Thursday, Oct 05, 2023

How The Rivers Of India Descended From The Heavens: Yamuna

How The Rivers Of India Descended From The Heavens: Yamuna

The story of how the Ganga's longest tributary, Yamuna, came to be

The Yamuna flows past the Taj Mahal in Agra
The Yamuna flows past the Taj Mahal in Agra Shutterstock

The longest tributary of the Ganga in India and an immensely significant river in its own right, Yamuna rises in the Yamunotri glacier and flows through 1,376 km, passing the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Delhi, finally merging with the Ganga at Triveni Sangam, Prayagraj. In all, the river drains a total of 3,66,223 sq km – 40.2% of the entire Ganga Basin.

Myths and legends

Just like the Ganga, the Yamuna is also highly venerated in Hinduism and treated as a goddess. It is known as Yami in early texts, while in literature of the later periods, she is called Kalindi. In Hindu scriptures, she is worshipped as the daughter of the sun god, Surya, and his wife Saranyu or Sanjana, the cloud goddess. Other texts, however, say she was the daughter of Brahma. The twin sister of Yama, the god of death, Yamuna is also associated with the god Krishna, and is mentioned as one of his ashtabharya, his eight consorts. As a river, it plays an important role, both in his early life and youth. Bathing or drinking in Yamuna's waters is believed to wash away all sins. Her other siblings include Vaivasvata Manu, the first man, and the twin Ashvins, divine doctors, and the planet Saturn (shani). She is often portrayed as Surya's favourite child, which is evident from her other names – Suryatanaya, Suryaja and Ravinandini.

Ancient iconographic depictions of Yamuna are seen on temple doorjambs, paired with that of Ganga, dating back to the Gupta era. The Agni Purana describes Yamuna as being black in complexion, standing astride her mount, the tortoise, holding an urn bearing water in her hand.

Yamuna's other name, Kalindi, may have been derived from her association with Yama, the lord of death and darkness, who is also called Kala. Another source suggests that she derives the name Kalindi from her “earthly” source – the mountain Kalinda. Some legends claim it is Yamuna's dark waters that give her the name Kalindi.

The Vamana Purana narrates the story of how Yamuna’s originally clear waters turned black. Distraught by the death of his wife Sati, Shiva wandered the universe with her corpse on his shoulders. The god of love, Kamadeva, shot Shiva with the arrow, Unmadastra, which made Shiva restless. Thinking of his amorous union with Sati, an excited Shiva jumped into Yamuna to overcome the sexual urge. His mad frenzy, sorrow and unfulfilled desire mingled to turn her waters black.

Another legend in the sixteenth chapter of the tenth canto of the Bhagavata Purana explains the darkness of Yamuna waters differently. Kaliya, the seven-hooded giant serpent lived in the island of Ramanaka, but he was driven away out of the fear of Garuda, the foe of all serpents. Garuda had been cursed by the sage Saubhari (who lived in Vrindavan) such that he could not come to Vrindavan without meeting his death. Therefore, Kaliya chose Vrindavan as his abode, well aware that it was the only place where Garuda could not come.

Once, the sage, Durvasa, arrived as a guest and was served by Radha. After this episode, Radha took a walk across Yamuna, when she suddenly came upon the giant serpent and was terrified. She fled to Vrindavan, informing people that she had seen a giant serpent in the river. Lord Krishna was incensed on hearing this and wanted to teach a lesson to Kaliya. He went to the river looking for the serpent, who, upon seeing Krishna, coiled around his legs and constricted him.

Soon, the people of Gokul flocked to the river banks to see the events unfold. Fearful of the snake, Krishna’s mother Yashoda ordered him to return at once. Meanwhile, Kaliya attempted to escape, but Krishna stomped on his tail and warned him to never trouble anyone again, before returning to his people. The next day, Krishna was playing a ball game across the Yamuna with Radha and her friends. After the ball fell into the river, Radha tried to retrieve it, but Krishna offered to do so instead. When he jumped into the Yamuna, Kaliya constricted him again and began dragging him to its depths.

Concerned, the people of Gokul came running towards the river bank. At the bottom, Kaliya had trapped Krishna in his coils. Krishna expanded himself, forcing Kaliya to release him. Krishna immediately regained his original form and began to jump on all of Kaliya's seven heads to release the poison in the snake so that he could no longer pollute the Yamuna.

Krishna dances upon Kaliya, while Kaliya's wives ask for the deity's forgiveness
Krishna dances upon Kaliya, while Kaliya's wives ask for the deity's forgiveness Wikimedia Commons

Suddenly, springing onto Kaliya's head, Krishna, bearing the weight of the whole universe, started beating him with his feet. Kaliya started throwing up blood and began to show signs of collapsing. At that moment, Kaliya's wives appeared and prayed to Krishna with joined palms, asking for mercy for their husband. Kaliya too recognised the greatness of Krishna and surrendered, promising he would not harass anybody again. Krishna pardoned him after performing a final dance upon his head. After the performance, Krishna asked Kaliya to leave the river and return to Ramanaka island, where, he promised, that Kaliya would not be troubled by Garuda.

The people who had gathered on the banks of Yamuna were terrified, on seeing the water change to a dark, poisonous colour. Krishna slowly rose up from the bottom of the river while dancing on Kaliya's head. When the people saw Krishna, they too danced upon Kaliya, pushing him into the netherworld – Patala – where he is said to reside to this day. However, even though the serpent was banished, the colour of the Yamuna’s waters remained dark.

According to Vedic beliefs, the twins Yama and Yami are considered to be a divine pair of creator deities – while Yama is depicted as the Lord of Death, Yami is said to be the Lady of Life. Yami also addresses a hymn to Yama in the Rig Veda, describing various drinks offered to those dying, in the afterlife. The Taittiriya Samhita says that Yama is Agni (fire) and Yami is the Earth. Yami is further described in association with the Earth, and is related to the goddess of graveyards and sorrow, Nirriti, another partner of Yama according to the Vedas. In the Brahmanas, however, she retains the central role of being Yama's twin sister in the Samhita texts. In the Purushamedha rite in the Shatapatha Brahmana, a mother of twins is sacrificed to Yami, while twins are offered in the Taittiriya Brahmana.

The Brahmana text, Maitrayani Samhita, narrates: “Yami grieved instantly the death of Yama, the first mortal to die. As there was continuously daytime at the start of creation, Yami was unable to understand the lapse of time since Yama's death. The gods created night separating two days so that Yami understood that time was passing and slowly recovered from her sorrow.”

The sibling bond between Yama and Yamuna is celebrated in the festival of bhau-beej or bhai dooj during Diwali, when a sister performs arti and is given a gift by her brother. A prayer is recited by the sister. Then she requests him to enjoy her offerings of food and eat them to please Yama and Yamuna.

Where to go

A temporary tent city erected in Prayagraj at the time of the Ardh Kumbh Mela
A temporary tent city erected in Prayagraj at the time of the Ardh Kumbh Mela Danita Delimont /

Just like the Ganga, there are many holy sites associated with Yamuna. However, it is probably Prayagraj that is the most significant, especially since it is the meeting point of two of India's most important rivers and a mythical one (Saraswati). The presence of a triveni sangam is the reason why pilgrimages are made to the city to wash away all sins and be free from the cycle of death and rebirth. Additionally, its strategic river-based location made it a much-coveted city for rulers and administrators looking to expand their kingdoms and gain access to other regions – from the time of the Mughals (and before) to the era of the British Raj. Prayagraj also evolved into a city of letters and literature, eventually becoming the literary capital of Uttar Pradesh. It is recognised as the place that gave rise to modernism in Hindi literature.

Festival to attend

Yamuna is witness to several festivals that are observed along its length and breadth. Pushkaram, Chhath Puja and Makar Sankranti are some of the bigger names. However, not surprisingly, the biggest of them all is the Prayagraj Kumbh Mela, the largest religious event in the world, held in cycles of six years (Ardh Kumbh Mela) and 12 years (Purna Kumbh Mela). During the melas, usually held in the winter months (maagh) the city and its riverbanks are transformed into a sprawling mass of humanity that celebrates harmony and Hinduism. 

Sadhus and pilgrims from various sects, many of whom arrive barefoot, await their turn after welcoming the 13 sadhu akharas who bathe first. These sadhus, scantily clad and often smeared with ashes, arrive in a procession with banners, flags, elephants, horses and musicians. This holy event, called the shahi snan or rajyogi snan, opens up the event for other devotees and pilgrims who can then take a dip in the Ganga. These sacred baths usually happen on the days of the amavasya (new moon, which is the most auspicious) and the purnima (full moon).

Before taking a dip in the waters, many devotees have their heads shaved (in a mundan ceremony). They also make offerings in the form of flowers, sindoor, milk and coconut, before reciting prayers and hymns in honour of one’s ancestors. After the bath, which is said to drive away all sins, many pilgrims head to the temples and sites of worship in the city. There are other pilgrims who partake of darshan (with a greater focus on the act of visually taking it all in) and then freely interact with the sadhus in the area.

The Prayagraj Kumbh Mela in full swing
The Prayagraj Kumbh Mela in full swing Serhii Mykhalchuk /

Devotional singing of kirtans, religious discussions and debates are a common sight during the Kumbh Mela. Anna dana (food charity) events are also conducted by families for monks especially after they observe a full-day vrata (fast). There are also community meals (maha prasada) where volunteers serve strictly vegetarian food to a contingent of pilgrims. In recent times, with significant government backing and investment in infrastructure, the Kumbh Mela (especially the one in Prayagraj) has also witnessed a spate of cultural events – arts-and-crafts events, music and dance shows, laser light displays, boat rides, guided walks and tours to touristy, historic places and monastic sites, to name a few.

The next Kumbh Mela will take place in 2025.


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