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Photo of the Month - exploring the Story behind the Image...
Ma Ganga statue at the Haridwar Bathing Ghats
Year: 2013, Month: July
India > Uttarakhand > Haridwar
This month's photo shows a statue of the goddess 'Ma Ganga', or 'Mother Ganges', at the Hari-ki-Pairi bathing ghat of Haridwar, one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities. The town is of great antiquity, and has borne many names. It was originally known as Kapila or Gupila, from the sage Kapila, who passed his life in religious austerities at the spot still pointed out as Kapilasthana. Hiouen Thsang, the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim, in the 7th century AD, visited a city which he calls Mo-yu-lo, and the remains of which still exist at Mayapur, a little to the south of the modern town.
The great object of attraction for pilgrims of the present day is the Hari-ke-charan or bathing ghat with the adjoining temple of Ganga-dwara. The charan, or foot-mark of Vishnu, is imprinted on a stone let into the upper wall of the ghat, and forms an object of special reverence. A great assemblage of pilgrims takes place on the first day of the month of Baisakh, the commencement of the Hindu solar year (March-April), and the anniversary of the day upon which the Ganges first appeared upon earth. Every twelfth year, the planet Jupiter being then in Aquarius, a feast of peculiar sanctity occurs known as a Kumbh-Mela, which is attended by many millions of people. This same festival moves every three years between the cities of Nashik, Ujjain, and the most important of all, Allahabad, where the Ganges joins with the Jummna and the mythical Saraswati rivers. You can also see some of my Allahbad Maha Kumbh Mela photos from the 2013 gathering on this website.
The Ganges at Haridwar, after rushing down from the mountains, spreads out and divides into many shallow channels, intercepted by islands. The main town of Haridwar is on the right bank of the river, and provides many bathing ghats where pilgrims come to wash away their eternal sins. Many gods and godesses are worshipped in the various temples along the banks, with Shiva and Vishnu having special prominence, but despite their temples and statues, it is the river that is the centre-point of their experience for most pilgrims, and people's thoughts are never far away from the goddess who embodies the river: 'Ma Ganga', 'Ganga Mata', or 'Mother Ganges'. She is the mother of Hindu worship and culture, and the mother to other Hindu gods. She is all accepting and all forgiving. Unlike other goddesses, she has no destructive or fearsome aspect, destructive though she might be as a river in nature. The 'Bhagavata Purana', one of the great Puranic texts of Hinduism, tells the story of how the river Ganges and Ma Ganga were born. The tale goes something like this:
Lord Vishnu, in order to measure the universe, extended his left foot and pierced a hole in its covering with the nail of his big toe. Through this hole the pure water of the Causal Ocean (Divine Brahm-Water) entered this universe as the Ganges River, acquiring at the same time a very beautiful pink color, a result of its having washed the lotus feet of the Lord, which as we all know are covered with reddish saffron. The water settled in Brahmaloka or Brahmapura, the abode of Lord Brahma.
Several years later, a king named Sagara magically acquired sixty thousand sons. One day, King Sagara decided to perform a horse sacrifice or Ashwamedh-Yagya as a proclamation of his supremacy. The horse was to be escorted on an uninterrupted journey around Earth by his sixty thousand sons. Unfortunately for this plan, the horse was stolen by the jealous Indra, Supreme Ruler of the Kingdom of the Gods, who was filled with fear that he might lose his celestial throne if the ritual was a success. He tied the horse to a post near the ashram of the meditating Sage Kapila, from whom even the gods trembled. Sagara sent all his sons across the earth to search for the stolen horse. Eventually, after much searching, they found it in the Underworld, where Indra had left it. Believing that Kapila had stolen the horse, they hurled insults at him and caused his penance to be disturbed. The sage opened his eyes for the first time in many years, and looked at the sons of Sagara. With this glance, all sixty thousand were burnt to death.
So, the souls of the sons of Sagara wandered as ghosts since their final rites, an essential part of Hindu ritual, had not been performed. The only solution to save the souls of the sons was to get the Goddess Ganga to come down from the heavens and cleanse their ashes. When Bhagiratha, a great-grandson of Sagara and now a king of Kosala (a kingdom in ancient India), learnt of this, he vowed to bring Ganga down to Earth so that her waters could indeed perform the task and release them to heaven.
Bhagiratha thus prayed to Brahma that Ganga might be allowed to come down to Earth. Brahma agreed, and ordered Ganga to first go down to the Earth, and then on to the Underworld so that the souls of Bhagiratha's ancestors would finally be released. But the great river goddess feared the earth, thinking that sinful people would bathe in her waters, thus sullying her with bad karma. She felt that if the sinners of the earth, who do not know what kindness is and who suffered from egoism and selfishness, came into contact with her, she would lose her sanctity. Bhagiratha, eager for the salvation of his ancestors' souls, assured Ganga: "Oh! Mother, there are as many sacred and devoted souls as there are sinners, and by your contact with them, your sin will be removed." Ganga relented, but an additional fear still persisted - that the land of the sinners could never possibly withstand the great pressure with which the frothy waters of the holy Ganges would descend upon ungodly earth. Always resourceful, Bhagiratha prayed to Shiva that he break up Ganga's descent and stop this happening.
His prayer was granted. Ganga poured down in a great torrent on Shiva's head, but Shiva calmly trapped her in the matted locks of his hair, sanctifing Ganga and stopping the feared destruction of the earth. He let her out from his locks in seven distinct streams: Hladini, Nalini and Pavani flowed east, Subhikshu, Sitha and Sindhu flowed west, whilst the seventh stream did indeed travel to the Underworld where as hoped it washed the ashes of Sagara's sixty thousand sons, who all ascended to heaven while praising and blessing Bhagiratha. The six remaining streams stayed on Earth to help purify unfortunate souls there, and became the Ganges River as we know it today. Mother Ganga is the only river to have travelled to all the three worlds – Swarga (heaven), Prithvi (Earth) and, Patala (Underworld or hell), and is thus called "Tripathaga" (one who travels the three worlds) in Sanskrit.
Because of Bhagiratha's successful efforts to get the Ganga to descend to Earth, the first section of the river, from where it emerges out of a glacier at Gaumukh (the Cows Mouth), down to the confluence town of Deoprayag, where it merges with the Alaknanda, is still known as the Bhagirathi. It is only after the Deoprayag confluence that it finally becomes the holiest of all rivers in India, the River Ganges.
It is sometime believed that the river will finally dry up at the end of Kali Yuga (the era of darkness, the current era) just as with the Sarasvati river, and this era will end. Next in (cyclic) order will be the Satya Yuga or the era of Truth.
As a footnote to this photo, you might be interested to see a series of images, also taken in Haridwar, that show the strange spectacle of Gods and Godesses rising to the surface of the River Ganges.
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