“One day, when the wound was smarting terribly, Siddhartha got out of the boat with the purpose of going to the town to seek his son. The river flowed softly and gently; it was in the dry season but its voice rang out strangely. It was laughing, it was distinctly laughing…
Siddhartha stood still; he bent over the water in order to hear better. He saw his face reflected in the quietly moving water, and there was something in his reflection that reminded him of something he had forgotten.” (Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse)
Rivers have forever been a part of our existence. Our stories materialized out of their bottomless depths. Our cultures metamorphosed in the fashion of their transformation to rain. Our trades and subsistence shifted with the wading of their waters. Their waters—sometimes serene, at others raging—have been the travelling performance to the audience of life at their banks. They’re timeless, ageless and unrestrained. If this wasn’t true, would they have inspired the works of Mikhail Sholokhov, Joseph Conrad, Hermann Hesse, Mark Twain and Rahul Sankrityayan among others?
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Fabulous times with Bhim bhai. This is us (in 2018) taking a boat trip on the Ken river inside Panna National Park, after completing our 700km walk along the length of the river Ken for @veditum and SANDRP. Aur sab ko Harela ki shubhkamnayein! :) . You can read more from our walk here (DM me for the direct link) - http://veditum.org/moving-upstream/ken . #MovingUpstream #Rivers #Ken #Bundelkhand #Walking
If this wasn’t true, would they have motivated Kolkata-based activist and explorer Siddharth Agarwal to embark upon an epic, 3,000-km journey along the banks of the Ganga? Under his project called Moving Upstream, Agarwal has stuck to the road not taken, first walking along the Ganga, which, aided by its handsome network of waterways, has a little under half of the country’s population dependent on it, and then the Ken in Madhya Pradesh. His exploits have been part of a larger project where he aims to document India’s rivers extensively, understand the implications of waterworks development and collecting accounts of the lived realities of riparian communities.
For close to a month, Siddharth also joined forces with journalist Paul Salopek, who arrived in India in late 2018 as a part of his gargantuan quest, an epic, on-foot odyssey that would span 21,000 miles. Yes, you read that right. Accompanied by various different people on this journey, Salopek, in 2013, started walking from Ethiopia in Africa, to the cradle of the Abrahamic faiths in middle-east Asia, and going up north into Central Asia. Salopek crossed India this April. Named Out of Eden, this colossal project has Salopek trying to trace humans’ migration out of Africa. It’s also Salopek’s response to the need for slow journalism, much like our confounded generation’s current need for slow travel.
And Siddharth concurs: “I’ve tried to use that angle of how people relate to travel, and used that to talk about other issues. We think it’s about travel and exploration and in the process, we end up learning a lot.” Truly, for isn’t it the iconic riverside journeys in cult and mainstream history and pop culture that inspire travel aficionados to emulate their real-life heroes and protagonists of iconic cultural narratives?
Perhaps the single biggest reason the greatest of us pick rivers as their themes is the scope for exploration these unimpeded courses of nature and their resultant catchment areas allow them. The photographers do it—the late Raghubir Singh journeyed from the origin of the Ganga in the Himalayas, to the Gangetic plains of the north, then travelling from Varanasi and Bihar to the Bay of Bengal, in his homage to the river. The vibrant character of life on
the streets that he captured on this pilgrimage of sorts is still a touchstone in travel photography. The Ganges was also the subject of Dennison Berwick’s 2000-mile journey and subsequent travelogue.
Read: Down the River We Go!
Photographer Alec Soth drove by the bank of one of America’s culturally significant icons, the Mississippi, for his magnum opus, Sleeping by the Mississippi. Back in India, Hindu myths abound with episodes of salvation and symbolic journeys where rivers play a central role, much like the Ramayana, where the Sarayu makes frequent appearances at important junctures in the story.
The phenomenon of Assam’s Majuli is made (and frequently unmade) by the Brahmaputra, which cradles the riverine island. The Jhelum in Kashmir, a river of massive culture significance, was the site of a heritage walk, organized by Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, a little while ago. Walking by the Ganges at Varanasi’s ghats is enjoyed immensely by one and all, as is soaking in the sunshine by bubbling Himalayan brooks in the tripper favourites of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
Photographer Arati Kumar Rao, too, partnered Salopek on his Out of Eden India chapter, travelling across the riverlands of the Beas and the Sutlej, spotting Gangetic dolphins, and crossing into the Thar desert. Riverside journeys needn’t only be about the major draws, just like Agarwal’s journey has proven. The small streams that begin at nondescript towns and villages, the creeks and springs that dry up during the dry season, tributaries plagued by the menace of sand mining—they all fit into the bigger scheme of things and constitute the life and economy of the catchment area. In that sense, rivers are crucial reference points on routes that the traveller will undertake.
The serenity of his experience has resulted in Siddharth being spoilt for space and time, which is expected after having walked for long periods of time at one’s own pace and convenience. “It afforded me plenty for opportunities for reflection, for the intellectual thought process to develop. So, the open spaces and the silences are what I’ve become spoilt for,” he shares. “It’s incredible, this whole act of slowing down, not using your phone when you travel. And I don’t listen to music when I’m walking. I prefer the sounds that are present around me.”