Of all the paths to salvation, pilgrimage may well be the most democratic but it was never meant to be the easiest. In modern times, air-conditioned buses traverse the four dhams, and Central Reserve Police Force personnel patrol the road to Amarnath. But away from the political cauldron of Kashmir and the ersatz Hinduism of the Indo-Gangetic plains, an older tradition survives along the banks of the Narmada.
The river flows through the heart of peninsular India, in a landscape that was in place ages before the Himalaya began their upsurge, long before the Ganga had even been conceived. Fed by the rain, it begins amidst steep hills, densely forested by sal, a landscape intensely familiar to the poet Kalidasa, who wrote:
Reva’s streams spread dishevelled at Vindhya’s rocky foothills,
like ashen streaks on an elephant’s flank.
Of the river’s 14 other names, Reva, ‘the leaping one’, is the best known. But for most of its route, the watercourse is just Narmada, the giver of delight. To its banks – where the south meets the north, and the tribal, the non-tribal – the Hindu philosopher Sankara journeyed to attain the realisation of advaita, or non-duality. A sadhu once told this writer, in an etymology that is certainly mistaken but still worth recording that the name derives from Nar and Mada – man and woman.
The Hindu pilgrimage culminates in the parikrama (circumambulation) of the holy spot, whether it is a temple shrine, a sacred mountain or a lake. But tradition has granted only this one river such a status. Every other pilgrimage leads to the parikrama; here, each step is the parikrama.
The circumambulation may commence anywhere along the banks of the Narmada. Like any temple circumambulation, the pilgrim must keep the sacred shrine – here, the river – to his/her right while walking. A pilgrim never breaks the journey, stopping only for the four months of the monsoon. Barefoot, depending for food and shelter on the hospitality of those who dwell by the river, the pilgrim will go over to the other bank only at the river’s source at Amarkantak, in Madhya Pradesh, or where the river meets the Arabian Sea at Bharuch, in Gujarat. By the time the journey ends, at the same place where it began, a pilgrim will have walked 2700 km.
Navigating the sagar
Today, a vast majority of pilgrims have cut short the time necessary for this journey, taking buses where possible. Nonetheless, a few persist in the old ways. Less than one kilometre from Amarkantak, where the Narmada is but a trickle, Chhote Lal Thakur says that he and his companions have been on the parikrama for 10 months. His son should now be two years old, he notes, but he has not spoken to his family since he began. He has been shaped by the journey. He sports a long flowing beard, untouched since the day he set out, a slender frame stripped of spare flesh, and a calmness of manner that belies his 27 years. But he is surprised by a question. “No, no one stopped me. When Narmada mai calls, who would do so? If you want to write, you should write about the Shulpan jhadi,” referring to the ‘wielder of the trident’, Shiva, and the surrounding forest.
This is territory of the Bhil tribe, on the border of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat – the most feared stretch of the entire parikrama. Some parts of the tale Chhote Lal relates about his journey with six fellow travellers could be from that of any medieval pilgrim. “On the very first day that we entered the Shulpan jhadi,” he says, “the Bhils took away everything we had. We had already donned the sadhu’s garb, knowing what awaited us. We told them that whatever we had, they were free to take. And it was true that once we crossed Shulpan jhadi, more was given to us than they took away.” He continues: “For eleven nights we walked naked through the wilderness, with fire our only solace in the cold. It may have been a jhadi once, but now it is desiccated – nothing grows there. The poverty of the people was there for us to see. Yet each day, between the six of us the Bhils would give us one roti. Mai ki kripa thi, through the blessings of the river, we did not feel hungry.” Chhote Lal says that, in this way, he and his group reached the edge of the sagar, the term that every pilgrim now uses for the immense reservoir created by the massive Sardar Sarovar Dam. “It is not possible to walk along the banks,” he recalls, “It took us four hours in a motorboat to cross the sagar.”
In just a few moments, several centuries have been spanned. In narrative after narrative, pilgrims speak of the canals that have sprung up as a result of the dam. A pilgrim is not supposed to ford the waters of the Narmada. On the other hand, pilgrims have already come to believe that the filled-in waters of a tributary – or a canal – are not really the river’s waters. The dam, and others like it, have created a new set of displaced peoples – not willing ones such as the pilgrims, but those known simply as PAPs, or Project-Affected Persons. Over the years many, including this writer, have reported stories of displacement and death: the exodus of Harsud, a town sentenced to drown; the mock city of vast tin sheds near Barwani, constructed by farmers who believed that compensation would be awarded in proportion to the size of their dwellings; the 40 pilgrims who were swept away under a full moon, because auspicious occasions when people come to the riverbank are not the concern of the engineers who schedule the dams’ discharges. “China”, the engineers invariably respond when asked, “now that is a country. That is how development should take place. They can move entire cities, displace millions. But here, even if we touch a town, people like you come around asking us questions.”
It was impossible not to think of such things while standing with Chhote Lal by this tiny stream, the dispeller of duality, wondering about questions that had divided a nation. Meanwhile, the pilgrim’s companions had proceeded to bathe in a small tank by the river’s edge. My thoughts, his words, were rudely interrupted by someone from a nearby ashram. “Everyone bathes in the stream,” he yelled, “tum saale gandu especial ho, stop dirtying the tank!”
A day later, I went to meet the mahant who runs that ashram. He sat cross-legged on a sofa, his arms folded over an enormous potbelly, watching the day’s cricket being summed up on the Hindi news channel Aaj Tak. At the end of the programme, after chiding his disciples for the over-enthusiasm they had displayed during the game, he turned to me.
He had come here, he said, as a pilgrim on the parikrama. He had taken up residence at this very place. By her grace, he recalled, as he meditated in the shade of a tree that still stands on the ashram’s compound, disciples began to seek him, contributing their land and wealth to the service of the Mai. First he had set up this ashram. Next came the school and hostel for tribal children. Now, the hospital that stands at the edge of town.
The man who had taken me to meet the mahant worked with the local municipality. He had sat silently through the audience and, as we emerged outside the ashram, he asked me to follow him. At the edge of the ashram he turned to follow an open sewer as it flowed past the hostel. We followed it to the banks of the river where, separated from the flowing water by a thin mud embankment, the effluvia of the sadhus bubbled in a cesspool, ready to overflow into the river.
Unknown to the pilgrims, barely a few hundred metres from its very source, the river was as much shit as it was sacred. My companion, as was his wont, gave me an explanation that was born of the same tradition that enabled the pilgrimage. A sadhu, he began, accompanied by two of his disciples, reached a town late at night. The townspeople greeted the group in the prescribed manner, providing them with the best they could offer. As he left the town in the morning he blessed them by saying “ujjodo” (be uprooted), much to the shock of his disciples. The next night they reached another town, where they were greeted by taunts. Children hurled stones at them; they slept in the open and went hungry. Leaving town in the morning, he turned and blessed the denizens, “baso” (settle and prosper). The astonished disciples could no longer keep silent, and asked him to explain his unusual behaviour. The sadhu smiled and said, “If those who know right conduct are uprooted, they will travel the world taking along with them the manners we so require. The others, who do not know how to behave, let them stay in one place and suffer each other.” It is an answer I have little faith in, but then I have no answers of my own.
~ Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan magazine, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.