Millions of people have been coming to Har ki Paidi for ages and on special occasions like Poornima and Ekadeshi in addition to the pilgrims who come here daily for a holy dip in the Ganga river. About a century ago, Pundit Madan Mohan Malaviya, recognising the need for an organisation which communicates the feelings of pilgrims and Hindus to the Government, formulated Shri Ganga Sabha, Haridwar in 1916 in the presence of Governors and the then kings of various princely States. In its 102nd year of establishment, The Pioneer conversed with its president, Purushottam Sharma ‘Gandhiwadi’ about its accomplishments and steps taken to conserve the river of faith–Ganga which is also the lifeline of millions. Excerpts from the interview:
Why was the Shri Ganga Sabha formed?
In pre-independence days, the British Government had decided to construct a dam near Bhim Goda in Haridwar in 1914 and tried to block the free flow of water to Har Ki Paidi. This agitated the priests and purohits of Haridwar and a large protest was held under the leadership of Pundit Madan Mohan Malaviya. Eventually, under pressure from this mass protest, the British Governor agreed to scrap the project and assured that the current flow towards Har ki Paidi Bhramakund and nearby ghats will remain uninterrupted. However, after few days, construction of the dam was again started by the British Irrigation Department which reignited the mass movement. British Governor James Meston Dole was forced to find a solution to this agitation and on December 18-19, a huge conference was organised in Haridwar under the leadership of Malaviya, where a large number of prominent people assembled to make an agreement with the British regime. The 1916 agreement states that in future, the incessant flow of Ganga will never be interfered with and no decision on Ganga will be taken without the consent of Hindu community.
Has Shri Ganga Sabha retained the traditions over these years which were laid down at its inception in 1916?
Yes, the Ganga Arti ritual is performed twice a day since then and religious discourses are held. We are continuing to maintain the sacredness and cleanliness of this place. Some 50 years ago when there was no transport system in Haridwar and people used to come from far off places, their boarding and lodging arrangements were done by priests. The priests had won the trust of the pilgrims which continues to draw people to Haridwar even today.
What is the operational set up of the organisation?
It is a registered organisation of priests and purohits with Dhada (groups) that reside mainly in Jwalapur and Kankhal areas. Main groups are Sikhola and Shrikunj with their families. The adults of the families are counted and one representative from each family votes in the general body of the organisation. Three officials- president, secretary and Sabhapati are elected. The working committee has 49 members, one president and one secretary.
How old is the record maintenance by the priests as Bahi Khata?
It is presumed that this tradition of recording one’s visit to the holy city must have been even before the invention of paper but there is no evidence of it. The earliest records can be said from 350 years ago. My grandfather used to tell that when kings of princely States used to come they were followed by common people and saints and ascetics.
What is the concept behind maintenance of ancestral records by priests? Any plan to digitalise records?
To register any good happening in one’s family or death of relative, the visitors logged their arrival in Bahi Khatas. It is a way to connect to one’s roots when one sees signatures and expression of one’s forefathers who visited Haridwar on the banks of Ganga. Many people used to come from Lahore and Rawalpindi now in Pakistan. Some priest groups have attempted to digitalise especially those from Sindh.
The functioning of the organisation had been an all-male affair. Any plan to involve women too in the organisation's functioning?
Traditionally, women were confined to homes and they continue to do so in priest families. Undoubtedly, they have more potential than men in various spheres but never participated in organisational setups and it seems that they won’t participate in future.
Has Shri Ganga Sabha made any major contributions for conservation of Ganga?
I formed a team of 11 priests and they were given uniform dress code to perform Arti as per Vedic ritual and do Ganga Abhishek before performing Arti. People watching from a distance can see this Arti irrespective of physical barriers. Since 2012, we have been making people participating in Arti to take pledge for keeping the river clean. If some 10-15,000 pilgrims visit on a daily basis, a positive message goes across the country through them. Ganga can be kept clean only with public participation.
What impact has Namami Gange had on the condition of the Ganga?
It is unfortunate that at many places, sewers are still draining into the Ganga without being treated since the STPs installed are of less capacity or non-operational during power failure. Much needs to be done. Also in the name of development, another Brahmkund should not be made on Neeldhara of Ganga.