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The multiple myths of the great river

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The multiple myths of the great river

The most interesting part is the chapter on Ganga's divine origins.

Sudipta Sen, a history professor, talks about the Ganga as only an academic would. While the tome is guided by his love for the river, informed by his sojourns along the Ganga's course, Sen's treatise also touches upon the history of the Gangetic plain itself. The book sees Ganga as undivorced from the history of empires that rose and fell in its fertile basin.

The most interesting part is the chapter on the Ganga's divine origins. Here, Sen talks about the river as a goddess, an embodiment of caprice, guile and coquette, in contrast to the holiness stamped upon it in its earthly form. Ganga is in different narratives, a nymph, who negotiates the passions and prayers of gods and men.

She is the divine consort of Shantanu in the Mahabharata; a nymph who offers to placate the amorous designs of Arrawat, Indra's divine elephant, if he is able to ride her waves. In the Ramayana, she is portrayed as the divine consort of Lord Shiva.

In the tale of Bhagirath, the mendicant king, Ganga assumes the final form of the tarpan dayini. the provider of nirvana to the 60,000 dead of the raghuvamsa, the clan of Ikshvaku, to which Ram also belongs.

King Bhagiratha, himself of divine origin, struggles to fulfil the task of his ancestors, to free the 60,000 princes charred by sage Kapila's curse. He performs penance and pleads to the gods for help. In the end, Ganga touches the earth, after being helmed in by Lord Shiva's dreadlocks. In this way, she is known as Bhagirathi.

As the expression of Shiva's divinity on earth, the Ganga is also termed Shivasvarupini. Her vehicle, the crocodile, gives her the name Makarvahini, pointing to a fierce force which can tether even a deadly amphibian. These origin myths entice us by going beyond the idea of sacredness that the Ganga evokes. The myths around it, its origins, are almost as varied and lively as its course along India.

The Gangetic plains provide a fertile ground for civilisations, empires and hotly contested territories. However, at another level, the river and its plains form an imaginary imperial topography that is often replicated by pre-medieval kings of the South. The appropriation of the Ganga motif during the unfinished struggle for dominance between rival powers of the Deccan points to a different kind of war waged over icons and meanings, Sen says.

The book also explores symbolism, in temple carvings, coins and even standards that bear the Ganga icon, invoking in parts the myth of Shiva as the conqueror of Ganga; the Ganga as the river of plenty and by that association of imperialism. At one point, during the description of the emperors and empires that predated the British, Sen's book reads like an almanac of kings.

Every king or titular head somehow appropriates the Ganga to derive divine authority over subjects. The language is dense and the description of conquests evocative. However, it is too dense a treatise for a lay reader. It is an esoteric exploration of the Ganga in its mythical, historical, sacred and biological aspects.