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News article created on 21 October 2014

Sacred canals

If you look carefully, you might see candles in coconut shells on the Grand Union Canal. Rahul Verma explains why.

If you take a stroll by the Grand Union Canal around Southall, West London, you might see coconuts bobbing in the water alongside narrowboats, swans and ducks.

The peculiar pairing of coconuts and canals is a familiar scene in Britain, particularly where the waterways meander through localities with a sizeable Hindu population, such as around the Walsall and Coventry canals.

Maa Ganga

One of Hinduism’s most revered and sacred gods is Maa Ganga (Mother Ganga), the 1569-mile River Ganges, which begins in the home of the gods in the Himalayas and winds its way across North India where it enters the Bay of Bengal.

So the coconuts in our canals, are in actual fact offerings to Maa Ganga who symbolises Mother Earth. "Hinduism respects nature and especially anything that supports human life," explains Hindu Scholar and Londoner Swami Rama Chaitanya.

"Hindus worship India’s great rivers, and especially Maa Ganga, because they are the elixir of life; water is where all life begins. When Hindus are cremated the ashes should be scattered in the Ganges, it returns you to earth and represents the circle of life."

Hindus also believe bathing in the Ganges can wash away lifetimes of sins, meaning you can reach nirvana rather than being endlessly reincarnated. That's why around 100m Hindus gather to bathe in the Ganges at the Kumbh Mela – the largest coming together of people in the world.  

Fruit of the Gods

Although Hindus are offering coconuts to canals, there is no suggestion Hindus are scattering ashes of loved ones, nor bathing in canals. Why is it coconuts that are offered and not, for example, bananas or pears?

"Coconuts are the fruit of the Gods – it’s a pure fruit with remarkable qualities, it takes in salt water and produces sweet fruit and it’s neatly packaged too. Also it’s a symbol of fertility, it reflects the womb, and has human qualities – it has two eyes, a mouth and hair," explains Swami Chaitanya.

Which is why, if you’re strolling on a canal towpath you might encounter a Hindu family, with eyes shut, heads covered and bowed, reciting a short prayer before carefully placing a coconut in the care of Mother Nature.

Biodegradable

In the past there have been problems with offerings, such as tea-lights, coins and cloth to wrap coconuts, adding to the detritus littering canals and jamming locks. However work by the Canal & River Trust and local authorities in explaining how these damage wildlife, has seen Hindus adapt and limit offerings to biodegradable coconuts.

Swami Chaitanya is hopeful Hindus in India can be similarly respectful and sensitive in their interactions with the River Ganges. "We have a paradox where our holiest river is also our dirtiest river, and until we clean it up and treat it with respect in our day-today lives, we’re harming Mother Earth. We also need to find this balance."

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