I am from a city in Madhya Pradesh, situated on the banks of Narmada – Jabalpur. Having lived there for 22 years, I have witnessed the devotion that people of Jabalpur and Madhya Pradesh have towards the sacred river. The culture of the whole city revolves around this magnificent river and colorful ghats.
One of those ghats close to my home is Gwarighat, which sparkles with lights and people every day. It has more than ten temples and is also home to thousands of sadhus (religious saints) and devotees who live in temporary and permanent settlements nearby. Everyday, a huge crowd gathers at the ghat, four pujaris (priests) take their positions on top of pedestals and perform the Maha Aarti. During the Maha Aarti, several hymns of Narmada are chanted and a pledge is taken at last under the orders of municipality that we, the believers of Goddess Narmada, take a vow not to litter the river.
Everyday just after the aarti, a number of shops on the banks start their business, ranging from leaves to plastic cups full of flowers, small burning pieces of cotton dipped in oil, coconuts and incense sticks. Each night, the ghat sparkles with hundreds of such small flower lamps floating on the river, and the next morning, a group of volunteers wake up early and try to clean the waste created due to rotten flowers and half-burnt cotton. During summers, when the water of the river dries up, the exposed land in and around the river is filled with this debris which then becomes visible in the form of a green rotten smelly lump that even creates a break in the flow of river.
When I looked into mythology, I found Narmada being worshiped as a deity because she is considered the daughter of Shiva, emerging out of his sweat. This story has led to Narmada being regarded as a Goddess and her idols being carved and worshiped on a special day called Narmada Jayanti. On this day, idols depicting a fearless women riding a crocodile are placed in important places in the city. Ironically, these idols are then thrown into Narmada, with all the chemicals mixed in colors of the idol, choking the river.
It has become a common practice everywhere, to pollute the river that is sacred to us, in the name of culture and tradition. Even after the ban towards such practices and strict municipality actions in the famous religious places, the issue of religious waste accumulation in rivers is not stopping.
Even after living 22 years by the banks of Narmada, I never realized what exactly was wrong with the situation, until I came to Odisha as a part of India Fellow, to work with Thinkzone, an organization in Cuttack District. My role demands everyday traveling of 20-25 km across various villages of Cuttack as well as Kendrapada, to visit our learning centers. This daily commute takes me through several bridges on the tributaries of Mahanadi, and I have spent many evenings observing life near the banks of this river, trying to reconnect to my home city.
But it’s different here. Mahanadi is no Goddess, but just a river, an accident by Maharishi Shrangi in mythology who dropped his Kamandal (water pot) and the river appeared from that spot. Unlike Narmada or Ganges, Mahanadi has no special day for herself, leave alone idols. All it gets in terms of religious privileges, is temples on its banks and a few mentions in hymns.
The Mahanadi banks, thus, are usually serene. There are temples but no worship ritual is performed there. Some of the river banks in Cuttack are like deserted beaches, with miles and miles of its stretch till Paradeep. In contrast to Jabalpur, where even small ghats like Gwarighat have become a hub of all activities including, shopping, temples and restaurants, the banks of Mahanadi are still untouched.
With my limited observations, I don’t want to claim that Mahanadi is not polluted. In fact, it is, mostly with factory waste and untreated sewage from the cities. The visible pollutants that can be seen in Varanasi on the Ganga or in Jabalpur on Narmada, are however, absent. Even though Mahanadi is a perennial river, it is the eighth longest river of the country just after the Narmada.
Mahanadi, in a way, is similar to other rivers in south India, having little or no mythological reference. This questions our religious devotion towards rivers and goddesses. Why do we treat them the way we do? Is it a curse to honor a river as Goddess in this country? Exploiting river banks, performing rituals, dumping waste and dead bodies – how do we explain all this and still worship rivers and celebrate them. Is it not better to not give them that title and let them live?