A River Goddess, most likely the Ganga or Yamuna. Madhya Pradesh, 7th-8th century. Sandstone. Height, 69.8 cm.

The centrality of rivers to Indian history can scarcely be doubted, but surprisingly no scholar has ever sought to construct an account of Indian civilization shaped around rivers. Howsoever novel some of the recent innovations in Indian historiography, scholars remain tethered either to the older form of periodization of Indian history into ancient, medieval, and modern periods, or to the more recent considerations about the constitution of the ‘nation’, and the place of gender, race, class, and caste in the formation of Indian identity. Countless other narratives could be imagined, and water must surely be the subject of some of those narratives. Doubtless, many people are familiar with the place occupied by the two great river systems of the Ganga and the Indus in the development of Indian civilization, but a broader consideration of the tales that Indians have spun around these twisting bodies of water has never been attempted. If the cities that grew up around the Indus gave rise to the first civilization in India, and the Gangetic plains subsequently housed the great Buddhist monasteries, besides constituting some of the most fertile ground for nationalist activity in the first half of this century, the Narmada river has today become the chief site of the battle, so to speak, for India’s future if not its ‘soul’.

In Hinduism, rivers are often deemed to be sacred. Both during Durga Puja and the Ganpati festival, images of the deity are immersed in bodies of water, including rivers. The traditional association of rivers with fertility is no surprise, and it is no accident that the earliest civilizations, whether in the Indian subcontinent, or in Mesopotamia and China, also developed around the banks of great rivers. Yet one is confronted with the anomalous fact that most of India’s principal rivers are now indescribably polluted. Even the resources of an ancient religion are, clearly, quite insufficient in the face of the onslaught of modern, industrial civilization. If it is the dharma — not merely duty, but very being — of a river to keep flowing, then not only have Hindus (and other Indians) not assisted in the fulfillment of this dharma, they have violated their own dharma, which is to ensure that rivers flow. The fragility of ecosystems cannot be other than an index of the failure of social relations among human beings and the loss of wisdom. To see the Yamuna at Delhi is to be reminded, quite tragically, that the ancient aphorism associated with the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, namely that “one cannot step into the same water twice”, may yet be false: the river here is virtually black, and it seems inconceivable that anything except the most primitive forms of life could exist in this body of water. Rivers do flow, but the Yamuna at Delhi, in a manner of speaking, is stagnant — harbinger perhaps of the stagnation that an enormous bureaucracy brings with it.

No river is as sacred as the Ganga, but at some points the river and its tributaries show levels of pollution that exceed the permissible limits by a factor of 100. Yet to consider only this aspect of the history of the Ganga is to ignore the extraordinarily complex and nuanced cultural tapestries woven around the river. The myth of the descent of the Ganga is embodied in numerous works of Indian literature, painting, and architecture, such as in the great carving at Mahabalipuram. Similar myths have enriched the histories of virtually all the great river systems in India, and the development planners who sought to dam the Narmada river at various places scarcely paused to consider whether their actions would not violate the religious beliefs of the people who live in the Narmada valley. Indeed, for the Bhilala adivasis, one of the various people who are affected by the construction projects, the Narmada is the “mother”; among the Hindus, the river is venerated as the creation of Lord Shiva, and every stone in the bed of the river is viewed as a shivalingam. Pilgrims come to the Narmada from afar to carry out the parikrama, or the circumambulation of the river on foot. One can only hope that the struggle over the Narmada will not only bring to the fore the difficulties with the “development regime” to which modern India is committed, but also point the way to a richer appreciation of the place of rivers in the social and cultural life of India.