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The Sindhu Darshan Festival: What is it all about?
By Tsewang Rigzin, Tuesday, August 1, 2017

"Some people queried about the existence of the Sindhu in India, as described in our national anthem, and little did they know that it flows from our soil in Ladakh." These are the words of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the inaugurating the Sindhu Darshan Festival on the banks of the Indus in Ladakh in June, 2000.  

Vajpayee believed that the Sindhu symbolized 5,000 years’ ethos of Indian civilization and its re-discovery will strengthen the emotional integration of the country.

The Sindhu Darshan festival, locally known as ‘Ladakh Singhey Khababs’ festival, is celebrated in June every year in Leh on the banks of the Indus river as a symbol of multi-dimensional cultural identity of India that got its name from the river Indus.

Sindhu Darshan, the celebration of Sindh river, begins at Sindhu Ghat in Shey, Ladakh, with highly revered spiritual lamas offering prayers in the presence of a galaxy of dignitaries and religious leaders.

This year, after the festival inauguration on the 24th of June, there was a repeat of an ugly scene witnessed last year, as the J&K Minister for Ladakh Affairs, Chering Dorjay, and CEC, LAHDC, Leh, Dr. Sonam Dawa, left the festival following an issue of a mess-up with sitting arrangements.

The festival was started in 1997 after veteran journalist Tarun Vijay conceived the idea of a festival on the banks of the Indus as a tribute to the river which has given the identity to India as the names India, Indian, Hindu and Hindustan are believed to have been derived from the Indus/ Sindhu.  Colourful cultural programmes depicting the cultural diversity of India are presented during the festival. Traditional Ladakhi songs and dances, cultural performances by artists from different parts of the country, polo matches, exhibition- cum- sale of local handicrafts are parts of the three-day festival.
Since the festival was started under the patronage of veteran Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Lal Krishna Advani during the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) reign, with a focus on pilgrimage for Hindu Sindhis, it has also reeled under controversies as many have alleged it as a part of the saffronisation by the rightists in the country. The RSS- backed Sindhu Darshan Yatra Samiti has plans to create massive infrastructure for Hindu pilgrims on the banks of the Indus and it also announced that in future, the festival will be scaled up to the level of Amarnath Yatra.  The Chief Patron and Margdarshak of the  Sindhu Darshan Yatra Samiti, Mr. Indresh Kumar, Sr. Pracharak, RSS,  said this year on the occasion that cows in the country must be respected and eating beef must be stopped by one and all as he believed that there was no one in the world who had not tasted cow’s milk.  A team of Gau Rakshak, with a 300-day Path Yatra plan across the country with Indus water, was flagged off on the occasion, giving the festival a complete saffron colour.  Saffron devotees offered prayers to the river and performed Pujas and had holy dips.

In 2006, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), Leh, run by Ladakh Union Territory Front (which later merged into the BJP) with support from the State and the Centre governments, successfully changed the name of the festival to ‘Ladakh Singhey Khababs Sindhu Festival’ (Sindhu Darshan) – with Sindhu Darshan in bracket. But this move was protested by Hindu Sindhis and the Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh (RSS). The Sindhu Darshan Yatra Samiti, backed by the RSS since then started organising its own Sindhu Darshan every year, parallel to the one celebrated officially.

However, since 2016, only one festival was celebrated instead of two and this could be because the BJP had just come to power at the LAHDC.  The official festival, ‘Ladakh Singhey Khababs Festival (Sindhu Darshan)’, has been suspended for the second consecutive year now. On the occasion of the three-day festival organised by the Sindhu Darshan Yatra Samiti and Ladakh Phanday Tsogspa in 2016, J&K Deputy Chief Minister Dr. Nirmal Singh (without naming) accused the previous LAHDCs for having a parallel Sindhu Darshan celebration in the previous years and clarified that henceforth only one annual Sindhu Darshan fully backed by the state government would be celebrated. A prominent BJP leader and J&K Minister for Ladakh Affairs, Chering Dorjay, told the media on the occasion that the official festival had to be suspended on account of lack of funds as the Government of India had stopped funding this festival.

 On the occasion of the 20th Sindhu Darshan festival, last year, there was another awkward scene as the Minister of Ladakh Affairs, Chering Dorjay, had to walk out of a function as no seat was reserved for him when Advani inaugurated the Sindhu Bhawan at Shey. “I just walked away because there was no place for us to sit”, he later told the media. Unfortunately, the same thing was repeated this year too as the minister and CEC, LAHDC, had to leave in the middle of the function to vacate seats for guests and ministers who were earlier not on the list of expected dignitaries.

Confusion regarding the festival prevailed earlier this year as the Assistant Director, tourism, Leh, wrote to the Deputy Commissioner on 17 May, 2017, saying that the tourism department had been organising this festival for more than two decades for promoting domestic tourists. “Earlier this office received funds from the Director, Tourism, Kashmir, to celebrate Ladakh Singhey Khababs Festival (Sindhu Darshan) but unfortunately this festival was not celebrated (last year) due to non-availability of funds even after several correspondences with the directorate,” the letter informed the DC. Sources at LAHDC, however, claimed all confusions had been cleared and there would be only one Sindhu Darshan. 

Sindhu Darshan will continue to be celebrated and the festival is likely to attract many Sindhis across the country in the years to come. However, for the locals, the festival has little relevance as there has never been a tradition of celebrating or offering Pujas to the river. Ladakhi tradition associates all streams and rivers to holy spirits, and considering rivers and streams sacred, it is equal to committing a sin to make such rivers dirty.
It is said that the Indus river originates from a lion's mouth- shaped perennial spring, not very far from the sacred Mount Kailash. Therefore, the river is known as ‘Singhey Khababs’ which means originating from a lion’s mouth, in the local language. Many other important tributaries of the Indus are also in Ladakh.  Zanskar river, another river in Ladakh with a great volume of water, also flows into the Indus in Ladakh. 
Originating in the western part of Tibet, the river is said to be 3,610km-long, making it one of the longest rivers in Asia. It runs through Ladakh, Gilgit-Baltistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and then finally flows into the Arabian Sea. 

The author is a journalist based in Leh. He can be reached at rigiznhimalaya@gmail.com

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