A River of Pilgrims

As crowds continue to gather in their millions in Praygaj for the biggest Kumbh Mela of all time, I’m still sitting in London thinking of Nehru. He was a prolific writer and many of his letters are passionate expressions of love for India, and in particular the Ganga, or Ganges. to his daughter Indira he writes “for two thousand years or more, innumerable pilgrim souls have marched through these valleys and mountains to Badrinath and Kedarnath and Gangotri, from where the baby Ganga emerges.”

As the letter continues, Nehru declares how he longed to explore India’s rivers, not only literally but also metaphorically, “to trace them from the dawn of history, to watch the processions of men and women, of cultures and civilisations, going down the broad streams of these rivers.” 

The poetry of Nehru’s words owes much to the great Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, which iterates all of India’s rivers in a long flow of words 

“the enormous Ganga, Sindhu or Indus, Sarasvati, Godvari, Narmada, the great river Bahuda, Shatadru, Chandra-bhaga, the mighty river Jamuna, Drishadvati, Vipasha, Vipapa, Sthula-valuka, the river Vetravati, the river Krishna-vena, Iravati, Vitasta, Payoshni, Devika, Veda-smitra…[ii]

And so the list of river continues. This epic, which is thought to have its origins in the 8th or 9th century BCE, provides a gateway into understanding what draws pilgrims to the Triveni Sangam in their tens of millions at this time. Not just the confluence of the three rivers, but the confluence of the past, the present and the future. 

 


[ii]Bhisma, verses 4-12, 9.15, Mahabharata, translated by Alex Cherniak, pub nyupress.org, 2008

[iii]Jawaharlal Nehru – an autobiography, pub John Lane Bodley Head, London, 1936 

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