There is a reference to British hydrographic surveyor Sir William Wilcox, who postulated that the Bhagirathi river across the Himalayas appears to be man-made to bring the water of the Bindusarovar to the north Indian plain.
Ganga: The River of Sanatana Civilization—here is a grand anthology of literature and science about the most holy river of India, lavishly illustrated with maps, photographs and art work reproductions, consisting of 20 chapters, each one a paper by as many scholars in disciplines ranging from geology, archaeology, Sanskrit literature, cultural history and anthropology of religion. Most are in English, four in Hindi and contain numerous Sanskrit quotations from both the Shruti and Smriti texts of ancient India. They are the proceedings of the 2018 international conference organized by the Draupadi Dream Trust, the eighth in a series, at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for The Arts, under the sponsorship of the National Mission for Clean Ganga and the ICHR and Union Ministry of Culture. The foreword is by Sachidanand Joshi, member-secretary of the IGNCA. It’s edited by Neera Misra.
Jnana Sindhu D. Pandey’s long treatise on the source and evolution of the Gangetic civilisation, titled “Ek Sanskritic Yatra” quotes profusely from the Puranas and other scriptures to document the importance of the Ganga throughout the ages. He highlights the little known reverence in which the water from that river was held by Mughal Emperors and many in the nobility who drank it and used it for cooking because of its reputed health-giving properties (in most cultures, holiness and health are closely linked when not synonymous). Gangajal was held to be much lighter in weight than other waters and the royal retinues carried large quantities of it on their travels across India as attested by European visitors to the Mughal court.
The second chapter is by the well known writing duo, D.K. and Hema Hari who interpret the legend of channelling of the Ganga’s riverbed by successive Vedic Kings, from Sagara to Bhagiratha, as based on fact. They refer to British hydrographic surveyor Sir William Wilcox, who postulated that the Bhagirathi river across the Himalayas appears to be man-made to bring the water of the Bindusarovar lake to the north Indian plain. The tradition is that the Vedic kings needed to irrigate the expanse stretching east of the Aravalli range all the way to the brackish Bengal marshes (anciently occupied by the Tethys Sea) and that they gradually charted a path for the waters across the great Himalayan barrier. Irrespective of what further scientific research will make of this “mythological” account, it is notable that the Ganga appears to be the only major river in the world which was attributed an artificial origin thousands of years ago.
The Haris also point out the many rivers in the subcontinent and in South East Asia which are called “Gangas”. As per the “orthodox” Indo-European etymology, the word means “fast flowing”, but the authors hold it to convey the notion of perennity. Incidentally, the reason why in most Latin languages (which have no neutral gender unlike their Roman ancestor) the noun is masculine (whereas Indian religion has always described this river as a female deity) is that the ancient Greeks added to it the usual suffix “es” that was inherited by the Romans. Their linguistic descendants such as French, Italian and Spanish interpreted any noun ending on a consonant as masculine. In India however the only “male” river is the Brahmaputra (son of Brahma).
D.P. Tiwari tracks many references of the Ganga in the Puranas to elucidate the eminence of the river in post-Vedic literature.
Rana P.B. Singh from BHU in his paper “Heritagescapes of the Ganga River Basin: Understanding Global Civilization” recalls the demiurgic and spiritual properties and symbolism of water and of rivers in the cosmogenetic accounts provided in the Vedas. The ancients grasped the scientific connection between water and the other elements: air, fire and earth since hydrogen and oxygen are common to them in varying proportions. The purifying and cleaning properties of water were well known and are celebrated in most religions, all the way to the various forms of lustration, anointment and baptism practised worldwide even today.
Regarding geographic data, P.B. Singh provides impressive statistics. The Ganga is the river which carries the largest amount of sediments in the world (2.4 million metric tons per year). Its catchment area is close to a million square kilometres and its delta is the largest on earth. 450 million human beings live in its basin, the most densely populated on the planet and the number of sanctuaries dedicated to the river along its course, made up of no less than 108 streams, includes 5 kedars, 14 prayags and 5 badris. The author concludes his exhaustive presentation with timely reflections and warnings about the manmade threats to the river’s health and survival, from overpopulation to lack of sanitation, industrial waste, agricultural overuse, unsustainable tourism and the very change in the mental attitudes towards the holy river due to growing secularization and materialism of the public mores.
Other authors, such as Prithvish Nag and Deepak Nag write about “Bharatiya Samskriti mein Ganga: Ek Avadhana”; Rachna Sharma’s paper is entitled “Bharatiya Visvasam ki adhar bhumi mein Ganga”. The Singhalese scholar Anura Matunga dedicates his essay to Sri Lanka: “The Southern Recipient of the Ganga Valley Civilisation”. The author of this review evokes the fabulous reputation of the “Gangarids” in European culture, as late as in 18th century, known as the Age of Enlightenment.
The doyen of Indian archaeology, B.B. Lal retraces the “March Towards Urbanization in the Ganga Basin” on the basis of his and others’ many excavation campaigns, while B.N. Dimri draws a detailed historical depiction of the “Central Himalaya: The Place of Origin of Ganga for Archeological Perspective”. The former director of the National Museum, B.R. Mani dedicates his essay to the relation between Kasi, the holy city of Varanasi and the river which runs through it, while J.N. Pal retraces the archaeological timeline of the Gangetic valley through the seven distinct phases of habitation—from neolithic to early medieval—of Jhusi, the former Pratisthanapura of the Puranas which was a capital city of the Chandravamshi (lunar) dynasty.
The Sonali excavations in the Baghpat district (in Uttar Pradesh) have for the first time provided physical evidence of the existence of a “chariot-warrior” (maharathi) civilisation of Vedic character, consistent with the descriptions given in the Mahabharata, around 4,000 years ago.
This exceptional discovery is analysed by its authors, S.K. and Arvin Manjul, who show that such a refined and complex culture flourished much earlier than the digs at Hastinapur and other towns featured in the Itihasas have evinced so far. K.N. Dikshit, like Lal dates the beginnings of urbanization and the origin of the first states (janapadas) to the 9th century BCE, a thousand years later than the Sanauli burials. It should be kept in mind that “the deeper you dig the older your (archaeological) finds are likely to be”.
The remains found at Sanauli belong to what is known as the Copper and Ochre Coloured Pottery (OCP) culture which evidently coexisted with the middle and late Saraswati-Harappan civilisation, spreading a bit farther to the west. K.N. Dikshit, in his long article, suggests that the excavations at the presumed site of Hastinapura should be extended horizontally in order to determine if it was indeed the city contemporaneous with the Mahabharata war.
Other essays in the book (Bhuvan Vikram, T.S. Ravishankar, Anand Bardhan) cover many other aspects of the river valley’s history from the Bengal delta to Kampilya, the realm of the Kuru-Panchalas and Queen Draupadi’s land of birth. Neera Misra, who hails from that region, contributes a paper on Ganga, Parvati and Draupadi, reminding readers that the wife of the Pandavas was also, according to tradition, an incarnation of Parvati, Shiva’s consort and a shining embodiment of feminine power and freedom in the feudal society of her time.
The second section of the volume is dedicated to “Ganga in Text and Visual”, illustrating the varied iconography of the river and its surroundings and succinctly describing the major cities, pilgrimage centres and visitor attractions, natural and man-made, which dot that area more populated than certain continents.
The book is a fitting monument to the legendary, historical and spiritual heritage that the Ganges carries in its flow, for the enlightenment of all humanity.