I am from Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, situated on the banks of Narmada. Having lived there for 22 years, I’ve witnessed the devotion that people there have towards the sacred river. The culture of the whole city revolves around this magnificent river and colourful ghats.
One of those ghats close to my home is Gwarighat, which sparkles with lights and people every day. It has a number of temples and is also home to thousands of Sadhus (religious saints) and devotees who live in temporary as well as permanent settlements nearby. From early morning, devotees come to the banks to offer prayer and take a dip in the holy river. During evenings, a huge crowd gathers at the ghat, four Pujaris (priests) take their positions and perform the spectacular Maha Aarti. Verses are chanted, devotees hold massive lamps, light them and swing them to the beats. A pledge is taken at last, under the orders of a municipality that we, the believers of Goddess Narmada, take a vow not to litter the river.
Every day, just after the aarti, a number of shops on the banks start their business. A small leaf cup is made with flowers, incense sticks, a tiny lamp and some prasad (food served to the idol). Thus, making the ghat sparkle with hundreds of such flower lamps floating on the river. The next morning, a group of volunteers wake up early and try to clean the mess created due to rotten flowers and half-burnt cotton. During summer, when the water of the river dries up, the exposed land in and around the river is filled with this debris which then becomes visible in the form of a green rotten smelly lump that even creates a break in the flow of the river.
When I looked into mythological stories, I found that the Narmada is worshiped as a deity because she is considered the daughter of Lord Shiva, emerging out of his sweat. This story has led to the Narmada being regarded as a Goddess. From Amarkantak where it origins to Bharuch where it drains into the Arabian Sea, people worship the river immensely. A dip in the river is equivalent to a dip in the holy river Ganges. The idols of the goddess are also carved and worshiped on a special day called Narmada Jayanti. On this occasion, these idols depicting a fearless woman riding a crocodile are placed in well-known places in the city. Ironically, these idols are then thrown into the river with the same name, with all the chemicals mixed in color, choking the river.
It has become a common practice to pollute rivers sacred to us, in the name of culture and tradition. Even after the ban towards such practices and strict municipality actions in the famous religious places, the issue of religious waste accumulation in rivers is not stopping.
All this while, I never realized what exactly was wrong with the situation, until I came to Odisha as a part of India Fellow, to work with ThinkZone, an organization working in Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack. My role demands everyday traveling of 20–25 km across various villages here to visit our learning centres. This daily commute takes me through several bridges on the tributaries of Mahanadi, and I have spent many evenings observing life near the banks of this river, trying to reconnect to my home city.
But it’s different here! Mahanadi is no Goddess. She’s just a river. In mythological stories, there’s an incident where Maharishi Shrangi dropped his Kamandal (water pot) and the river appeared from that spot. Unlike Narmada or Ganges, Mahanadi has no special day for herself, leave alone idols. All it gets in terms of religious privileges are temples on its banks and a few mentions in hymns.
The Mahanadi banks, thus, are usually serene. There are temples but no worship ritual is performed there. Some of the river banks in Cuttack are like deserted beaches, with miles and miles of its stretch till Paradeep. During summer, the river shrinks down, way less than its actual width. The exposed river bed is surprisingly clean. There isn’t any organic waste that can be seen. During the rains, Mahanadi swells up twice or thrice of its size.
In contrast to Jabalpur, where even small ghats like Gwarighat have become a hub of all activities including shopping, temple-hopping, and eateries, the banks of Mahanadi are still untouched. Across major cities of Odisha like Cuttack, Bhubaneshwar and Sambalpur, there is peace at river banks.
The Narmada shares its traits with all other rivers mostly up in North. Ganga, for example, is one of the holiest rivers in India. It finds its mention in mythology several times. In one of the stories, Ganga comes down to earth to wash down the sins of King Bhagirath and his ancestors but this can only happen if Shiva can hold the flow of the river in his “Jata” (locks of hairs). Ganga is also said to be the daughter of King Himalaya, sister to Goddess Parvati, who is the consort of Shiva. At Varanasi, where lakhs of devotees come to wash their sins everyday in the river, the banks of Ganga are now home to not only to thousands of temples and shops but also to pizza stations and cafes while a little bit down the road the river struggles to follow its course with the amount of waste that it collects from the devotees, in the name of their sin.
The sister river of Ganga, Goddess Yamuna is the sister of Lord Yama and daughter to Lord Surya. Her mythical stories are more interesting than her history flowing close to the capital city. Once when I was in Agra at Taj Mahal, I saw a bike rider crossing the river with the bike. The river is non-existent at some places and scientists have predicted that it might not survive many years.
According to this article, 58% of Delhi’s waste flows into the river which is a huge number considering the city’s population of 2.18 crores.
This is a big concern as rivers have always been a big part of the culture and economy of the Indian subcontinent. Our agriculture and transportation have been massively dependent on rivers. Hydroelectricity accounts to 13.5% of India’s total power generation capacity. This dependence is primarily one of the reasons why rivers have found their significance in mythologies in the first place and why most of the major cities are on the banks of these rivers. With my limited observations, I don’t want to claim that Mahanadi is not polluted. In fact it is, mostly with factory waste and untreated sewage from the cities. Discharge of municipal sewage, industrial effluents and biomedical waste have created a lot of problems for the river.
The four major rivers in the south, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, and Kaveri have this one benefit over the rivers in north India that at least the organic waste is not as big a problem as that of chemical waste. This also questions our religious devotion towards rivers and goddesses. Why do we treat them the way we do? Is it a curse to honor a river as Goddess in this country?
Exploiting river banks, performing rituals, dumping waste and dead bodies — how do we explain all this and still worship rivers and celebrate them? Is it not better to not give them that title and let them live?
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About The Author: Snehanshu Shome is a 2018 cohort India Fellow, currently working with ThinkZone in various parts of rural Odisha. His role includes working with rural youth to create a local cadre of educators who will in turn help the children from their communities to learn better.