A Riverbed of Desire
by Shatakshi Goyal
A film on the plight of the Yamuna River fulfills a dancer’s wish to portray the goddess Yamuna Devi.
A dream vision: The curtains open slowly as if hesitating to reveal the concealed beauty of a moonlit forest. The gentle rays of the moon softly illuminate the leaves. The refreshing sound of splashing water from a scintillating waterfall combines with a soft, mournful drone that seems to shape the foggy mist dancing over the waterfall’s lake. A gentle breeze makes the moon quiver in the river’s palmlike ripples.
The sound of tinkling ankle bells enhances the aural beauty of the forest. A sudden breeze reveals in the mist a beautiful dancing female form that seems to emerge from the water, her long blue cloth rippling behind her in the breeze. Long black hair curls around the goddess’s moonlike face.
On awakening, enchanted by the beauty of the scene painted so vividly in my heart, I pray with tears in my sleepless eyes that one day I can materialize this vision by portraying the river Yamuna in her goddess form. That same day, I discuss with a fellow producer the possibility of a video shoot. He likes the concept and agrees to do whatever he can to help.
I’m thrilled. “Yamuna Devi” . . . “water goddess” . . . “cloth swirling” . . . “mist” – the words keep resonating in my heart. Despite several tries, I can’t set my mind to anything else. In a dazed meditation on the mood and activities of Yamuna Devi, I finally settle myself into bed. "It's not going to happen overnight."
A Cherished Opportunity
The next day I receive a phone call from my father.
“Haribol?” I answer, holding breakfast in my right hand.
“Krishna-lila Devi Dasi, director of Karuna Productions, is looking for a dancer in Vrindavan to enact the role of Yamuna Devi for her upcoming film Rescuing the Stolen River.“
“She is what?”
“. . . a dance for a film on Yamuna Devi.”
How, I wonder, have I received this opportunity to work on the very subject of my meditation from yesterday, with an experienced film producer who has made feature films on art, science, spirituality, religion, vegetarianism, and the environment?
My father’s voice breaks my reverie.
“Check the emails she sent you.”
Still holding breakfast, I hurriedly navigate to my email with my left hand. There it is: "To give the film an artistic depth, I am looking for a girl in Vrindavan who could 'impersonate' Yamuna Devi."
Divine Arrangements in Mayapur
I was taken onboard the project, and the safari started. I reached Mayapur, West Bengal, where I was to meet Krishna-lila Devi; Suravarya Dasa, the sound operator; and Gaura Govinda Dasa, the cameraman for the first shoot. For the desired music-video effect, the dance was to be recorded in three locations: an auditorium setup with focused lights, in a “forest of Vrindavan” along the banks of Yamuna with another dancer enacting Krishna, and finally at the Hathni Kund Barrage (dam) in the north Indian state of Haryana where the Yamuna River is being diverted from her natural course.
Everything was happening so spontaneously I felt like a spectator watching a film unravel in front of my eyes. My thoughts drifted through the sequence of what was happening in my life: my desire to do a dance choreography for Yamuna Devi, then Krishna-lila’s search for a dancer in Vrindavan, then choreographing an Odissi dance on English lyrics, then arranging a blue Odissi costume that would fit me only days before the shoot, and now the booking of the auditorium. Despite many obstacles, the auditorium shoot in Mayapur, from booking to filming, fell together quickly. It felt like everything was already orchestrated, and we were just the pegs blissfully being pushed into place. Really it’s true, I thought, the bliss one feels in performing devotional service to Krishna is unmatched by any other form of pleasure. It’s full of excitement, adventure, and freshness at every step, and with each realization, the nectar increases.
As we drove to the next filming location, Vrindavan, a town of great spiritual significance and a historic place of worship of the Yamuna River, I thought about how eight months earlier, on a very beautiful spot on the Yamuna bank, I had tried to film the pastime of Yamuna Devi surrendering to Lord Balarama. I recalled the struggle due to lack of resources, and praying with tears in my eyes for a qualified team to do a shoot someday.
Wow! I pondered, frozen in disbelief and awe. Here I am today, part of the crew for the Rescuing the Stolen River film on Sri Yamuna Devi. Did Yamuna Devi actually hear my prayers? Is this really her blessing in reply?
I felt incredibly insignificant and undeserving to enact her pain. I repeatedly prayed to Yamuna Devi. With my material limitations, only by her blessings would I be able to emote and convey her pain.
A Dead River
After a few days in Vrindavan, we set off for Okhla Barrage in Delhi. This time we had six new members of our party: Madayanti Devi Dasi, ISKCON’s Save Yamuna Campaign coordinator; Vrindavana Vinoda Dasa, who helped with the local interviews and arrangements; Ravi Monga, who informed us about the details of the Yamuna’s pollution at each point in the tour; Muralika, a young celebrity who gives spiritual discourses all over India; her younger sister Sriji; and their aunt.
As we passed over the bridge at Okhla Barrage, we noticed a floppy, bubbly hill of foam about six feet tall covering the river beneath us. We opened the car doors, and were greeted with a gust of warm, salty, strong, disgusting odor. Mild winds caressed the whitish foam as bits of it occasionally flew by us. The stench was so unbearable I was unsure I would survive the next hour of filming. My stomach writhed as if disgusted from the smell. Worried that I might vomit, I was forced to breathe through my mouth.
Here was our very own dear Yamuna Devi, whom we worship daily as our mother and whose water is used by residents along her banks to purify themselves.
I felt like my hair, clothes, mouth – everything – had absorbed a good dose of sewage scent. I felt so incredibly ashamed. How was this possible? An untreated river of household waste and poisonous industrial waste was flowing toward the ocean, and along its course the people using it were dying.
Ravi informed us that according to UNICEF, 23% of the children consuming this water were dying of arsenic poisoning. Who could believe that less than 2% of the river’s course – from Wazirabad north of New Delhi, to Okhla in South Delhi – was contributing to 70% of the pollution? I realized firsthand why the United Nations declared the Yamuna "a dead river." Industrialists are not cleaning up their waste, nor is the government, where corrupt bureaucrats allow industrialists to pollute at will. Despite having 25% of India's sewage-treatment capacity, Delhi treats only 61% of its sewage.
We were now ready to confront R. M. Bharadwaj, the leading scientist of India's Central Pollution Control Board. We met Mr. Bharadwaj at his office in New Delhi, and he managed to speak at great lengths on other challenges: the unforeseen increase in population, the outdated and inadequate water-treatment procedures to process modern industrial wastes, the impossibility of stopping agriculture, which sustains the country.
We interrupted, pointing out that the Karnal district of Haryana, north of Delhi, is the biggest rice exporter in Asia, exporting more than 80% of the rice grown there. It is not using the Yamuna's water for feeding the people of India.
Attempting to cover his misleading statement, he diverted the topic to more effective irrigation methods, like sprinklers or drip systems and crop rotation. Up to 80% of the water evaporates because of flood irrigation during the eight months of summer.
Once again I was shocked. Ninety-seven percent of the water is being diverted for irrigation, out of which 80% dries up because of carelessness (flood irrigation), threatening the lives of children. Yet there were no concrete plans to stop careless irrigation, and no mention of treating the sewage, returning the Yamuna to her natural course, or preventing the death of children.
The Stolen River
The water rights of a small group of farmers in Haryana had been increased to such an extent that they completely overruled every other person's most basic human right to share this natural resource. The river was not only polluted, but it was actually stolen. When man makes a massive decision to divert 97% of the freshwater flow of a river and replace it with sewage, the consequences will be similarly massive. Death from arsenic poisoning, death of aquatic life, pollution of the riverbed, chemical wastes going untreated into the ocean, and the great loss of an ancient culture and tradition of worship associated with this holy river are just a few of the tragic results we can see today.
“It's a democracy,” Mr. Bharadwaj concluded. “It's very hard. We're not China.”
We came out of the office convinced the government was not at all interested in fixing the problem. But our visit was a necessary step of the journey, and we were now ready to move to the next one.
Exhausted both emotionally and physically from the disagreeable sights and conversations of the day, I felt unsettled. I decided to Skype my father, a technical hydrologist by profession, hoping he would have some answers to my questions.
What does it technically mean for a river to be declared dead?
His response sounded so morbid: A river is dead when it cannot sustain aquatic life. That reminded me of my childhood readings of Prabhupada's book Krishna, when the residents of Vrindavan could not use the water of the Yamuna River, poisoned by the great serpent Kaliya.
I told my father how disappointing it was to speak to the head of India's Central Pollution Control Board and how he barely spoke about treating the sewage, and said nothing about allowing the freshwater to flow.
I asked my father, “Does the river need any freshwater flow, or is it ecologically safe for the riverbed to receive only treated sewage water?”
My father's response was strong and clear: Aquatic life needs a certain amount of oxygen content in the aqueous solution. The amount of oxygen content as the river passes through Delhi is zero. Hence, to sustain life we must add at least some percentage of freshwater flow to the treated sewage in Delhi.
Our Imprisoned Mother
The next day we drove to the Karnal district of Haryana to see freshwater canals irrigating the rice fields. The fragrance of the freshwater and tender plants on the banks of the canals was a stark contrast to the stench at Okhla Barrage. Later that day we met brokers and exporters and visited a mill to see how rice is processed. The stream of white rice grains pouring out of machines into jute bags looked as if Yamuna water falling from the Kalinda Mountain was being packaged and exported.
The next morning we set out for Hathni Kund Barrage, where Yamuna Devi was being torn into two canals, both diverting her waters to Haryana, leaving her original riverbed dry. I sat there motionless, hearing her waters pound against the prisonlike walls of the dam. As my thoughts silenced, I could hear her cry grow louder.
Tormented by emotions and painful feelings, we started walking towards the other side of the dam. There she was, scintillating like a mine of crystals, holding the reflection of the sun in her watery hands. The most beautiful pure waters flowed unchecked from the Kalinda Mountain.
Yamuna Devi's natural beauty reminded me of His Holiness Shivarama Swami's enchanting descriptions in his book Venu-gita. When Krishna played His flute, Yamuna Devi's waters would swim in circles to drink the nectar of Krishna’s song. Her wavelike arms longed to embrace her Syama in the land of Vraja. Desiring to drink every drop of nectar emanating from Syama's flute, even the water that had already passed by would return, reversing the current's flow. Such is the glory of this transcendental personality, Yamuna Devi.
The scene looked divinely painted. The reddish sky held the glowing orange globe just inches above the horizon, as if frozen to serve as a gorgeous backdrop for the film. A beautiful reflection scintillated on the waves in the majestic river, providing a yellow-orange lighting effect on my “dance stage.” The sounds of her waters splashing against rocks rejuvenated my being. I hurried to a small island of rocks in the river and started to enact the heartrending lyrics of “Shyam” by Pia Richardson. I prayed for grace as I tried to keep from tumbling on the rocks. Meditating on Venu-gita's beautiful description of how Yamuna Devi responds to hearing Krishna’s flute-song, I opened up my heart and offered the dance.
A Bed of Longing
As we drove back to Keshi Ghat, I recalled a conversation with Shivarama Swami. Yamuna Devi is always flowing in Vraja in aprakata, or unmanifested, form, he said, but her disappearance in drishtva form, or that which we can see, shows that she is offended by how Vrindavan is being exploited – dirt and filth everywhere, rampant corruption, lack of building codes. Shivarama Swami reminded us that our Save Yamuna Campaign is not just about moving politicians, courts, and policy makers; it's also meant to create a bed of desire and welcome to show Yamuna Devi that we want her to return to Vrindavan. If she wants to come, she can just burst that dam in Delhi and come straight through. So it's not the dam that's going to keep her there.
Having reached Keshi Ghat, we looked at the dark water flowing by. If only we could offer Yamuna Devi a riverbed of desire to draw her back to Vraja. To this end, the film crew vowed to stop eating rice grown with Yamuna water until she is revived. With heavy hearts and a tinge of satisfaction for having completed our first step in this mission, we offered Yamuna Devi her own crystal-clear water from Hathni Kund as a symbol of offering our desire for her to return. The transcendental journey had now truly begun.
For more information about the film, visit www.stolenriverfilm.com.
For more information on the Save Yamuna Campaign, visit http://saveyamuna.org/.