Chitvan Gill takes us through the little stretch along the Yamuna where the story of Indraprastha begins and despite the filth and stench, it offers a glimpse of its legendary past.
The great epics and sacred texts tell us about the beauty and power of the river Yamuna. This is the daughter of the sun god; sister of Yama, the god of death; lover of Krishna; sister to that other great river goddess, Ganga.The Gods themselves, Brahma and Shiva, are said to worship her.
The Ras Lila paintings of Lord Krishna consorting with his gopis are magical, ethereal, depictions of the river surrounded by lush sacred groves. On her banks, the great Sufi saint Nizamuddin Aulia spread his divine message. This is a river revered through antiquity; a river by which a unique culture flourished.
Today, however, as the Yamuna winds her course through the 22 kilometer stretch of Delhi, she bears no resemblance to her legend. Decades of wanton disregard have turned her into nothing more than a stinking sewer that is biologically ‘dead’ as it flows out of Delhi.
Yet there is a little stretch, a place where the story of Indraprastha begins; the story of the Pandavas, the story of Delhi. Here, despite the filth and degradation, we can still glimpse images which allow us to imagine what once was. From Nigambodh Ghat to the Lal Pul or the Old Iron Bridge, you discover ways of life that are still intertwined with the river and its sacred avatar.
The beginning of legend: Nigambodh ghat seen from across the river. These are the sacred waters within which Brahma recovered the book of knowledge and the powers of divinity, which he had lost. Nigambodh Ghat is thus a place of ending, it marks the finality of the mortal core; but it is also the source of a regeneration of immortal wisdom, of sacred knowledge. Death and immortality exist together.
A few havelis that once belonged to the city’s elite, survive on the river bank with elegant little chattris that shelter images of gods. An elaborate complex of ghats once lined the banks all along the old city, but most have been demolished by the Government, or have been abandoned and possessed by squatters. The few surviving ghats still retain a faded beauty. These are also under threat of demolition, as the Government plans to replace them with soulless concrete blocks.
The old ghats were not only places of worship, but places of recreation, of communal life by the river. Yamuna Bazaar was once renowned for its beauty, its parks, and its integral links with the life of the old city.
The divinity of the river remains as potent in the minds of devotees. The rituals of spiritual life continue in numerous temples by the river.
The pristine, Spartan beauty of a mud hut provides shelter to a family that ekes out a living on the river bank.
The Old Iron Bridge retains its beauty and power decades after its originally envisaged lifespan. Plans are now being made to pull it down.
A wrestler with his young acolytes. The tradition of akharas dates back to the ages of mythology. The soft sands of the river bank were deemed ideal for this sport.
The banks of the Yamuna were the traditional habitat of the Asian elephant. In Delhi today, a few surviving elephants, owned by impoverished mahouts, find succour by its waters.
The shameful condition of the river, nothing but a thick, oily sludge of raw sewage that flows in from numerous city drains. The fresh water of the river is dammed up at the Wazirabad Barrage through all but a few monsoon months.
The river is “dead” as it passes out of Delhi. At Okhla, a sea of foam from chemical pollutants forms a mantle over the waters.
The detritus of faith: an abandoned Shiva stares vacantly into space. The tradition of immersing idols and the offerings of devotees leaves the river littered with debris.
With lush marigold fields behind, a grower displays his day’s pickings in a sunburst of orange flowers.
The sun sinks into the horizon as a farmer’s family sits by their fields. The Government has plans to remove all the farmers and has drawn up elaborate plans that re-imagine the river banks as a banal, concrete amusement park, utterly divorced from the natural habitat and organic life of the river.
A glimpse of modernity: the metro line across the river at a distance from Nigambodh Ghat.
The river in spate after floods: the full, surging river cleansed of her filth, is evidence that all is not lost, and it is still possible to revive Delhi’s Yamuna.