The Name of a River

Parineeta Dandekar
  • This is a guest blog by Parineeta Dandekar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People
Thinking Athirappilli
Thinking Athirappilli
Photo Credit: Parineeta Dandekar

India had a very talented filmmaker named Ritwik Ghatak who made films in the 50s and 60s about sense of place, of belonging and of displacement. And maybe because of this, rivers played an important role in his work. Struggles and loves and triumphs of men and women were entwined around rivers like the Subarnarekha, Padma and Titash. A posthumous documentary made on Ghatak borrowed part of its title from one of his films: The Name of A River.

Indeed, river names in India are as enigmatic as the rivers themselves. We have many duplications, some thousands of kilometers across, strangely wise colloquial names, mellifluous Vedic/Sanskrit names with ancient roots crossing continents, some once-vedic names rounded at the corners, made warm by tumbling down the centuries. Most Indian rivers are females, but we have several male rivers too, the most famous being the Brahmaputra, which literally means “Son of Lord Brahma”. But we have several other male rivers like Ajay, Damodar, Rupanarayan, Pagla, Godadhari, and interestingly this boys’ club is concentrated in one part of the country: West Bengal, where the Ganga broadens and slackens as she forms her delta. Here, the floods are devastating and they mean more water and less land. Some believe that it is the destructive, ruthless nature of these rivers, quite unlike the otherwise benevolent form, that leads to male names.

Not all male rivers are ruthless though. Some male rivers like Rongeet or Bhaga are lovers, racing their partners joyfully (Teesta and Chandra, in this case) to meet at the confluence, with many stories in their wake. In these stories, male rivers are invariably depicted as impatient and rumbustious, while the female rivers are calmer and serene as they meander down their remembered paths. In the Northeastern state of Sikkim, the Rongeet and Rongnue meet to form the mighty Teesta, while in Himachal Himalayas, the Chandra and Bhaga form the Chandrabhaga or the Chenab, which flows into Pakistan and eventually meets the great Indus, also known as Abaseen, or the father river. Incidentally, it is this Indus or Sindhu, as it’s called in Pakistan, which gave India its name.

The Chandrabagha
The Chandrabagha
Photo Credit: Parineeta Dandekar

Chandrabhaga literally means “crescent of the moon”. India has four more Chandrabhagas, one in West Bengal, to the east of India, another in Gujarat in the West, one in Odisha, to the southeast, and one in Maharashtra, where it is worshipped and said to be the “Maher” (Mother’s home, a dearly loved sanctuary for married women) of devotees of Lord Panduranga, the god of shepherds and farmers of a dry region.

Duplication of river names is not an exception. We have two Godavaris, one in Maharashtra, originating in Western Ghats and flowing down to become one of the longest rivers in peninsular India, and another Godavari thousands of kilometers away in the Nepal Himalayas. Iravati is the classical name of Ravi, one of the Punjab Rivers, but there is one more Iravati as well. The Irrawaddy (Pali form of Iravati) is formed by the confluence of N’Mai and Mali Rivers in Myanmar (Burma). While the Ravi flows into Pakistan to meet the Indus, the Irrawaddy flows into the Andaman Sea. Ganga is used interchangeably with rivers in many parts of the country; same is the case with Krishna, Gomti, Saraswati and many more.

Some believe that at least in some cases, river names were replicated to cash on or to recreate the grandeur of original rivers. According to Indologist Saili Palande-Datar: “The myths are created and legitimized and eventually you have your own sacred place to sustain trade, increase commerce and allied activities around it and attract religious pilgrims (tourists!).” Others like Dhiman Dasgupta state that river names were repeated simply because people travelled with their beloved names, reinstating them in new, unfamiliar places. And also simply because the archive of Vedic names itself was limited!

Some believe that Vedic names, melodious as they surely are, do not have the familiarity of the river and are more impersonal. While this maybe largely true, there are some striking exceptions; most remarkable is the Yamuna, which may indicate a water pirate! Geologist Dr. K S Valdiya tells us of three cases wherein a new channel desiccating an older, established channel is called as “Yamuna” in different parts of the country. A branch of the Chambal led to diversion of water from ancient Saraswati, leading to its desiccation. Before the 1720’s, the Brahmaputra used to meet the Bay of Bengal through Meghna, without joining the Ganga as it does now. It then abandoned this older path to meet the Ganga through a new channel: the Yamuna! In Meghalaya, Dhanasiri captured the headwaters of Kapili/Kopili and this “Pirate Channel” is again known as the Yamuna. It may also be a coincidence that all these channels are Yamuna, but the Sanskrit meaning of “Yama” is also a “twin”!

Colloquial names often point to the character of the river. A flashy river, pouncing on unknowing victims of her way is Waghadi (Tiger river) or even Potphodi (Stomach breaker) or Utavali (impatient one) or Bhukhi (hungry one) or downright Saitani (Devil River!). But we also have the Pranhita (benevolent one) and Payaswini (carrier of nectar).

Then there are some wonders which happen along the way. The Ganga is formed after Bhagirathi and Alaknanda merge in Uttarakhand, but when Ganga forms its delta, it again splits into Padma and Bhagirathi. Godavari is formed by a smaller Godavari and Gautami but thousands of kilometers downstream at the Godavari Delta, it diverges again into Godavari and Gautami. Yes, these are only river names, but the way they denote unity and continuity of the concept of river is surreal.

A Russian folktale tells us about a little lost girl who tells people about her otherwise plain mother as “the most beautiful woman in the whole wide world”. Many River-people have thought of their own rivers as the mightiest ones in the world. Zambezi, Rio Grande, Mahanadi, Guadalquivir, Mississippi, Sindhu all tend to mean “Great Rivers”.

Many river names denote a unique quality inherent to a river, that which is becoming rarer day by day: its flow. Ancient Greek Tigris is said to have evolved from the original Sumerian Idigna which means “Running Waters”; Bosna likely from Illyrian Bosona means “flowing water”; Waikato River in Maori loosely means “Flowing Waters”; Rhine, which comes from Middle High German Rin, means “to run or to flow”. Same is the case with Reno River in Italy.

Ganga, the mother river of India, is being fettered by over 300 dams at her origin in the Himalayas. The name Ganga comes simply from Gam Gachhti: She who flows.

On the occasion of the International Day of Action for Rivers, at a time when more rivers are dammed and rendered dry and lifeless and less rivers are flowing, let us hope that we are able to bring rivers closer to what they once meant to us, what they once told us, through their flow.

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  • Parineeta Dandekar works on issues related to rivers and dams in India and is with South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP).
Wednesday, March 11, 2015