By Jason Sandy
For millennia, the waters of the River Thames have been considered to be sacred. From the Mesolithic Period to the Iron Age, precious stone and bronze weapons were deposited in the river as votive offerings, and in the Middle Ages, pilgrims often purposely placed their religious badges in the river following their return from pilgrimage. Today, the Hindu community living in London still considers the River Thames to be sacred and use it as a substitute for the holy Ganges River in India. Deified as the goddess Ganga, the Ganges River is an important place of pilgrimage in India. “As the Ganges is not very accessible to the Anglo-Hindu community in London, it could be that they are utilizing the next best thing—a river that has an impact on their lives and their surrounding landscape,” suggests Nikola Burdon from the Museum of London.
Hindus in London deposit a wide variety of colorful offerings in the Thames. Mudlark Steve Brooker has a large collection of Hindu offerings (above), which he has found in the River Thames.
Last year, Mudlark Anna Borzello found a cluster of beautiful statuettes of the Hindu god, Ganesh, connected by colourful ribbons (above). “I found this object lying in thick mud. The statues appear in particular spots along the river, and I like that these finds reflect the demographic living nearby,” explains Anna. Hindus deposit sacred objects in flowing water to energize them and release their powers. Ganesh is considered to be the god of new beginnings, success, wisdom, and “remover of obstacles.” A Hindu probably placed these statuettes in the flowing water of the Thames as a request for Ganesh to provide success and wisdom and to remove barriers in their circumstances.
When I find Hindu votive offerings in the River Thames, I am reminded of an incredible journey I experienced along the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. Before dawn, we rented a boat and set out on the peaceful and sacred Ganges (above left). As the sun rose, we sailed past sunken temples half submerged in the river, and we watched hundreds of Hindu pilgrims on the expansive ghats (steps) along the river (above right) as they immersed themselves in the holy waters of the Ganges.
When I am mudlarking along the Thames in London, I especially enjoy finding colorful lamps, which were used during the celebrations of Diwali, known as the “Festival of Lights.” On a cold November morning shortly after Diwali, I found over 30 colorful, ornately decorated Hindu lamps (top image) at a sacred spot along the River Thames. The lamps, which contain images of the Hindu gods Ganesh and Shiva, were lit and set afloat on the Thames, which created an amazing spectacle of flickering light as the candles slowly floated down the river.
On the exposed river bed at low tide, I also find a variety of Hindu “yantras.” Carved into the surface of a brass plate, the Sri Yantra is a beautiful and complex sacred geometry which has been used for worship, devotion, and meditation for thousands of years (above). Representing the cosmos at the macrocosmic level and the human body at the microcosmic level, the Sri Yantra is conceived as a place of spiritual pilgrimage, which is comprised of nine interlocking triangles, surrounded by two circles of lotus petals encased within a gated frame called the “earth citadel.”
I have also found many numerical planetary yantras (above) made of solid lead. The yantra is decorated with 9 Sanskrit numbers within the so-called “magic square” formed by nine equal squares. If you add up the numbers contained in three of the squares diagonally, horizontally or vertically, the sum of the three numbers is always 36. The number 8 located in the upper center square indicates that this is a Rahu Yantra, named after the feared Hindu god, Rahu. It is believed that devoted worship of a Rahu Yantra can protect you from danger caused by hidden enemies, wrong diagnosis of illness, and deceit from those around you. As an act of worship, this yantra is placed into flowing water to appease Rahu.
While mudlarking, I have discovered several beautiful Hindu Rakhi bracelets. Raksha Bandhan is a Hindu festival that celebrates brotherhood and love. The word “Raksha” means “protection”, and “Bandhan” is the verb “to tie.” Traditionally during the festival, sisters tie a Rakhi bracelet around their brothers’ wrists as a symbol that the brother will always look after and protect his sister. After the procession, the bracelets are purposely placed in a river (e.g., Ganges or Thames) and immersed in the running water in order to energize and release their protective powers. One of the Rakhi bracelets is formed in the shape of a gold-plated eye with a red iris to ward off evil (above left). A floral Rakhi bracelet I found (above right) has an abstract eye formed with gemstones and decorated with colorful beads.
Used for a similar purpose, the “evil eye” pendant (above) I found in the River Thames is a symbol which has been used to ward off evil for over 5,000 years. In many cultures, it is believed that an evil glare can cause misfortune, bad luck, or injury. As a talisman, the “evil eye” symbol is worn to “stare back at the world” and keep you safe from harm.
Throughout the history of London, the flowing waters of the River Thames have been considered to be sacred. Votive offerings were purposely deposited in the river from the Mesolithic Period until today, and hundreds of these beautiful, ornate objects have been discovered by mudlarks in the River Thames. These unique artifacts reveal new insights about London’s inhabitants and the importance of the sacred river. In the Museum of London, there are many glass display cases which exhibit these extraordinary votive offerings recovered from the River Thames. If you would like to read more about the sacred river, I would highly recommend the delightful book, Thames: Sacred River, by historian Peter Ackroyd.
Please note: In order to go mudlarking in London, a Thames Foreshore Permit must be obtained from the Port of London Authority. Check their website for full details. Digging, scraping, and metal detecting are restricted or prohibited in some areas. All objects that are 300+ years old must be reported to the Museum of London for recording on the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme. An export license is required if you intend to leave the UK with any historical artifacts.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2019 issue.
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