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The Ghats Are Calling

Will Patna’s historical ghats be relegated to a watery grave, and sacrificed for Chinese innovation?

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In the Patna city papers, there is a snippet about a Chinese company building something. It makes you think about what this city is synonymous with – history. And why not? Archaeological evidence and sources of recorded history suggest that no other city in India, and very few cities in the world, have such a long history of continuous inhabitation as Patna (the ancient Patliputra) has. Through millennia, as the first capital of India, the boundaries of which were far beyond the modern Indian republic (which derives its national emblem from one of Patliputra’s illustrious rulers, Ashoka), Patna has never ceased to exist as a human settlement. For a city, it’s an achievement that can even make the great heritage cities of the world envious as they have been deserted at one point or another in history. So when Patna’s papers reported that a Chinese company is building a water amusement park in the city, you thought of the fourth and fifth century AD Chinese travellers, Fa Hien and Hsuan Tsang. They have written about how dazzled they were by the magnificence of Patliputra. Now their compatriots are in the city to woo the consumerist middle class and the well-to-do with a global template of outdoor entertainment – water amusement parks. It’s an interesting subtext to the elements of historical continuity and change which Patna symbolises.

Water and Patna have a connection that was noticed by no ordinary mortal. A keen Patna-watcher, Buddha once said that the great city should guard itself against water, feud and fire (something that one of the city’s greatest scholars and strategists, Chanakaya, also cautioned against in his treatise, Arthashastra). To its credit, the city has heeded their advice. It has not witnessed any major fire for a long long time, has survived dissensions to be an important player in democratic statecraft, and the majestic Ganga (the city is settled on its banks) has not inundated the city since 1975.

And since then, much water has flown down the Ganga in Patna and under the imposing 5.5 km Mahatma Gandhi Setu bridge (inaugurated in 1982) which connects it with North Bihar. Interestingly, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has said that the Central government has agreed in principle to the state government’s proposal of building another parallel bridge to the existing bridge. It would be left to cultural historians of contemporary Bihar to judge how and to what extent the bridge has helped in methaphorically bridging the cultural divide between Magadh region (central Bihar) and North Bihar. This has to be seen in the context of the historical narrative from sixth century BC when the great republican janapadas of North Bihar, for instance Lichachavi (the first known republic in the world) and centres of religious movements like Vaishali district (birth place of Mahavira, proponent of Jainism), had a cultural and matrimonial disconnect with Magadh region and its capital Patliputra.

However, the enthusiasm shown for the water park is ironical in a city in which religious veneration for its great water body, river Ganga, is matched only by everyday indifference to the motherly generosity and plight of Ganga Maiyya. Is the river (which still is the defining landmark of the great city) finding space in the urban imagination of the city? Are Ganga Maiyya’s Magahi children (something related to Magadh, or speaking the dialect of Magadh region) taking care of the mother or have they banished her to an old age home to languish? Some documented replies to this could be found in the 2012 Report of Save Ganga Movement.

http://www.savegangamovement.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=90&Itemid=121

The irony becomes starker as you head towards the autumn season. The most important festival of Bihar, Chhath, is a tribute to two life sustaining forces – the sun and the water bodies (with latter serving as a resultant subsidiary to the former force). During the festival, offerings to the sun are made in water bodies, and for millions of devotees nothing gets holier than river Ganga. The ghats of Ganga at Patna have been the coveted site for such offerings. A popular Chhath song in the region says it all simply: Patna ke ghat pe hum hu aragiya debayee he chhathi maiyya, hum na jayaem dussar ghat, he chhathhi maiyya (O Mother Chhath I shall also make offering on the ghats of Patna, I shall not go to any other ghat, O Mother Chhath). Savour the melody of Bihar kokila Sharda Sinha, as she hums the song in Magahi.

Every year such zeal for such a blend of the splendid sun beaming its golden rays on the majestic Ganga during Chhath evenings (sunset) and crimson red Chhath mornings (sunrise) can still be seen. A case in point is the participation of students of Patna University, many buildings of which are nestled on the banks of Ganga, in the cleaning of streets leading to the ghats during the Chhath festival.

However, the demographic upsurge in the city and crowding of ghats during the festival have also led a sizeable section of the population to opt for convenience over watery attractions of the river. Ponds in bungalows and cemented water-reservoirs on the roof of apartment buildings are serving as ritualistic replacements for making offerings to the sun.

Apart from a site of reverence, Patna’s engagement with river Ganga was once the mother of all water sports for residents of Patna. The hiatus in that narrative is palpable, a gap that a Chinese firm seeks to fill with simulated recreations of our times. A template of outing that has worked with the consuming classes in urban spaces. With the wide canvas of history and cultural sensibilities interwoven in the flowing Ganga, the irony of paid fun is too obvious.

If one newspaper snippet leads you towards a strand of the changing cultural landscape of the city, other snippets lead you to a sense of history that is well-entrenched in a section of people in the state. The snippets about architectural sensitivity in the ambitious project to revive Nalanda University (only 88 kms southeast of Patna and considered the world’s oldest university which attracted students from different parts of world) are reassuring. So is the news about the latest discovery of new sites related to the wanderings of Buddha in Gaya district (the district in which the site of Buddha’s enlightenment, Bodh Gaya, is located – about 100 km south of Patna). These different snippets reflect different hues of continuity and change in Bihar. Hope that the sense of history stimulates watery engagements of the state’s capital beyond simulated amusements, the motherly grace of Ganga needs children to visit her more frequently, and more sensitively. Even Fa Hien and Hsuan Tsang would agree. Patna is too historically precious to be ignored for narrow nationalistic favours. Chinese travellers knew that.  Millennia ago.

 

Image Source: [http://www.flickr.com/photos/gisellavecchi/5017536981/]

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  • Ashok Jahnavi Prasad

    Having been born in Patna where I still have many relatives the article was truly rivetting! Felicitations to the author! Just one tiny error has crept in I am sure inadvertantly-both the Chinese travellers mentioned came to India very much in the AD’s not BC’s!

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