…to continue the notes of a first-time pilgrim
October 5 – 10, 2015
A river runs through it – the college where I did my graduation. ‘Sokanasini’ they call her. As in ‘the one who ends grief’.
I had spent some of my happiest hours there, by her banks, with some of the finest people I had known in my life. My friends who did better than all the king’s soldiers and all the king’s men in putting me together.
The river was my friend too. I had sat in contented silence on her banks, hidden from the world by teak and acacia trees, dreaming impossible dreams. We – my friend Honey and I – had talked, laughed, read poetry and shared secrets as only the very young could have. We had waded through the weeds to sit on rocks, sighing as her gentle waters caressed our feet. At such times, I had almost believed that all was well with the world.
Sokanasini… Who had named her thus? Another lost soul who must have, at some point, allowed their pain to be washed away by her gentle waters?
Who names rivers anyway?
As our bus wove its way through mountain roads, there was always a river that accompanied us: Alakananda, Mandakini, Bhagirathi, Saraswathi, Ganga, Dhauliganga, Pindar… Chanting those names in the loud silence of my head, I had wondered, a hundred times during the bus journey: who names rivers?
These beautiful names that originate in the heart and roll out of the tongue in whispers. Teasing, sensuous… yet somehow aloof. Names that carry a wealth of meaning, just like the water that meanders its way through rocks and bramble, a world of secrets glinting in its jade-coloured depths.
Our guide Chauhanji told us stories. Stories about Ganga who had once made her queenly way through the heavens. Who at first laughed at Bhagirath when he pleaded with her to come down and bless the earth, and her eventual decision to relent at the behest of Vishnu. About Shiva who conceded to absorb her impact, thus taming her into what she eventually became.
He told us about Saraswathi who disappears into the earth right at her birthplace in the Himalayas, and surfaces only at Allahabad…
There were more recent stories too. Of the time when these rivers raged through Himalayan valleys, punishing, erasing everything in their path. Stories repeated at each new scene of devastation. Chauhanji pointed out to us the ravages of that flood, all the way to the top. Damaged roads, destroyed mountainsides, wasted lives…
Water – the giver and taker of life. Untouched by all it touches.
Then he showed us where they meet – the rivers. And they are sights to behold. These confluences, prayags, are considered holy, with much history and myth associated with each. And not without reason. There is something awe-inspiring about them, even when you merely see them from a distance.
Two rivers that wind their way down mountainsides, each carrying its own secrets, its own stories, its own hues. Converging, unwillingly at first – as evident from the differing shades of jade they maintain for quite a distance. And eventually, just out of our sight, they begin to accept each other with all the commitment of two souls that have decided to journey forward in accord. United they flow.
I lost track of the details of prayags we came across on the way, but I know there were five – Panchprayag, as they are known. Their names are as resonant as those of the rivers that meet.’Vishnu Prayag, Nand Prayag, Karn prayag, Rudra Prayag and Dev Prayag, in the descending flow sequence of their occurrence’ as Wikipedia tells me.
To me they are a confluence of beauty: nature at her best. Green and blue and every shade in between; sometimes calm and tranquil, sometimes turbulent and moody – always, always heartbreakingly lovely. At times, while browsing through the photographs from those days, I chant the names: Rudraprayag, Vishnuprayag, Devaprayag…
Who named them, these prayags? The one who named Haridwar as the door to the Lord and Rishikesh as the hair of the saint…and decided to call the land beyond as Devabhoomi, the land of Gods? Someone with bright eyes and endless curiosity, who loved the sound of Sanskrit words and would listen to it in the stillness of the mountains? One who revelled in the depth of meaning buried in those syllables? And a group of like-minded others who sat around a fire and listened to his/her stories, seeing the wisdom in them?