Life and times of a river and its people

Life and times of a river and its people

Friday, December 16, 2011

From the wrestlers to the river

The day had started with an akhara visit. An akhara is a traditional training center for Indian wrestlers. Here at Sanjay Pehelwan Akhara the trainees practice both Indian and western stlyle wrestling. Whereas the western style is happening on mats the Indian style of this age-old sports is practiced on sand that is enriched with turmeric, neem tree leaves and other antiseptics to help curing scratches and minor wounds. The akhara was a tree-shaded places, safe surroundings for practicing wrestling for young and old alike. A Spartan semi-kuchcha structure housed the sportsmen. “After a rigorous training session, we take bath. Nowadays, because the Yamuna is so polluted, we use tap water. But earlier, it used to be: jump into river directly,” said one of them. Slowly things are changing and now! 

Wrestlers at training session early in the morning

Boat journey
If the earlier two days were for introduction to the object of the Yamuna Katha, the river Yamuna, day three promised an intimate rapport. The day when Yamuna would open up her wounds and make the Yamuna Katha yatris look inwards.

After an early morning visit to the symbols of Akhara culture – or whatever still remains of it – the core group members were up at the Qudsia Ghat by forenoon. Three boats were engaged to take them through the river, literally.

In house river expert Dwijender Kalia donned the role of a spokesman for the battered Yamuna. “Yamuna sabko sharan deti hai. (Yamuna gives shelter to all and sundry, who come to her). Yamuna is specially a place of refuge for all those pushed away by the civil society.”
For the team Yamuna Katha, it was a sort of curtain raiser for things to come. Waiting for them was the ‘kalindi’ (blackish) and also that which is a sister of Yama, the Lord of Death. By the time, Yamuna reaches Qudsia ghat, it has already assimilated sewage from a number of drains, a major being the Najafgarh drain. Water colour is stark dark black with garbage, plastic, flowers and filth floating on it.

River specialist Dwijendra Kalia is in his element

The professor, who is an activist in his own right, also went on to tell how the contours of the Qudsia ghat changed as more and more bridges were built across the Yamuna. Every time a new bridge is built, houses, temples and any structure below it is demolished.
As the boats rowed upstream, on the west side was the drain. Open, untreated sewage, and volume so much, as if it is a small tributary meeting the main river. “This brings in sewage from Shahjahanabad,” Kalia, who knows the Yamuna as well as the city inside out informs. 
One of the boatmen Giridhari Lal, 30, said he is in the profession for 10-15 years. A resident of ghat number 1, he has now-a-days taken to another profession to earn the daily bread and comes to row the boats only once-in-a-while. “Pehle bahut public aati thee.  Ab paani maila ho gaya hai toh public nahi aati. (Earlier there used to be lot of people who came for boating. Now when the water is mucky, nobody comes.)”

“The pollution is so bad that even if by mistake one’s hands are dipped in Yamuna waters, one gets pimples on the hands. Your hands itch continuously,” he rued at the fate of his life giver river.

A little more upstream was the Nigambodh ghat, a place where Hindu people cremate their dead. Kalia pitches in, “Once when Vedas (sacred Hindu scriptures) gone missing, the script was recovered floating here. So the name Nigam Bodh (knowledge of the ultimate) ghat (stepped embankment).”

The members could see bodies burning at the pyres and mourning relatives. Curiously, the relatives of the deceased stared at team Yamuna, what with each of them having a camera in hand, either a still amateur camera or the camera crew continuously video-shooting the event.  
Then came the modern day remains of the once glorious Yamuna Bazar. Another boatman Mahesh Chand Sharma. He stays at ghat number 2. The Yamuna river is part and parcel of the individuals living along the ghat. This was exemplified when Mahesh said, “Even today, there is Jamuna aarti mornings and evenings without fail. Whenever they want to start any new work, Jamuna maai ko dudh chadhate hai. Teej tyohar par pehle puja (Yamuna mother is given the milk first, festive seasons sees first offerings and then only rest other work. Even if there is someone sick at home, the first prayer is to their beloved Jamunaji.”

Kalia goes on to add that Yamuna Bazar occupied a pride of place in the cultural mindscapes of the old Delhiites. “I am one of them, I know. From elderly people coming for an evening stroll, to a young courting couple, students for swimming and housewives for a change and/or for some festivals, everybody and anybody from each house would visit Yamuna.
“But now, Yamuna Bazar is a slum,” Kalia adds even as the boats row past a number of dilapidated houses, some forced to demolish, some with owners languishing in poverty. “Why can’t the government take off all such structures which pose a danger to life?” he asks.
The signs of lost glory are hard to miss. Earlier the Yamuna Bazar would see much festivity all through the year. But now, a mela is held on dashahara and also at the time of Baisakhi. “But more than anything, it is the Chhath puja when maximum people throng the ghats,” Mahesh informed. Chhath puja is a worship of the Sun god on the sixth day after Diwali.
Rowing from below the old Loha pul (old iron bridge) was an overwhelming feeling. The sturdy bridge still serves the Indian Railways more than 100 years after it was built. 

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