Ganga Dhaaraa Teerath: Water is Life
Devotees at Ganga Dhaaraa
By TriniView Reporters
Event Date: June 08, 2014
Posted: July 04, 2014 - triniview.com
In the early pre-dawn hours, the temporary camp stirred near the 18¾ mile post to Blanchisseuse on the North Coast of Trinidad. The air was heavy with dew and the promise of rain seemed imminent as mist whorled whitely across the surrounding forest canopy under a clouded sky. Undaunted, the volunteers of the Ganga Dhaaraa Teerath Committee seemed energized. In the shadowy confines of a makeshift bamboo shed, under corrugated galvanized roofing, preparations were already bustling for the day's festivities. In the dark, peeled potatoes already lay in large silver basins of water ready for cooking as pots of coffee and tea steamed nearby. Though the sun had yet to make an appearance, the morning had already begun, for this was the day the annual Ganga Dhaaraa Teerath would be made. The faithful from all paths of life in Trinidad would already be wending their way through the dark and from far-flung parts of the country to meet and honour Mother Ganga at this spot as they have been doing for the last twenty-one years.
Devotees carrying the Goddess Ganga at the start of the festival
Ganga Dhaaraa Teerath (also spelt tirath) or pilgrimage represents an ancient tradition in Hinduism. Man, God and Nature are not separate in the Hindu tradition and the festival, Ganga Dashahara, is about the unified expression of these. Water is life and human life has depended upon this element since the beginning of time. Villages, towns and even cities have been birthed at the river's edge, dependent on the water's flow. The teerath is about the leap in the journey of life from physical to spiritual and it is natural that such worship should occur in the river which is the provider of all life.
Pilgrims descend makeshift stairs to wthe river
As morning began to filter through the lush, green overhang of vegetation, vehicles could be seen arriving to park alongside the narrowly winding road edging the North Coast. The meticulous consideration by the committee is evidenced in the presence of small yellow flags interspersed along the road from the Maracas Bay Village, acting as beacons for those seeking the festival site. The committee members and volunteers had arrived some days before to prepare the site for the festival. Small ghats had been constructed throughout the river. All structures erected are temporary and are dismantled at the end of the day. Great care has been taken to ensure that no harm is done to the natural surroundings. Men stand on the roadside directing traffic ensuring that cars are parked safely. Concomitantly, families congregate at the entrance of the river, down makeshift stairs built with bamboo lathes, mud and in some places covered with planks of wood, waiting to pay respects to the water before going on. A mantra is said which calls the Goddess to the head of the river. Mantras are important in the festival explains Ravindranath Maharaj, more affectionately known in local circles as Ravi Ji. "The word Mantra," says Ravi Ji, "is a compound word. ‘Man' means mind and ‘tra' means for it to be uplifted. A Mantra is a technology of sound and sound is said to be a vibration. Words as a mantra have meaning and vibrational powers and that sound technology affects the listener positively." Offerings of flowers and small coins are also made before entering the water. Once this is done, one may proceed to the praveesh (entrance of the river).
Hindus receive raksha sutra thread of protection at the Ganesh mandir
Here, a Lord Ganesh mandir sits in the running water. The first chant in the festival is dedicated to Lord Ganesh, for he is the symbol of peace, the remover of all obstacles and the embodiment of intellect. Since the foundation of the Hindu tradition is said to be the development of intellect, he represents the embodiment of this cornerstone. In the mandir, lovingly constructed with bamboo lathes and palm leaves, stands a Ganesh murti, fashioned from the watery earth and stone in which the mandir sits. Mrs. Seeromanie Narinesingh of the Ganga Dhaaraa Teerath Committee explains that the volunteers who are responsible for setting up the camp, had collected raw materials from the riverbed and this they then pressed, kneaded and shaped by hand before being baked and painted for use in the ceremony. Thus, two murtis have been created: the Lord Ganesh murti and the Goddess Ganga's murti. This was again, the connection between God, Man and Nature being manifested. At the festival's end, the Goddess Ganga's murti would be put back into the riverbed where nature would once again claim it. The Ganesh murti would likewise be returned in a separate ceremony. At the mandir, a yellow sutra was tied around the wrist which is a raksha sutra, a thread of protection. Once this was done, devotees proceeded into the river, treading the cool flow in an assortment of water-shoes, sneakers and slippers. A few even walked barefooted across the rocky riverbed. While some were dressed in white, many more were predominantly in yellow, the colour representative of the Goddess Ganga though many others were turned out in festive hues of pink, blue, red and purple.
The bell is rung to announce arrival
A bell dangled over the middle of the river, suspended on a long rope which hung across the river. This was rung by devotees to announce their arrival to this sacred place and many children enthusiastically vied for the honour of ringing the bell. Ravi Ji, founder of the Ganga Dhaaraa Teerath Committee, explained the presence of the festival in this particular river:
As a boy growing up, my Ajee (grandmother) taught us to venerate Mother Ganga in prayer and practice. However, many years later, it was when I encountered the same form of Ganga worship in my travels through India that I made the connection and saw the similarity. I observed how people would come by plane and train; villagers would come by bullock and in a matter of days the area would be jammed with people and the riverbank would be thrashed into mud by the numerous feet treading in religious fervor. Millions of people would be there, flowing into the water and then back out for the next wave of people to go in.
Triniview reporter interviews founder of the Ganga Dhaaraa Teerath Commitee Ravindranath Maharaj also known as Ravi Ji
He related this process to what he had witnessed growing up and realized that Trinidad was missing this festival from our calendar as the tradition seemed to have died out by this time. He noted that while Kartik Nahan is celebrated on the beach (Manzanilla) and rivers are utilized for different pujas, there was no river where the idea of Ganga is developed to show the culture and tradition of the Ganga Dhaaraa Teerath. He experienced a sense of loss about this.
Marianne River Blanchisseuse near the 18¾ mile post
Some years later, while driving on the North Coast, he discovered the river near the 18¾ mile post to Blanchisseuse. He did not immediately enter the river, merely marked its location. He went home thereafter but was unable to rest, feeling a compulsion to return and explore it by himself, which he did. As he ventured along the river, he came to a spot and felt a heady sense of déjà vu. He had at that time, the experience of a recurring dream about this exact spot but did not understand its meaning until this moment. He instantly felt that this was where he was supposed to do a Ganga Puja and he arranged to do so, accompanied by a few people. At the end of his Puja, his companions indicated a wish to return to the same spot next year to do likewise. Realizing that there was a local need for a place like this, he began to clean the area in preparation for the puja, paving the way for the return of Ganga Dhaaraa Teerath in Trinidad.
A group in the Marianne River Blanchisseuse
Yet it was in 1995, during the celebration of Trinidad and Tobago's 150th Anniversary of Indian Arrival Day that interested persons in India collected water and dust from two thousand sacred pilgrimage places along the Ganges and this was then brought to Trinidad in two urns specially made of several metals. The dust of nine sacred locations in Trinidad was also added and then, using a machine, a hole was pierced deep into a large slab of stone where the ancient design was interred. Then all was buried at a place (called the prayaag) where two rivers converged to form one, thereby consecrating the river. Thus was teerath created here, making the river officially and spiritually Ganga for local Hindus to come and worship at.
Prakash Ramkhelawan, the mahant assigned as caretaker of the river
A mahant was assigned to the river and today that mahant is personified in the form of Prakash Ramkhelawan. The mahant is the caretaker of the river. His life is dedicated to this task. Traditionally, this responsibility passes from father to son but in Trinidad this is not necessarily the case. In Trinidad one may earn the privilege through service and once appointed, serve this role for life. When one mahant dies, another takes his place as the caretaker of the river. His hand is the one that lights the first deya in the festival at the prayaag. His job is to ensure that the river and its surrounding environment is not harmed in any way before, during and after the festival is held. Ramkhelawan is responsible for the construction of the ghats and their dismantling when the festival ends and ensures everything returns from whence it came. Many things are used and released into the river throughout the course of the day. But there is a trap constructed and positioned at the end of the river where he has placed men who scoop all items out of the river to dispose of appropriately so that no form of pollution is left in the water.
Dr. Vijay Narinesingh bends to receive a blessing from the pundit
Dr. Vijay Narinesingh explained, "Water worship is one of the oldest forms of worship in the world. It is found in many cultures under different names but in essence it is similar. Most notably in Trinidad is the Orisha society which also participates in this festival, as their deity, the Goddess Oshun is similar to the Hindu Goddess Ganga. Her colour is also yellow and both are revered as divinities that represent water. They are regularly a part of the Ganga Dhaaraa Teerath Festival."
Ganga puja in the Trinnaadeeshwar Mahadeoo Ghat
As the river began to throng with eager devotees, many clustered around the Trinnaadeeshwar Mahadeoo (meaning The Lord of Trinidad, Lord Shiva) Ghat which had been placed in a natural cave sitting at the water's edge. Ravi Ji says that in the course of his exploration of the river, he came upon a lingam stone in the water and had it placed in this tiny grotto where Lord Shiva worship is conducted. The cave has been shored up with large, flat boulders from the surroundings to prevent erosion. Other than a provisional staircase made of sandbags and another made of plywood (both to be removed at the end of the Festival), it remains much as it has for the last two decades. The lingam represents Lord Shiva who is often depicted with a flowing river cascading from the top of his head. He is the male aspect of God and from his head the female energy that is water emerges. When worshipping water, both the male and female aspects of this energy as embodied in Lord Shiva and Mother Ganga are venerated. The crowd of people around the Trinnaadeeshwar Mahadeoo Ghat is thick and there is little sitting space available on the muddy riverbank. There is also no seating provided. Ravi Ji explains this:
Here people come from far and wide to make offerings and prayers and seating isn't provided so as to allow the pilgrimage to flow freely through the river rather than stagnate in any one spot. People will sometimes complain about standing for a long time but it's really a confession about how one performs a penance. This festival is structured in such a way that people must stand and wait and tussle a bit within themselves in order to present their love, their prayer.
Children frolicking in the water
There are other ghats along the river that soon crowd up as the day progresses. The rains fall intermittently but no one seems to mind on a day consecrated to the worship of water. Children frolicked happily in and out of the water under the watchful eye of the community and this clearly served to reinforce this year's festival theme of "The Child – Will We Rock or Wreck the Cradle?" Dr. Vijay Narinesingh reasons it saying, "Children are our future. They are groomed and prepared to this end and it is for us as elders to teach them rightly so that they in turn can live rightly. This process is not only one that occurs by example but also in discourse and much of the Hindu tradition has to do with dialogue." Indeed, this is evident in the interactive nature of the activities at the ghats dotting the river. Chanting in praise of Lord Shiva began at 6 a.m. at the Kailash Ghat. This is open to anyone who wants to join in. At the Hanuman Ghat there is non-stop chanting. This subscribes to the intellectual aspect of the festival. Ravi Ji notes:
Chanting is good for the memory; it helps people to learn the Chaleesa of forty verses. Our tradition says that memorizing of the chants is good for the intellect, it keeps the mind dynamic. It trains your memory when you can remember long and epic things. People come from afar to do the chant.
The Tulsidaas Ghat
At the Tulsidaas Ghat, a Ganga Puja is held. Then discourse is invited based on the holy texts such as the Ramayan. Swami Prakashanana, the Head of the Chinmaya Mission officiates as excited youths stride through the water for an opportunity to dialogue with him. This ghat is named for Tulsi Das who is acknowledged as the father of Caribbean Hinduism.
Symbolic sari of seven thousand buttercups is offered to the river
The Ardha Naareshvar Ghat is unique, for it is dedicated to family life and family relationships. For this reason it has been specially constructed upon a large stone. The stone represents firmness and unbreakability and it is upon such traits that marriage vows and family unity draw their strengths. This is where family life is blessed; accordingly newlyweds and young people jostle to get blessings in their domestic circumstances. God is perceived as half male and half female so it is at this ghat where gender equality is extolled in marital relationships and in spiritual nuances. Ganga Aarti is also offered at this spot made of coconut husk which has had the hard shell gouged out. At the same time that is being done, a symbolic sari of seven thousand buttercups is offered to the river. The yellow flowers are symbolic of the Goddess' colour. These flowers float downriver at the same time the offerings are made. The display of the floating coconut pieces with the tiny flames nestled atop them mixing with the thousands of yellow blossoms is a beautiful sight atop the river's surface. Young women dressed in white trek through the water eagerly sharing warm prasad among the assemblage as devotees throw flowers in graceful arcs upon the river's surface, enlarging the sari. Despite the size of the crowd, the mood is warm and inclusive.
A baby's head is being shaved in the Mundan Sanskaar Ghat
Higher up is the Mundan Sanskaar Ghat where the babies' heads are shaved or hair cut. This ghat is used for ecological sensitization and it is expressed in several ways. This tradition informs the parents of the biodegradable conditions attached to the physical body. The child sits on the lap of the parent and as the child's hair is cut, the hair falls into the mother's orhini. Then the cut hair is collected and placed in a loi of flour or gobar. The substance will ferment and this is what destroys the hair. This method can be traced back to the Laws of Manu. It is believed that the child gains blessings and that this exercise assists in setting positive emotional roadways for the child, which are reinforced through physical contact with the parents in a supportive community setting. The experience allows the child to sensate a larger community around him/her and in connecting with that community feel himself/herself to become a part of this community and increase the child's sense of belonging and wellbeing.
The extensive planning and care that has gone into the organization of the event is evident with the strong volunteer base that is present, ever willing and helpful to offer advice, explanation and assistance where requested to the general public. The National Forestry Division, the Tunapuna/Piarco Regional Corporation, ODPM (Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management) and REACT (Radio Emergency Associated Communications Team) were also available on site to offer what assistance may be required of them. The festival received a nod from the government last year when Minister De Coteau offered support and participation, proving himself to be the first minister in twenty years to attend the festival. This year he attends again, with his own flowers in hand. Minister De Coteau attributed the devotion of his constituents for highlighting the festival's presence in Trinidad. Having participated in similar events and having had the opportunity to immerse himself in the river Ganga twice already, he was happy to engage with the event and offer what assistance he could. He is also a strong supporter of the Orishas and he too, remarked on the similarity between the Goddess Oshun and the Goddess Ganga. Minister De Coteau described this cultural event as one of the best kept secrets in the country and indicated that there could be greater ministerial support for it with a view to improving national cultural development in the future. De Coteau was bent on making his teerath and was soon lost in the mixed crowd treading the river to the Trinnaadeeshwar Mahadeoo Ghat.
Centre left: Minister De Coteau chats with Dr. Vijay Narinesingh
A cross-section of attendees at Ganga Dhaaraa teerath
The Ganga Dhaaraa Teerath is a family-oriented event that was well-attended and with good reason. One parent, Vicky Ramroop from Cunupia said that she brought her child to have the experience because the festival was so unique. Melissa Ragunath from Fyzabad described it as an uplifting experience, while Benny Bhola of Penal came by bus and said that he and his family were very happy to be present at such an original event. Nikita Ramdahanie from Canada lauded the natural beauty and atmosphere of the area, adding also, "The devotion of the people were wonderful today!" Mrs. Savi Beharry from Enterprise Chaguanas smilingly commented that the experience was very nice and admitted that though she had not any idea what to expect this year, next year she'd be better prepared.
Volunteers picking the water clean of any debris
As the festival drew to a close, volunteers were seen picking the water clean of any debris that resulted from the teerath. Large garbage bags were quickly replaced as they filled and then carefully disposed of. The event has strong ties to its natural setting and the veneration of God through Nature by man. As Mr. Narinesingh notes, "We see God is present in everything."
Ganga Dhaara River Festival 2014 in pictures: