Asian Continent

Two photojournalists continue their unforgettable pilgrimage along the length of India's two most sacred rivers, recording what they see with the penetrating eye of the camera. Their tale is also about the despoiling of these holy waterways by human ignorance and insensitivity.

Photography and Text By Sunil Vaidyanathan
Research and Coordination By Andy Mendonca

Ours, like all ancient civilizations started in river valleys. Our rivers are sacred to us. Our sacred places are for the most part located on the banks of these rivers. We venerate the mountains from where our rivers originate. Our feasts and festivals are held on its sands.

The rivers still retain their sacred flavour and ancient spirit. Here, we have attempted to capture it in images and words.

The pilgrimage down the Ganges, first of these two most sacred rivers, is covered in the article:
"Sacred Rivers of India, Part 1: The Ganges".

This account continues the journey on a major tributary of the Ganges and the second of India's most sacred rivers, the Yamuna (Jamuna). Its source is at Yamunotri, in the Uttaranchal Himalayas. It flows through the states of Delhi, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh, before merging with the Ganges at Allahabad. The cities of Delhi, Mathura and Agra lie on its banks.

According to legend the goddess of the river, also known as Yami, is the sister of the Hindu god of death Yama and the daughter of Surya, the Sun god. The river Yamuna is also connected to the mythology surrounding the Hindu god Krishna.


We were told that a road did exist to our first destination, the source of the Yamuna in the Western Himalayas. The road along the valley often dipped so suddenly that time and again the wheels of our SUV skirted dangerously close to the exposed edges.

Climbing steadily, the road grew narrower. Bite marks of bulldozers that had built it could still be seen on the soft rock. The path entered a coffin shaped gorge and continued into a woefully narrow opening at the foot of a great mountain. We stopped where the road ended, greeted by a cloud of dust, diesel fumes, impatient honking, and braying hill mules. The afternoon's harshness was now replaced by the chartreuse and pink of late afternoon light followed by a darkness that swept through the landscape, stealing colour and shape and rendering everything as a gray formless blur.

At first the area seemed sparsely populated, but then as suddenly the mist cleared, and we walked into the village of Janki Chatti--the base camp of Yamunotri where we would begin our journey down the Yamuna.

The next day we started the gradual ascent to the shrine that marks the birthplace of this great river. It is a five-kilometer trek through a once pristine Himalayan landscape now being gradually destroyed by poor civic sense on part of pilgrims. It is shocking to find the path strewn with plastic bags and empty mineral water bottles. The climb is easy; dodging hill mules and cantankerous porters is not. The path gradually flattens out and opens out to a semicircular gorge where the Yamuna begins her descent. From here it is an easy ramble across a rusted bridge over a gorge that leads to the shrine.

At an elevation of 3235 metres, the temple is one of the famous four "dhams" of Uttaranchal. Char dhams refer to the four most sacred and revered Hindu sites: Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. The actual source of the Yamuna is difficult to approach and is at an altitude of 4421 metres.

The escarpment above this gorge has been decapitated to provide space for ever-proliferating hotels and dharamshalas. The far side of the gorge below the escarpment is full of natural chimneys that spew steam and hot water from underground hot springs like fire-breathing serpents. Hot water trickles into the icy-cold mountain stream below, creating columns of steam. Look carefully through the camouflage of steam, and you will find a million mineral water bottles and plastic bags and used religious offerings bobbing up and down and trying hard to make their escape into the plains where environmentalists can discuss them at length.

The temple itself is a modest structure overlooking the gorge, surrounded by the usual plethora of shops catering to the pilgrim. Just below the temple is a tank where water from the hot spring is mixed with cold water to facilitate bathing. Water temperatures in the smaller tank near the sanctum exceed 70 degrees centigrade; rice and lentils cooked here are offered to the pilgrim as prasad.

Paunta Saheb is very popular with Sikh pilgrims, it is sited on the banks of the Yamuna on the Uttaranchal-Himachal border. While the pilgrims were enjoying their holy bath, we were enjoying our Rum on the other side and photographing voluptuous Sikh women who were doing their very best to displace the water of the already dry Yamuna. One such barrel shaped lady tried to dive into the Yamuna from an escarpment, the swimmers below were very luck to escape unscathed.

Mathura on the Delhi-Agra Road:
In Agra, the sun sets over the Taj Mahal, Shahjahan's extravagant statement to love. It is funny, after his fall from power, he was imprisoned in a place not far from here. His prison window in the Agra Fort offered him a view of the Taj. He would not wish to see it now. It seems as if garbage from every bin in and around the Taj is dumped into the Yamuna River!

On the Delhi-Agra Road 57 kilometres north of Agra, Mathura is a site of great age. By the 5th century B.C. (during Buddha's times), it was a major metropolis and capital of the Surasena Kingdom. According to legend, Mathura is the place where Lord Krishna was born 3500 years ago. Today the land where this popular incarnation of Vishnu was born has little towns and hamlets that are steeped in legend and still redolent with the music of Krishna, the frivolous flautist with an eye for the pretty milkmaids.

The cobbled streets leading to the ghats are infested with wayward monkeys that steal spectacles and small bags. Sometimes the thief is at the end of a chain, and a human co-conspirator with a stick magically appears from behind a pillar and retrieves the booty for a fifty. Overfed cows and full-bellied pundits are a pampered lot here. Flying insects hover over piles of manure left behind by the various species that call the street home. Pictures of gods and goddesses, politicians and film actors adorn the walls of the rainbow street. Wayside shrines block pedestrian paths; sycophantic yes-men try their very best to ensure that self-important pundits maintain their full-figured appearance. The streets converge and then a gradual descent through an archway leads to the ghats.

There is no escape now; you are surrounded by young devotees of Krishna selling floral tributes.

Upper right photo: The guru was a great showman; he invited us for the evening aartis at the ghats, where much to our embarrassment we were garlanded. The guru cajoled us into shooting many pictures of his allegedly pious entourage. He then invited us home and served the tastiest Jeelabis that Andy and I have ever eaten. So it was not a complete waste of time.

The riverfront is characterised by a long line of picturesque ghats with steps leading to the water's edge. Arched gateways and temple spires are reflected in the now gaily coloured Yamuna. The peal of temple bells echoes across the ghats, ill-tempered bulls bellow, harassed pilgrims moan and the music of Krishna's flute is doled out through loudspeakers. Devotees bathing discreetly in their saris are oblivious to everything. They dream of their doe-eyed god, and know that he will blind any mischievous sprite that dares gawk at them.

Vrindavan, a village 10 kms north of Mathura on the banks of the Yamuna (once noted for its fragrant groves) is where Krishna spent an exciting youth. As a child, he wiled away his time by vanquishing and stealing butter from milkmaids, a sport that would make him very popular in the eyes of most young men. His debauchery, and love for life inspired the Gita Govinda, a series of love songs that every young person should read.

We were surprised that this stretch of Yamuna, which embraces Vrindavan looked and smelt cleaner than the river at Mathura which is just 15 kms upstream. Although I was very tempted to swim across its span (egged on by Andy) the fear of contracting something in a river saturated by detritus that flows downstream was a strong deterrent.

There are two overgrown gardens in Vrindavan: Seva Kunj and Nidhi Van; while the former is believed to be the place where Krishna, his beloved Radha, and his other beloved friends danced and indulged in mortal pleasures; the latter is where they lounged after a rather busy day chasing each other. The sepulchre of the legendary maestro Haridasa Swami is near the entrance of Nidhi Van. 'Mia Tansen' the famous court musician of Emperor Akbar was Haridasa's protégé.

The temple of Govind Deo (Krishna, the divine cowherd) was built in 1590 and is one of the most sophisticated Hindu temples in north India. It even has a vaulted ceiling, in contrast to the utilitarian ceilings in most temples. The ghats of Vrindavan are quieter, the few pundits that perform the evening prayers normally mind their own business, and the arcaded corridors and steps that descend to the waterfront are seldom occupied after dusk--the perfect setting for a modern day Radha and Krishna.

The name Allahabad was given to the city by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1583. The modern city is on the site of ancient Prayag (Sanskrit for 'place of sacrifice' and is the spot where Brahma offered his first sacrifice after creating the world).

It is one of the four sites of the Kumbha Mela, a Hindu religious pilgrimage that occurs four times every twelve years, once at each of four locations: Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nasik. Attended by millions of people, it one of the largest pilgrimage gathering around the world. The event in Allahabad enjoys a position of prominence in Hindu religion and mythology since it takes place at the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna. A scaled down version that attracts an equal number of pilgrims is held every six years.

In the Kumbha Mela of 2001, which was called the Maha Kumbha Mela because of an alignment of the Sun, Moon, and Jupiter that occurs only every 144 years, almost 75 million people visited the banks of the river to take part in the festival. During the fairs, an entire township is built on the river's banks, with functioning hospitals, fire stations, non-functioning police stations, restaurants, and other facilities.

Every holy man, trinket peddler, and pickpocket will assemble in and around the camping ground on the riverbanks, add to this curious assemblage of Indian freaks thousands of hashish smoking foreigners with tonsured heads and saffron robes chanting Hare-Rama Hare-Krishna Among holy men there is a strict hierarchy, the Naga Sadhus who are always bare naked are the fiercest. They claim that they have consciously chosen to nullify their libido by hanging weights from their sexual organs, but they travel with an entourage of women and naked children. You cannot cross-examine a person carrying a spear. Fights among the various Akhadas (wrestling schools sadhus owe allegiance to) over bathing rights are a common occurrence, and no policeman will dare interfere. I saw a group of policemen being threatened at spear point, they had invited the wrath of these bare naked sadhus.

Allahabad is a historian's paradise. History lies embedded everywhere, in its fields, forests, settlements, and in the cultural fabric of the city. While its ancient history goes back to the earliest Aryan settlements of what is now known as India, Allahabad also featured in the modern era. In 1801, the Nawab of Awadh ceded it to the British East India Company. In 1857, Allahabad was a crucible of activity in the Indian Mutiny. The company officially handed over India to British Government in 1858 at Minto Park. Under the British rule, Allahabad was the capital of the United Provinces until the 1920s.

What is more, the first seeds of the idea of Pakistan was also sown in Allahabad. In 1930, Allama Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) in his presidential address to the All-India Muslim League proposed a separate Muslim state for the Muslim majority regions of India.

Forty-eight kilometres, towards the southwest, on the placid banks of the Jamuna, the ruins of Kaushambi, capital of the Vatsa kingdom and a thriving centre of Buddhism, bears silent testimony to a forgotten era. On the eastern side, across the river Ganga and connected to the city by the Shastri Bridge is Jhusi, identified with the ancient city of Pratisthanpur, capital of the Chandra dynasty. About 58 kilometres northwest is the medieval site of Kara with its impressive ruins of Jayachand's fort. Sringverpur, another ancient site discovered relatively recently, has become a major attraction for tourists and antiquarians alike.


It would be impossible for us to undertake a conservation project of this magnitude without your active support. Development is taking its toll; we are losing our sacred association with the rivers. We hope to make our readers take greater interest and help in conserving them.

Together we can make a difference!

Sunil Vaidyanathan and Andy Mendonca