The source - Page 2

Towards the source of the Ganga - click to read the article

We left for Gaumukh in the morning. The path took us across a stony beach. It was the glacier’s old skin, left flat on the valley floor after its stuffing of ice had melted away. The glacier’s snout has withdrawn half a kilometre in the last fifty years, driven back up the valley by the warming of the planet, like an animal backing away from a fire. All over the stony beach there were deserted foundations where teashops of tarpaulin and stone must have stood in the summertime.

Beyond the beach we came to the source of the Ganga. A wide sheet of water slid quietly out from beneath the glacier, complete and self-possessed as a newly hatched crocodile. A jumble of ice-boulders covered its start. Above the ice-boulders there was a shadowed ice-cliff, and above the cliff there was a mountain shaped like the sikhara of a mist-white temple. Hindus think that it looks like Shiva’s penis, so they call it Shivling.

The man that we had met the day before joined us at the water’s edge. We shook hands.

“Ramesh Chandra,” he said. “I am from Chandigarh. Retired teacher. I still teach sometimes, and I write a little. I am seventy years old.”

We photographed one another, and then we splashed Ganga’s icy water over our faces. Ramesh Chandra spoke shyly of the River as teenagers speak of their love. It was an Indian affair; perhaps we wouldn’t understand?

“If there were no Ganga there would be no India,” I said.

He smiled, and afterwards he quoted my words in an article that he wrote for a Chandigarh newspaper. He sent me the cutting, and I got it months later, when I was back in Edinburgh sitting out the Himalayan winter.

The first Indians wouldn’t have understood what we meant. There are only a handful of references to Ganga in the Rig-Veda. In those days, Sindhu - the Indus - was the River. Its seven tributaries – Sapta Sindhavah – bore the name of the Sindhu in much the way that many rivers in Garhwal - the Goriganga, the Ramganga and so on - were named in honour of the Ganga.

The banks of the Sapta Sindhavah are marked by ribbons of mud-brick cities that flourished in the third millennium BC. Their relationship to the Vedas is an enigma. The Vedic hymns sing of enemy forts, but not of city streets. Most scholars agree that the Vedas were composed centuries after the the cities fell into ruin; others dispute that. All this is guesswork. Ancient India is utterly alien; the light that falls on it is ragged and perplexing.

The inscriptions found in the old cities of the Indus basin have never been deciphered. The Vedic bards were probably illiterate. Their hymns and liturgies were passed down from generation to generation, using tricks of expression and narrative as a guarantee of accuracy. The language of the Vedic people was Sanskrit and their name for themselves was Arya - noble one.

Sanskrit has similarities to Latin and Greek. This was the subject of a talk that William Jones, scholar and judge, gave to the Asiatic Society of Calcutta in 1786. His notion became the founding insight of the science of philology. It turns out that Sanskrit is the oldest surviving descendent of the common ancestral tongue of Europe and Iran and Northern India. Sanskrit words have been discovered in an Anatolian text written in the fourteenth century BC.

In 1853 Professor Max Muller of Oxford borrowed the Vedic noun Arya and made from it the word Aryan. Europeans who were not Jewish or Basque or Finnish or Gypsy or Black or Hungarian began to call themselves Aryan. Patriots from emerging European nations competed to claim the purest Aryan lineage. Muller protested.

“I have declared again and again,” he wrote, “that if I say Aryas, I mean neither blood nor bones, nor hair, nor skull; I mean simply those who speak an Aryan language.”

The cat was nevertheless out of the bag. Aryan is no longer a word that can be used with any comfort.

Max Muller must in any case have known that the Rigveda speaks of blood and bones and hair and skull. The enemies of the Arya are described there as krishna-tvach – black-skinned. What goes around comes around. A millenium or more after the Rigveda was composed, the blue-skinned god Krishna won a following as a manifestation of the Supreme Deity.