The timeless Indic dharmic traditions accord an exalted position to water bodies, particularly rivers.
Rivers are accorded a sacred status; perennial rivers are regarded with reverence.
Indeed, rivers are the mothers of civilisation. It is a well known fact that great civilisations around the world have sprung on the banks of great rivers.
The Indian spirit has acknowledged the life sustaining nature of rivers through verses and prayers and songs that bring out the essence of this understanding over and over again.
Tradition holds the Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Sarasvati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri as the seven most sacred rivers of India.
The Rig Veda speaks of the sapta-sindhavah — the seven great water bodies held sacred even at that point in history. Regardless of the names of the rivers, the number seven holds great significance.
The Sanskrit word tirtha represents water; the word tirtha also represents a centre of pilgrimage. Many pilgrimage sites gain status primarily by virtue of their location on the banks of a sacred river.
The confluence of two or more rivers — a prayag — makes the tirtha even more special.
This reverence for water bodies is ingrained in the Indian DNA. Take for example this conversation that I had with a taxi driver in rural Maharashtra at the sight of a small ancient-looking temple at the side of the road as we were driving on a bridge.
When I asked him if he knew about the temple he replied - ‘sir, har ek sangam ke paas- ek mandir-hoga’.
That observation hit me then; any confluence of water bodies has always been special, sacred; a place to reflect on the oneness of existence with gratitude and prayerfulness.
Several ceremonies begin with the consecration of a pot of water; water is the cleanser. The mantras call out the seven sacred rivers by name and invoke their symbolic presence in the pot of water in front of the worshipper.
In a simple yet powerful gesture, the worshipper sails through the sacred geography of India all the way from the lush Kaveri delta to the snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas where the Ganga originates.
What is the state of our rivers today?
Watching Indian movies made in the 1960s make us gasp with surprise at the sight of empty thoroughfares in metros such as Chennai. Some of us even remember that state.
How did we become so big? So crowded? So polluted?
It is the same story with rivers. Any part of the world would acknowledge that the state of rivers is not the same as it was half a century ago. A consumption-oriented lifestyle and a stupendous growth in population and unchecked use of rivers as dumping grounds for industrial waste — one could go on and on about the causes of pollution — the least that we could do would be to acknowledge that there is a serious measure of deterioration happening right in front of our eyes!
Is there anything we can do about it?
The first step is bringing awareness regarding water resources to humanity at large.
To get there, it is important to be aware of the names of rivers. Just calling them out by name accomplishes that. The traditional sloka on rivers names the seven most sacred rivers of Bharata Varsha.
However, isn’t every single water body sacred? Why don’t we look at rivers as sources of nectar ‘amritam’ — that which grants life; a super human being which can nourish us, yet needs to be taken care of by us.
There is a global move to declare rivers as human entities with rights. It makes sense to do so — but haven’t rivers always been divine entities in the Indic dharmic world?
Why don’t we reflect on that nature of our relationship with rivers?
It is easy to relate to rivers in song. Two hundred years ago, the celebrated Vaggeyakara Muthuswami Dikshitar reflected upon Shiva, Jambukeswara as the manifestation of ‘water’ — one of the panchamaha-bhutas (the five elements of wind, water, fire, earth and space), and brought into focus the names of several rivers in a majestic kriti in the raga Yamuna Kalyani.
We bring out this new song in 2021. ‘Rivers of India’ is a tribute to the spiritual heritage of India that venerates our precious natural resources with the approach that they are as important as we are, if not more important!
We name about 51 rivers from all over India in this song. Their very names inspire us; their waters flow through our bodies.
The ancient names of these rivers are magical, they are musical; they are alliterative; and when strung together in song in the raga Yamuna Kalyani in a seven beat cycle, they evoke images of how we would like them to be; pristine, clear, life sustaining — a state vastly different from the polluted (yet redeemable) reality of today.
And when they are acknowledged with the Tamil phrase ’nadanthaai vaazhi’ from the 1,800-year-old epic Silappathikaram, we strengthen our resolve to become partners in nurturing our precious water resources.
It takes collective awareness, will and action to restore our rivers. Recognizing and revering rivers is the first baby step in that direction.
Let us celebrate the rivers of India.
(The author, an alumnus of IIT Madras, is the creator of the song ‘Rivers of India’ at the core of the music video by the same name - released by the International Center for Clean Water, IIT Madras on Earthday 2021 featuring musical stars Bombay Jayashri, her son Amrit Ramnath, Kaushiki Chakraborty and her son Rishith Desikan, and Sai Shravanam along with a supporting chorus of singers (virtual) from around the world).
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