Seven Sacred Rivers


In India, a river is a mini-cosmos in concept. Every river is a mother deity who spawns mythology, art, dance, music, architecture, history and spirituality. Each one has a clear identity, appearance, value, style and spirit just like a beautiful woman. In every age, diverse human communities have reinvented themselves on river-banks with fascinating nuances….

‘Her shimmering gold-and-white garments dazzle like a thousand suns. The jewels in her crown shine like the crescent moon. Her smiling face lights up the whole world. In her hands, she carries a pot of nectar, a symbol of immortality. Her lotus-fresh presence brings a sense of purity and joy to all beings….’. At first glance, this reads like an over-the-top flowery description of a beautiful woman coined by some besotted lover. But to those conversant with the fascinating river-lore of India, this is the mythical portrayal of the River Ganga, written by Sage Valmiki, author of India’s immortal epic Ramayan. It describes the celestial Ganga as she descends from the heavens to the earth to bring salvation to mankind. This story, known as Gangavataran, is such a fundamental tenet of Indian culture that it has held countless generations of Indians in awe for millenniums. The Ganga, arguably the most picturised and written-about river in the world, has been called the Mother of India’s Spirituality and has been immortalized in sculpture, art, literature, poetry, music and dance.

Following her descent to the mortal world to sanctify human efforts to attain salvation, the Ganga is perceived as mokshdayini, the Mother Goddess whose waters bring relief from sin, sorrow and suffering. To wit, through the millenniums, the river’s banks have been hallowed by a galaxy of saints and seers who either meditated or built great institutions of spiritual research and teachings on her embankments. Great poetic works, including Tulsidas’ Ramcharit Manas, which continues to run in the veins of Indians for centuries, were written alongside her tranquil flow in Varanasi. Great cities like Haridwar, Rishikesh, Prayag and Varanasi were built on her banks and these have become famous centres of art, music, textile weaving, literature and every other artistic endeavour apart from spiritual pursuits. Haridwar and Prayag are the sites of gigantic Kumbh Melas, which celebrate the relentless search of human beings for immortality through the mythical pot of nectar, a motif that repeats itself constantly in Indian mythology. From India’s prehistoric ages, the Ganga, with her myriad tributaries, has not only been the harbinger of rich harvests in India’s plains, but also the precious lifeline of India’s cultural heritage.

However, Ganga is not the only river in India to be given pride of place in the hearts of its millions. For millenniums, Indians have worshipped seven holy rivers that crisscross the sub-continent, fertilising its sprawling plains and watering its misty mountains and lush forests. These are the Ganga, the Yamuna, the invisible Saraswati, the Narmada, the Godavari, the Kaveri and the Sindhu. Since the Sindhu now flows through Pakistan, the Krishna has been added to the list of the sacred rivers of India. Each of these rivers has a unique persona and quality attached to it. While the Ganga is shimmering white-and-gold and represents purity or salvation (Moksh), the Yamuna is blue like Krishna, who was born in Mathura, a holy city on her banks. Like him, she represents romance (Shringar). The legendary Saraswati, white and elegant like a swan, is now extinct and is called the river of knowledge (Vidya), being associated with Brahma, the creator of the universe. The dark and elusive Narmada, rising in the Vindhya-Satpura range in Central India, meets the Arabian Sea in Gujarat. With few, if any, tributaries, the Narmada is often referred to as the virgin river associated with the quality of detachment and surrender (Vairagya). The Godavari, rising in Gangadwar near Nasik in Maharashtra, flows eastwards to the Bay of Bengal. She is the saffron river of devotion (Bhakti), sanctified by the presence of Ram, Sita and Lakshman, who spent much of their exile years from Ayodhya in the forests along the river. Kaveri, the silvery river of wisdom (Dnyan or Gyan), flows from the Sahyadri Hills in Karnataka to the Bay of Bengal through Tamil Nadu. The Krishna, flowing from the Sahyadri Hills in Mahabaleshwar to the Bay of Bengal is green and represents courage and valour (Shourya).

The quality and appearance associated each of these seven rivers have such a strong influence on the Indian psyche, that history, architecture, art, music and dance and even social movements show their impact. Each river represents a specific colour and image and Indian scriptures weave innumerable legends around them.

The Yamuna is deeply entrenched in the wonderful saga of the birth and childhood of Krishna. Krishna was born in Mathura, a holy city on the banks of the Yamuna and taken across the raging river on a rain-stormy night to Gokul, to be raised by his foster parents Nand and Yashoda. Here, in the pastoral ambience of fragrant gardens and bowers, he grew up as the divine child among cowherds and milkmaids. He romanced with the milkmaids in his Raas Leela on moonlit nights on the banks of the Yamuna and gamboled in her dark waters every day of his life. Yamuna, having touched the blue-toned Krishna, herself became blue in colour in all her portrayals. So also, Krishna being the epitome of romance and love, Yamuna became the river of romance. She was named as his ‘consort’ in Madhurabhakti – a religious cult concurrent with Sufism. Both philosophies decree that ‘a devotee has only to raise the veil of ignorance to face divinity’. The veiled Yamuna, clad in blue and purple robes and carrying lotuses in her hands, became the Maharani of Krishna, the beloved devotee of his wondrous miracles in Gokul. Through the ages, the portrayals of Yamuna, including a huge number of miniature paintings, showed a distinct Sufi influence. As the Maharani of Krishna, she became the eternal bride. Even today, thousands of years later, pilgrims and devotees who trek to Yamunotri – the origin of the river in the Himalayas – offer her bridal fineries with chunris, bangles, tikas and other ornaments.

As she descends into the plains in Himachal Pradesh, Paonta Sahib, the Gurudwara built by Guru Gobind Singh, stands majestically on her banks. Here, legend says, the 10th Guru of the Sikhs, lost his paonta or anklet in the river while bathing. Nearby, the Tons River, joining the Yamuna, creates the romantic spectacle of Sahasradhara, where a thousand streams dance down the rocky landscape to create a visual wonder. Further down her flow, the awesome Taj Mahal, the world’s most resplendent monument, stands on the banks of the Yamuna as a testimony to her romantic personality. The Yamuna merges into the Ganga in Prayag.

The Saraswati, confluencing with the Ganga and Yamuna in Prayag, has been extinct for ages, though she continues to live in the hearts of Indians. Ever since India attained Independence, teams of archeological researchers have made relentless efforts to excavate several regions of India to find its now-barren bed. Various experts have wagered the guess that she flowed westward from the Himalayas and emptied into the Arabian Sea in Gujarat. Yet, those who wish to seek knowledge and find her origin continue the search for the elusive river. Today, only a roaring torrent named Saraswati can be seen in Mana village near Badrinath in the Himalayas, where she meets the Alaknanda at Keshav Prayag.

The Ganga, the Yamuna and the Saraswati represent the trinity of divinities in Indian culture. Saraswati is Brahma, the creator; Yamuna is Vishnu, the sustainer and Ganga is Shiva, the destroyer. But most important, this divine trinity is seen as ‘one’ in the confluence of the three rivers at Prayag.

The Narmada has been named the most beautiful river of India by Western travellers like Bill Aitken in his book ‘The Seven Sacred Rivers’. Deep, dark and mysterious, the Narmada flows from Amarkantak in the central mountain ranges of India to the Arabian Sea. The forests on her banks are dotted with quaint temple-heritage cities and tribal villages. The river, symbolizing detachment (Vairagya) and surrender, attracts devotees who do the ‘Parikrama’ of circumambulation of its flow from its origin to its emptying in the sea and back – a distance of 917 kilometres. Pilgrims need more than a year to complete this journey on foot. Describing the dense riverside landscape, they record that on silent nights, as they lie down in the forest groves, they often hear miraculous strains of flutes resonating in the stillness. This ‘music’ is caused by the wind rushing through holes made by birds in the clumps of bamboos which line the river in some areas. On the banks of the Narmada are heritage cities like Mandu, where the tragic love story of the Hindu dancing girl-turned-queen Rani Roopmati and her Muslim poet-emperor husband Baz Bahadur unfolded. Legend says that Roopmati gave up her life by drinking poison rather than be abducted by the king’s lustful enemies. On Narmada’s banks too, stands Maheshwar, the beautiful city built by Rani Ahilayabai, the celebrated Maharani of Indore, who repaired thousands of temples across India, giving up her royal wealth.

The Godavari, rising in Gangadwar near Nashik, represents devotion and its traditional colour: saffron. On her banks are several legendary monuments dedicated to Ram, Sita and Lakshman in addition to the Jyotirlinga temple of Trimbakeshwar. Nasik is also the site of the Kumbha Mela, which has been named the biggest bathing festival on earth! The Godavari brings fertility to the plains of peninsular India and is worshipped as the symbol of single-minded devotion to divinity.

The silvery Kaveri flows through the scenic forested slopes of the Sahyadri and Nilgiri ranges. The river of wisdom, she is referred to as the ‘Dakshina Ganga’ or the Ganga of the South. Sanctified by presence of Adi Shankaracharya, the greatest philosopher-seer of India, the Kaveri is the blessing of South India as she originates in Talaikaveri and flows through Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to empty into the Bay of Bengal. Through the past ages, the banks of the Kaveri have attracted great poets, writers, saints and philosophers who have sought to interpret the many-splendoured culture and spiritual wisdom of India.

Finally, the River Krishna, symbolizing valour, rises in the boulder-strewn, verdant hills of Mahabaleshwar, and flows through Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, bringing plentitude to her basin, before meeting the Bay of Bengal in the east. Krishna, through the eyes of her undulating green waters, has witnessed many epoch-making chapters of India’s history. The earliest historical reference to this river is as ‘Kannavenna’, the southern boundary of the Mauryan Samrat Ashoka’s vast empire in 236 B.C. With a strategy of peace, non-violence and unparalled valour, Ashoka ruled his great empire to become one of the world’s tallest grand monarchs. The Vijayanagar Empire flourished on her banks in the 13th century and unfolded a golden era of India’s history.  From the 17th century, the Marathas, led by Chhatrapati Shivaji, fought many a battle to free India from the clutches of the Moghuls. The Peshwas of Maharashtra built grand monuments and temples on her banks, which even today attract a procession of Bollywood producers to exploit the locations!

Rivers have been the lifelines of India’s ancient, pulsating, throbbing civilization. They have brought prosperity, culture, style, colour, values, wisdom, devotion, knowledge, romance, wonder and above all, a priceless spiritual heritage to the people of India for thousands of years!

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