“Ahalya, you will be an eternal dry river. Your path will be rocky and parched. You will receive water only when you meet the pious Godavari. That will be your only redemption”.
By Parineeta Dandekar,
Thus spoke Sage Gautam, pushing his wife Ahalya into a quagmire of dark desperation for ages. Ironically, it was Indra who, driven by lust, impersonated Sage Gautam and met Ahalya. In some versions of the story Gautam curses Ahalya into a stone slab, in some she becomes uncultivable, barren land. Till date, there exists a marriage custom in certain communities where the newly wed girl touches a dry stone by her feet, it should remind her of her fate if she “strays” like Ahalya. But that is another story.
In the Western Ghats of Maharashtra where the Godavari rises, there is a tiny river called Ahalya meeting Godavari at the Trimbakeshwar Temple. If women and even Goddesses were made to suffer at the hands of patriarchy, how can rivers, the sacred feminine, be far behind?
Ahalya is “redeemed” now by her children. Sewage of Trimbakeshwar temple town flows in her. And she is covered under concrete. Ahilya Teerth Sangam is a holy place: it is unbearably filthy.
Deification is a risky proposition; along with it comes demonification stealthily but surely. India and South Asia sing paens to their rivers. Rivers are mothers and a means to attain salvation. All religions, tribes, animistic groups have a special place for rivers. Rigveda has several suktas praising not only rivers, but the inherent hydrology. Like the 10th Mandala of Sindhu Sukta which states, “Oh Sindhu, as you flow, tributaries joyously join you, like small boys following their mother.”
Beautiful surely. But not the full story.
Here is a look at the lesser Goddesses, rivers which have been carrying curses and taboos with their names. There are two distinct types here, one where the river is tabooed through tales and myths, and one where nature of the river is the muse for her stories. A very thin line separates these two realms and there are many astounding overlaps.
Kirtinasha or the Destroyer of Fame
It is believed that during the sixteenth century, Padma (as Ganga is called when she enters Bangladesh) flowed through Rajshahi district, through Dhawleshwari and Buriganga Rivers directly to Meghna, bypassing Dhaka.
It flowed past Rajnagar built by the famous Raja Rajballabh. But in the nineteenth century, Padma abandoned this southern channel and took up its current channel, destroying settlements, villages and buildings in her wake. Raja Rajballabh’s empire fell like a house of cards and the swinging river took the name of Kirtinasha – Destroyer of Fame. The dramatic moment has enthralled many writers and poets like Jibanananda Das and Mohammed Rafique, who has penned a sequence of 51 poems called Kirtinasha, “Kirtinasha, let there be no more treachery. Will these floods never end? Is there any other destiny for you or for me Kirtinasha?”
Falgu: The River of Sand
According to one version of Ramayana, Falguni, flowing along the Gaya in present day Bihar, was once a major river. Rama, Laxman and Seeta came to the banks of Falgu to perform sacred rites for the departed Dasharatha. But while Rama and Laxman were away, Dashratha appeared before Seeta and asked for offerings. Seeta had nothing, and offered pindaas made of river sand. 5 witnesses saw this, one was Falgu. Dasharatha then disappeared, satiated. The story goes that Rama and Laxman did not believe Seeta and except an old Banyan Tree, none of the witnesses supported Seeta. Not Falgu, nor the Brahmins of Gaya. Distraught, Seeta cursed Falgu to go dry and the Brahmins of Gaya, never to be satisfied with offerings.
Present day Falgu is more sand than water. Its flow is just below the surface and water supplied to Gaya is pumped from subsurface Falgu.
This reminds me of a modern-day version of Ahalya’s story, by Pudhimaipithan, the revolutionary Tamil writer. In it, Ahalya chooses to turn back to stone when she comes to know that Seeta, wife of the same god who liberated her, had to prove her chastity again. But that is a digression.
Karmanasha or the Destroyer of Merit
Karmanasha arises in the Kaimur district of Bihar and forms the boundary of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh for nearly 70 kms. There are several stories about its unfortunate name. One version suggests that the river symbolizes conflict between two ancient sages: Vashishth and Vishwamitra, wherein Vishwamitra helped King Satyavrat, Harishchandra’s father, to reach the heavens without dying, thereby challenging King Indra. While the Gods forced Satyavrat down, Vishwamitra forced him up, thus leaving him in limbo, or “Trishanku”. He lost consciousness and his saliva formed the river Karmanasha.
All punya is supposed to be washed away with just a dip in Karmanasha and plants are supposed to wilt. Francis Buchanan who surveyed rivers of Bihar and wrote a detailed account in circa 1810 has recorded that Ahilyabai Holkar, the queen of Malwa who had a remarkable relationship with rivers, tried to build a bridge across Karmanasha. But the job had to be abandoned. In fact, the taboo was so strong in 1810 that devotees would not touch Karmanasha and carrying them across the river was an important livelihood for the poor in surrounding areas.
However, a more pragmatic version states that Buddhism was flourishing on the east of Karmanasha and stories woven around an “impure” Karmanasha were but a ploy to deter Hindus from crossing over to a Buddhist territory!
Celebrated Hindi novelist Shivparasad Sinha has penned an arresting story “कर्मनाशा की हार” around the river. The curse does not stop Karmanasha from being a lifeline of her surroundings.
Story of Johilla revolves around the Princess-Maid disguise plot used many times from Shakespeare to Hindi Films, but arguably none is as poignant as Johilla’s story. Narmada, Johilla and Shon (also spelled as Sone or Son) arise close to each other in the Amarkantak Biosphere reserve. Shon or Sonbhadra was a prince, while Narmada was the blessed daughter of the Maikal Mountains. Johilla was her maid servant and friend. Narmada and Shon were to be married but the curious Narmada sent Johilla to “check out” Shon. It is not clear what happened next. Some versions say that Shon fell in love with Johilla, some say he thought Johilla was Narmada.
Whatever it may be, Shon held Johilla’s hand and the self-respecting Narmada saw this.
Narmada turned her back to Shon and ran to the West, one of the only two major rivers in central India to do so. Shon realized his mistake, Johilla was no princess! He abandoned her and called after Narmada. But the haughty princesses did not turn back. Disillusioned, Shon went towards the east and met Ganga, Narmada fell into the of Arabian Sea, an eternal virgin.
But in all this, what happened to Johilla? Johilla is the river of tears and her water was supposed to be unfit for religious ceremonies.
Similar is the case with Charmavati River, or the modern-day Chambal, supposed to carry blood of slaughtered animals on her banks. Vaitarni is a river mentioned in the Garuda Puran, marking the boundary to the netherworld. There is a Baitarni in Odisha and a Vaitarna near Mumbai, which is so critically polluted at its mouth, that it can very well be the boundary to the netherworld.
In the mythological Dandakaranya or present day Bastar, curiously named rivers Dankini and Shankini flow along, meeting near the Danteshwari Temple at Dantewada. Looking at how this region turns established myths on their heads (Ravan’s brother, Meghnad is worshipped by some tribes and this too has to do with Rivers), I’m sure there would be an enchanting story around these names. Any leads would be very welcome!
Apart from lore and myths, several untamed, wild rivers have typically wild colloquial names. So we have a Pagla in Bangladesh, an eroding and flooding Pagladia in Assam, a Saitani (devil river!) in Maharashtra.
Then there is a very intriguing category of rivers which graphically tell us what they do precisely when they go mad there is Datpaadi (tooth-breaker) in Vidarbha, a Urmodi (chest-breaker), a Doiphodi (head-breaker) in Maharashtra. Bangladesh has its own Mathabhanga!
Gujarat has Sautan and Sasu Rivers. No further comments!
And then there are the tragically named ones…much closer to the reality… like the Sukhi (dry one), Bhukhi (Hungry one), Utavali (impatient one), all tributaries of Tapi. Akola in Maharashtra has a river called the Vidrupa (Ugly one). It was heartbreaking to hear this name. A river can never be called Vidrupa. She flows on silently, serving the people along her way despite the name.
One of the most poignantly named rivers I have come across also comes of Gujarat, a small tributary of Banas, the Umardasi – eternal slave.
South Asia has some spectacular, mesmerizing river names. Compare this with say France, where river names are mostly two syllables (For example Seine, Somm, Loire, See etc.). We have lyrical, evocative, complex names like Payaswini (Full of Nectar), Aghanashini, Shitalakshi, Kapotakshi (waters as clear as Pigeon’s Eye). But the overtly beautiful names are jarring when we know the reality.
Today we have rivers which are so polluted, they are “Kirtinasha” for the society, governments and pollution control boards those dammed many times over are indeed “Umardasis”.
(Parineeta Dandekar is Associate Coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.)
(This article was originally published by SANDRP – an informal network working on issues related to rivers, communities and large scale water infrastructure like dams: their environmental and social impacts, their performance and issues related to governance of rivers and dams. You can read the original article here.)