A Homage to the Gangā (ಗಂಗಾಷ್ಟಕ)

The ಭಾವ-ಸಂದರ್ಭ (~emotional context) of this poem was Bendre’s visit to the Ganga during his ತೀರ್ಥಯಾತ್ರ (~pilgrimage) through North India.
Though not half as famous as Bendre’s “ಗಂಗಾವತರಣ”, this is easily the more intricate poem – with unusually long metrical lines that follow the aabb end-rhyme pattern. While the translation has not followed this scheme, I have looked to keep a consistent rhythm throughout.

A Homage To The Gangā (ಗಂಗಾಷ್ಟಕ)

When the wish-cow of your affection yields ceaselessly the milk of song,
To think of you is meditation; all other rosaries naught but a noose.
Why slobber then that you aren’t mine? Why unlock these lips in vain?
Know I not how empty is this pride that fashions but a song?

There is none that’s seen you who has not sung, your name rose on his lips;
As if a man may tie in song that rushing river which Shiva’s locks could not?
Yet I, beholding your blessed sight, could do little else but unlock
My lips: that the song which sprang forth might soothe the sorrowing heart.

O Gangē, the gold dust with which Bhārati once was filled;
The joyous faces of her fruit that once adorned your fertile banks!
Is there upon this earth a child that did not play within its mother’s lap?
Upon your river-lap did play the great empires of our land!

Those avatāras strange that made the earth-mother fret,
All came and swiftly left; the world returned to wilderness.
While you who came down for reasons else now flow as truth
Eternal; more glorious she who bore you than the avatāras ten.

Like departed mother who hears her wailing child, you rushed down
From your heaven-home; like brave who is not scared to wear this mortal coil.
Granter-of-salvation blessed, aloft on Shiva’s jewelled crest, what matters it where
You be; you came, you flowed and reached the sea; turned salvation-field yourself.

Where be Ayodhyā now? Where Dwārāvati of yore? Where Gōkula’s gardens?
O sole remnant of Rāma’s and Krishṇa’s fame; though all things succumb to time,
The Gangē lives so long as live the earth and sky; so long shall stand her idol white.
O, Bhagīratha of empire grand, it is the Gangā who is your claim to everlasting fame.

“If, from the bosom of the bathing princesses, the night’s leftover musk should fall; should then
This water with the waters of the Gangā mix, such blessed musk-deer’s salvation is certain.”
So sang the poet, and I, cut from the same cloth as he, believed him and in you bathed:
Then it felt as if my mother had herself in mukti’s waters bathed; for I am of her stomach made.

O mocking laughter of Shiva! Compassioned-gaze of Himālaya! White-bosomed stream of milk!
Who has flowed forever forth; the very heart within ma-Bhārati’s maternal-heart!
O, mother, the displays of your affectionate ways! Who the blessed one who sang your praise?
Let this my homage add to his lines of praise; let this be my knowledge-offering.

(Translated by Madhav K. Ajjampur)

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

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.

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 rolling waters splashed,
Come as the thunder smashed,
Come back.
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 its 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 do span the skies
Ready to descend upon Bhārati’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.