Appeared in Himalayan News Express, Nepal, Nov 15th 2015
By: Susan M. Griffith-Jones
According to the mythology of Ganga, eight Vasus stole a cow in the heavenly abode and consequently got cursed by the Rishi Vashishth to be born and suffer on Earth as mere mortals. When they heard that the sprightly goddess Ganga was also about to descend to Earth, they asked her if they could be born as her children there, but that immediately after they were born, she would drown them so they could return quickly to heaven. Apart from the one who had actually stolen the cow, who would have to suffer the consequence of his action, she agreed to drown seven of them and many say that Garmukteshwar, 5km from the bathing ghats at Brijghat, is where this occurred.
Earlier called “Gan Mukteshwar – Devotees Place of Deliverance”, Garmuktheshwar is mentioned in the Bhagvat Purana as well as the epic legend, Mahabharata and is said to have been part of the ancient city of Hastinapur, which was the capital and major commercial centre of the Kauravas. Although the ruins of what is known to be the ancient fort of the Pandavas hardly even remain today, it did manage to survive the sands of time to become a district administration office during British times, and was later repaired by the Maratha General, Mir Bhawan, during the Anglo-Maratha war. A very old Mukteshwar Mahadev Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva is also there.
Another several hundred kilometres downriver, ‘Mahabaratha land’ dissolves into ‘Ramayana land’ at Bithoor, just twenty-two kilometres west of the city of Kanpur. Here, Valmiki is reputed to have written the famous epic, ‘Ramayana’, in which Queen Seeta spent her days in seclusion at this ashram bringing up her twin sons, Lava and Kush after being exiled by the King of Ayodhya. That this should not suffice the place, Hindu mythology mentions that just after creating the universe Lord Brahma performed the Ashvamedha and also placed a lingam here.
I arrive at this busy little temple. A long flight of steps lead down to the river. It’s a beautifully soft and picturesque scene, but as if in contrast to the serenity of the picture, I am immediately harassed by every living creature of the place. First, a line of snake charmers are not pleased when I walk by without stopping to watch their show, a cobra slithering out of a basket being quickly urged back in when I don’t show interest, nor bring out my camera. Beggar ladies with whining voices and hands held out crawl in from each side to flank my advance and boatmen surround me with offers of rides along the river.
Then just to top the whole experience, as I arrive at the ghats an unrelenting pandit approaches me. He is insistent from the start. I must do a Ganga puja. I am happy to do so, but first I want to get my bearings and have a snack. I ask him if I can eat there and he points to a band of monkeys climbing along the wall overhead, saying that it would not be wise to do so. In this case, I think that now would be the moment to do the perfunctory puja and a price of ten rupees is duly agreed.
To the steps we go. First I have to pour a small plastic cup of milk into Ganga –“organic pollution”, I think to myself, and “inorganic pollution” as the cup is carelessly tossed onto the steps of the ghat “to be swept into Ganga later”, then a handful of flowers into the river, “more organic pollution”… my analysis of the event leaving little room for Ganga to actually bless me !
At a certain moment in the puja, whilst pouring water over flowers held in my cupped hands, the pandit asks if I will be paying ‘500 or 1000 rupees’ for the blessing. The entire onslaught of harassment then crumbles into a moment of complete recognition. This is not the spirituality that “Ganga” would be pleased with and I am not about to “buy” a blessing.
I drop the flowers back into his hands, gather my things, put on my shoes that I had left at the entrance and leave the place, with a manner of disappointment that follows when you get the feeling that all you are to people is a walking ATM machine. The locals are not being requested such amounts and this sliding scale of asking for higher numbers from those who they are merely assuming have more, is not a true way to receive offerings. I have already been warned about such mindset of the pandits and realise that I have fallen straight into the trap.
I find him at the entrance as I am leaving and approach him. ‘There is only money in your heart, where is your God? I question him beseechingly. He is definitely stunned by my frankness and I can see that somewhere I am resonating with him. His reaction is civil and unresponsive.
Later I think deeper about the issue and wonder how much of his supposed greed was a revealing mirror of my own stinginess. After all, Bithoor is a tirtha, where the space between divine and profane meet so that one may gaze easily into both aspects.
By the time Ganga reaches Kanpur, 400km away from Haridwar, she is already polluted beyond imagination, not to mention what extra load she will also take on after passing through this infamous industrial city that is one of the oldest manufacturing townships of North India.
Up to the first half of the 18th century, Kanpur was merely an insignificant village, but when the British realised its strategic importance, they defeated the Nawab of Awadh and the city passed into their hands in 1801. This formed a turning point and it soon became one of the most important military stations of British India, with barracks of 7,000 soldiers.
During the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the British were besieged for 22 days by Indian Independence fighters, but surrendered when it was agreed that they would get safe passage to Allahabad. However, 167 British women and children waiting to depart at the Sati Chaura Ghat, were brutally killed by the rebel sepoys.
Nestling on the banks of Ganga, with a positive and vibrantly modern feel to it, Kanpur, like so many cities in this area, holds layers of history openly wrapped around each other in both its architecture and people. As if to qualify this, I stand on the corner of Parade road to see a brand new shopping mall standing proudly to one side – the largest in UP state, while the old Cawnpore Kotwali, openly defining its position as part of her esteemed history, bows humbly to its future compatriot opposite.
As a symbol of humanity, Ganga’s state represents the health of people. Like a mirror, she openly displays how we are slowly and clearly murdering and exploiting humanity across the globe. When she is sick, she is demonstrating that people are sick. As pesticides are dumped into her and she continues to struggle to survive, as her waters are defiled and she continues to limp on, so is mankind in the same predicament as we struggle to find food and water that are not infected by harmful ingredients.
But it is we, the people ourselves, who are at fault – not only for Ganga’s pollution, but also for our own. Passing the buck is not going to rectify the situation, only each individual’s respectful relationship with one’s own “River of Life” can turn it back to a glorified state, through true understanding of what it really is to be alive.