Flowing through Time, Exploring the Significance of Rivers in Ancient Cities

“All sins are washed away by bathing thrice in the Saraswati, seven times in the Yamuna, once in the Ganges, but the mere sight of the Narmada is enough to absolve one of all sins!”, environmentalist Vijay Paranjpye describes an ancient sacred text.

Every piece of land has a unique connection to the water that flows over and through it, creating a bond between the land and the rivers that shape it. Rivers are so intertwined with the land that in some places, we could just as easily talk about “riverscapes” as we do about landscapes. A river encompasses more than just water on its way to the sea – it encompasses the ever-changing riverbed, the banks, and even the groundwater beneath. Even the meadows, forests, and marshes along its floodplain can be seen as an integral part of the river, and vice versa. This is why, rivers have witnessed the most pivotal moments in human history. The Awash River in Ethiopia holds the fossilized remains of our earliest ancestors, while the Indus civilization marks the dawn of urban culture in the Indian subcontinent. The transformation from nomadic to settled farming life began in the river valleys of the Near East, around nine to ten thousand years ago. From the Euphrates River and Tigris River to the Nile River, Indus River, and Yellow River, civilizations flourished along their banks.


Rivers have long been revered as guardians of life and fertility, a belief beautifully woven into the fabric of various cultures. Across the globe, rivers often carry the endearing title of “mothers.” In places like Narmadai and the Volga, they are lovingly referred to as “Mother Narmada” and “Mother of the Land,” respectively. Even in Thailand, a river is tenderly known as “mae nan,” or “water mother.” Throughout history, rivers have been closely intertwined with deities, particularly those of the feminine essence. For instance, the Nile’s floods were seen as the goddess Isis shedding tears in Ancient Egypt. The River Boyne in Ireland, watched over by prehistoric burial sites, was cherished as a goddess by Celtic tribes. In India, rivers hold an unparalleled treasure trove of myths, legends, and spiritual significance. Environmentalist Vijay Paranjpye describes an ancient sacred text affirming that “All sins are washed away by bathing thrice in the Saraswati, seven times in the Yamuna, once in the Ganges, but the mere sight of the Narmada is enough to absolve one of all sins!” Another old text beautifully describes the Narmada as a “giver of merriment,” “flavourful,” “of graceful attitude,” and “one who radiates happiness.”

These stories emphasize our profound bond with these flowing lifelines, where culture, spirituality, and nature come together in beautiful harmony. In the early days of human history, ancient civilizations flourished alongside these river banks for various practical and strategic reasons, tightly weaving civilization with the flowing waters. This choice was based on remarkable advantages like:


  • Rivers served as a dependable source of water, the elixir for life! Nurturing human existence and satisfying the needs of its inhabitants, rivers played a pivotal role in quenching the thirst of early societies.


  • The fertile land adjoining river banks was a treasure trove for agriculture. The nutrient-enriched earth deposited by retreating floods provided an optimal environment for growing crops, guaranteeing abundant harvests that would support the city’s residents. This surplus of food played a vital role in the success of civilizations, nurturing population growth and the blossoming of culture. The exceptional Indus Valley civilization serves as a prime example, flourishing along the banks of the Indus River and illustrating the profound interconnection between people and their nurturing environment.
  • Rivers served a role beyond satisfying thirst – they also acted as natural highways. They offered a streamlined mode of transportation, enabling the smooth flow of trade, business, and cultural connections. This effortless connectivity fostered interactions, idea-sharing, and the expansion of horizons among people.


  • In the growth of ancient civilizations, rivers played a dual role that went beyond their life-sustaining abilities. The network of natural channels carved by rivers served as a natural safeguard, creating an effective line of defense against potential threats, invaders, and unwelcome intruders.


  • One of the essential advantages was the ability to efficiently manage waste and uphold sanitation practices – an essential cornerstone for the well-being of the entire community! The proximity to water bodies offered a natural and convenient means for disposing of waste, ensuring that the community’s living spaces remained clean and disease-free. Additionally, it also allowed for the regular cleansing of living spaces, personal hygiene, and the prevention of contamination; safeguarding public health.


Thus, these ancient customs journeyed into the contemporary era, giving rise to prominent global cities positioned alongside river banks. Some examples of major cities located alongside rivers are Paris (Seine River), London (Thames River), Cairo (Nile River), New York City (Hudson River), Delhi (Yamuna River), Tokyo (Sumida River), Moscow (Moskva River), Rome (Tiber River), and Shanghai (Yangtze River).