Seen here are two men extracting silkworms from a frame, preparing silk cocoons, and winding silk on spindles. Murshidabad in Bengal is well-known for its fine silk, which is light and easy to drape. Silk weaving in this region started during the early 18th c. CE under Mughal patronage, when the erstwhile Nawab Murshid Quli Khan, moved his capital from Dhaka to a place on the eastern bank of the Ganga river, and named it Murshidabad. Along with the Nawab came the art of depicting themes that showcased the lives of Nawabs on silk, which was known as Baluchari, and this trend continued in the region until early 19th c. CE under the Company rule. In 19th c. CE, flooding of the region by Ganga resulted in Baluchari weavers shifting and setting up shop in Bishnupur (Bankura district of Bengal). Murshidabad is still famous for a variety of silk fabric that is adorned with old and modern motifs, while Baluchuri weave which is equally well known, survives separately.
Sitaram here shows the palace at Murshidabad, the Aaina Mahal, at left; at the centre is the Diwan Khana, which was the banquet hall for entertaining the British; and at the right is the Imamabara built by Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah.
After the town of Murshidabad, Ganga branches off into two main streams, Hooghly that flows towards Calcutta, and the other stream that enters Bangladesh meets the Brahmaputra river and is known as Padma. The famous Farakhha Barrage, which has been the bone of contention between India and Bangladesh for many decades stands at this juncture, controlling the waters of this mighty river.
The Ganges delta showing how the river fans out near the bay, and the various tributaries that meet the Ganga on her way to the sea. Source
Our travels will now follow the Hooghly river and move on to the next big city, Calcutta or Kolkata.
Char chala temples on the banks of Hooghly river at Santipur in Nadia. Nadia also known as Nabadwip had once been one of the most well known sites for pilgrimage and universities in eastern India. However, when the river changed its course, it swept away the the old town, and the Raja was forced to move his capital to Krishnagar. Painting by Sitaram 1820-21.
The tranquil Hooghly river in Nadia source
Belur Math near Kolkata, on the western bank of the Hooghly river. It is the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission and was founded by Swami Vivekananda in 1897. The temple architecture infuses Hindu, Christian, and Islamic motifs, signifying unity amidst diversity. Picture credit : Jay Shankar
Dakshineshwar Mandir near Kolkata, on the eastern bank of the Hooghly river. It is a Nava-ratna or nine-spired temple, showing the typical chala (roof) form of Bengal architecture. It was built in 1855 by Rani Rashmoni and houses Bhavatarini, a form of Devi Kali. Surrounding the main mandir are twelve identical Shiva temples in a row, a Radha-Krishna Mandir, a bathing ghat on the river, and a Naubat Khana where Ramkrishna Paramhansa once lived. Pictures credit: Jay Shankar
Calcutta or Kolkata, once the capital of British India, archaeologically dating back to the Mauryan era, is located on the banks of the river Hooghly. source
The famous Howrah bridge over the Hooghly river, a name almost synonymous with Calcutta. It was commissioned in 1943 and is the sixth longest cantilever bridge in the world. Photo credit: Nandini Dey
Just before reaching Calcutta, the Hooghly turns south west and enters an old channel of the Ganges at Nurpur, from where it glides down further south to form an estuary and meet the sea at Bay of Bengal. The streams here fan out to form a large delta and there are many points of the mohona (meeting point of sea and river). One such point is the Sagar Island, through which the Ganga supposedly enters the Patal (netherworld).
Mohona at Taalsari. Photo credit: Nandini Dey
Mohona at Mandarmoni. Photo credit: Nandini Dey
Defiling the Ganges
“What we do not consume we poison. Sometimes we do both. Perhaps that is how we shall end, by consuming the poisons we have created.” ― James Rozoff
Ganga is an integral part of India’s culture; a part of both life and death for most Indians, yet this very lifeline is being slowly poisoned. Right from its source until its end point the river is dying a slow death owing to the daily pouring in of sewer water carrying human wastes, industrial toxic wastes, and human activities like washing of clothes, bathing, and bathing of animals. Various age old religious customs lead to throwing in of food, flowers, or leaves, often packed in plastic packets into the river, which are also responsible for its pollution. It is also a part of traditional belief that cremating on the banks of the Ganga, and immersing ashes in it will give moksha. In Varanasi alone, almost forty thousand cremations take place annually, many of those remain half-burnt. Some communities in India also practice water burial, especially of young unwed girls, while some do not have money for a proper cremation, and the dead bodies are simply made to float away, causing serious water pollution.
Unclaimed bodies in a tributary of the Ganga: our “unholy” beliefs source
Garbage beside the Ganga: A mother’s agony source
Bathing in the “holy waters” filled with plastic that is choking the river. We revere with so much irreverence Source
Gangajal- impure but holy. Drinking the very poison that we have created Source
Reports say that daily an estimated 3000 million litres of untreated sewage enter the Ganges. By the time the river reaches Kashi, where some more sewage and toxic wastes are disposed into its waters, Ganga turns into a churning mass of sewer water. Is it a wonder then that Ganga is the sixth most polluted river in the world. According to a recent report, “In the Ganga basin approximately 12,000 million litres per day (mld) sewage is generated, for which presently there is a treatment capacity of only around 4,000 mld. Approximately 3000 mld of sewage is discharged into the main stem of the river Ganga from the Class I & II towns located along the banks, against which treatment capacity of about 1000 mld has been created till date. The contribution of industrial pollution, volume-wise, is about 20 per cent but due to its toxic and non- biodegradable nature, this has much greater significance.” reference
State wise division that shows the amount of sewage pumped into the Ganga source
The industrial units that are adding to the unholy mess source
Besides pollution, dams and associated irrigation projects on the Ganga have also raised concerns by endangering the habitat of aqua fauna. The pollution is not only killing the river, but also taking away the life that pulsates within its waters, and this is evident in the near extinction of the many species of aquatic animals, including the famous Gangetic dolphin. According to a report by the CAG in 2009:
“Ganga is in grave danger from 600 dams (operational, under construction, or proposed). They will obstruct the natural flow, diverting water into tunnels to power turbines, but will also have cascading effect on the livelihood of communities and the biodiversity and stability of the surrounding natural ecosystems. Downstream communities also face the danger of flash floods when water is released from the dams. Not only that, if all the ongoing and proposed hydroelectric projects in Uttarkashi are completed as proposed by the Centre and State governments, the Ganga will get diverted into tunnels just 14 km from its origin in Gangotri. The river will remain tunnelled continuously for 130 km up to Dharasu near Uttarkashi. Environmentalists say tunnelling of the river for such long stretches would result in loss of flora, fauna, fertile soil and minerals. 59% of Bhagirathi and 61 percent of Alaknanda will dry up if all the dams are built. The 330 MW hydroelectric project on the Alaknanda lies in the buffer zone of Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, which houses the Nanda Devi National Park and the Valley of Flowers. Both are inscribed as UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. At least 34 dams on Bhagirathi and Alaknanda should be scrapped in order to protect Uttarakhand’s biodiversity, says the Wildlife Institute of India .” Source
The damning dams on the river Source
A closer look at the unholy mess Source
Plans for cleaning the Ganga (the deadline 2018 already has been declared as void, and the project will need more time for completion) source
Swami Nigamananda had to die to stop illegal sand mining in Uttarakhand Source
Recently in 2014, the central government launched the namami Gange project with an aim of cleaning the river, and 20.4 billion rupees have been allocated for the clean-up. Few days back the Uttarakhand HC has declared Ganga as “a living entity,” giving it rights equivalent to a human being. The project and the court ruling are certainly praiseworthy and need all kinds of support (Indians certainly need to look beyond their religious and ideological differences in such instances, and it is truly disheartening to read some of the comments on various newslinks about the Uttarakhand ruling). Besides the various projects, it is also the duty of common citizens to wake up from their long slumber and their callous “chalta hain” attitude, raise awareness on the grave issue of Ganga pollution, and take part in the movement wherein defiling of the Ganges is completely stopped. Floating diyas on Ganga to get wishes fulfilled, or taking a bath to cleanse our sins in the polluted waters isn’t taking us anywhere, nor will it save the river that we revere as our mother. We need to be seriously committed towards freeing the river from the immense burden of pollution that has been killing it. For it is a very simple equation: if Ganga lives, India lives; and, if it dies, so does India.
(Cover photo by Gency Choudhury. Sita Ram’s paintings and pictorial details are from the book J.P. Losty’s Picturesque Views of India: Sita Ram and are for representational purposes only)
(The article was first published on Virasat E Hind)