Ganga’s Journey: Her Own and in Art & Sculpture
It was in 2022 when I first visited the mesmerising city of Banaras, a place that breathes history at every turn. Among many other things that this city offers, what I was awestruck by the most is the sheer magnificence of Ganga, with the sun’s gentle rays kissing its surface during early morning boat rides. Our oars gently caressed the water, guiding us past ancient ghats where ascetics, pilgrims, and temples stand in reverence. I remember thinking: the saga of life and death unfolds here.
At Guleria Kothi, where the magical Mahindra Kabira Festival unfolds, a celebration of the 15th-century mystic-poet Kabir, I found solace perched on the stone steps. At this festival, virtuosos of classical music showcase their mastery and love for the enduring philosophy of Kabir. Seated on those steps, I absorbed soulful melodies, all the while entranced by Ganga's grandeur.
I vividly recall gazing at and being moved by the vastness of Ganga, while contemplating one of the stories linked to this sacred river's descent to Earth, for most versions agree that she was raised in and flowed in the heavens.
So how is it that Ganga began to flow on Earth? Recorded in legend is the story of King Sagara of Ayodhya, whose 60,000 sons had been turned into ashes by the eternal Vishnu in the form of sage Kapila. When Sagara’s grandson Anshuman went searching for his forefathers, the king of birds, Garuda, informed him that their ashes could only find peace in the holy waters of Ganga.
It was not until the time of Bhagiratha, the succeeding king of Ayodhya, that Ganga descended to Earth. It was Bhagiratha who diligently practised austerities for years, earning the favour of Brahma. Bhagiratha's request was to scatter the ashes of his ancestors in the river, and it was unveiled to him that only Shiva possessed the strength to endure the force of Ganga's descent from heaven.
Bhagiratha then undertook rigorous austerities to please Shiva, who agreed to bear the force of the river’s descent. Initially, Ganga intended to carry Shiva into the underworld with her powerful current, but when Shiva tied his locks, she lost her way within his matted hair.
As years passed, Bhagiratha grew anxious and recommenced his austerities, and Shiva eventually released Ganga, who descended and split into seven streams. The seventh stream followed Bhagiratha to the ashes of his uncles. Ultimately, after thousands of years, the souls found peace in heaven.
Throughout Indian history, the legend of Ganga's descent and her personification has been a recurring theme in art and sculpture. One striking example is an early 18th-century painting from Rajasthan, which portrays Panchmukhi Shiva, the one with five faces, seated on a leopard skin on a terrace under an ornate canopy. To his left sits Nandi, his faithful bull. From Shiva's matted locks, his jata, which earn him the name Jatadhara, flows Ganga.
There are also depictions of Ganga flowing from Shiva's hair when he is accompanied by his divine family, Ganesha and Parvati. In one such artwork, Shiva is seated atop Nandi, alongside his son and wife. He holds a trident, a conch shell, a kettle drum, and a rosary. The Ganga flows majestically from his jata, within which a crescent moon is nestled. A golden-rayed green halo surrounds his head.
There is also this 20th-century painting by the iconic artist Upendra Maharathi. In this artwork, we are brought as close as possible to the visage of Shiva and for a moment, it looks like his face is the Himalaya, the abode of the snow – the mountain as Mahadev. His eyes are contemplative, and his calm expression almost makes you forget about the mighty force of Ganga, travelling through and out of his hair. The king of the serpents, Vasuki, coiled around his neck, also stands out, while being drenched in the waters.
And then we see the beautiful Ganga herself, painted and sculpted. In this late 19th century Kalighat Pata, we see her seated atop the crocodile-like sea-creature Makara, her vahana (vehicle). She is portrayed with four arms, seated in a cross-legged posture, and radiates with a halo behind her. Adorned with exquisite ornaments and jewellery, one can also catch a glimpse of her hair flowing behind her.
There is also a stunning sculpture of Ganga, dating back to around 600 AD during the Vardhaman period. Crafted from sandstone, the sculpture portrays her in a standing posture, encircled by attendants. The Cleveland Museum of Art emphasises that sculptures of Ganga were traditionally positioned at the entrances of temples. In this sculpture, she stands atop makara, depicted with an imaginatively foliated tail.
While these artworks and sculptures are undeniably breathtaking, the actual experience of being at the ghats of Varanasi and in the presence of Ganga is unparalleled. This eternal river serves as the magnificent backdrop to the Mahindra Kabira Festival, complementing this festival in all its splendour. Be it during the boat-rides in the mornings and nights, or at Guleria Kothi, where the river shimmers under the sun during soulful musical performances, or at the Shivala Ghat, aglow under the moon as musicians take to the evening stage, the Ganga weaves its magic into every facet of the festival.
At this festival, Ganga is always with us, and we are there with it, and there is nothing quite like it. If you too aspire to be a part of this phenomenal experience, be sure to mark your calendar for the Mahindra Kabira Festival, scheduled to take place from the 15th to the 17th of December, 2023.
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