The Descent of the Ganga (ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ)

One of Da Ra Bendre’s most famous poems, revealed to the world when he recited it at the close of his President’s Speech at the Kannada Sahitya Sammelana in 1943. Per his own admission, the rapturous reception it received left him reeling.

Here is a recording of my reciting the original Kannada poem.

Additionally, here is a video recording of my reciting the original Kannada poem and the English transcreation.

The Descent of the Ganga (ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ)

Come down, mother,
come down;
from Hara’s locks,
from Hari’s feet,
from the rishi’s thighs,
                     slide forth.
Quench the devās as you come,
wet the regions as you come,
feed every being as you come,
                      come down, mother,
                                 come down.

My salutations I offer you,
I shall wear and wrap you,
so do not hesitate, you,
                      spill forth.
Leave the heavens behind and come,
plummet through the skies and come,
stream along the land and come,
come down, yes mother, come,
                      come down, mother,
                                 come down.

Within the regions of my head,
in front of and behind my back,
up and down inside my blood,
                      surge forth.
Washing each atom of the eye,
tuning every fibre of each sigh,
sprouting words inside the mouth that’s dry,
                      swell forth.
Come, take your place within my breast,
come, roll through the waters of my chest
come, in my very quick do take your rest,
                      come down, mother,
                                 come down.

Come as the lightning flashed,
come as the whirling waters splashed,
come – return – as the thunder smashed,
come calling on
           the abandoned wretched,
           the devitalised aged,
           the waterless parched,
come down, mother,
come down.

Oh cow’s compassion for its calf,
oh mother’s love on her child’s behalf
oh grand benediction from high above,
                      enfold us in your clasp.
Shiva’s compassion unblemished,
tinged only by Shakti’s slightest red,
incarnate maternal-love full-blooded,
                      come, come down,
                      come down, mother,
                                 come down.

Come, none but you can wash us clean,
come, every other power is mean,
come, or we shall remain unclean;
come, feed us in our very marrow,
come, circle our land that’s lying fallow,
come, breathe life into these deadened hollows.

Beloved, into whose waters fell
reflections from the gods’s dream-well,
That made your pool of consciousness swell.
Gangē, with new-opened eyes;
Gangē, who now does span the skies
ready to descend upon Bhāratī’s thighs
from the starry-flowers
of the holy pārijāta’s bowers
that fed upon your showers.
Worshipped by the tulsi garland,
perfumed by mandāra’s scent,
you alone are both parents.
Born of an ecstatic rasa flood,
you are none but the fluid
fruit of SacchidānandaBrahma’s blood.
Come on down, mother, come to play;
come júst this once, I pray:
for my tears of joy I cannot stay.
           Yes, mother, such a fall is what they meant
           when they talked of the avatāra, the descent.

Like a boon to one who’s prayed,
like one in compassion bathed,
like river full-filled and flooded,
bouncing and uninhibited,
                      rush forth.
For your darling you come searching,
yes, come searching, mother,
                      come rushing.

Come, renew the breath of life,
come, swell; and illuminate this life,
come, show yourself as flesh and blood,
come, wash your hands of all the mud,
come, alight upon this earth for good,
                      come down, mother,
                                 come down.

Come, Shambu-Shiva-Hara’s thought-consummate
come, Datta-Narahari’s grandmother-great
come, come, to Datta, son of Ambikā late,
                      come down, mother,
                                 come down.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

Poem Details: From the collection “ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ,” first published in 1951.

Here is my recitation of the Kannada translation.

Note: I was only able to approach this translation thanks to the wonderfully thorough and fascinating Kannada explication provided by Sunaath Kaka on his blog. To receive his praise for this translation (when I shared it with him two years later) was particularly gratifying. My thanks to him.

Afterword:

The story of the Gangā’s descent – the gangāvataraṇa – is, along with the churning of the ocean, one of the magnificent triumphs of the Hindu mythological imagination.
Wildly and wilfully aswirl in the heavens, the beautiful (and arrogant) goddess Gangā is asked by Brahma to descend to the earth in answer to King Bhageeratha’s intense meditation. It is Bhageeratha’s wish that Gangā’s waters wet his forefathers’s ashes and relieve them of the terrible curse that has kept their souls from gaining release.
But prima donna that she is, Gangā (who is displeased by Brahma’s command) begins her descent by plummeting through the skies with a speed clearly too much for the earth-mother to bear. The consequence of her haughtiness is that she is caught firmly by Shiva in his thickly matted locks from where she tries, in vain, to escape. The unflagging meditation of Bhageeratha moves Shiva into releasing her earthward, in a controlled manner. Gangā, however, is not going to let anybody boss her and no sooner does she reach the earth than she charges forth in a joyous recklessness and disrupts sage Jahnu’s yagna.
Incensed, Jahnu swallows her whole – which forces Bhageeratha to once more begin his beseeching prayers, this time to Jahnu. In course of time, Jahnu too is moved to release Gangā who, finally chastened by her experiences, flows gracefully to where Bhageeratha is waiting with his forefather’s ashes. And having wet those ashes with her sacred waters and having helped Bhageeratha pay off his dues, she continues on her course – sanctifying every piece of earth she touches and making her home in the Hindu imagination as ತಾಯಿ ಗಂಗೆ, गंगा मैया, Mother Gangā, Gangā Ma, Gangā Dēvi.
The sublime Kannada poet, Da Ra Bendre, read out his prayer-poem “Gangāvataraṇa (ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ)” at the end of his presidential address to the Kannada Literary Congress in 1943. What followed, naturally enough, was a rhapsodic, rapturous reception that left him reeling. Moved to write the prayer by the Bengal famine of 1942, he calls like a present-day Bhageeratha upon Mother Gangā to descend again, metaphorically, and relieve the people of his land of their suffering.
Brimming with ನಾದ (nāda: ~euphony), ಪ್ರಾಸ (prāsa: ~rhyme) and ಲಯ (laya: ~ rhythm); flowing effortlessly like the Gangā herself; full of Hindu mythological references; and containing a devotion comprehensible only to the true devotee, no translation can do the poem adequate justice.
Nonetheless, I have attempted in this translation (which is more correctly a ಭಾವಾನುವಾದ or a transcreation) to convey some of the grandness of the poem. I confess that I was myself surprised by what I think are successful renditions of some particularly difficult parts.

Author: MKA

I'm Madhav, from Bangalore. I write my own poetry in English and translate Da Ra Bendre's poetry from Kannada into English. (You can read my poetry at https://madhavajjampurwritings.com/). I also translate sundry other Kannada writings into English. My favourite poets include Yeats, Tagore, Bendre, Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson, and Gerard Hopkins. If you'd like to get in touch, do write to me at mk.ajjampur@gmail.com. I'd be very happy to hear from you!

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