Old meets new at the Yamuna ghats in Delhi
On the red sandstone steps of Ghat number 24 leading to the Yamuna on a hot summer afternoon, Ganesh Pandit (28) is scrolling through his phone. He occasionally shifts his gaze to his two red boats, anchored a few meters away.
The boatman has an Instagram account (@ganesh_ghat_no_24), and all his 400 posts reveal a little-known side of Yamuna ghats in Delhi – the ghats as a location for many a fashion photoshoot.
There are posts featuring young couples sitting cosily, holding hands, on his red-coloured boat; svelte models striking a pose while holding the oars; models in colourful sarees standing on the edge of the boat under a beautiful evening sky.
“These ghats have become a popular location for pre-wedding and professional photoshoots in the last 2-3 years,” says Ganesh, a tall, stocky man.
Located along the busy Ring Road, Ghat Number 24 at Yamuna Bazar area, near Nigambodh Ghat, is one of the 32 contiguous historic ghats in Delhi, which have sunk into oblivion over the years. The noise from vehicles begins to fade as one enters a lane and walk towards the ghats. A 10-foot wall hides them from the rest of the city. Behind the wall is a world struggling to keep pace with changing times, while keeping the old traditions alive.
Most ghats have single-storeyed houses inhabited mainly by families of priests who have been living here for generations; old Lord Shiva temples, chabutras (elevated platforms), akharas. Constructed in the early 20th century at about the same time as the Old Iron Bridge, most of the ghats—an important part of the city’s heritage — have lost their original character.
While performing traditional Hindu rituals related to birth and death continues to be the main source of income for some of the families living on the ghats, many are looking for alternatives. Ganesh’s late father, for example, was an astrologer. Ganesh, whose family has lived on the ghat for decades, has kept the tradition alive. But he has now hired a young priest to manage the pujas, as he now focuses on taking visitors on a boat ride —for leisure and photoshoots.
Ever since he opened his Instagram account — it has 700 followers — two years back, business has picked up. “My followers have been increasing every day. People now take appointment before coming. They like my red boat, as it comes out really well in photographs. Now some boatmen on other ghats have also got their boats painted red,” he says.
He is particularly busy during the winter (November to March) when a lot of models and professional photographers come to the ghat. “It is the time when the area gets a lot of migratory birds,” says Ganesh. “That is another popular location for photoshoots. Earlier, most people used to come here to offer prayers to get rid of evil spirits. Now, many come for photoshoot as the tall grass provides a nice background.”
With the river has turned into a drain and a dumping ground for waste over the years, the once vibrant ghats, which face utter neglect and civic apathy today, are not as picture perfect as Pandit’s Instagram account would suggest.
Only two percent of the river’s length passes through Delhi, yet the city contributes around 76% of its pollution load. At least 23 drains empty into the river. Such is the water toxicity that the NGT had raised doubts over the quality of vegetables grown along the floodplains.
“The river is kept out of focus, as it is dirty,” said Sourabh Gandhi (31), a freelance photographer. “Not many people know about this place in Delhi. Last year, I conducted a workshop for amateur photographers at the ghats which was attended by 280 people.”
Ankur Anand, who works with an MNCs, got his pre-wedding shoot done at the ghats. He says, “We didn’t want to go to a regular monument to get the photo shoot done. This place, though dirty, served as a good background with the river, temples etc. With basic improvement in civic infrastructure, the ghats can turn into a great place.”
Sunil Kumar Sharma (55) is one of the few priests left on the ghats who performs the evening aarti. Every evening, he sets up the microphone, spreads sheets on the floor for people to sit and pull out musical instruments from a small room. And what follows is an hour-long aarti clubbed with bhajans (hymns).
Recalling the old times, Sharma says most ghats had community affiliations. For instance, if Ghat Number 21 was frequented by the Baniya community, Ghat Number 19 had Marwari visitors and the Ghat number 20 mostly attracted Yadavs.
On the neighbouring Ghat Number, 23, octogenarian Ram Nath has been performing aartis every day in the morning and evening for over five decades. He used to run an akhara here. Before he starts the preparations for the aarti, he washes his hands, feet and face with the river water. “I know the river has become extremely dirty, as several drains flow into it,” rues Nath. “But no matter how dirty the river might be, it is Goddess Yamuna for me,” he says as he places flowers, roli (vermilion), an oil lamp on a steel plate for the aarti.
In a bid to keep tradition alive, the Yamuna Ghat Panda Association has been conducting maha aarti every last Sunday of the month. The ghats then transform into a mystical place, attracting many people. “Our young generation doesn’t want to continue with the traditional occupation. We are trying to keep it alive through these events,” said Suresh Sharma, chief of the association.
Till the mid-80s, the old-timers say, people from across the city and neighbouring areas in Haryana used to come here regularly to offer prayers and also to spend some leisurely time, participating in swimming competitions, boat rides, etc. “We would stand in the river for hours to do Puja. Though we continue to offer prayers, we enter the river just once a year during Shrawni Upkarm (which marks the end of monsoon),” says Kailash Nath Shastri, a priest at the nearby Sri Dharm Sangh Sanskrit Mahavidyalaya, a school for priests.
While some ghats, like 21, 23, 24, have retained a bit of their old-world charm, others have changed beyond recognition with two-storeyed houses constructed cheek by jowl. The ghats have also witnessed a demographic shift, with a large number of migrants from UP and Bihar making these ghats their home.
Lalita Devi (40) moved here from Bihar 15 years ago where the accommodation is cheap. While her husband works as a daily wage labourer, she makes garlands. A majority of women here make garlands to earn their livelihood. One can smell the fragrance of rose and marigold in the narrow congested lanes on Ghat no. 28. “There are so many temples nearby. We get a contract from the sellers. They pay us Rs 10-20 for 25 garlands,” adds Lalita.
The crumbling ghats may soon be restored to their old glory. Following the National Green Tribunal’s order, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) is working on rejuvenating the riverfront. It has roped in INTACH’s natural heritage division to do a detailed study on the eco-system and the historic significance of the area between the Old Iron Bridge and the new Signature Bridge (a 7km stretch) and suggest ways to restore the ghats and its lost connection with the city by making them accessible to the public.
“These ghats were active riverfronts of the city. With funding from the trading community of Chandni Chowk, these Mughal-era ghats were re-constructed during 1902. During our survey, we found hexagonal projections in the river which are typical of Mughal-era architecture. We are now trying to prepare a plan to make them more accessible to public,” said Divay Gupta, principal director and head of architectural heritage, INTACH Delhi chapter.
Back at Ghat Number 24, it is late evening and Ganesh Pandit, dressed in a green T-shirt and a pair of jeans, is about to let loose one of his red boats. “Delhi resembles Vanarasi on these ghats in the evening during the aarti, ” he says as he rows the boat towards the sandbar in the middle of the dirty river.