MYTHOPOETIC CULTURE OF SUNDARBANS
In terms of biodiversity Sundarbans is unique yet life seems to be paradoxical. It has a complex ecosystem comprising one of the three largest single tracts of mangrove forests of the world. Besides, with low and high tides fresh water is continuously merging into salt water, and the shores are breaking or inundated. As the lands in many islands remain submerged during the high tide, settlers have to protect themselves with gang bundh, a crude construction of embankment with mud and bricks. Besides, from time to time the fiery storms create further anguish. The process of survival is indeed hard, not only for the human beings but also for all animals, forests and vegetations. In such environment villagers are compelled to shift from one island to another, sometimes straying into the tiger zone.
The demographic structure of the present population has been shaped with the migration of people from the mainland at different stages. For instance, earlier in 1811 British lease-holders of Sagar Island attempted cultivation of tobacco, salt and other items for the use of the army. But the attempt was abandoned after the storm of 1864. At a later period, some of the Zaminders of Calcutta, Bali and Uttarpara sought opportunities and brought cultivators from the villages of Midnapore district – such as Kanthi, Ramnagar, Khejuri, Nandigram, Bhagabanpur and Sutahati. Settlement process and life pattern also differed between eastern and western part of Sundarbans due to environmental variations. The rich variety of forest and animals that are so typical of Sundarbans are more prominent in the area beyond Matla River, which falls within North 24 Parganas. While groups in the west migrated originally from the neighboring Midnapur areas and South 24 Parganas, the eastern islands have people from North 24 Parganas, as well as the earlier settlers of Bangladesh regions.
The population has a dual character since there are both Hindu and Muslim communities. But this has syncretic socio-religious behaviour as the pattern of life in these subordinated groups indicates interchangeable customs, beliefs and common participation in worshiping Hindu-Muslim deities. The deities have myths that are environment specific, as well as a syncretic form of oral and literate traditions. Historians may find further roots in the remnants of magico-primitive and unorganized religious rituals vis-à-vis the scriptural order of high religions.
The development of popular culture, as is the case in Sundarbans, is like a superstructure which is built on a pre-existing base of cultures. It could be the ancient primordial trend from where the development of both high and popular cultures is the flowing trends. The two cultures interchange, merge, yet have specific order. Specific environment and sharing of events also contribute to shape these orders. For instance, the mystic poets of Bengal, an offshoot of cultural outcomes of Chaitanya and Sufi ideas since the 17-18th century, were probably the largest groups who developed the humanist trend in syncretic form; some of them include Karta-Bhajas, Ram-Ballabhis, and then the Lalanshahis who were the follower of Lalan Fakir, then Shahebdhanis, the Darbeshis, the Bala-Haris, the Auls and Bauls, and so on. Much of it eventually filtered down the popular elements and assumed further transformation in the Sundarbans region as well. Since majority of activities in Sundarbans seem to toil around agriculture, honey collection and fishing, people share a similar kind of life and the environmental hardship. This evidently has become a factor that the people communicate more spontaneously in their cultural norm which is syncretic and mythopoetic expressions.
Again, the myth of Kapil Muni that once emerged from the stories of the Ramayana, has established another link with the pan-Indian mythopoetic mind. To Ram Debarshi Narada elaborates the importance of pilgrimage in Gangasagar where Kapil Muni had his ashram: one dip in Sagar is equal to ten Ashyamedha Yagya. Since time immemorial pilgrims from all over India have been converging every year to have a dip where the Ganga meets the sea. The myth, if for no other reason, makes Gangasagar in Sundarban a land for the Hindus.
It is not known since when Sundarbans assumed such religious importance except that it links to the written version of the Ramayana. The sea has washed away the temple six times, it was shifted and rebuilt. Not long ago one of the zamindars of Sagardwip, Jaduram who migrated from Midnapur, appointed a priest from Ramanandi saints of the Hanuman garhi of Ayodhya. In course of time the Ayodhya sect established their claim over the temple. However, the main stream of history seems to have bypassed Sundarbans or whatever traces of the past events existed are now vanished into the shadowed memory. Recent past indicated that the migrated groups came to settle or overflowed from the peripheral lives in the mainland. Over the years life has not been easy for them. Their survival has many worries, for instance an account in a BBC News Letter reads:
As sea level rises - partly as a response to climate change - two islands have vanished from the map.
Professor Sugata Hazra, a stocky dynamo of a man, discovered their disappearance when he compared maps from the Raj with satellite images. He says 6,000 people have had to be relocated here because their land is underwater…..
People like Bashunto Janna. He is 81 now and says he has not got long to live. His family used to farm 85 acres on the vanished island of Lochachara. Now they have one acre in a village for displaced people on a nearby island, which itself is under threat from the waves.
For the people in Sundarbans, the forest and water are the two pivotal elements to survive since cultivation has limited possibilities in salt water areas. With constant tides lands disappear or re-appear; the embankment is like the fort wall to protect land. Shelters too have a temporary look with make-shift materials. Despite the fact that environment is not as typical as it was in the mainland, people here carried their Bengali identity, continuing with language, religious beliefs and superstitions, and so on. They brought with them many old stories and re-created, like the stories of Chand-Saodagar, Behula-Lakshindar, Satya Pir, Bana Bibi, Atteshwar, and so on. Unlike the Kapil Muni myth, these stories have more local connotations and belong to popular link.
With such varied significance, with life and nature, it is evident that Sundarbans offers a multi-discipline studies, for both ecology and culture. This paper proposes to observe some of the theoretical points of the syncretic trends that have developed in this region with an emphasis on the characteristics of the mythopoetic trends.
At the onset it is necessary to perceive why Sundarbans draw so much ecological attention and its specific significance as an environment in shaping the two cultural trends like – Kapil Muni and Bana Bibi.
The Sundarbans delta is recognized having the largest mangrove forest in the world. It lies at the mouth where the Ganges meets the sea; it is spread across areas of Bangladesh and West Bengal, forming the seaward fringe of the delta. Sundarbans in India as well as in Bangladesh side of the border are listed separately in the UNESCO world heritage list as the Sundarbans National Park and Sundarbans respectively. ‘The Sundarbans is intersected by a complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forests, and presents an excellent example of ongoing ecological processes. The area is known for its wide range of fauna. But Sundarbans is most famous for the Royal Bengal Tigers. Besides, there are numerous species of birds, spotted deer, crocodiles and snakes that inhabit the swampy land.’ (Wikipedia)
Sundarbans in West Bengal is the estuarine phase of the Ganges as well as the Brahmaputra river systems. The whole eco-system is sensitive to changes in salinity and the continuous cycle of erosion and deposition is affecting the plant communities giving rise to dynamic floristic changes. The plant communities are adjusting to the new conditions in a continuous process. During the monsoon season almost the whole area of the delta is submerged, as a result cultivation becomes irregular. Late 19th century onwards in many of the Indian mangrove wetlands the flow of freshwater was considerably reduced due to diversion of freshwater in the upstream area.
To compile information: the Sundarbans has a population of over 4 million but much of it is mostly free of permanent human habitation and retained a forest closure of about 70%’ (ODA, 1985). In 1911 it was described as a tract of waste country which had never been surveyed, nor had the census been extended to it. It then stretched for about 165 miles from the mouth of the Hugli to the mouth of the Meghna, and was bordered inland by the three settled districts of the Twenty-four Parganas, Khulna and Backergunje. The total area (including water) was estimated at 6526 square miles. It was a water-logged jungle, in which tigers and other wild beasts abounded. Attempts at reclamation had not been very successful. The characteristic tree is the Sundri (Heritiera littoralis), from which the name of the tract has probably been derived. A number of industries (e.g. newsprint mill, match factory, hardboard, boat building, furniture making) are based on the raw material obtained from the Sundarbans ecosystem. The area in Sundarbans is intersected by river channels and creeks, some of which afforded water communication between Calcutta and the Brahmaputra valley, both for steamers and for native boats. (Forest Dept, govt.org)
Again, Royal Bengal Tigers are so much part of Sundarban that it found farther expressions with local myths, customs and even superstitions. In villages around the tiger reserve, ‘there is hardly any family who has not lost a member’, as reported by a guide during my visit in 2006 who himself bore a mark from an attack. Yet going to forest or fishing trips are the essential routine. ‘Villagers go to forest in groups. When time comes for the trip, it is customary that there wives wipe away sindur, the mark of a married woman, until the return of their husbands’; again the guide reported many details how villagers identify the pug-marks of male or female tigers, and if a tiger has entered the village and the ensuing tension if the return marks are not visible. It is strange to know that in western part of Sundarbans, away from the tiger reserve, villagers have not seen a tiger in their lifetime. The east and the west parts of Sundarbans have two distinct environments with certain common elements in the coastlines. It probably reflects when we observe Banabibi Pala is being more popular in the eastern part and the pilgrimage to Kapil Muni has become the main event in the west.
However, from the national and global point of views environment in Sundarbans has special concern with the governmental planning. For instance, ‘Project Tiger’ was implemented in 1973 and later the Sundarban Tiger Reserve was demarcated over 2,585 sq. km. The core area of 1,330 sq. km has been declared a National park and has been chosen as a world heritage site. The reserve has a tiger population of 287 (Forest Dept., govt. source)
There are several speculations as for why tigers maul humans. Since the Sundarbans is located in a coastal area, the water is relatively salty. In all other habitats, tigers prefer to drink fresh water. It is speculated that the salinity of the water in this area has put them in a state of discomfort, making them extremely aggressive. With such reasons freshwater lakes have been artificially made but to no avail. Moreover the high tides in the area destroy the tiger's scents which normally demark their territorial limits. Thus, the only way a tiger can defend its territory is to physically dominate everything that enters.
Another possibility is that the tigers find hunting animals difficult due to the continuous high and low tides making the area marsh-like and slippery. Humans travel through the Sundarbans on boats gathering honey or for fishing, making an easy prey. At the end the predator has posed fear that is real in daily life.
Even though we observe life is hard among the peripheral people, their songs continue and myths are sustained through time. Despite the harshness in nature, people find solace in another space, singing songs or worshiping with thousands pilgrims at the Sagar Island where Kapil Muni had his hermitage. The fact that the Ganga came flowing from a distal source, and finally ends her journey at Sagar Island after meeting the sea, makes the archipelago of Sundarbans a holy place.
Myth of Kapil Muni goes like this:
The Sagar Island in western Sundarbans is primarily important for its temple of the great saint Kapil Muni who according to myth was Vishnu, had taken birth as per the wish of Kardam muni as his son. It is told that Kardam had to go through a marital life as per the direction of Vishnu but he agreed in a condition that Vishnu has to take birth as his son and as per this condition Vishnu had taken birth as his son and he was Kapil Muni - one of the great saint of Hindu religious mythology. Kapil Muni’s hermitage was present at the place of the present day Gangasagar. His mythological story is related with the bringing of Ganga – the sacred river, in this place. In the myth it is told that once during his religious austerity King Sagar’s (the King of Ikshashu Vansh of Ayodhya) 60000 sons came down to the place of his hermitage in search of their father’s sacrificial horse and found it there at that place. In fact the horse was stolen by Devraj Indra and it was hidden by him at Patal beside Kapil’s hermitage. Sagar’s sons blamed him for the stealing of that and interrupted in his religious meditation. Then the saint became very angry and his blaze of anger came out of his eyes which burnt all the 60000 sons of the King Sagar into ashes and consigned their souls to hell until Sagar’s grandson whose name was Bhagirath brought down the Ganga - Vishnu’s wife as per the direction of the Saint-Kapil from heaven. With the touch of holy water of Ganga all 60000 sons were released from the curse and liberated their souls. It is told that Sagar King’s sons were liberated from curse on the day of Makar Sankranti (Saha, 1999). Due to this the day became very auspicious for the pilgrims. On that day pilgrims from all over India come to take bath in the Gangasagar to get rid of all the sins and simultaneously to earn virtue… During the time of holy bathing ceremony a large fair is held which is known as Gangasagar Mela. Except this great festival it is observed that throughout the year people come to visit the place primarily during different festive and ritual occasions and sometimes even when there is no such occasion. (Samira Dasgupta et al, Xth Plan Project entitled “Cultural Dimension of Tourism”)
The present temple was built in 1974. The idol of Ganga devi stands on the right side of Bhagaban Kapil; fourhanded Ganga is riding on Makara; on her right is Hunumanji with Gada and Gandhamadan-hill; then there are images of Durga on lion, Indra and Raja Sagar.
Banabibi is the other myth to observe.
In a trip to Sundarbans, I witnessed a shorter version of Bana Bibir Pala. In a dimly lit open-stage that resembled a typical village Jatra or open air drama that I have seen so many times in my boyhood in north Bengal. The actors are both male-female including a very young girl as boy-Dukhi. The play is a dance-drama where actions of fight scenes are played in more-or-less ballet steps, enhanced by the animated music. On the side, the musicians are sitting on the ground with their musical instruments – dhol, Harmonium and jhumur. At the end of the story when the glory of Bana-Bibi is established and a puja is to be performed Dukhi came out to the audience with a bowl for the collection of money. I was told that in the longer version the play can go on nightlong and end in the early morning. In this occasion it was barely two hours long.
The story starts with young Dukhi and his mother when the father died and they have no means of livelihood but to beg around in the village praising the name of Bana Bibi. One day, after many years, a prosperous relative pays visit and comes to know of the misfortune of the family. He then proposes to take Dukhi with him and train him in his trade, collecting and selling honey. Since the mother finds no other option accepts some money and agrees to send Dhukhi, her only child, but with heavy heart. She tells Dukhi that if he ever is in trouble, ‘pray to Banabibi’. She is the goddess of the forest and saviour of all.
As Dukhi makes his journey in a boat with his distant relation, story unfolds into an episode of betrayal. Dokkin Roy, the tiger demon, visits the uncle in his dream, “if you give Dukhi to me I will fill up your boat with honey and wax and you will become so rich that you can never imagine”. The uncle wakes up with a severe dilemma, he thinks of his promises and his fondness for Dukhi. As time passes and finding no response, the demon Dokkin Roy revisits in uncle’s dream and demands if Dukhi is not given to him he will bring severe misfortune to him. The drama then passes through a moral tension and finally, the uncle submits; he makes a plan with his party of boatmen. One day he asks young Dukhi to stay in the boat when they have gone to forest and keep food ready when they return. If he would fail he will be punished. Dukhi did not know how to cook, so started to cry in despair; then he remembers his mother’s words to pray to Banabibi. As he does Banabibi appears sooner and blesses him; the pots are then filled up with cooked rice. The party returns in the evening most happy with their plentiful collection and hungry too for their meals. Promptly they demand food, but are much surprised with the delicious meal they never ate before. As the plan failed, Dukhi is not to be punished. Frustrated, next day the uncle asks Dukhi to go into the forest and bring enough firewood. Dukhi, is much scared to enter the forest alone, nevertheless he collects the firewood and returns to the river bank; only to find that the boat has gone. Soon enough he is confronted with the prowling tiger, who is none other than the demon Dokkin Roy. Dukhi closes his eyes in utter fear and prays again to Banabibi.
The next scene of battle is between Shah Jongli, the twin brother of Banabibi, and Dokkin Roy. Good against evil and Dokkin Roy is to be vanquished. The glory of Banabibi is then established.
Like in all oral stories, Bana Bibir Pala also has versions and it is impossible to know its original form as it has been added or changed through time. It can be assumed from the comparative versions that the main characters and the morel of the story remained same. However, sometimes an enthusiastic person from the community, likely a teacher, takes the initiative to publish a version in a written form.
Another aspect in Bana Bibi story is its Muslim connotation. The story is popular where the population is predominantly Muslim which is the eastern part of Sundarbans. But it does not pose any conflict in the dual and syncretic Hindu-Muslim sensibilities. Participation and belief are at equal measure. As it is common that deities with Islamic identity, such as Bana Bibi, have another socio-religious link, such as, the origin of Bana Bibi is to be found in the conformed religious order of the Arab lineage. Such concept is evidently a popular trend. Unlike Satya Pir-cum-Narayan who has a dual identity and more eclectic, Bana Bibi seems to be differential, remain as Muslim, benevolent and protector of the hapless, vis-à-vis the Hindu demon Dokkin Roy who creates only fear.
Interpretation as this is a common need that exists in different contexts for all societies, but each has a syncretic character of their own. Sumanta Banerjee, a cultural historian, observed:
To go back to the socio-religious past which gave birth to these sects and their songs, we would note that at the top of the Bengali society at that time there were the twin religious establishments – one ruled by the brahmanical order according to the strictly laid down hierarchical caste-bound norms for the Hindus, and the other by the ashrafs (Muslim aristocrats and clergy who claimed descent from the earlier Arab, Turkish, Afgan and Moghul settlers) for the Muslims. Both sought to institutionalize their own mechanisms of socio-religious control over their respective followers, with the aim of purging them of the many pre-brahmanical and pre-Islamic beliefs and customs that they shared, to hegomonize them instead under their respective religious doctrines.
Observations and Conclusion
The myth of Kapil Muni has become an intrinsic part of both literate and oral religious traditions. Besides, it combines the ritual life of the local people with a pan-Indian Hindu customs of pilgrimage. The myth has been constructed in a distal past and little could be conjectured about its roots. It is for the reason that the myth flowed from the classical version of the Ramayana, entered into the popular religious beliefs, and thus making Sagar Island a pan-Indian context of holy land. Yet this hardly creates a larger dialogue in local life. Despite the communion among the large mass, every year during the pilgrimage, the dialogue is personal, almost silent ritual. There is no indication of any kind of cultural transmission taking place between the local and others except for routine activities. It is more organized with good access roads and governmental management; the island is now adorned with several new temples, various Yatri-Niwas for stay, and other centers of different religious sects that are prominent along the main road – all to facilitate lodging for the pilgrims. It is a similar kind of holy environment that can be expected at any pilgrimage centre in India, with assorted buildings that have less local flavors. Kapil Muni seems to be implanted myth, like the temple itself and hardly syncretic to local character.
On the other hand, the story of Bana Bibi has emerged within the popular beliefs in local life, more specific to eastern part of Sundarbans where forest is a major source to survive. The fear of tiger and the protection from it is of much concern. Bana Bibi is imagined to have the magic power of a mother-goddess with a compassionate heart of a human; like a social being, she has religious affiliation too; but tiger in the story is humanized as Dokkin Roy, also a metaphor for a tyrant Zamindar. The logic in the story is primordial where mankind tends to rationalize what they understand or what they wish. Some Sociologists have pointed out that ignorance is the cause of lack of scientific logic in popular culture. However the need is different and it is fruitless to search rational thinking in mythopoetic freedom.
Sociologists have studied popular cultures from various paradigms. People belonging to lower rung are generally viewed as subordinated groups. They are observed in various contexts in different countries, such as tribal, aboriginals, folk and so on. In recent times, there is a farther category of ‘subaltern group’, a context that is an outcome of colonization, urban life or other forms of economic, social, racial, linguistic, and cultural dominance. Since the social condition that is referred to is subordination in any form, subaltern studies are sometimes considered as the study of power. ‘Power is intimately related to questions of representation—to which representations have cognitive authority and can secure hegemony’.
By large the people of Sundarban belong to agrarian society, engaged in farming and fishing, besides collecting honey from the forest. The population is made of lower caste Hindu groups and the transformed Muslim community. The question of power or cognitive authority seems to be muted in this form of subaltern life too. Yet they persist within an autonomous space of their own which is their mythopoetic world; with their deities, shrines, songs, paintings and stories they seem to find another redemption which was denied by the power group. If this existence is seen real transcending societal mind remains alive in the subaltern life at any form. They express their aspirations, fear and protest in a metaphorical manner which also binds the society with the songs they sing. It is a sub-order culture parallel to the mainstream. The two flows do merge from time to time, as societal change takes place. But, when city expands, takes control of village to implement developments of urban needs – life in the village starts to change at a faster rate. Thus, the new plans of Eco conservation, Tiger Projects, tourism, fishing and so on, are becoming essential, they are also agents of change in life pattern. As villagers have no participation in policy matters, they are indifferent or passive receiver to change.
Such questions, of equality or development will remain paradoxical within the present context of Sundarban life. Since the meaning of change is largely perceived in urban method. The rural groups hardly comprehend its meaning, or have voice. The gap in the dialogue of change is wider. As evident that the present pattern of life will not remain static, it may implicate that old songs may loose their context. The vast range of mythopoetic culture may now take a new turn as well – or new songs to come. Like many lost songs Bana Bibi may not be heard so often. But if we assume that these songs and myths expose the phenomena of our societal mind, they are the evidence of our past. As these essential elements have deeper roots in the society, nurturing through centuries, also stand as the counterpoints in the present modernizing process.
It rains through the sky, water flows through the river and to the sea. It is water; water everywhere, within my body and in the air. Water in the canals and in the ponds, in the fields, and it protects life. And then, when dusk falls water reflects the starry sky. In the early hours the ripples in the pond, under the bending coconut tree, tells, ‘it’s another day’.
My memory often goes back to my early days in North Bengal where I lived with my family, in different sub-division towns. Raigunj, Tufangunj and then in district town Cooch Behar, which was a beautiful place to remember. I remember, in each town, the most favorite place for me to roam around, were by the river – Kulik, Raidak and then Torsha. I used to roam around on my own or with a friend. I preferred either to be alone or a single company with whom I could talk intently. Sitting by the broken bank, watching the gushing river, my contemplations were deeper. The sky changed light with falling darkness and the river is like a mystic shadow. The open space by the rivers had such attraction that I seem to have developed my ruminating nature.
But again, I also saw the quite flowing river, like music, turning violent and inundating the banks and the villages. Flood is another experience – misery, at the same time river expanded into the horizon, tips of villages and trees dotting the expanse of water. I wondered how everything could change, life and activities, when river turned into such marauding torment. Even though floods brought miseries, but they left exciting stories to recall and all stories have wings to fly. But in certain situations I have distinct events to remember. I observed how community in a small town – Tufangunj – came alive, so co-operative, young group were more chivalrous as there were women audience and sufferers to be helped.
So flood brought local heroism, government aids and miseries of thousands of villagers taking shelters on the highway or in the school building. Tufangunj had a High school with an adjacent playground, quite large – otherwise the place was mute after evening unless school books and exams were ballooning up into a frightening manner. In a way, flood were a relief for me as the school was occupied; but then I was so busy, like a brisk reporter, bringing news home every evening – jaal aro barche. Those days I was busier than my study hours. After lunch, while Maa was resting and the house was quite, I used to take out the little raft with banana-stems, which Baba got it made by his office peons. We needed the raft since the planked house was marooned. Logging with a pole, with short push I used to enter my dreamland, onto the fields flooded with water. The grey sky created a uniform colour with water. The quietness broke sometimes, and sounds of so many kinds, some I could interpret. But nothing mattered but everything were seeping into my feeling, as if listening to music.
Again, at another season, when the riverbed shifted far away, a genesis of new life emerged on the dry bed. For all such events river for me remained mystic, full of stories. It is more so due to another reason that I cannot swim; I cannot reach the whole being of the river. I remained an onlooker from a distance. This remoteness between us created even more fantasies. The very sight of the river or the ocean unleashes a dream, dream that is inspiring and awesome.
So many times, like others, I stood dipping my feet on the slim flow of water on a dry riverbed, or on the clear stream coming from the mountain spring, lapping through the boulder; at another time, on my many travel in other lands, I wondered at the edge of the ocean while wetting my feet with the receding ripples. The act is the same – contemplating hundred and one dreams.
When I saw the Thames, Seine, the Danube, the Black Sea or the Atlantics and I do not remember now how many times, but my mind would always go into reflective a mood - an abstract expansion. I am there like an eternal witness. Each time I crossed the river Niger at Umaiha, I felt nostalgic, because it was so similar to some of our rivers in India. The rivers and oceans thus evoke emotions, like the forests and the mountains. I think it is so invariable between man and nature.
Thinking of my childhood again, once I went to have a dip in the river with my Maa and Kakima. While they were busy I found that my feet got stuck in the mud; I was so anxious though, but I could not move my eyes from the awesome sight of the vast river the Ganga. With an attraction unbearable I then managed to touch the water and felt, ‘Oh, this is Ganga ‘. Ganga, I always liked the word. It has a cultural vibration on me. Or is it the same with all people in the Gangetic plain? We are born with the word? As if all rivers merged into the word - Ganga.
The river is almost personified, water as my companion to reflect. Thus, I have put my river-psyche as a case study to understand myth. Like I did, it grows over time in any mind. Myth takes shape in a community with collective imaginations. The Egyptians worshipped the androgynous Hapi, the personified spirit of the river Nile. For the Babylonians the Euphrates and the Tigris were the male gods. In Greek mythology the earth is encircled with the serpentine river. In India, for some mythical reasons, rivers are personified as male or female like: Bramaputra, Son, Gogra, or few more are male; Ganga, Padma, Yamuna, Saraswati, Narmada, Cauvery and Godavary have distinct female identity in the names.
Myths and Legends
From time immemorial river has been the major lifeline in human societies. The river has been held in great reverence for it is the source of food and life. As the dependence becomes essential the river becomes part of the social growth, and its shift causes the disintegration of the society. Thus some of the rivers have become so important in human history that they are identified with the civilization itself, like the Nile or the Ganga. The myths and legends of Ganga are now the part of Indian cultural psyche, as well as the culminating faith and superstions.
It is not only Ganga but all the rivers in India are in fact associated with some local deities or mythology incorporating several Hindu gods. For example, one of the stories is about the river Narmada. Shiva was sitting in deep meditative trance on the peak of Amarkantak, emanating tranquility and peace. He sat in such composure that His abstract beauty concentrated into an intense energy; which suddenly took the form of a beautiful damsel. Shiva then blessed her saying, “You have inspired tenderness in my heart, you are Narmada.” Shiva also blessed Narmada to be eternally free. But soon the gods found her beauty so irresistible. When one of them tried to take hold of her she turned into a river to remain free forever. As the legend goes, she is so holy that the mere sight of Narmada is enough to cleanse one’s soul, as against a dip in the Ganga or seven in the Yamuna.
The river Vipasha has another myth associated to the sage Vasistha. The river restrained him from drowning and removed his pasha or bondage of ignorance. Another legend regarding the river Cauvery described: the land of king Thondaman was devastated by drought, so the sage Agastya sent word to the king Kavera of Coorg for help; Kavera diverted the river Cauvery to save the land of king Thondaman. However many rivers have disappeared, like the one Saraswati; but the legends and myths haunt us till now from the time its name was found in Rig Veda.
The myths concerning the Ganga have always found a prominent place in shaping our traditional beliefs – as the giver of life and remover of sin or curse. From the icy source of the Himalayas the mighty Ganga emerges beneath the Gangotri glacier at a height of 4,100 meters above sea level and reaches the sea at the Bay of Bengal. She makes her journey through an approximate length of 2,526 km. The Ganga basin covers more than one million sq.km of areas. The drainage area in the West Bengal is about 72,010 sq.km.
The prominent legends with Ganga can be found in the Mahabharata, Devi Bhagavata and the Bhagavata Purana. The folk versions are depicted in the scroll paintings of Bengal, like the Patachitras. The Ganga is often described as the consort of Shiva, perhaps identified with Parvati or Annapurna. According to the Purana, Ganga had its origin during the incarnation of Vishnu as Vamana. When Vaman measured the three worlds – Swarga, Marta, and Patal – in three steps, the nails of his left foot were raised high and pierced the universe. Ganga who is Vishnupadi, originating on the toe of Vishnu’s foot, thus fell in heaven. Ganga’s celestial link seems to have long established.
Taming the Ganga by Bhagiratha is another beautiful legend that inspired one of the most meaningful rock-cut sculptures, in the Mahavalipuram. Another is the famous Besnagar sculpture of 5th C ad, now in the Museum of Fine Arts at Boston. Here the stone image of Ganga has makara as the vahana. Thus Ganga is visualized as Devi with distinct iconographic features to be adored in the temple. As myths and legends spread, it took another version in the south of India; Ganga here has become a mermaid, Mummywater, in some of the legends. She has her hands folded, wearing a crown, and bearing on her forehead the Saiva mark with sacred ashes. In Bengal she depicted as a woman in white, crowned and seated on makara. She is holding a lotus on her right hand and a lute on the other. A different version is in the Patachitra, where she is wearing a red Sari. She has four hands holding a sheaf of paddy, conch, four-leaved plant, and lotus.
Ganga – the Patachitra from Midnapur, West Bengal
The anthropomorphic image of Ganga usually appears on the two sides of the doors in south Indian temples. While in the northern temples it is usually Ganga on one side of the portal and Yamuna on the other riding on her mount tortoise. In stories Ganga is always imagined beautiful and young; in images she is sometimes as damsel holding a vessel of water and standing on her makara mount. All such forms at the temple doors, known as celestial guardians, are seen most frequently in sanctuaries dedicated to Shiva. It is also present in the rock-cut shrine of Vakataka caves at Ajanta.
At Elephanta, Ganga is carved on the locks of Shiva Gangadhara. In another carving, at Paattadakal, she is a mermaid dancing on the locks of Tandava Shiva. A sculpture from the Sena period shows Ganga standing by the wish-fulfilling tree with a pitcher in hand. All these sculptures indicate her celestial link, and her association with prosperity and abundance in aquatic environment. As stories grew over centuries, Ganga unlike other mythical rivers in the world, assumed so many names – Vishnupadi, Haimavati, Alaknanda, Akashganga, Devabhuti, Mandakini, Bhagirathi, Patalganga and many more.
No doubt, the creative output in both literature and art has assumed a great proportion where rivers became the theme. In spite of all these folk tales and legends, over the centuries, our society did not generate the consciousness that was needed to protect the very environment that supported lives. Rivers that are so much part of our culture and life are dying and water is polluted. The dichotomy is that in myths and legends Ganga, rather all rivers, is always depicted as celestial, pure and supporting life. What went wrong in interpreting the essentials of myth in our reality?
The irony is, in the present time, this consciousness had to be borrowed and activated more under a global pressure. As the WHO is passing on its ideas and technologies, various agencies in India, both governmental and private, are discovering the river maladies. Information and Reality.
More than 300 million people made their home along the Ganga basin, out of which 20 million live in densely populated cities situated by her banks. Industrial pollution is actually a quarter of the whole problem and the rest is due to our life pattern. The density of population being so high, and without access to sewer and sanitation facilities, about 27 major cities are (UP being high in number) now spewing million of gallons of domestic waste everyday. Besides domestic and industrial pollution, clearing of the forests, use of pesticides and various other factors, have rendered river water unfit for drinking or bathing. River life is choking, and the pattern is same all over India.
Information is pouring from all over the world. The global consciousness on environmental pollution is increasing and generating new research. But that has not become a part of our social perceptions, as life has remained largely traditional. The problem is even more intriguing, as the Nagpur based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute pointed out that ‘it more than offsets the positive economic growth of the past two decades’.
In spite of the various measures taken by the government, the criticisms are perhaps valid too: inadequate pollution control measures, outdated technologies, lack of capital and poor infrastructure, etc. According to Anil Agarwal, director of the Centre for Science and the Environment, “What we are seeing today is a total failure of the entire governance system, aided and abetted by a complete lack of political vision”. The Ganga Action Plan (GAP) launched by the Government of India, in 1985-86, aimed to clean the Ganga, which is undoubtedly an ambitious project. The project has already spent over 5 billion rupees, but the chief adviser of this project, R.P.Sharma admits that the river is still undergoing slow poisoning. The reasons, as he states: “The State governments give a low priority to the environment, and because they are always strapped for cash, the upkeep of civic amenities is always the first to go”. There are non-Governmental organizations that are taking initiatives; Sankat Mochan Foundation is one. As funds are pouring in from agencies abroad, activist like Veer Bhadra Mishra is finding more and more prominence. He has been nominated by the Time magazine as “hero of the planet” for his pioneering efforts to clean Ganga, especially the highly polluted stretch of the river in Varanasi. He too has complaints against the State Government.
Besides all such reports and statistics, the fact remains that a large mass of people still interprets myths and legends in a perverse manner, that Ganga never gets polluted. A drop of the Ganga water is what needed before the life departs the body of a Hindu. As scientific data and research information are indicating that severe degradation of our environment is true and happening continuously, our traditional frame of life needs rethinking.
However the need to reinterpret our frame of life may not need sacrificing the myths and legends, for they give us dreams to create heaven on earth. Ganga in myth has always been pure, full of hope and an eternal bliss.