India & its Sacred Rivers



Rivers have shaped history, culture, traditions and faith and nowhere is it as palpable, as in India. Named after the Sindhu the Indus, the very name India, invokes images of  the mighty river that flows down the Himalayas. Look at the Indian subcontinent and you will find a maze of rivers, most considered goddesses in Indian tradition, weaving their way through - giving life, hope and salvation all at once.

In the first of our 4 part series in which we will look at the Rivers that Make India - from the context of mythology, geology i.e. how they shape our land, how they influenced history and drove commerce.

We look at how the great rivers flowing across India became sacred.

India & its Sacred Rivers

Considering the fact that the river Indus not only gave an identity but also defined the faith the people of India followed, across a large part of the subcontinent, it is not surprising that the rivers have played such a pivotal role in Hindu beliefs.

Representation of Saraswati River along with present-day rivers
Representation of Saraswati River along with present-day rivers|Wikimedia Commons 

From the early Vedic period dating back to 1500 BCE, Rivers were considered to be divine beings and goddesses, who brought wealth and abundance to people on its banks. The word ‘Tirtha’ which now means a place of pilgrimage, was originally the Sanskrit term for a river ford or place of crossing. So a ‘Tirthayatra’ originally meant a journey to a river ford or a sacred spot on the banks of the river. It was only over centuries that the term became applied to all Hindu religious places.

The most important river in the Vedic period was the River Saraswati, which was lost hundreds of years ago. Originally, the river Saraswati was worshiped as the flowing river. She was considered the bestower of happiness and abundance. There were more than fifty verses in the Rigveda lavishly praising the Saraswati, such as the hymn 2.41.16 of Rigveda which states:

‘Ambitame Naditame Devitame Sarasvati, Aparaastasya Iva Smaasi Yashastim Amba Naskruteem’

Translated into English as -

Oh Mother Saraswati you are the greatest of mothers, greatest of rivers, greatest of goddesses. Even though we are not worthy, please grant us distinction.

 Painting of goddess Saraswati by Raja Ravi Varma 
Painting of goddess Saraswati by Raja Ravi Varma |Wikimedia Commons 

However, in the later Vedas and Puranas, there is just a passing reference to the River Saraswati, and the deity representing her takes a wider connotation - becoming the Goddess of learning, a title she holds till today Interestingly even today the iconography around Goddess Saraswati makes a reference to her riverine past. Her Vahana is the Swan and she is generally depicted as sitting near a river or a water body.

Shiva bearing the descent of Ganga river, 1740 CE
Shiva bearing the descent of Ganga river, 1740 CE|Wikimedia Commons 

It was probably a factor of the growing importance of the settlements along the Ganga - Yamuna Doab by the later Vedic period, that led to a shift in focus and the rise of the Ganga as the most sacred river in India. From being mentioned just twice in the Rigveda, the Ganga finds frequent mention in the later Vedas and the Puranic literature. Over centuries, as the premier river of North India, numerous settlements developed along her banks and her religious importance grew as well. River Ganga became Goddess Ganga incorporated into both the Shaivite as well as Vaishnavite traditions.

In the Shaivite tradition, it was believed that Ganga descended from the heaven through the hair locks or ‘Jatas’ of Lord Shiva, giving him the name ‘Gangadhara’ and ‘Jatadhara’. The descent of the Ganga is one of the most popular stories depicted in Shiva temples across India, from the Chola temples of Tamil Nadu to the Cave temples like Ellora in Western India.

Sculpture of Goddess Ganga at Besnagar, Madhya Pradesh
Sculpture of Goddess Ganga at Besnagar, Madhya Pradesh|Wikimedia Commons 

In the Vaishana tradition, the goddess Ganga was believed to flow from the feet of Lord Vishnu.  The river also finds a mention in Mahabharata as the mother of Bhishma, the grand uncle of the Pandavas. With the rise of the Ganga, the river Yamuna too acquired the status of a goddess and soon the two became inseparable icons. Entrances of most old temples were adorned with statues of the two, symbolic of fertility, abundance and prosperity.

Over time, as the Vedic tradition spread from the Gangetic plain down to peninsular India, the Southern rivers too began to be worshipped, with many taking on the title the ‘Ganga of the South’. Most notably, they were the Narmada and  Godavari in the  Deccan and the Kaveri in the South. According to Hindu mythology, there are manifestations of the river Ganga, who appears at these places to wash the sins of people.

Map showing rivers in India 
Map showing rivers in India |Wikimedia Commons 

Though the rivers of the south are not depicted as goddesses like the Ganga, the fact that most of the famous pilgrimage sites across the Indian subcontinent lie on their banks, indicates just how important they have been.

The Kumbh Mela held once in 12 years, to mark different spots where the 'Amrit' or Nectar was dropped by Vishnu, also takes place on the banks of the Godavari at Nashik, apart from Ujjain on banks of Shipra, in Haridwar on banks of Ganga, as well as in Allahabad, on confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati.

Another interesting fact is that while most rivers seem to have been connected to the story of Lord Shiva, the Kaveri is associated with the legend of Lord Vishnu. As per legend Kaveri has said to have prayed to Lord Vishnu to make her holier that River Ganga, and had her wishes granted. It is no wonder that the three islands on the Kaveri river became sites of great Vishnu temples including Srirangapatam and Sriranganathaswamy in Karnataka and Srirangam in Tamil Nadu.

Sri Ranganathswamy temple in between the Kollidam and the Kavery rivers
Sri Ranganathswamy temple in between the Kollidam and the Kavery rivers|Wikimedia Commons 

Elsewhere, over the centuries, rivers such as Mahanadi, Tapi, Sabarmati and others which had been worshipped as local river goddesses by local tribes and communities also became incorporated into the greater Hindu pantheon through their association as spouses of Shiva, Vishnu or even powerful Rishis. For example, River Tungabhadra was worshiped by local tribes as Goddess Pampa, but later during the rise of the Vijayanagar empire, was incorporated into Vaishnavism and referred to as the spouse of Lord Vishnu.

While most rivers were considered female forms and so came to be worshiped as goddesses in India, there are other rivers, who were given male attributes. The most prominent among them being the Indus and the volatile Brahmaputra. For centuries, the merchants and the farmer in the Indus valley and Sindh worshiped the Indus river as Varuna, the Vedic god of Water  Over centuries, their worship took the form of worship of Jhulelal who is worshiped by Sindhis even today.

View of Brahmaputra river, Assam
View of Brahmaputra river, Assam|Wikimedia Commons 

River Brahmaputra was originally worshiped by the Tribes on its banks and later became to be considered the son of Brahma. Interestingly, while there are numerous other male rivers such as Damodar, Ajay, Godhadhari, and Pagla, they all seen to have been concentrated in one geographical region, Bengal. However, there has been no research on the reason behind this and the answer is waiting to be discovered.

Rivers have played a critical role in the rise of civilization and ancient communities and tribes the world over, have venerated water bodies that gave life and food. In India, that tradition continues and is another example of a continuum that is history.


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