Along the Narmada
When Indians talk about their rivers, they separate the inorganic from the ethereal. As a result, Ganga the Goddess is a diety and one who should be prayed to. But Ganga the river is an inorganic river that flows past them to its basin. In the Narmada however, the inorganic is prayed to. Being one of the oldest rivers in India, the Narmada is revered. As a result, a lot of local effort goes in to ensure that it is clean.
Travelling along the Narmada is an exercise in understanding India’s evolution. The river flows from the plateaus of Central India, to the cave dwellers of Bhimbetka and further to the developments of Hinduism. The river itself is beautiful and apart from human history, is also a lesson in natural history. The hills around the Narmada connect the Western Ghats to the Himalayas. The species found in these hills are a mix of both the ecosystems.
The 1,312km long Narmada river starts from the small pilgrim town of Amarkantak. A holy site for Hindus, along with the Narmada, the place is famous for 11th Century temples built by the Kalachuris – a clan that ruled the East-Central part of India from the 7th to the 13th Century. The origin of the rainfed river is said to be a lake called the Narmada Kund. Every year, thousands of pilgrims reach the Narmada Kund to take a holy dip.
There is a saying that to be purified of your sins, you need to take a dip in the Ganga. However, the mere sight of the Narmada is enough to get the job done. But pilgrims take more pains and walk or cycle the entire stretch of the Narmada river. There are many who carry water from the basin of the river to Amarkantak and you will find small pots tied to ends of a stick that pigrims carry on their shoulders.
Amarkantak, the plateau, seems straight out of a fairy tale. Surrounded by the lush forests of 3 mountain ranges, the town is a sight for sore eyes. Being a plateau, there are various hikes possible to small Ashrams and grand waterfalls nearby. The Amarkantak sanctuary is 40km away and is connected to the tiger reserve of Kanha National Park.
Of all the places in Amarkantak, Shri Yantra Mandir, Narmada Kund and Dudh Dhara waterfalls should definitely be on your list.
On its way to the Western end, the Narmada passes through some of the most pristine and protected forests of Central India. These forests serve as a home to numerous species and a host of people dependent on income generated by selling the produce. The forests are protected by the Indian Wildlife Act and hold some of the most famous tiger reserves in the country. Kanha National Park, Pench National Park and Satpura National Park get their supply of water from the Narmada and crocodiles, tigers, sloth bears and leopards abound here. In fact, at Amarkantak, you’ll see an idol of Goddess Narmada riding a crocodile.
There are numerous jungle lodges to stay in while you’re at any of the National Parks and travelling there during the winters, when the parks open, is highly recommended.
Apart from the natural life, this region is also home to the Gondh tribe. The name Gondwana derives from the Gondh tribe and they are skilled artisans – with some specialising in metal crafts while others specialising in painting with oil on canvas. A Gondh village is also very interesting as the clean village has huts painted in white and lime blue, or white and pink. The Gondhs were the original guardians of the forest and a lot about their consumption habits can teach us about responsible living.
Near these National Parks lie the historically important cave temples of Bhimbetka. Some of the best preserved cave paintings are in Bhimbetka and the dye is still intact. The site dates back to 1000 BCE and is the earliest evidence of human existence on the Indian subcontinent. The paintings tell us much about life and celebration and also about their interaction with nature. From the paintings, it seems that at one time, the hills were teeming with wildlife – including elephants and rhinoceros. Much has changed since then as the rhinoceros has been pushed back to the Himalayan foothills and the elephants to Southern and Eastern India. It is very interesting that at one time, even Cheetahs existed in India and the last documented shoot of a Cheetah happened in 1947 – the same year that the country got its independence.
The course of the Narmada also winds through the important temple town of Omkareshwar. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, Omkareshwar is one of the few such towns and thus one of incredible importance to the Hindus. There is a dam on the other side of the river and this is where the Narmada meets the Kaveri (not to be confused with the Kaveri that flows in Southern India).
Along with Omkareshware, Maheshwar makes for an important site to visit. It lies on the Narmada as well and is home to another important Shiva Temple. The Ahilya Fort lies on the river as well and has been an important Fort for the Holkars. Claiming descent from the royal family of Udaipur, the Holkars were the famous Maratha kings of the region. They rule from the late 17th Century to the early 19th Century. During their rule, there was patronage of art, textiles and architecture. The crafts of Maheshwar can be seen in the quintessential Maheshwari Sari. Cotton saris with distinctive designs, they are sought after in urban India today.
The Narmada then flows through Gujarat and drains into the Gulf of Khambat. There is much to explore around the entire river. The entire region is beautiful and steeped in history. Travelling along the river makes for a beautiful, varied and interesting experience. The river serves as an important source of water and is often referred to as Ma Narmada (Mother Narmada). It gives incredible insight into probably the oldest part of the country and one that is still largely unaffected.
Featured Photo by blackfog