By Jubin Mehta*
Narmada is a sacred river originating in the Maikal Hills of central India from a place called Amarkantak. Parikrama is a Sanskrit word derived from the root ‘pari’ meaning around and ‘krama’ meaning going. And hence, Narmada Parikrama means circumambulating the river. This is a spiritual/religious tradition of the Hindus existing from centuries wherein pilgrims start walking from any point along the river after collecting Narmadaji’s water in a vial and start walking with the river to their right.
If a person has started from the north bank, they’d walk upstream to the origin of the river in Amarkantak, cross over from beyond the origin point, come to the south bank and walk downstream till the point where the river meets the ocean in south Gujarat. From here, pilgrims board a large boat for an estimated four to seven hours to cross over and reach back to north bank at a place called Mithi Talai. From here, the pilgrim starts walking upstream again to arrive again at the point where they started from. At the end of the journey, pilgrims go to the super sacred Omkareshwar which is one of the 12 ‘Jyotirlingas’ and also a river island which means a person cannot go to this point during the parikrama. One of the rules of the walk is that a person cannot cross over the river and go to the other bank or in the middle. At Omkareshwar, the pilgrim pours back the water that she collected in a vial when she started the walk and completes the parikrama.
The entire parikrama is estimated to be some 3500 km long. The length of the river is 1312 km which when multiplied by two gives 2624 km and there are a lot of diversions because of dams and other reasons because of which pilgrims have to walk around and take longer routes. Accounting all of this, the total distance to be covered comes to somewhere between 3200 km and 3600 km depending on what route a person takes.
Two of us (me and my partner Saraswati) embarked on this journey on November 25, 2019 from Maheshwar ghat in Madhya Pradesh. It is 80 km south of Indore and along the river, it is some 450 km upstream from the ocean. We were walking without money or phone, as it is traditionally done.
People along the banks consider pilgrims to be representations of god or the sacred river and take care of them by providing food and a place to stay in the nights. We walked 600 km at one go in 40 days after which I decided to take a break and my partner continued on the walk. Since then (almost 3 months now), I have been on the banks and walking at different places but not in any particular order. And I have also taken buses, motor bike rides and trains.
State of the river
One of the curiosities I had before the walk was if the river is clean? Because if one looks at the state of rivers in general in India, there is little hope. Whenever we cross bridges over rivers or visit popular ghats, all one can see is plastic dumps, filth and drainage lines opening up into rivers! There is a certain apathy that we seem to have developed and the same river which is considered sacred is also considered to be a dump yard. And what did we find?
In these two months, I drank the river water straight, took my baths in the river and also cleaned my clothes in the river. No soap, no shampoo, no detergent. And we could do this every day with the probably three exceptions- Nemawar, Khedi ghat and Bhramand ghat. Basically all reasonably large places where pilgrims can come by bus and vehicles. There is also a certain amount of faith involved here because the same place where I wouldn’t have drank the water; during the Parikrama I dropped the inhibitions and went ahead.
But in general if I step out of this Parikrama mode and try to be objective, I’d say that the Narmada is still clean in many parts. Secondary research shows that the state of the river has severely deteriorated, especially along the cities in Madhya Pradesh and downstream in Gujarat. One study shows that the river has died after the Garudeshwar Dam, still under construction downstream of Sardar Sarovar in Gujarat. But at the same time, there are some areas where the river was four to five feet deep and we could see the pebbles at the base! Yes, that clear.
And breathtakingly beautiful! There were days when we would hardly come across a person and we’re walking along the banks in absolute serenity. I have a special memory from a place called ‘Choti Dhuandhar’ (small waterfall) a couple of days walk before the popular Bheda ghat (marble rocks). Huge expansive place with fields on one side, Narmada is wide, maybe around 400 m and curving into a little hilly terrain. Between the fields and the crystal clear Narmada waters, there is beautiful fine sand on which one could just lie down, take in the sun and completely dissolve. Then another place I remember is a beautiful tribal village named ‘Bikor’ where we were offered a small abandoned hut just by the banks and early in the morning, there would be a beautiful mist rising up from the river shrouding the entire scene in utmost serenity. There are innumerable such scenes etched in my memory and I am enormously grateful to the river for having these experiences.
But to experience any of this, walking is the only way. Wherever the road has reached, humans have arrived by the masses and along with a lot of noise and garbage. Can something be done about this?
Well, it’s going to be an uphill task but compared to other rivers in India, Narmada seems hopeful. The biggest threat is of course from industries which are mushrooming around the banks. I heard several accounts on both sides- some saying that the industries along the banks are not allowed to discharge polluted water into the river and the other lot saying that these laws are not at all being followed!
On the parikramavasi route, there are several initiatives which are trying to keep the river clean by organizing cleanliness drives, generating awareness via several posters discouraging people from using plastic or throwing garbage in the river. One of the biggest factors here is also the ritual of offering flowers in a little container made either of leaves or sometimes of plastic or paper and the lighting of incense sticks at sunrise and sunset. A beautiful tradition but the number of people doing it and the shift in the material being used makes it a cause for concern. There is also an alarming concern regarding the rise in use of disposable cups and plates for serving tea and food. All these disposables are disposed off on the banks and sometimes collected and burnt.
Mechanization and dams
There are several dams along the Narmada and sand mining is happening at a mind boggling scale. Sardar Sarovar, Punasa (Narmada Sagar) Dam, Omkareshwar Dam, Tawa Dam and Bargi Dam are some of the large dams and since we were walking on the pilgrim route, we haven’t yet gone to see the dams but the road basically takes a diversion and many times a person is about 40-50 km away from the river, walking on the highway. We came across villages that were submerged by the dam, met people affected by the dams and heard several stories in favour and against the construction of dams.
One such incident if of the village Fategadh which used to be a bustling ancient place with more than 200 houses. Owing to the Punasa Dam, this village has been submerged and reduced to a non-descript place with three houses with no electricity and the people have to use a boat to reach the nearest point during monsoons! On papers, the village doesn’t exist anymore and these three families weren’t compensated enough to start a new life.
Sand mining is an illegal activity in most parts along the river. Hundreds of tractors and boats are digging day and night to take out sand to use for construction purposes. I have these memories of walking to take a turn towards the river and suddenly opening up to a vision of a huge settlement with more than 50 tarpaulin tents for people to live and tractors at work to dig out the sand! What we learnt is that there is a legal auction that happens for a certain part of the river but under that one legal auction, several kilometers on either sides of the allotted land, sand mining is happening illegally. We’re talking of illegal sand mining worth several hundred crores of rupees here! Huge mafias and a big world of sand and money. Labourers working in the business often work late in the nights and early mornings to avoid police raids and big setups are wound up within minutes if an alarm is raised about a raid. There are very poor farmers and people also involved who can earn a little livelihood from this illegal business but the major part of the money is controlled by the people in power.
Not being an expert in the area, I found it very difficult to make head or tail of the situation and I only wonder where would all this massive scale construction lead humanity.
Faith on the banks
People in the big cities of Madhya Pradesh like Indore and Bhopal may not be aware of this tradition of walking along the Narmada but a few kilometers on either side of the bank, along the entire stretch, there is a strong faith and devotion towards the river. Of the entire stretch of 1312 km length of the river, some 1070 km is in Madhya Pradesh, around 170 km is in Gujarat and the rest (around 80km) would be in Maharashtra or border of two states. The relatively big cities of Jabalpur and Hoshangabad in Madhya Pradesh which are on the banks are also filled with devotion and a lot of people owe their prosperity to the river. And this is what possibly inspires them to serve pilgrims walking on the banks. All pilgrims are considered to be an embodiment of the sacred spirit (god) and their bodies are hence, taken care of by bowing down, offering food and a place to a rest. Street vendors, people passing by in cars, villages on the banks, all would do their bit and offer whatever they can.
One question that arises is that if there is so much faith, why are the rivers in India in such a terrible state in terms of cleanliness? If I speak of the Parikrama, people walking or living on the banks, Narmada is the central theme but it is more to do with the idea of god that is embodied by the river. Now, the river can be in any state but the veneration will remain. It can be difficult to fathom to the intellectual mind but in that way, faith is a funny thing. It has nothing to do with the external, it’s just an internal belief. And when we are addressing the issue of cleanliness in rivers, this is a factor to be considered which pervades through the masses.
The caste system is also very deep rooted and villages have clear distinctions and protocols for inter faith behaviour, including towards the parikrakramavasis. The fisherfolk form the lowest rung of the society with tiny houses on the fringes of the village before whom are the small holding farmers or job holders and at the top are the big landlords. Growing up and working in cities for a big part of my life, I was under the impression that we’re moving away from these deep rooted caste differences but that impression turned out to be far removed from the reality on ground. There is a long way for us to go!
Walking along the banks is such a powerful experience that words often fall short. It is like the Tao. The moment one tries to communicate the essence, it is lost. It is a deeply moving experience and will take a lot of time or maybe lifetimes to truly communicate what a parikrama can mean for a person. But looking at it from an ecology point of view, Narmada (like all other rivers) is such an important part of the civilisation and so many things depend on it that the more the attention the river gets, the better it is. At the end of the day, the river will run its course and do what it has to do but looking at the relationship between human life and Narmada, it is of paramount importance to keep the conversation going. And more the people walk along the banks, connect with the river and nature, the more sensitive we would become as a race. This would in all probability lead us to a cleaner, greener, more harmonious future.
Source: https://sandrp.in/. All pix by the author