Life and times of a river and its people

Life and times of a river and its people

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Living on the Yamuna Bank

Yamuna hardly finds a mention in day-to-day conversations of Delhiites. So for Shubham Mishra, another member of the core team of Yamuna Katha, it was a realization, brought in by the Yamuna itself.

Shubham’s home is near Rajghat, on the Ring road, metres away from Yamuna. Rajghat, more famous for Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial today, was once a prosperous ghat (stepped embankment) of the Yamuna. It was exclusive for the royalty and hence the name Raj ghat.
But like most of the Delhiites of his age, Shubham, a trained urban planner, only knew, yes, Delhi has river. But once in while there is heavy flooding and the banks are submerged. “Then we realize we have a river,” Shubham says as he recalls the days of frenzy that come with the floods.

But slowly, the flood plains were reclaimed and exploited for commercial purpose. And the places are many. Qudasia ghat, the Yamuna Bazar, the Rajghat, power plants near ITO and now, sanitized, landscaped gardens, not to mention the number of bridges and flyways… the metro stations, Akshardham temple … and the list goes on endless.

“If we build on the floodplains, the water will always find its way back,” Shubham points out.
Shubham, who has been constantly visiting the Yamuna banks for the last two months, has discovered a new passion. Toponomy – the branch of lexicology that studies the place names of a region or a language – of the various ghats has intrigued him no end. “Come to think of it, there were different names for each of these ghats. Now, all we have is ghat number 1 to 32 at Yamuna Bazar.”

Losing the names is akin to losing an identity, says Shubham, who loves Yamuna and Delhi equally. “The very fact that the each of the places had a different name, means these places were different. Today, everything looks the same. Each of these ghats had a different purpose to fulfill. It gives us a glimpse of what kind of river front existed then? Qudasia ghat was different and so was the ghat in front of Kotla.”

Today, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) is planning a sanitized and concretized riverfront, something, which is likely to be built in clich├ęd sarkari style. But even when such a riverfront comes up, would the Delhiites sit in front of a stinking filthy river that is almost a drain today?

Shubham’s no nonsense reply: “First there has to be a river, there has to be water in it.”

Yamuna: A Paradise Lost

There goes this famous anecdote about Hazrat Nizamuddin, the Sufi saint residing in Delhi in the early 14th century. When he saw an old lady drawing water from a well even when she lived near Yamuna, he asked her why.

“My husband is very old. We have nothing to eat. Yamuna’s water is very tasty, so tasty that it induces hunger. I don’t want this to happen to us,” the lady replied.

Can anyone say this about Yamuna waters today? Till about 50 years ago, the Yamuna was very much clean, even in Delhi. As the demographic change took place over the years, the late 1980s saw the population explosion and the new millennium saw widespread migration from hinterlands to the national capital, the stress on the Yamuna only increased.

That exactly is what ails the Yamuna today. Shubham does the math: “Earlier, the population was much lesser and scattered. The resources were de-centralized. Delhi had hundreds of lakes, ponds, wells and baolis (step wells). On the one hand, people were dependent on the water bodies in their areas and on the other hand, there was hardly any human waste flowing into the river.”

Today, the situation is exactly reversed. Delhi is entirely dependent on the Yamuna to cater to its drinking water needs. And at the same time, the river is used as a channel for disposal of sewage, creating two-way pressure on the Yamuna.

The Yamuna was never seen in isolation all these centuries. People were always aware of the connection … through surface channels or through underground aquifers. He asks how can anyone forget Neher-i-Bahisht?

There was this all wonderful canal system. In 14th century, the Tughlaq dynasty built the Neher-i-Bahisht (literally, stream of paradise) parallel to the river. It was later restored during the Mughal rule in the early 17th century by Ali Mardan Khan, an engineer in the Mughal court. The canal started from Benawas, near the place where Yamuna enters the plains and after running through almost the entire cluster of ancient villages, reached the medieval city of Shahjahanabad only after which it drained into the Yamuna.

The Neher-i-Bahisht was in reality, the stream of paradise. It was an apt description of the phenomenon – of providing the elixir of life to people on its banks, making Delhi the very heaven people crave to get to, turning it into a paradise that brought calm into the Delhi walas life.

But where has this paradise gone? It seems we have lost this paradise and how?
Sums up Shubham: “Do we have any other option but to decentralize and take the pressure off the Yamuna?”

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