Shiva stood up, slowly. His movements deliberate, trance-like. His eyes were still half-closed, they always were. His forehead glowing with a soft crimson light, his throat blue with the ‘halahal’ he had swallowed for saving the world from destruction. The moon glistened softly from behind his head framed by the furious locks. The lord of the moon, the Somshekhar, stood up and raised his arms high, signaling that he was ready. The great locks of his hair moved as if they had a life of their own. Trembling with a vitality of their own, they moved upwards, as if drawn towards the sky; expectant! It was a sight to behold – the tall Yogi, with his ash smeared, sinewy limbs pointing towards the sky; his locks of hair moving like serpents, progressing skywards, and forming the receptacle into which the divine waters will descend. His eyes were almost completely closed now, the glow on his forehead throbbed and pulsated, his form majestic, his limbs powerful, his torso covered with the skin of a dead elephant, Shiva stood on the Kailash, barefoot and ready to receive the Ganga. The ganas had moved away now, making space around Shiva, not knowing how much space was sufficient. They waited, anxious, happy, tense!
The heavens were crowded by the celestial beings, the divines and the semi-divines all came to witness the great miracle that was about to unfold, the epoch-defining moment was at hand and they all wanted to be part of it. Far, far above, in the heavens, Brahma waited for the nod to come. He waited for the one whom the devotees called Hari, the one who slept on the endless ocean of milk, the Ksheer Saagar! He was Shiva’s alter ego, his counter balance. He was the one whose feet the Ganga washed, he was the one who had broken the cocoon of this world when he had measured the world in three strides, the one who let the cosmic, primeval waters of Ganga into the heavens. When the Ganga washed his saffron colored feet, she flowed red, and she became the ‘Bhagwatpadi’, the fortunate one who washes the feet of the Lord. Ever since, she had stayed in the heavens, serving the divine. Her good fortune had gone to her head and made her arrogant. She was proud, the pride had to be broken; she must descend to the earth to serve the mortals, she must serve a greater purpose than she did in the heavens. Ganga did not know this, but Shiva did, as did the one who slept on the bed of the cosmic serpent, the Shesh-nag. His name was Maha Vishnu, the blue God. The grandfather of all creation, Brahma, had been born on a lotus, the padma, which had blossomed from Hari’s navel; hence he was called the padmanabh. It was for his signal that Brahma now waited.
The Gods having consented, Brahma allowed Ganga to proceed with her descent. Down below, on the earth stood the Yogi with three eyes, his arms open, his locks flowing, ready to receive the divine river. There were others that crowded the Kailash and watched from a distance. All the sages, yogis,siddhas, charans, human, sub-human and super-human creatures had made a beeline for Kailash. The news had spread fast, like the clouds, which were gathering overhead; ominous, expectant. Some had walked up to the sacred place; some had to be carried there by those who were more able bodied. Everyone who came to know about what was happening had hurried to the hallowed grounds of Kailash. They whispered amongst themselves too, but in hushed tones, some prayed, some sang ‘Om Namah Shivay’. They crouched in the shadows, their eyes staring in wonder, chattering to each other, they folded their hands in respect, some lay down prostrate and paid their obeisance to the Mahayogi towering above everyone else at a distance; the world had come to witness the miracle. The clouds which hovered above the peak of the Kailash, as if drawn by a magnetic force, rumbled. Light and darkness played hide and seek. The month was Jyeshtha, the day was shukla paksha dashmi, the tenth day of the waxing moon. While the rest of Bharatvarsha, the land of the Gods, weltered in torrid heat, Kailash was nearly freezing.
A cool wind had started to blow as the clouds rumbled overhead and an occasional lightening split the sky, illuminating the figure standing on the mountain in relief. In the bizarre light that filtered down from the skies, a damroo, a single-handed drum, could be seen in one of his hands. Now he started to twist and beat it, its sonorous sound booming across the valley surrounding the Kailash. Its sound echoed across the valley, across the forests, into the plains, and over the clear lake that lay near the base of the Kailash. Shiva had started to sway slightly to the beat of the drum, moving his arms and his legs in a rhythmic motion. In the meager light it was difficult to see which hand held the damroo, even how many hands were there! Some people counted four limbs; some counted eight. The crowd of onlookers watched, hypnotized, as Shiva danced his dance. His locks seemed to have grown longer and longer till they seemed to reach almost till the sky.
Suddenly, a portal opened in the clouds, letting the light through. The light shone on a dancing Shiva, the rent in the clouds increasing every moment. The whole mountain peak was now bathed in a glorious light, the clouds drifting away, silent! The sound of the damroo also stopped, Shiva stood still, his hands pointing to the sky, his locks still open like a receptacle. The absolute silence that accompanied this hiatus was suddenly shattered by a deafening roar, which seemed to shake the earth and resonate across all the directions. Ganga’s descent had begun!
A torrent of water had appeared in the hole in the sky and started to pour down with great force. The river descended, its waters roiling, angry, arrogant, and tumultuous. Ganga was angry at having been ordered to descend to the earth, she wanted to show this Yogi his place; show him the divine force she possessed. The people witnessing this were suddenly afraid, the great sound of the celestial river rushing down from the heavens struck fear into their very innards. Trembling, they started to pray to the Gods they knew. Bhagirath also watched from a distance, anxious, but having faith in his God, the Mahadev.
As the celestial river descended, making a noise that shook the very world; Shivaopened his eyes and looked at the unruly waters. He smiled and shook his locks, which writhed like snakes and then opened up to accommodate the descending streams. As soon as the waters hit Shiva’s head, the locks coiled up and closed in a bun on top of the Yogi’s head and the river was gone! She had disappeared into the locks of Shiva like she never existed. The flow ceased, the noise was gone. Shiva stood on top of the mountain and smiled, the river had been tamed. Her furious waters were now caged inside the locks of the Mahadev. A great sound of ‘Har Har’ went up from the devotees when they realized what they had just witnessed. The mighty river had surrendered meekly to the powers of this lonely ascetic. ‘Har Har Mahadev’ came the cry from every lip.
Bhagirath was astounded! What had just happened, where was the river? What was he to do now? Worried, he approached Shiva with his hands joined and his head bowed. ‘Hey Gangadhar (one who holds the Ganga)! You have tamed the mighty river by trapping her within your locks. But my purpose is defeated. How will I now fulfill the purpose for which I have performed tapa for so long? O Lord of all creation, please help me by releasing the waters of Ganga so that she may flow into Bharatvarsha and serve the purpose for which she has descended from the heavens’. ‘Don’t worry, Bhagirath’ Shiva said. His lips did not move, but everyone heard him clearly. ‘Your purpose will be fulfilled. I will release the Ganga and she will follow you wherever you go and she will stop where you stop. Since she will now be released from my locks, she will henceforth be known as Jatashankari. Also, since you have been instrumental in bringing her to earth, she will take your name and will be known as Bhagirathi. Go forth son, and wash away the sins of your ancestors. You have done a great service to mankind; your name shall live on forever.’
The great Yogi having thus blessed Bhagirath, reached out with his hand and opened a lock from his head. Out poured a stream of water, pure, pristine, clear and cold. It’s anger tamed now, Ganga sprung forth in six streams. Five streams, the Alaknanda, the Dhauliganga, the Nandakini, the Pindar and the Mandakini took different directions from the mountaintop and one, the Bhagirathi followed Bhagirath.
Bhagirath started his descent down the mountain, the Bhagirathi followed him; down the mountains, through the forests and farms, into the valleys she went. Along the way her waters played and jostled and formed lakes and puddles and ponds. People were overjoyed when they saw the pristine river run through the land with its clear, heavenly waters. They quenched their thirst, they prayed to the river and they paid their respects to Shiva and Bhagirath for bringing this great river to their land. Along the way, the playful waters of the Ganga accidentally swept away the hermitage of the great sage Jhanu who, in anger, scooped up the river and imprisoned her in his kamandalu, the water carrier. Bhagirath was distraught again. He begged the forgiveness of the ascetic and pleaded with him to release the waters of the river so that she may serve the purpose for which the Gods had sent her to this land. Pleased with Bhagirath’s prayers, Jhanu released the river from his kamandalu and she was called Jhanvi.
By this time Ganga had learnt her lesson, she knew her arrogance had clouded her reason and not allowed her to serve her true, great purpose, which the Gods had planned for her. As she descended to the plains with Bhagirath, her force was spent, she flowed languidly, sedately, caressing her banks, quenching the thirst of the earth. She kept following Bhagirath till he reached the very end of land, where she finally united with the ocean, the Lord of all rivers. This place where she met the ocean was called Gangasagar. Bhagirath, relieved at having finally accomplished his goal, paid his tribute to the Gods, performed the last rites of his ancestors with the heavenly waters of the Ganga, and returned to his Kingdom. He ruled for a long time and earned his rightful place amongst his ancestors. Bhagirath was one of the prominent Kings of the Solar line and people sang his stories throughout the country for ages till another King from the same line rose to such prominence that all the stories were dwarfed in comparison to his. This most illustrious of the Suryavanshi Kings whose name still resonates in different stories all across the world, was Dashrath’s son, Ram!