Anthropology of Rivers (or Water)

Continuing the celebration of Godavari Dussehra, let us today explore the ‘Anthropology of Rivers.’

Anthropology is a discipline which attempts to understand various aspects of human societies across time and space.

The discipline of anthropology is like a palimpsest, which presents multiple theoretical frameworks to investigate the river-society interactions. Ubiquity of water, in multiple forms, has produced an array of deeply intertwined networks of water with society, and vice-versa. Rasmussen and Orlove (2017), broadly, categorizes anthropological scholarship on water under five themes – (i) People, water and place; (ii) Production and domestication of water; (iii) Irrigation and the concentration of power; (iv) Environmental Knowledge; and (v) Disaster and climate.

“People, water and place, treats water as context, i.e. as an element in the external world in which an individual culture is located…Production and the domestication of water looks into the ways that people make a living by reordering the waters in their surroundings…In Irrigation and the concentration of power, we review the extensive debate on irrigation practices and its relation to power, state formation, and the question of the commons…Environmental knowledge concerns cultural models related to water, and explores the range of cultural knowledge of watery environments across topics such as navigation practices, weather and aquatic species…Disaster and climate reflects the most recent impulse in scholarly concern, showing water as a powerful agent, at times dangerous and not fully predictable.

Coming to the case of Godavari in Nashik, I present four dominant narratives, namely – Religious Ecology, Privatized Ecology, Official Ecology, and Environmentalism – to illustrate the journey of Godavari in Nashik. These narratives have evolved on the basis of my ethnographic fieldwork in Nashik, since 2016.

Religious Ecology: This narrative heavily draws from the religious and mythological discourse on the Godavari River. It includes activities of various religious organizations, workings of various religious congregations along the Godavari River (like Kumbh Mela), and contestation between religious identity of the river, river ecology, and people’s needs. The religious-cultural cosmos of Godavari heightens around the Ramkund, which is located at the heart of Nashik. It is an important mythscape, people trace its associations in Ramayana. Most of the religious economy of Nashik is running around this particular place. Despite this sacredness, the Godavari River is degrading day by day.

Privatized Ecology: This includes various processes which are (re)producing the Godavari riverscape like ongoing/proposed riverfront development projects. Under this phenomenon, commodification of riverscape is one of the prominent process which includes production of sanitized urban spaces (like Goda Park, Gangapur Boat Club, etc.) along the banks by public and private stakeholders. The Godavari Riverfront transformed from being a neglected space to prized real estate for public and private corporations.

Official Ecology: The concern for the Godavari riverscape surfaces after every twelve years, with the arrival of Kumbh Mela, in the conscience of the city administration. Instead of focusing on the curbing the root cause (like haphazard solid waste management) and sewage of the degradation of the riverscape, the administration is adopting superficial interventions (like cleaning drives).

Environmentalism: This is particularly a recent phenomenon in Nashik, wherein several civil society groups are fighting for the rights of the Godavari, through several avenues like Public Interest Litigations, Awareness Campaigns, Social Media Campaigns, etc.

So, this was Godavari through anthropological perspective. Let us meet again tomorrow with a different outlook.

-Shilpa Dahake | Facebook


Rasmussen, Mattias Borg and Orlove, Ben. 2017. Anthropologists Exploring Water in Social and Cultural Life: Introduction. American Anthropologists, 119:4. Online at


* The facts and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author.

News Reporter
I am an architect turned anthropologist. After finishing my Masters in Anthropology from University of Pune, I was working with Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune under a project funded by UNICEF and Integrated Child Development Scheme, Government of Maharashtra. During which I was stationed in Nandurbar District of Maharashtra (which is predominantly a tribal region) as a Field Research officer. Currently, I am a doctoral candidate in Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Mohali, India. My current research explores the interaction of the cultural-religious, the political-economic and the ecological dimensions of the river in Nashik city in Maharashtra. Broadly, investigating how the multiple perspectives of a natural resource overlap, contradict, challenge and support each other, thus shaping the urban landscape and producing socio-spatial inequalities.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.