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When Dehradun Still Had Rivers

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Bygone Doon:

By Pradeep Singh

When one hears of Dehradun, to most people the association that springs to mind is of the two globally known sacred rivers, the Ganga and the Yamuna. These two revered Rivers delineate the eastern and western limits of the district. But the name Dehradun brings to the minds of the locals the days gone by when the local fresh water rivers such as the Suswa, Song, Bindal, Rispana, Tons, Asan, Jakhan and their equally endearing tributary streams and forest water courses called “raos” are the memories of convivial times.

Those of us in our twilight years will readily recall bathing in these local rivers whose water was not only refreshing but also healthy and wholesome to drink. Picnics by these enchanting bounties of nature were taken for granted on Sundays and the long summer vacations.

Our local rivers of the Doon Valley had a larger role than just being places of rustic pleasure, which too was precious now that it’s a lost treasure. The upper reaches of Uttarakhand, beyond the northern limits of the Doon Valley, were due to the rhythms of the climate unable to release the water, being frozen for nearly four or five months. In such periods, fresh water non-glacial rivers like those flowing in the Doon Valley ensured that the diminished snow-fed flows of the Ganga and the Yamuna were augmented till summers released the winter’s grip on the glaciers and allowed them to flow once again.

The Valley’s rivers existed quite independently of glaciers as their sources of fresh water were located in underground aquifers that filled up during the long months of the monsoons and the run offs that cascaded down from the surrounding hills, both, to the north and the south as well. The flood plains of these local rivers acted as sponges and allowed excess water to percolate down gradually and the same was released slowly into these local rivers.

While the fresh water flowing in the Suswa, the Song, the Asan and the Tons drained the two geographical parts of the districts (the eastern and the western) into the Ganga and the Yamuna, in doing so these water courses also enriched the lives of numerous villages and their people. Fresh water helped create the world renowned Basmati plantations of Sewla Majra, Sewla Khurd and Badripur. A variety of fish too abounded in these rivers making angling a sport for many. At the height of the British Raj, an Angling Association was constituted in late 1870s in the Valley that leased from the Forest Department sections of the Suswa and Song rivers for its members to enjoy the sport. The forest rest house overlooking the Song River at Lachhiwala in the good old days served as the fishing lodge of the Angling Association.

These local rivers, in the ancient past, drew reverence from the people and encouraged them to build temples on their banks or places for meditation. The famous Tapkeshwar Mahadev Temple on the western outskirts of the town stands on the banks of the free and fast flowing Tons River. The river has bestowed a greater boon to the temple also. Tons carries an overload of dissolved calcium and it has helped make the Shivling-like formation to the delight of the devotees of Tapkeshwar Mahadev.

A little downstream from Tapkeshwar Mahadev, the Tons passes by Kandli village which has in its hill face several caves where hermits and sages once meditated. Tradition informs us that in one such cave in Kandli village, Guru Ram Rai meditated and obtained diksha (ordainment) into the ‘Udasi Sampradaya’ from the famous Adi Udasi, Balu Has Muni, who was also called Balu Hasna. This was before the Guru came to set up his Udasi Darbar at Khurbura in the central part of the Doon Valley. Here, too, the Guru’s establishment was blessed with the Bindal River flowing a few yards away to the west.

Not just the spiritual, the rivers of the Doon Valley also supported the physical needs of the common folk. Whereas, today, when eighty percent of water needs of the Valley are met by underground water lifted artificially, in the days gone by people collected their own water from the rivers and streams and it needed no treatment to make it fit for consumption. This has become a distant dream now that all major rivers of the valley are toxic with sewage and industrial waste, highlighting the apathy and failure of those tasked to protect and care for these natural resources. The high regard and reverence for rivers as being celestial blessings is only in lip service and periodic ritual carnivals along the rivers while in daily conduct the once life giving rivers are now source of pollution and disease.

The best testimonial to the richness of the Valley’s rivers comes from an impeccable authority. At the Darbar of Guru Ram Rai, a seventeenth century inscription in Persian reads: “On each side of this place sprung and bubbled streams of flowing waters, if you would like to see Paradise on earth, see this, this is Paradise on earth…. Between the Ganga and the Jamuna is a delightful spot which birds of Paradise have made their home. On every side flow streams of bright sparkling water…” As I conclude, I rue in my heart the Paradise lost.

(Pradeep Singh is an historian and the author of the “Suswa Saga: A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehra Dun” and “Sals of the Valley: A Memorial to Dehra Dun.”)