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River Godavari 'assaulted' in the town which owes its existence: Trimbakeshwar, Nashik

By Parineeta Dandekar* 

Most Indian languages have a saying which goes something like: “Do not go looking for a river’s origin or a Rishi’s lineage”. I thought this was because these stories become eclectic and frankly scandalizing as we trace them. But while looking at several origins of River Godavari on the Brahmagiri Mountain, I realized that the meaning can be much simpler (or much complicated): It is difficult to decide on a single origin for a river.
The origin of River Amazon is not yet clear. After every few years , new research puts it a little further away from the former. There are debates about which is longer, Amazon or Nile. Western explorers in the 19th century went on romantic and some very dangerous expeditions to look for river origins in the Americas, Africa and India. 
Richard Burton and Speke, their adventures, their animosity, their losses and their momentous discoveries hold many like me in thrall. Kinthup tailor’s forlorn journey, forced by the British officers to find the origin of Brahmaputra reads like an epic. Dr. Livingstone’s journeys along the Nile, Zambezi and Congo, Bates and Wallace’s explorations on the Amazon seem like fantastic adventures. Lewis and Clark’s Expedition from Mississippi to the Pacific is as much about new river origins as it is about new land. As does the very recent journey of Alice Albinia in search of the origins of the Indus.
And yet, I have flinched many a times reading accolades for the wonderful explorers “discovering” a river’s origin. In many cases, the natives knew about the origin years ago, offered it lore and rituals and were at peace with it.
In the Indian subcontinent, origin of most rivers are storied places, full of adoration, songs, temples and sacred trees. In classic Sanskrit and vernacular literature, many River Puranas and Mahatmyas compete with one another for the amount of Punya garnered at a particular River. These Teertha Kshetras were economic hubs and their adoration was a serious part of business.
And then there is the strange quandary: The places worshipped as Ugam Sthanas (Origins) might not actually be the origins at all. But that can be a bit redundant in the wider scheme of things. I met two sets of villagers who thought the other stole their river’s origin (Ram Nadi near Pune). Like all things to do with rivers, origin is as much a social and cultural construct as a hydrological or geographical one.
Such is the case with Godavari, peninsular India’s longest river.
In the small settlement of Trimbakeshwar at the foothills of Sahyadri, Godavari has many ugam sthans, each obscured with stories. Some classical tales get their own temples, while oral traditions are open to the sky. It is surreal to trace the tapestry of places and stories, finding the same sacred Ficus trees mentioned three hundred years ago, to see a priest recite the same shlokas for centuries and to see devotees climb a formidable mountain to see a river in her infancy, like they have ben doing for hundreds of years, if not more. Somehow it is in keeping with the character of a river, ‘everlasting, ever flowing and yet ever the same.’
Godavari originates from Brahmagiri, a lofty, wall-like sentinel in the Sahyadri mountain ranges of Nashik, Maharashtra at an elevation of about 1295 meters. Town of Trimbakeshwar at the foot of Brahmagiri practically owes its existence to Godavari’s glory. It is a Jyotrilinga (enlightened/lighted Shiva) and the stone linga (symbolic phallus) is made of three indentations in a smooth rock each for Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh, the holy trinity of the Hindu Pantheon. Constant water trickles from Mahesh’s indentation. Hence the name Trimbakeshwar: Lord with three eyes. The town as well as the mountain itself is dotted by Teerthas (sacred springs), Kundas (sacred spring tanks) and Sangams (sacred confluences).

Brahmagiri-Gangadwar-Kushwarta

One of the oldest stories about Godavari’s (Godavari, Ganga and Gautami are used interchangeably in Trimbakeshwar) origin comes from the Brahma Purana, written nearly a thousand years ago, has an entire section on Gautami Mahatmya (in praise of Gautami).
Gautami Mahatmya was the source text for the more recent Goda Mahatamya written by Das Ganu in 1921. One of the most abiding stories here is Godavari’s birth from Shiva's locks but it also narrates the legends and merits of the various holy places (teerthas) situated around the banks of the Godavari river in 105 chapters. After separating wheat from the chaff, Gautami Mahatmya is a glorious treatise on the origins, flows, confluences and landscapes of Godavari in its headwaters: a sort of an original Godavari travel guide.
Brahmagiri, the mountain where Godavari emerges, was described as the abode Rishi Gautama: “Gautama has resorted to that excellent mountain and is staying there ever since. Neither mental worries nor physical ailments, neither famine nor absence of rain, neither fear nor grief, neither poverty nor misfortune are ever heard of in his excellent and highly meritorious hermitage on the auspicious Brahmagiri.”
In the Kailash, Goddess Parvati was jealous of Ganga enthroned in Lord Shiva’s locks. Parvati asked her son Lord Ganesha and her servant Jaya to help displace Ganga. Jaya took the form of a cow and started grazing in Gautama’s most excellent paddy fields. When Gautama chided the cow with a grass stalk, it feigned its death and Gautama had to bring Godavari to his Ashram in order to absolve him of the sin of killing a cow, a symbol of prosperity. The name Goda or ancient Gola also means “bestower of cows”.
As Brahma asks Ganga to accompany Gautam, he tells her, “You are calm now. Go happily, carry out what is conducive to the welfare of all.” Godavari sure does that.
“Within a distance of two hundred Yojanas, there will be three and a half crores of holy centres. Gaṅgā belonging to Maheśvara, is called Gautamī, Vaiṣṇavī, Brāhmī, Godāvarī, Nandā and Sunandā. It is the bestower of desired objects. By mere remembrance it destroys all sins. It is always dear to me. Of all the five elements it is the water that has attained most excellence.”
There are several versions this and completely different tales in oral traditions. But all stories accept the fact that Brahmagiri, the lofty mountain, is Shiva itself. Like Shiva, Brahmagiri has five peaks Sadyojata, Vamadeva, Aghora, Tatpurusa and Ishana (Dhere 1977). Godavari flows from the Ishana peak, while four other rivers flow of the four other faces of Shiva. Ahilya from Sadyojata, Vaitarna from Vamadeva, Banganga from Aghora and Ramganga from Tatpurusha.
It is said that the mountain is circumambulated everyday by priests in a never-ending rally. In the month of Ashadh, in the monsoon, thousands of people join this circumambulation. I have done this and it is not easy.
After emerging at the Brahmagiri peak, Godavari is said to disappear underground and then spout out at to Ganga Dwar, half-way on the cliff, then momentarily at Ram and Lakshman Kund and then at Kushavarta: a sacred stepwell/ Kunda. From here Godavari flows in a man-made, closed channel and to the temple of Trimbakeshwar and taken out, mostly a dry, polluted and diminished water body. Here is the confluence with River Ahilya, who in Gautami Mahatmya was Gautam Rishi’s wife, cursed by him to be a dry river. Gautami-Ahilya Sangam is extolled as a particularly sacred place where several rituals take place. All this leads to a severely polluted and stinking river right at her origins.

The journey

We started climbing up Brahmagiri from the south, crossing one water divide after the other. The mountain is held sacred in the Nath tradition, a tradition of esoteric and syncretic travelling gurus who roam all over the subcontinent.
The path in the mountains was lined with step wells made by Sindhi Traders back in 1913. Deep rock cut steps with Nath figures watched over the mountain walls. The climb was steep and the monkeys along the way were momentous. They would unzip bags, take out water bottles, unscrew them, have a drink and fling the caps at the trekkers. The path was lined with plastic caps! Now that the mountain has been declared as an eco sensitive site, Forest Department should easily control the use of plastic bottles in this area.
On the way up are several caves where Nath devotees stay frugally. We crossed Anupan Shila, a huge boulder with a lone Ficus tree which is an important meditation place in the Nath tradition. Below the boulder, were the ever-present Saati Asara markings, water deities worshiped in the oral tradition.
The climb was dotted by spectacular Ficus trees, a couple of hundreds of years old if not more. Namami Goda Foundation has surveyed and cleared many kunds on the way of this hike. We were joined by Zole Kaka who sells tea and lemonade for weary trekkers and has been instrumental in single-handedly cleaning several tanks on the mountain. We met Gulab and Chandrabhaga Chaudhari who use plastic bottles dropped by trekkers to build their tea shed. Gulab runs up and down the lofty mountain every day collecting bottles. These are the heroes of our times.
On the summit, we were greeted by massive Ficus trees and golden grass as described in the Gautami Mahatmya. Brahmagiri Temple, one of the supposed origins, came to sight standing in its solitude with fluttering flags. The tiny temple has a Shivalinga and a small statue of Godavari from whose feet crystal water trickles constantly through a Gomukh (cow’s mouth). There is a small Kund here. It is spellbinding to see emerald water on a lone rockface.
From here we go further to Godavri Ugam Mandir, a tiny, open shed surrounded by three ancient Ficus trees from which Godavari spouts in an underground pool. A small kund is made around this pool. Inside is a stone idol of Godavari dressed in a synthetic saree and glass bangles. Water trickles into this cool, dark pool even as the priest keeps repeating Godavari’s story over and over for a sporadic line of devotees. As the cow plays a central role in Godavari’s origin story, there is a statue of a beheaded cow with a calf next to the Kund, dating back to early medieval to medieval period, so about 800 to 400 years old (personal communication Saili Palande Datar).

Figs and rivers

Three ancient Fig trees, Ficus racemosa stand sentinel at the origin. Several rivers in India like Indravati, Banganga, Godavari, Vaitarna, Mula have their origins at the feet of ficus trees. It is beautiful to see the holy trinity of a river, groundwater and Fig trees coming together in origin stories.
A letter written by the ruling class Peshwas in October 1759 states, “Godavari originates at the foot of Ficus trees. Protect the origin, install a Gomukh and Nadi Mahadev at the site and build a platform around the fig trees for protection.”
This puts the three fig trees around the origin at least 300 years of age, if not more! And the mountain is dotted with much older specimens.

Origin of Vaitarna

River Vaitarna, lifeline of Mumbai Metropolitan Region, also originates from the same Brahmagiri Mountain. Vaitarna’s dams supply water to Mumbai include Upper Vaitarna, Modak Sagar and Middle Vaitarna. Several large dams like Pinjal and Gargai have been planned in the basin.
As the crow flies, Vaitarna’s origin is less than a kilometer from Godavari’s and yet the rivers take two opposite paths (Godavari flows to the east to meet the Bay of Bengal and Vaitarna flows to the west to meet Arabain Sea) and mold the destinies of millions of people in the Indian peninsula.
Vaitarna’s origin again is guarded by a fig tree and has a beautiful but neglected kund. Zole Kaka with several students desilted this tank during lockdown times. It takes three hours on foot and a steep climb to reach this place. It is inspiring to know that locals did all that to show their respect and affection for the river.
From the origin of Vaitarna, one can see the vast Upper Vaitarna reservoir. Nirmal Mahatmya and Trimbakeshwar Mahatmya say:
गोदावरीचा पश्चिम दिसे वैतरणी सिंधु संगम || आणि विमळ तीर्थाचा उगम || कैसाप्रगटला कोंकणी||21||
On the West of Godavari, one can see the confluence of Vaitarna and the ocean and the sacred Vimal Teertha in Konkan.

In conclusion

As we climbed down and came into Trimbakeshwar, it was nearly unbelievable to see Godavari assaulted in the town which owes its existence to the river. Trimbakeshwar, though extremely rich in water sources, Kunds and springs, cannot drink water from these. It depends mostly on faraway reservoirs to quench its thirst. It has killed almost all of the sacred sources, has covered the river, converted it into a sewer and has completely concretized Godavari-Ahilya Sangam.
The devotees who pray to Godavari perhaps are looking for an imaginary Godavari and not the one in front of them.
In this scenario, there are several groups fighting for Brahmagiri and Godavari. I was fortunate to be accompanied by members of the Namami Goda Foundation which is working tirelessly on Godavari and are desilting and rebuilding the Kundas on Brahmagiri, apart from litigation work. They are also undertaking eco restoration of degraded mountain slopes.
In just a kilometer’s distance are the origins of two mighty rivers: one flows to the east for nearly 1500 kms, through three states and nourishes millions, the other flows to the west for just about 150 kms, has a small course but again nourishes millions. Does Godavari really originate at the foot of the fig trees? Does she disappear and then appear at Ganga Dwar and then at Kushawarta? We do not know.
Searching for the origin of a river is like searching for a wellspring within us. We may not find one single origin. But the journey to the उगम makes us more aware and conscious of all the interconnections that make a living entity: ancient trees, mountains, groundwater, people and their stories. And that is not a small feat.
---
*With South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. Source: Sandrp.in

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