Mamallapuram, about an hour south of Chennai on the East Coast Road, is where we go to see the gigantic rock-relief called ‘The Great Penance’ carved on a granite rock wall 27 metres wide and 9 metres tall. They say the carving was started in the 7th century, during the reign of the Pallava king Mahendra Varman.
It’s clear at Mamallapuram that we’re not the first to have felt deeply moved by dauntless King Bhagirath who performed terrible austerities to Brahma ‘for a1000 years’, desperate to bring the purifying waters of the celestial Ganga to earth to cleanse his ancestors’ souls. The rock shows how Brahma appears at last to warn Bhagirath that if the Ganga does descend, her force will be earth-shattering and only Lord Shiva can mediate that.
Back to austerities for poor Bhagirath. The rock shows him reduced to ribs with an overflowing beard, standing on one leg with arms upheld in high namaskar. Shiva does the needful and it’s plain that those old stone-carvers enjoyed depicting how the Ganga then danced through our land and every creature was ecstatic and grateful.
Centuries later, hard facts explain why ‘The Great Penance’ of Bhagirath has watered the Indian soul for millennia. The Ganga Basin is more than one million sq km large, supporting a population of 448.3 million (says Census 2001) with fourteen rivers: Ganga, Yamuna, Betwa, Chambal, Damodar, Gandak, Ghaghra, Gomti, Hindon, Kali, Khan, Kosi, Kshipra and Ramganga. That’s eleven states - Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal and Delhi.
These figures are from the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), established in February 2009 as the “financing, planning, implementing, monitoring and coordinating authority for the Ganges River, functioning under the Ministry of Environment. The mission of the organization is to safeguard the drainage basin which feeds water into the Ganges by protecting it from pollution or overuse.” The Union Budget 2012 allocated R500 crore to NGRBA.
The carvers of The Great Penance, miles away from the Ganga Basin, toiled to make Bhagirath’s story known forever in stone as a dramatic reminder for children yet unborn that rivers are extraordinary blessings. Should we not all join hands to rescue our rivers from those who forgot that if our waters die, we die with them? For, who among us can do what Bhagirath did alone? It’s our collective penance now.
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture