Above: Sohni in Chenab, painitng by Manjit Bawa
To say that rivers hold great cultural significance for South Asia is stating the obvious. Also obvious is that the cultural legacy of rivers overpowers the religious narrative… which too, is not tied only to Vedic Hinduism. All faiths in the subcontinent have a deep connection with rivers which manifests in stories, lore, songs and poetry. While Suktas in Rigveda eulogizing rivers are known, actually breathtaking is the lyrical beauty of the verses which describe Sindhu or Indus as a “wild, magnificent white stallion, roaring and galloping through the Himalayas into the plains” or sometimes as a “loving mother cow, its calves following her from the steep mountain paths”.
Each river in the subcontinent has a story and most have several stories. See Chenab, flowing from the High mountain passes of Lahaul and Spiti, onto Jammu and Kashmir and then to Punjab plains in Pakistan. Entering Punjab, the Chen-Ab or the Moon River gushes right into the enchanted tapestry of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s tragic love stories. So entangled, that she becomes the River of Lovers.. Sassi Punnu, Mirza Sahiba, Sohni Mahiwal…Chenab weaves through these stories like a character, just as she does in Waris Shah’s immortal Heer Ranjha.
Bhitai’s Sur Sohni begins at the fateful moment when Sohni realizes, in the middle of the roaring Chenab, that the earthen pot she is holding as a float, is dissolving bit by bit…whales and crocodiles are coming for her..she cannot reach Mahiwal across the bank…the moment has been immortalized in many a songs, poems and paintings in the Chenab-Indus belt. And although Sohni and her Mehar die young, their story has been flowing through the Chenab for centuries. Like Bhitai says,
“To choose safe waters
is the route of impostors:
Those who love
take on the mighty river.”
If we trace its beginnings in the Himalayas, Chenab is formed by the confluence of Chandra and Bhaga rivers which originate near the Barlacha pass. They have a story as well. Chandra was Moon’s daughter and Bhaga, originating from the Surya Taal was the son of the Sun God. The two raced to meet at Tandi, a place sacred to Hindus and Buddishsts. However, Chandra reached before Bhaga and was impatient, waiting for her lover. She even tried to climb the mountain back to meet him.
A strikingly similar story comes from the other corner of the country: Sikkim. It is said that Rivers Rongnuy (Teesta) and Rangeet were in love and wanted to meet in the plains. They decide to leave their homes and flow down. Here too, Rongnuy or Teesta reached first and Rongeet, misled by his guide, was late. When he reached the plains, he was furious to see his lover there already. He refused to meet her and stormed ahead and Teesta had considerable calming to do!
From Sikkim, Teesta flows on to West Bengal, and then on to Bangladesh, a land of rivers. Here, rivers dominate not only the landscape, but mindscapes of people. Bhatiyali, that singular music genre which can actually be called as the “river genre” took form here. Bhatiyali is not just a work song. There are many work songs related to water..song of the Volga boatsmen, Marathi Koli songs, songs of river races in Kerala, Chinas Haozi river songs which are sung by toilers in unison as they haul a boat upriver.. Bhatiyali is unlike any of these. It is a singular, lonely plaint down the river. The name itself has a Bhati “Low Tide” in its name, these are songs of the boatsmen who are stranded for days..for months.. inside that maze of rivers which is the Ganga Brahmaputra delta. Bhatiyali is a quest, it is not targeted at any audience, nor is it meant to rouse. It delves into some ancient questions of mankind..Where did man come from? Where will these travels take him? Who is the boatsman holding the ores of his boat? The songs are not paens to rivers…the intimate relation brings out all emotions. Just as the boatsman says “Ganga amar Maa, Podda amar Maa”, he also sings “Sarbanasha Podda Nodi” Or “Amay Dubaili, Amay bhaasiali re” (You are drowning me, you are cheating me, you treacherous, bankless river). Bhatiyali has been used by Salil Choudhury, by SD Burman, by Ritwick Ghatak..music and poetry of the river which has flown through ages, which looks down in disdain and mocks at the parochial water sharing treaties and protests of the two nations which try to divide the limitless waters.
West Bengal also holds the distinction of having many male rivers… Ajoy, Pagla, Godadhar, Damodar… But there are several more male rivers across the country..each with its intriguing tale. Take Shon or Sonbhdra for example. Arising from the Maikal Ranges, like Narmada, Shon was supposed to marry the dazzling princess of the mountain, Narmada. They had not seen each other. Before marriage, Narmada, overcome by simmering curiosity, sent her friend Johilla to “check out” Shon. Johilla went, bedecked in Narmada’s jewels. We don’t know what happened next..maybe Shon and Johilla fell in love, maybe Shon mistook her for Narmada..but Shon held her hand just as Narmada rushed in. The fierce river took one glance, turned her back and raced to the west, flowing through an ancient rift valley, older than the oldest civilization of South Asia. Shon was taken aback…Johilla was no princess, she was a servant girl. He called after Narmada and when she did not look back, raced himself to the east and fell in the all-encompassing arms of the Ganga basin. Irony of the tale is that Shon and Narmada are worshipped..celebrated. But Johilla is considered impure. Narmada’s stories accompany her, she is a Goddess. Johilla is all alone.
But deification is a risky business. Along with deification, stealthily but surely comes demonification. Just as we have River Goddesses, we also have lesser goddesses. Lesser Rivers. Kirtinasha, Karmanasha, Phalgu, Johilla, Dankini and Shankhini, Vidrupa…the list is long. See Karmanasha…or the destroyer of Fame. It is believed that during the sixteenth century, Padma (as Ganga is known 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. 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?”
Like rivers, their stories are never ending. Like tributaries meet rivers, their stories change and grow through the time. Tales and added and tales are forgotten. River stories bind us. Sindhu might be a shared, contested river basin between India and Pakistan, but millions of Hindus and Muslims from across the border listen to the stories of Jhulelal: The God of the Indus. Be it Bangladesh or Pakistan or Nepal or Bhutan, we share stories, just like we share rivers.
Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP
A slightly edited version of this article appeared in the Down to Earth Magazine