Paper Abstracts:

‘Laminated Landscapes of the Ganga Ghats’
Alpa Nawre , Kansas State University


Surplus and Sacredness: India’s National River-linking Project & the Ganga

Trevor Birkenholtz, Associate Professor, Geography & Geographic InfoSci, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

India’s National River-Linking Project (NRLP) aims to connect India’s rivers via a series of link-canals and reservoirs that would move water from so-called surplus areas to deficit areas. In doing so, this $123 billion Promethean project intends to enhance water availability in scarce regions, increase irrigated area, provide flood control and produce hydroelectricity. With respect to the Ganga Basin, the project plans to divert water from the eastern Ganga tributaries to arid western part of the Ganga.

This talk examines the project and what it means for the Ganga in three ways. First, the entire discourse of the project rests of a myopic vision of water scarcity as a physical problem, rather than water scarcity as something that is socially produced in complex ways through power-laden political economies. Second, this naturalization of scarcity as a physical problem, feeds into the state’s techno-managerial tendencies towards mega-projects, while justifying them as the only possible solution. And third, the notion of water scarcity as a physical problem that demands a large-scale engineering solution is made possible by feminine constructions of nature in general and the Ganga as Mother, specifically. This construction allows for the state to objectify the Mother Ganga and improve on her nature, while projecting a particular notion of surplus and sacredness that may sit well with urban elites but that renders invisible “Project Affected People”, including tribal communities, landless farmers, laborers and the urban poor. The talk concludes with a discussion of what this project means for the Ganga’s complex socioecology, the sacredness of the river, and the struggles around access to and control over its finite resources.


“Embodied Goodness of the Gods”: Revisiting Ganga Ma as Goddess

Jessica Vantine Birkenholtz, Assistant Professor, Department of Religion, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Ganga Ma or Mother Ganga, the deification of the Ganges river, is one of a multitude of goddesses in the Hindu pantheon. In contrast to many of her divine associates, however, discussions of Ganga Ma typically do not focus on her as a manifestation of the all-encompassing Devi. Rather, scholarship introduces and focuses on her within the specific context of goddesses and sacred geography and/or the sacrality of rivers. In this talk I revisit the mythology and associated religious practices surrounding Ganga Ma to consider key facets of her identity and tradition that distinguish her in meaningful ways from many of Hinduism’s other goddesses. I will focus in particular on three aspects of Ganga Ma’s identity and function: her ecumenical nature, the nature of her shakti, and her deep connection to geography. I will demonstrate that when taken together, these three characteristics of Ganga Ma set her apart from other popular Hindu goddesses, including at the pan-Hindu and local or regional levels. At the same time, they reveal important connections that enhance our understanding of Hindu goddesses and make a case for including Ganga Ma in these discussions.

Sun Images and association with the Ganga in Banaras: Ordering,
Cultural Astronomy and Worship
Prof. Rana P.B. Singh, MA, PhD, FJF, FIFS, FAAI, FACLA, ‘Ganga-Ratna
Professor of Cultural Geography & Heritage Studies, & Head, Dept. of Geography,
Banaras Hindu University, India.

 Like many ancient cultures, in Hindu tradition too Sun is considered to be the most prominent divinity in the cosmos and has been part of invocation and festivities since the ancient past. While testing the hypothesis that the city plan of Varanasi has developed according to a cosmic order, it is observed that the temples and shrines related to Sun (Aditya) are placed in a meaningful spatially manifested pattern corresponding to the cosmic geometry and the movement of sun, the association of cosmic north and Kashi-North, and the celebrating seasonal festivities in a sequential order referring to solstices and equinoxes and their interfaces with the Ganga. Probably, this pattern had grown in pre-Brahmanical tradition, and later on superseded by the Shaiva tradition, however they are still part of active veneration and festivities.

The nomenclature and iconographic features of all the fourteen Sun images in Varanasi further indicate the mythological links to belief systems and the inherent scientific meanings that were codified in the mystical tradition and continued as part of religious tradition. In Varanasi the sun is directly involved in the making of cosmic ordering, and in the life of the city, daily as the dawn sun, but also traditionally as an agent for Lord Shiva, the patron deity of this city, and also as one among the ‘five ancillary divinities’ (panchadevas) worshipped together. These solar attributes must have emerged from local folk tradition and further elaborated in mythology and epic literature. Cosmological order and cityscape of Varanasi can further be explained with the study of spatial patterning of other deities and series of sacred journeys. The complex network and structure of the spatial pattern of sun shrines and their association with the movement of the sun and the riverfront of the Ganga throw light on the cosmological sense of ‘city planning’ in ancient period. Probably this pattern is older than the Brahmanical tradition, of course in span of time it has been superseded by Brahmanical (in fact Shaiva) tradition.


Super-Surface: Infrastructure Across the Ganges River Basin since 1854
Anthony Acciavatti, architect and principal researcher with Somatic Collaborative, New York.

Death and Life as Spectacle: Ghats on the Ganga in Varanasi, India
Amita Sinha Professor of Landscape Architecture ,University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign