/ Apr 2019
The Ganges: A Celestial River
By Dr Donald M Stadtner
The Ganges India Adventure: A Celestial River Experience. Much time and energy in the 19th century went to discovering the sources of the world’s great rivers. Much publicized missions down the Mekong River and the Nile and so on form a long list of daring explorations. But for Hindus, the source of the Ganges River was a non-issue. It descended from the heavens. Indeed, the river was gifted by the Goddess, known as Parvati, in response to an urgent plea from a ruler whose kingdom was parched with drought. Set to fall with incalculable destructive power, like a tsunami from above, the mighty river was cushioned by descending onto the flowing locks of Parvati’s consort, Lord Shiva. So, the river and its safe passage to earth reflects the joint action of Lord Shiva and Parvati. But for most Indians, the river is simply known as Mata Ganga, or literally Mother Ganges, a measure of its nurturing influence. The journey on this remarkable river resembles a pilgrimage, since the river is dotted with sites sacred to all of India’s major faiths.
The Ganges originates in the western Himalayas, from melting snow at the base of Gangotri Glacier, whose elevation is 3,892 metres (12, 779 feet). It winds down numerous streams, becoming rivers, that eventually debouch at Hardwar and the wide Gangetic plain. It then flows through the greater part of northeastern India before breaking into many deltaic rivers in West Bengal state. The most famous is the Hooghly which passes Calcutta, just before it empties into the Indian Ocean. Passenger ships on the Ganges were discontinued long ago, in the 1930s, supplanted by the country’s famous rail service. In 2010, was the first cruise company to venture in these waters, another feather in the hat for Pandaw. It was therefore very sad that the company pulled out after just one season following legal difficulties. As with all Pandaw expeditions we expected the unexpected, a hallmark also of Indian travel (even for first-class land travel). But the unexpected in India is usually flavored with serendipity. Indeed, these very mishaps are the experiences that one remembers most vividly when comfortably at home.
Our journey begins in Kolkata, the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire in Asia. Its fame has of course faded since Independence in 1947 and its crumbling buildings need more than paint, but its narrow lanes evoke the Raj in ways that few places can. I am struck with the same feeling when strolling in the Colaba district of Bombay and old Rangoon. We first visit St. John’s, testimony to all of the triumphs and tragedies of British India. Inscriptions on tombs within the nave speak of the Afghan campaigns, the 1857 Mutiny and the two world wars. On my last trip I met outside the church a young Englishman who was searching for the memorial to one of his descendants. As we entered the church I was about to ask if I could help, but I knew it was a private moment and so let him be. But such tugs from the past are inescapable in Kolkata.
Near to St. John’s is the grand Victoria Memorial, constructed just as the decision was taken to move the capital to Delhi. Entirely of marble, it glistens. In my favourite gallery are huge canvasses by the most famous early British artists, such as Zoffanv. Even the Victoria and Albert Museum in London has nothing to compete with the size, quality and range of these many oil paintings. The Memorial is also a great place to ‘people watch’ since its visitors come from all parts the subcontinent, even Rajasthani farmers, with their colorful orange and red turbans and turned-up stiff leather shoes.
The 800 mile river expedition begins, after sailing from Kolkata, with a stop at a tiny former French outpost known as Chanderanagore where there is the house once inhabited by the French general, Dupleix. The next day finds us at Plassey, where Robert Clive defeated the French in a battle that perhaps decided if India was to be French or British. Other attractions further up river include the Vikramashila Dolphin Sanctuary. These endangered fresh water dolphins are making a steady comeback, and they are also found in the Irrawaddy and the Mekong.
A highlight of our pilgrimage is a full-day excursion to Buddhism’s most holy places, Bodh Gaya. For it was in this sleepy little village over 2, 000 years ago that Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment, an event that altered the course of world civilisation. Sitting beneath the special Bodhi Tree (Ficus religiosa), the Buddha emerged from a special trance, a new being, enlightened by meditation and self-examination. The Buddha’s youth was spent as a prince whose father shielded him from human suffering. However, he abandoned the untold luxuries of palace life to uncover the reasons for human suffering. The answer was announced to the world at Sarnath, another major pilgrimage spot on our journey, near Varanasi.
Pilgrims abound at Bodh Gaya from throughout the Buddhist world, from Sri Lanka to Korea and Japan. Bodh Gaya then is the Jerusalem for Buddhists. Many are Tibetans. The older monks fled Tibet in the 1950s when Chinese troops moved into Lhasa, and their spiritual leader is the exiled Dali Lama. Now there are second and third generation Tibetans in India, and youngsters can be seen learning the complex rituals that guide Tibetan life. Pilgrims congregate in the vicinity of is a large temple containing numerous Buddha images, but the chief focus is a massive Bodhi Tree towering at the rear of the temple. Buddhists believe that this is the same tree that Gotama Buddha sat beneath, but it probably represents innumerable plantings of Bodhi trees placed in the same spot. The tree itself is the subject of many legends. The most important is the ancient Emperor Ashoka who severed a branch that was later transplanted in Sri Lanka where it occupies one of the most sacred spots on the island. Another colorful legend claim that Ashoka’s wife poisoned the tree because she was jealous of the king’s attention to the tree; but Ashoka resuscitated the tree by pouring hundreds of pots of milk around it.
Near Bodh Gaya is the ancient university town of Nalanda, a Buddhist center that drew Chinese, Nepalese and Tibetan scholars centuries ago. Nalanda is often likened to the early universities of Europe, such as Oxford, the Sorbonne or the University of Bologna. Its brick monasteries form a contrast to the temple architecture at Bodh Gaya.
The city of Patna, capital of Bihar state, has a distinguished history since it marks the spot of Ashoka’s capital, the ancient Pataliputra. Even the Greek author, Megasthenes, mentioned the city. The city museum is a treasure house of Hindu sculpture and Buddhist bronze figures.
Varanasi culminates our journey-cum-pilgrimage. It is the home of the gods, especially Shiva and his consort Parvati, the pair to whom we must thank for providing the river. Dipping in the Ganges is as auspicious as it is protective, and thousands of pilgrims dot the stone steps, or ghats (Hindi), preparing for submersion in the chilly waters. In the narrow lanes behind the ghats are shops, selling everything from silk saris to religious souvenirs. But my favorite things are little handcrafted toys, some featuring full musical bands, all in a neat cardboard box, while others present all ten of Lord Vishnu’s avataras (Sanskrit), or manifestations. Little has changed in Varanasi.
On the outskirts of town is Sarnath, where the Buddha returned from Bodh Gaya to meet the five ascetics with whom he had earlier wandered. And here he spoke those immortal words that continue to resonate: that the root cause of suffering was desire and its handmaiden, attachment, and that to release ourselves from suffering the key was to restrict desire. And thus the Middle Way was born. This simple but powerful axiom is usually called the ‘First Sermon’ but this dry description robs the event of its drama and its consequences. It was not long after the Buddha’s demise that the Buddhist order arose, eventually spreading into Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, China, Korea and Japan. Paradoxically, Buddhism is no longer a major religion in India, its seeds sewn far and wide.
Sarnath’s museum centerpieces is an Ashokan column, with four rampant lions shown back to back. This became at Independence in 1947 the symbol of the Indian nation, appearing on bank notes and gracing the outside of countless government buildings throughout the land. Competing for attention is a Gupta period 5th century sculpture, showing the Buddha delivering his sermon at Sarnath to the new converts. On the base are shown two deer, suggesting that the Lord’s teaching were intended for all sentient beings. And deer are now at Sarnath, kept behind a fence and fed by pilgrims.
Our journey ends in Varanasi, but for many it is a beginning. India awakens us to a world quite different from our own. It is a difficult country, as even seasoned travelers will admit. But liking India or not liking India is not the point. Our vision changes and our horizons expand into areas we scarcely knew.