By Kulbhushan Kain
The fort at Chunar in Uttar Pradesh occupies a commanding position high above a meander in the River Ganga. It is an almost impregnable citadel with massive ramparts. It has changed hands many times from Sher Shah Suri to Akbar to the East India Company.
As a college student, I went to Chunar to see the fort. Perhaps, my faded jeans, bright yellow T shirt, and long unkempt hair, caught the eye of the local priest who got talking to me. He wasn’t too interested in my knowledge of the Fort. But he was disturbed about the fact that I was ignorant about the history and mythology of ‘Ganga Maiyya’ as he called the sacred and mighty Ganga.
“Forts come and go, the Ganga will flow forever. When it gets angry – it floods. We pray and it forgives us,” he said.
In the course of the next two hours, he educated me on its origins, geography, spirituality and its significance in our lives.
He succeeded in igniting my interest in the mighty river which flows barely 40 kilometres from where I live! I am eternally indebted to him because every time I travel abroad and get talking to foreigners, most of the questions they ask of me are either about Mahatma Gandhi, The Taj Mahal, Narendra Mode or the Ganga!
It does not surprise me. The Ganga is an international phenomenon. I guess every great river is. The Nile is revered in Africa, the Mekong in South East Asia; the Seine is a part of the collective consciousness of France, as is the Thames in England. However, the difference between these great rivers and the Ganga is that the Ganga has spirituality to offer on a large scale. On its banks in Rishikesh you can do a week long course in spirituality combined with yoga which promises to awaken your “kundalis”. You will find people like my sister who never tire to search for the elusive and pure ‘rudraksh’ or ‘shilajit’! You can do rafting and bungee jumping on it. Plus, you can see ash covered mystics sitting semi-clad alongside foreigners smoking from ‘chillums’. You can also eat at cafés such as Beatles Café, German Bakery, Café Karma, Divine Café, Café Shalom, Little Buddha Café… It’s as if bits of the world have been pieced together at Rishikesh.
We have always revered the Ganga. It is a part of our tradition and mythology. Along her banks are some of our most sacred sites – Gangotri, where the river originates and where a ‘diyaa’ is kept burning even when the whole area is submerged under snow; Rishikesh, where the river was crossed by Lord Ram on a ‘jhoola’ made of Lakshman’s arrows; Haridwar, where the temple at Har ki Pauri is enshrined by the sacred footprint of Lord Vishnu’ Allahabad, where the Ganga, Jamuna and Saraswati meet and where it seems the whole world has gathered for the Kumbh Mela; and Varanasi, where people come to die on its banks because it is supposed to take you straight to heaven.
On a flight from Delhi to Munich a few years ago, a foreigner sat next to me carrying a copper jar. She clutched it as if her life depended on it. When I asked her what it contained she replied, “Gangajal. My mother is suffering from terminal cancer and I want her to get moksha by making her drink it!”
Yes, bathing in it and drinking it is supposed to purify you.
I have been visiting Rishikesh from the early sixties- much before the Beatles, Mahesh Yogi and Swami Ramdev made it the Yoga capital of the world. On its narrow but neat streets, celebrities rub shoulders with the common people.
I once met a ‘hippie’ with dirty and torn pyjamas. I thought he had come because of ‘ganja’ being available easily, sold by suspicious looking men walking aimlessly. I was surprised when he told me that he was in Rishikesh to escape from the realities of an obsessive material culture – and to ‘internalize’ and face the reality of death.
“I am here to try to get the answer to why we are here and where we will go,” he said with a deep thoughtful look. He was a teetotaler and a rich businessman!
However, one incident brought out the mystique and spirituality of the Ganga and how everyone accepts everything about it as divine dispensation.
When I was in college in Delhi, I made friends with a French gentleman (Pierre). He expressed the desire to visit Rishikesh. He carried a small cloth bag which contained some valuables of his late mother.
“After her death, I gave away most of her belongings to her friends and relatives, but I did not have the heart to give what is contained in these,” he said, pointing to the bag.
We reached Rishikesh after a seven hour torturous bus journey and on the banks of the Ganga at the Triveni Ghat, Pierre gently lowered the bag into it. As Pierre’s tearful eyes watched the roaring Ganga toss the small bag around, a boy leapt into it. He swam towards the bag and after some effort he got it, held it high above his head and shrieked with joy. He then quickly disappeared.
It stunned Pierre and, when he recovered, he said, “The Ganges knows best what to do with my mother’s valuables.”
Later that night, while having poorie aloo at Chotiwalah, we saw someone wearing his mother’s Chartier spectacles, which were part of the valuables he had floated earlier!
That was in 1974!
Fast forward to the year, 2022. I was walking in Rishikesh, when someone asked me whether I wanted to buy a pair of Ray Ban shades. I refused. He kept bringing down the price, and when he quoted Rs 200 for it, I asked, “But why so cheap? It’s an expensive brand!”
“Yeh Ganga ma se muft (free), milaa haih! What we get from it – we give away. She keeps giving us. These shades have to change hands today, itself,” he said, folding his hands and looking heavenwards. And, then, as an afterthought, “Even for free!”
The Ganga is no ordinary river. It is a giver.
That’s why we call it “Ganga Maiyya”.
By the way – the Ray Bans I wear were bought in Dubai and not Rishikesh!
(Kulbhushan kain is an award winning educationist with more than 4 decades of working in schools in India and abroad. He is a prolific writer who loves cricket, travelling and cooking. He can be reached at email@example.com)