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Riverscapes: mythology, iconography, folklore and origins amidst rising water problems

By Proshakha Maitra*, Mansee Bal Bhargava**

Rivers are not just bodies of water and resources flowing across a landscape, but they are flows supporting a variety of cultural beliefs, values, and ways of life by linking people, places, and other forms of life (Anderson, et al., 2019). Since ancient times, rivers have been the ‘cradle of civilizations’ where the major civilizations of the world developed along the banks of the rivers. Even the earliest known urban culture of the Indian subcontinent, the Harappan (Indus Valley) Civilization developed along the banks of the Indus River that flows from the mountains of Tibet through India and Pakistan. Every river has its tales of mythology, iconography, folklore and origins which are worth knowing, especially in the current times when they are under severe distress of development. Since knowing these intangible aspects of the tangible resource/heritage is crucial to instigate emotional and spiritual connect which may in turn make people and policy makers understand these rivers better and thus have more empathy towards them to engage more sensibly and sensitively.
At Wednesdays.for.Water conversations a ‘Riverscapes’ Series is co-organized with ICOMOS India (Council on Monuments and Sites). Architect Nishant Upadhyaya, central zone (UP and MP) representative & executive committee member of ICOMOS India, has conceptualized the series. He will be the host for the sessions of the series.

ICOMOS and Riverscape Series

As the largest international network of heritage experts, ICOMOS, work towards furthering the agenda of conservation of all kinds of heritage – tangible, intangible and living. ICOMOS provides an open and inclusive forum for exchange of views and opinions on matters related to art, culture and heritage. It also provides a critical voice to heritage concerns and contribute to public policy and governance on heritage matters.
The aim of the series of talks on riverscapes and their cultural connections is to recognize the significance of waterways, their evolution and impact on socio-cultural aspects of community, and to encourage individuals in conserving this extensive resource. The series is planned with tentative session focus as,
1. Rivers – Mythology, iconography, folklore and origins.
2. River Heritage, India@75 and systems of protection.
3. Riverscapes for socio cultural placemaking and intangible heritage
4. Geological, hydrological, pollution and climate change aspects of riverscapes
5. Riverscapes as heritage for community and way ahead
6. River as a Socio-Ecological system
The first session of the series invited architect Sushant Bharati to speak on, ‘Mythology, Iconography, Folklore and Origins’. Sushant is a conservation architect and a researcher based in New Delhi. His primary research area is the cultural heritage of the Braj region. He has also been associated with works in Kashi on the culture and iconography of the region as well as the museum aspect. He is selected by the National Book Trust, Ministry of Education, Government of India to write a book on Indian Independence. He is currently a fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Ireland and Great Britain and an associate fellow of the Royal Historical Society of London.

Historical Significance of the Riverscapes

Indian history and mythology largely recognize the importance of the river systems over the land with numerous mentions of Ganga, Yamuna, Indus, Narmada, Saraswathi which are considered to be the major rivers flowing on the Indian lands. The 10th Mandala of the Rigveda (one of the most sacred ancient Hindu texts) contains the ‘Nadi Sukta’ which is a hymn that largely glorifies and praises the Indian rivers. The Rigveda also venerates Saraswathi as ‘Naditame’ and ‘Devitame’, meaning the greatest of all rivers and Goddesses. Ironically, this mighty and holy river is no longer be found to be flowing over the land and is lost to time.
Through the ancient Indian scripts and writings it can be said that the consideration of rivers as equivalent to Gods and Goddesses meant that they have been crucial for the survival and growth of the population. For example, the river Narmada has even been considered to be superior to Ganga. There goes a popular belief that the river is like a generous mother who grants the wishes of everyone who comes to her. With this belief, people also worship the stones and fossils obtained from the riverbed.
The historical importance of the Indian rivers is further highlighted by the fact that the 7 most ancient cities of the originated on the banks of the major rivers – Haridwar and Kashi along the banks of Ganga, Mathura along Yamuna, Ujjain along Shipra, Dwarka along Gomati, and Kanchi along Vegavathi.
The Hindu belief system has manifested every river as ‘Godly’ and considered them not only as 'holy' but also having an auspicious cleaning power. Even today, it is believed that bathing in the rivers can wash away a person's sins and thus it is a ritual to occasionally take a bath in the rivers and visit their sites as pilgrimage. Interestingly, the belief is so strong that pilgrims/believers take holy dip even into the polluted waters. There have been infrastructure projects done to bring water somehow to the desired river for holy dips, for example, Narmada water brought to Shipra for the Mahakumbh.


Rivers not only played a major role in the development of civilization but have also been an integral part of the daily lives of the people. This is evident from several practices of the past. During the era of Kumaragupta in the 5th century, coins bore the images of a lady figurine who was considered to be the river Ganga. As the king ruled near Ayodhya, his kingdom was very close to the Ganga, which had also played a significant role in trading of commodities during those times. Thus, as an honor, he had started using coins that had the image of Ganga carved out.
Ganga, Kumaragupta Coin, 5th Century CE
Source: Sushant Bharti’s presentation
There are also several other pieces of evidence of sculptors carving out the images of river Goddesses, for example of Yamuna and Ganga, on stones, pillars, walls of temples and several other places. Such practices show that rivers have always been very closely linked to the religious, economic, social as well as the political dynamics of the region.

Folklores around the Braj Region

The river Yamuna shows a sudden sharp bend at Khaincha Dauji which the people relate to very popular oral history. Balaram, the brother of Lord Krishna, was once very thirsty and ordered Yamuna to come a few steps near to him as he wanted to quench his thirst. The river refused Balram’s request which angered him. Annoyed at Yamuna, Balaram pulled out his plough and dragged Yamuna towards him. This action is believed to have caused a sudden bend in the course of the river. This shows how the people of the region had tried to link and understand certain geographical aspects with popular legends and folklore.
The region is also believed to be the place where Lord Krishna liberated the two sons of Kuber, Nalakuvara and Manibhadra, who were cursed by sage Narada to live the rest of their lives in the form of trees until the lord comes and frees them of their curse. The Yaksh deities have also been considered to be connected closely with water and thus the people in the region have worshipped them since antiquity. The river Yamuna is also known as the sister of Lord Yama, the God of death. The river is therefore considered as a barrier, keeping the blessings of her brother away and protecting the people from death.
Thus, several folklores establish how religious and spiritual beliefs of the people are interlinked with the river systems, signifying their importance in their day to day lives. Thus, rivers have been a complex social-ecological system since antiquity.

Temporal changes in the Riverscapes

The Indian rivers have lost their formal glory and beauty. Even though they form the basis of the economy in the agro-based country, they have been regulated heavily resulting in pollution beyond tolerable levels. Most of the mighty rivers are just mere channels of weak flowing water or sewerage. Even 30-40 years back, all the temples in and around Mathura obtained all their water requirements from Yamuna. There were even buses that had seats reserved particularly for this purpose of carrying water. However, ironically the river is no longer as it was earlier and does not have much water left in it to fulfill the requirements. This shortage has also led to a change in the practices followed. For example, earlier the entire ritual termed as ‘Abhishek’ during Janmashtami which involved cleaning and purification was performed with water from Yamuna. The dried-up channel now only allows people to sprinkle a few drops to just keep the ritual going.
In the past, Mathura and Vrindavan areas had large populations of tortoise living within the systems throughout the year. The current pollution levels have depleted this faunal resource from the waters and now they are no longer spotted all year round. They can be seen in very few numbers for hardly 1-2 months only during the monsoons when the water levels are relatively high.
Improper waste treatment is the major cause for the miserable conditions of our Indian rivers. For example, at Vrindavan, a ‘Nullah’ from river Kosi joins Yamuna, the water of which is supposed to be treated before its confluence with Yamuna. However, the water flowing is filled with human and industrial wastes, mainly from Delhi and its adjoining towns. The level of waste in the water is severely dangerous and it is entering the Yamuna system, thus degrading the water quality to a large areal extent. The various administrative bodies seem to be challenged to pay proper attention (and even ignore) to this issue.
Another example is of the Uttar Pradesh Government’s proposed plan for constructing a bridge over Yamuna to link a village with a town. However, protests from the local residents and activists pushed the government to stop the construction. Though the government had put down its proposal, this has left a large amount of building wastes on the riverbed which is affecting the water-soil-biodiversity of the river.

Importance of the River System

Apart from being a source of water, rivers are closely intertwined with the social and cultural lives of the people who reside along the riversides. Drying up or degradation of them will not only result in the loss of a resource, we will also lose a large portion of our culture and associated values. River water is seen to find a place in almost every action that humans perform, being an integral part of the daily lives. The animals near the river are also quite dependent on the river for example, along the banks in Mathura and Vrindavan, monkeys, dogs, cattle can be seen in large numbers taking a dip into the river and lying on the banks to avoid the scorching summer heat. With the current pollution levels, the water of Yamuna does not seem to be appropriate for their consumption.

Way forward through Interactions

It is now an established fact that anthropological activities in the water bodies affect the surrounding social-ecological systems. The shortage of water in the rivers has increased the dependence of people on water supply from the deep bore wells. Apart from groundwater depletion, it affects the foundation of the building and leads to the tilting or development of cracks on constructions. For example, an area in Uttar Pradesh where all the houses in a colony got tilted because of increased boring use. It forced the people to leave the area which brought changes in the social structure apart from the ecology.
Thus, changing the riverscapes affect the traditions apart from the consequences of natural damage. Since building traditions take a long time, with the present rates of pollution and urbanization it is very doubtful as to how much ecosystem of the river/s can be conserved and restored. Other changes only occur if the ecosystem characteristics remain natural. Even this is highly in doubt now.
If we like to (must) look for a silver lining in the current scheme of things in the riverscapes, we somehow need to bring back the emotional spiritual connection with the water bodies. As the shift in the people’s attitudes towards the waterbodies took place from worshipping them to constructing bridges over the rivers began post-independence with the rise of industrialization and urbanization. During the Zamindari system the temples around the rivers used to receive land grants which completely stopped when the Zamindari system was abolished. As the revenue decreased, people went out to other places in search of job opportunities. This migration from their native places disconnected them and they did not develop the feeling of closeness to the rivers any longer, both at the place they left (rural) and at the place they inhabited (urban). So how and when this emotional spiritual connection with the waterbodies will be rebuilt is an important question to ponder at plan. Here is an example of a festival on the river that is about draping mother river with a saree. Can we bring more people emotionally spiritually connect with the river?
Source: Sushant Bharti’s presentation
We learn that water management is society management and thus calls for collective action towards addressing the water worries through the immense wisdom available around us since antiquity. On Wednesdays.for.Water, there is a genuine attempt towards rebuilding some connection with the waterbodies and water matters related to both worries and wisdom. Regular communication is key rebuilding process. Besides, society needs to be informed in simple everyday language about the rising water problems and the available social-ecological-technical solutions besides the emotional spiritual connection we inherit from the past. Through the regular conversations we can attempt to connect the science and the society towards water conservation by ‘Making Water Everybody's Business’. This is the core principle of the WforW Foundation.
Wednesdays.for.Water is an initiative of the WforW Foundation, a think tank, built as a Citizens Collective. The idea of Wednesdays.for.Water is to connect the water worries and wisdom with the water warriors through dialogues/discussions/debates. The objective is to get in conversations with policy makers, practitioners, researchers, academicians besides the youth towards water conservation and management. The other team members of Wednesdays.for.Water are, Megha Gupta, Monica Tewari, Garbhit Naik, and Monami Bhattacharya (ED(R)C-Ahmd), Dr. Fawzia Tarannum (Climate Reality India), Ganesh Shankar and Vasantha Subbiah (FluxGen-Blr), Prof. Bibhu P Nayak (TISS-Hyd), and counting. The Wednesdays.for.Water is reachable at and WforW Foundation is reachable at and The WforW Foundation social media are reachable at Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.
*Independent Scholar and Fellow at Eco Development and Research Cell, ED(R)C Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation. **Entrepreneur, Researcher, Educator, Speaker and Mentor. Environmental Design Consultants Ahmedabad



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