Photo Essay

River Ending

September 9, 2013

Photographs by Sreedeep with an intro text by Kamalini Mukherjee.


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The blank canvas of the dry riverbed now paints pictures of those who leave their footsteps behind, walking through the morbid remains of a river. The Okhla barrage and the traffic laden bridge that connects and some of the southern most parts of Delhi to Noida can be seen at the backdrop, while on the other side of the traffic lies a coagulation of filthy chemical waste popularly known as Yamuna waters in these parts. © Sreedeep.

She had a life once. She was the life once. Now she has become a shadowy respite of the environmental battle that has left her rotting, slowly turning to mulch and landfill. Her life was the pride of civilizations. Her tumultuous beauty was the refuge of sages and poets. River Yamuna, on the banks of which Lord Krishna played his flute to the sunset until the women of his village found themselves mesmerized, at his feet. Yamuna, on the banks of which Shah Jahan built Taj Mahal, the monument of love’s eternal testament, and the world still amazes at the glory of that love. Today, urban development has pushed her to the fringes, struggling to survive the inevitable decay. The largest tributary of Ganga, now lies in the despair of a long forgotten lifeline as one of the most polluted rivers in the world, especially around Delhi. Once considered the most sacred of all rivers in India, it was also geologically one of the most important rivers of Northern India, now presents the picture of a frothing pool of stagnant toxic waste.

There is a stark contrast of beliefs and practices, in this country. Yamuna River has a history older than its geo-ecological life. It has a religious significance that still drives hundreds of devotees taking dips in its contaminated waters every year. It is still part of the daily prayer to many, as it retains its rights of purity even as excrement and fetid remains are but ordinary items in the river water. Yet, life still teems around the diseased river. Trades still exist, those of washer-men or linen-launderers mostly; a few rickshaw-pullers also call the riverbank home, as well as some settlers who have lived on these “camping sites” for generations. The children play in the midst of decomposition and dirt, the women clean their utensils in the same water, ten meters away from where their community toilet dispenses extra flow of sewage. The filth and putrid air in the area is something that has become a part of their existence.

Incredibly, the contrast exists even in the character of the river as it faces its mortality. Yamuna dies as it reaches the state of Delhi, as it lies followed by a wasteland in the middle of the metropolitan city, buried within the invisible spaces in the city’s pace of life. Forlorn and forsaken, an immense horizon wakes up each morning to the sound of passing traffic, overlooked by the multitude of destination-prone humans. Incredibly, the contrast exists even in the character of the river as it reaches its mortality.

Yamuna may have perished years ago to accommodate Delhi’s teeming émigrés, but the trades of a river have salvaged the hopes of nostalgia and reclamation still attached to its corpse.

All the images one may traverse here are memoirs of beauty and an imagined retrieval only death can be guilty of.

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Investigating the dead river that regains life for a short while during the monsoons. The relationship of those who still reside and survive alongside and with the river, is almost parasitic. The treasures buried within her, are still being searched, pursued, possessed and pawned. Yamuna flows until her last wave falters at the feet of marching modernity, but humanity still bores holes in her being, to find those last dregs of life. © Sreedeep.

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The riverbed, strewn with carcasses from local slaughterhouses, near a settlement in Okhla, punctuated by afternoon gilli danda games. The Delhi-Noida-Direct Flyway (DND) on one side provides only a vague view of this hidden neighborhood. © Sreedeep.

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Ferry boats await on the shore of a long dead riverbed. The vast expanse of sand dunes was once carried to this very spot by Yamuna, now the decaying boats remain as the only witness to the remnants of a torrid temptress. © Sreedeep.

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It may seem quite difficult to believe, but quite a few of us cross this scene everyday on our commutes, a bullock cart crossing through a desert of decay. © Sreedeep.

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The river bed is still strewn with the mortal carcasses of man’s divine faith. The river may have once held the promise of flowing to an eternal destination, carrying with it the material embodiments of religious rituals. © Sreedeep.

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These are attempts at using the riverbed for crude vegetable farming. The harvests are a product of local settlements along the embankment dwelling between non-legality and leased out legality of the sold out river bed. © Sreedeep.

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The sun slowly meets the horizon over the elongated shadows of a languid afternoon, almost giving this sad aftermath of a river its due beauty. Cutting through its heart is man’s cruel intervention, like the electric poles that stands guard as if a hunter over its hunt. © Sreedeep.

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Truckloads of fish are brought in to this spot almost every day, and the ice that the fish is brought in, melts to create a mirage of water. Even though the real river no longer exists, the occasional fish market is a sad reminder of what once was there. © Sreedeep.

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Silhouettes of “unloading,” against the falling dusk and to intensify the irony of the situation further, against the roller coaster of a water park near around. © Sreedeep.

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As if humoring the extent of irony, a group of wholesalers of fish brought in from other states put up a daily market on the sandy embankment of what can only be explained as the haunting “memory of a river.” © Sreedeep.

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Whole sale lease on progress. Yes, the highest bidder buys the load; the rest buy whatever is left behind. © Sreedeep.

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The homebound empty trucks leave with the promise of bringing back more supplies of fish to be traded on the shores of a dead river. The flurry of activity is short-lived. © Sreedeep.

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Fisherman spreads out his fishing net to dry over the parched riverbed. The Ferris wheel at the distant was supposed to be Delhi’s answer to the London Eye. Now it sits idle as the view soaks up heat with every step into another emotionless summer. © Sreedeep.

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Since the river provides no solace of water, the tube-well stands like a lonely soldier in the Desert of Yamuna.Fishermen wash up before dispersing. © Sreedeep.