India encompasses many places considered holy, usually located on the banks of rivers, coasts, seashores and mountains. As the rhythm of Indian life is dictated by the water from the rivers flowing through, Hindus hold the rivers in great reverence. Sites of convergence between land and two, or even better three, rivers, are especially sacred. There are seven sacred rivers; Ganges, Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati (an ancient river that does not exist any more), Narmada, Sindhu, and Kaveri. The holy rivers are deified as goddesses, alive in the distinct body of the river, controlling the flow of the water. These female divinities bring prosperity and fertility in their wake as they deliver drinking water to humans and animals and make crops grow. They are thus seen as life bestowing mothers. Bathing ritually in their purifying water is considered sacred. Sacred rivers are thought to make the pure worshipper even more pure, and to rid the impure of their pollution, if only temporarily. Hindus believe that bathing in a holy river reduces a person’s sins and increases the chances for liberating the person from the cycle of life, death and rebirth. Imbued with an ambiguous mind, Hindus see water as a creative as well as a destructive force. We are at the mercy of water just as we are at the mercy of the goddesses. In order to please the goddesses offerings are made to the holy rivers.
Thousands of worshippers make pilgrimages to sites along the holy rivers. Standing in the river worshippers make a cup with their hands and pour the water back into the river reciting mantras. The ritual of sipping water three times while repeating the names of a god is done to receive blessings. The Hindu religious scriptures, the Veda's, declare that water offered to the sun during twilight converts the drops of water to stones that cause death to demons and diseases. Similarly the Veda's explain that when a devotee takes water in his hands while facing the sun and drops the water carefully the sunrays heat the water and its colors penetrate and revitalize every part of the body. The devotees also leave small floating baskets with offerings and burning candles in the river so that their wishes may come true. Hindus collect the holy water in pitchers in order to bring it home for future rituals.
Water plays a role in nearly all rites and ceremonies of Hinduism because of its two main symbolic qualities, purification and rebirth. For Hindus, morning cleansing with water is a basic obligation. This daily ritual maybe very elaborate, especially in the case of sadhus (Hindu holy people who renounce the world while seeking Brahman). Before bringing prayers to the gods, Hindus clean themselves as well. Every temple has a pond near by and devotees are supposed to take a bath before entering the temple. Purification rituals with water are also performed in case caste-rules have been broken, for example if someone drinks from the same vessel as a member of a lower caste.
The scene depicted in this painting is set at a very specific site, namely Ramkund. This is a sacred watertank on the banks of the river Godavari in the city of Nashik. Here the river takes a ninety degree bend. It is believed it converges with two underground rivers at that point. According to the Ramayana, one of the great Hindu epics, the god Ram and his wife Sita took their daily baths at this place during a period of exile. Hence many undertake a pilgrimage to take a holy dip in the river Godavari, which is considered the 'Ganges of the south'. People believe that a dip in the Ramkund shall wash off all their sins. The pilgrims also scatter the ashes of their loved ones in the Ramkund in the strong belief that it will help them attain salvation. The ashes of numerous widely known figures such as Mahatma Ghandi, Pandit Nehru, Indira Gandhi and others have been scattered at Ramkund. The Ramkund that we see today was built by Chitrarao Khatarkar in 1696 to accomodate the devotees.
The site of the temple complex and the tank on the bend of the Godavari river form one of the sites in Nashik that accomodates the Kumbh Mela once in twelve years. The Kumbh Mela is the largest religious peaceful gathering in the world. It is held every third year at one of the four places by rotation: Haridwar, Allahabad (Prayaga), Nashik and Ujjain. In Hindu mythology, it is said that a drop of immortal nectar was dropped at each of these locations as gods and demons fought over the pot or kumbh that held the nectar. Millions of Hindus travel to the gathering to bathe in the river, believing their sins will be washed away and they will achieve salvation. The Kumbh Mela of 2013 in Allahabad was attended by more than 100 million people.