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Material, Spiritual, Divine Ganga

Devika Sethi

Edited by Assa Doron , Richard Barz and Barbara Nelson
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2015, pp. xviii 356, Rs. 895.00


An anthology is like an Indian thali—it serves small portions of different things, a couple of staples, and by providing a representative sample it facilitates further explorations. Like a thali too, it has something that appeals to everyone, but it is equally true that inclusion and exclusions usually fail to satisfy everyone who partakes of it. In the Indian context, the last decade has seen a welcome crop of city-centred anthologies, in the form of the Penguin series on Allahabad, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Delhi and Goa.1 In addition, Aleph has published a series of short ‘city biographies’.2 Most recently, Vinay Lal has edited the two-volume Oxford Anthology of the Modern Indian City. Some Indian rivers too have found their champions, most notably the Narmada, in Hartosh Singh Bal3 and Rumina Grewal,4 whereas the Brahmaputra and the Kaveri among many others still seek biographers to tell their stories down the ages. ny others still seek biographers to tell their stories down the ages. It is estimated that the Ganga is a river in whose catchment area live one out of every twelve people in the world. Both as river and as a Hindu goddess, its catchment area in terms of civilizational memory and ritual importance is so vast as to defy any attempt at quantification. For instance, it is the only river mentioned by name in Muhammad Iqbal’s ‘Tarana-e-Hindi’ (1904), better known to every Indian schoolchild as ‘Sare Jahan se Achha’.5 Given this, it is surprising indeed that there has been no anthology of fiction, scholarship and travel literature centred on the Ganga before this volume. As the subtitle of, and the introduction to, this book make clear, both the river and the eponymous goddess are considered one unit. This explains, perhaps, why the vernacular ‘Ganga’ rather than the anglicized ‘Ganges’ is used in the title. The editors in their selection of excerpts have focused on the simultaneously ‘material, spiritual and divine’ character of their subject. Meandering through these pages, the reader will meet the mid 17th century French traveller Tavernier complaining about the undrinkable quality of the river water in Bihar and the narrowness of the streets of Benaras (Varanasi), as well as commending the grandeur of that city’s stone buildings. The early 19th century Iranian cleric and traveller Ahmad Behbahani will commend the commerce of Munger, the monuments of Sasaram, and the hospitality of the residents of Benaras. ...

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