The Ramayana describes in detail the channeling of the Ganges from the ‘Heavens’ (Himalayas) to Earth (or to the great plains of India).
Much before Lord Shiva was entrusted with completing the second leg of this arduous task, the preliminary work was completed by the sons of Sagara. Sagara was one of the mighty kings of the Ikshvaku dynasty, of which Sri Ram was a later scion.
Sagara had one biological son, Asamanja, who was born of his elder wife, Keshini; and many (the Ramayana says 60,000 but 60,000 here means many) ‘other’ sons who were ‘developed in jars containing clarified butter reared by nurses till they were born’. The ‘clarified butter’ obviously refers to a ‘life sustaining liquid’ most likely a ‘synthetic embryonic fluid’. These sons did have a mother though, her name was Sumati. Sumati had a boon that her sons would be ‘highly energetic with a great reputation’. Keshini had the boon that ‘her only son will take the dynasty forward’.
Some time after the sons are born, Asamanja who is elder to his ‘test tube siblings’ is brought in to train his many brothers. He is described as cruel, for it seems he had this habit of throwing the little fellows into water and holding their heads down till they came up gasping for air. It derives from here that the test tube brothers went through a some kind of rigourous training readying them for the work they were meant to accomplish later in their lives. In fact it is later revealed that once the project is complete the fellows are reduced to ashes.
Valmiki writes that the project stars with an Ashvamedha yagya – ‘ashva’ is commonly translated as ‘horse’ from Sanskrit. Only this ‘Ashva’ does not sound like a ‘horse’. What was the ‘ashva’ ? To a civilization that even today measures machine power in terms of ‘horse power’ it should be obvious that may be the ancients were not necessarily talking about an animal – it is possible that Valmiki was describing something else. Especially if we were to analyze what the ‘ashva’ of this particular ‘ashvamedha yagya’ does – we stop to think.
Here is what the ‘ashva’ does. It disappears. That now is an obstacle in the ‘ashvamedha yagya’.The sons begin to look for it. The rumour is that the ‘ashva’ is stolen by Indra, but it seems as if it has disappeared into the earth. So the ‘many sons’ dig. They dig and dig. In their quest to look for the ‘ashva’ they dig the entire stretch of land located between the foot hills of the Himalayas and the Vindhya range, until they reach the sea.
The ‘ashva’ has disappeared into the earth. The many sons of Sagara are directed to follow the ‘ashva’ and to find it if it goes out of sight, which it does. Sagara tells his ‘many sons’ that he will wait along with his grandson Anshuman, till they have dug deep into the earth ’till they reach the ‘rasa tala’ (deepest part of the earth, only one layer above the final ‘patala’ layer) and far and wide right up to where the earth is garlanded by the oceans’.
|Present day ‘Ashva’ or ‘Excavator’|
|The ‘Ashva’ disappearing under the earth|
The boys dig in search of this disappeared ‘ashva’ or what is more likely that they operate the ‘ashva’ that is doing all the digging. The ‘ashva’ has dug so deep that they now have to erect massive ‘elephants’ that look like ‘mountains’ to uphold the four sides of the earth. Four structures called Virupaksha, Mahapada, Sumanasa and Bhadra are erected which hold up the earth. (Later, when the Ganga water will be released, the structure held by four massive pillars will act as a reservoir). Today, of course we have temples by the names of Virupaksha, mahapada, Sumansa and Bhadra!
|The mountain like ‘elephants’ holding the Earth.
After the water is released what we have is a reservoir
The ashva continues to dig until the channel of the Ganges is finally ready. The Ramayana says that the ‘vedic ritual’ of Sagara is complete but not before the boys have found the horse-thief. It turns out to be Sage Kapila and not Indra. When the boys accuse him of the theft, Sage Kapila with a sound of ‘hum’ reduces them to ashes.
The Ganges channel is ready, but the project comes to a halt. Sagara is at a loss as he does not have the skill to embark on the second phase of the project. It is then decided that Lord Shiva (the celestial water management guru with projects such as the ‘Sagara-Manthan’ and ‘Kailash Mansarover’ behind or ahead of him) must be handed over the task of bringing the water of Ganges from the Himalayas to the plains via the Ganges channel.
Sagara’s test-tube sons, their job complete, have already been reduced to ashes by Sage Kapila. Even earlier than that Asmanja, Sagara’s elder son was banished from the kingdom for cruelty to his brothers, and it is his son Anshuman who carries the name of the dynasty forward. Anshuman also resolves to bring the Ganges down to earth to satiate the souls of his uncles who were reduced to ashes by Kapila. But it is only his grandson, Bhagirath, who with the guidance, aid and expertise of Shiva, manages to accomplish this task after a long gap of time.
A blog on ‘The Taming of the Ganges’ will follow at a later date!