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Last week Ganga became India’s national river. But didn’t we know that all along? Gargi Gupta finds out.

india Updated: Nov 15, 2008 20:48 IST
Gargi Gupta
Gargi Gupta
Hindustan Times

There’s a Ganga out there — all filth and teeming life. And there’s a Ganga in here, inside the “hearts and minds of all Indians”, to quote Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who announced last week that the Ganga would be deemed India’s national river — pristine, life-affirming, holy. The irony of the contradiction between the real and the imagined escapes most of us. But the point is that the PM was talking about the Ganga of the mind, where it is the fount of Indian civilisation and the Indian way of life, indeed the way of all life itself. This is the symbol of sustenance, faith and sanctity. This is an image that’s been with us — not just as a subliminal memory from the Rig Veda but as a living part of our lives, reinforced by the florid depictions of the river in comic books, calendars, films, songs...
Go with the filmic flow

How’s this for cinematic stream of consciousness?

Raj Kapoor made Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai in 1960. Govinda did Jis Desh Mein Ganga Rehta Hai in 2000. In between came Ganga Jamuna (1964), Ganga Jamuna Saraswati (1988), Ganga ki Saugandh (1978), and even the Bhojpuri Ganga Maiyya Tohe Piyari Chadhaibo (1962). Need we say more?

But, Ganga kasam, the man who really milked the Ganga symbolism for all it’s worth was Raj Kapoor. For him, the river became, in Ram Teri Ganga Maili a symbol of the poor, innocent and (of course!) voluptuous female violated by rapacious men. It was a brilliant reading, one that lent itself to many opportunities to showcase bosoms draped in wet saris. Ganga references in Hindi films are nowadays down to a trickle. This is largely because Bollywood has more or less abandoned its north Indian male bhaiyya audience for its more well-heeled brethren beyond the seas. The only exception of late has been Prakash Jha’s Gangajal (2003), where the river’s water was an euphemism for the acid that the police used to torture criminals.

Holy water, distant shores

THE Belief that the water of the Ganga is pure and can cleanse your soul (never mind what it may do to your body) is one of the cornerstones of the Hindu way of life. But what do Hindus in, say, Uppsala or Boston, do for their precious supply of holy water?

If they are IT-savvy Indians, they can log on to the Internet and order their pouches of Ganga jal from one of the many sites that have sprung up lately. Paying by credit card through Verisign-secured payment gateways is still non-negotiable. (Even the Department of Posts seems to have joined the bandwagon and early this year it has proposed to start a similar snail-mail service for NRIs.)

A quick search on Google will net thousands of sites, virtually peddling Gangajal. “I don’t look at it as a business; it’s more of a charity,” says Ajay Singh of Singh has shipped Ganga water to the US, Britain, Australia and some countries in Europe. The cost — between $30 and $50 — depends on the destination and the quantity.

The first time Singh shipped a consignment to the US, he found he had to pay import duties on it. “I wrote to the embassy,” he says, “and pointed out that the water of the Jordan river, used for baptism, is not taxed.” He won the case. Singh claims to have a letter from the US authorities granting Ganga water exemption from customs duty. We will take a leap of faith.

Dipping into our humanity

"No! Mr Jiabao, I urge you not to dip in the Ganga, unless you want your mouth full of faeces, straw, soggy parts of human bodies, buffalo carrion, and seven different kinds of industrial acids,"Aravind Adiga has Balram Halwai tell the Chinese Premier in The White Tiger.

That’s the sort of line that goes down well in the West. But in salvation-hungry India, who’s going to buy that advice? The Ganga is our hot line to moksha. A million myths abound about the river’s magical powers — how the flow stops for one-and-a-half seconds before the aarti at Har ki Pauri at Hardwar begins. You only have to look at the thousands who throng the ghats in Varanasi, the sangam at Prayag or at Ganga Sagar during the auspicious Makar Sankranti, braving the bitter cold and death by trampling. They do their ‘dubki’ — dip with eyes closed, right up to the crown of the head — and come out shivering, to hang their wet rags on the steps of the ghat, to dress in a spirit of communion, uncaring who saw them, and then to go their separate ways. It’s they who give life to the river. And, yes, the river to them.

First Published: Nov 15, 2008 20:30 IST