No country in the world has as many and as varied pilgrimages as we do have in India. Starting from the great Maha Kumbhs which have the largest assembly of human beings in a single place to the long lines of devotees who wind their way to the sacred sources of revered rivers, religious journeys are very much a part of our Indian lifestyle. Since most pilgrimages either end in festivals, or at least, take on a festive air once the faithful complete their mission, pilgrim towns are wonderful places in which to see the bright kaleidoscope of our colourful people.
But, in your enthusiasm to see as much as you can, do remember that these are religious gatherings. Do also remember that traditions and customs play a major role on such occasions.
If, however, you are sensitive to the feelings of the pilgrims, you will have a great experience.
An old mendicant sat in a thatched hut, reading. His young companion spread his saffron robe to dry in the sun and the breeze. Beyond the temple, the forest ended in a sheer cliff and the Sone tumbled off it into a densely wooded valley.
We worship our rivers. As a largely agrarian nation, we treat our rivers like benign but stern mothers. We bless them for the water they give to us, our fields and our livestock; and are in awe of them when they are in spate, bringing sorrow to those whom they had nurtured. But then, when the floods are over, and they have returned to their beds, we find that our fields have been fertilised with the rich silt they had spread on them when they burst their banks.
It is important for us, and our urban readers, to keep these facts in mind if we are ever tempted to smile at the reverence paid to the rivers of our land. We thought of all this when we drove into the holy town of Amarkantak. Spreading over a flattish green valley in the Vindhya range, at a pleasantly cool elevation of 1,065 meters, it is still more a hamlet than a town. This, in spite of the fact that two sacred rivers are born here: the Sone and the Narmada.
Curiously, Amarkantak has none of the teeming grottiness often associated with popular pilgrim towns. It really is more like a green sub-montane resort with wide-open, well-watered, meadows and sunlit sal forests alive with springs and brooks. We drove out of the hamlet, stopped at the edge of a forest, and walked down a long flight of stairs descending through the jungle. A stream chortled alongside the steps. This stream was the young Sone which was fed, a few hundred meters from its birth, by a number of tributary rills. At the end of the stairs, a small bridge spanned the stream leading to a little temple and a hermitage. An old mendicant sat in a thatched hut, reading. His young companion spread his saffron robe to dry in the sun and the breeze. Beyond the temple, the forest ended in a sheer cliff and the Sone tumbled off it into a densely wooded valley. This was the first waterfall of this river and an iron and concrete platform thrust out over the cliff giving dizzying views of the cascade.
From this diaphanous scarf of a waterfall onwards, the Sone would receive the waters of many other streams to become the main southern tributary of the Ganges, joining that great river near Patna. When we were standing on the platform, looking at the infant Sone River, a group of mendicants came, walking briskly and carrying staves and backpacks of rolled blankets. They were accompanied by two dogs. They cupped water up from the stream in their hands, drank it, and then walked quickly up the steps. They were on a Narmada Parikrama, a circumambulatory of the river and they could cross it only here or at Baraoch where it flows into the Arabian Sea. The whole religious trek would take them three years, six months and thirteen days: a hiking schedule which will have to be as rigidly controlled as a motor rally!
We strode up the steps through the forest. Near the top of the steps, and at the base of a brightly coloured hermitage, stood five mango trees. A small, cemented, pond had been built at the foot of these trees and, from a tiny hole in the wall of this pond, water bubbled out and had half-filled the pond. From here it flowed into the brook and over the waterfall. This was the tiny source of the Sone.
All religious places, the world over, are fertile ground for the germination and growth of legends. We had heard odd rumours about a natural garden in which unique flowers grew: blossoms which refused to thrive anywhere else in the world. They call it the Mai-ki-Bagicha, the Garden of the Mother. It looked intriguing from the motor road: thatched huts in a clearing in the forest beside a stream. One of the huts was bright with the red-and-gold scarves associated with the Mother Goddess. Sadhus sat around being instructed by one of their elders and a group of women burnt incense, producing clouds of fragrant smoke.
We picked our way to the fringes on the clearing and were led to the legendary garden. “It grows only behind this hut”, a bystander assured us, “and only if it has its feet in this sacred water. Nowhere else in the world can it grow.” We stepped forward and examined the flowers and their plants carefully, and then we stepped back and returned to our car. We said nothing because we didn’t want to disappoint the devotees of the Goddess by saying that we grow these plants in our garden in the Himalayas; in fact they grow by themselves, not asking for any attention from us. We call them Ginger Lilies.
We learnt another unfounded legend-in-the-making when we visited a group of old temples built in the Khajuraho style. Most of them were in a rather dilapidated state, some leaning askew, presumably because the ground on which they had been built had become water-logged and soft. We were looking for good angles for our cameras when a man walked up and said that photography was not allowed because these temples had been built by the Pandava brothers of the Mahabharata. Since that epic war probably occurred appreciably before the Christian era, and these temples could not have been built before the 10th century AD, we brushed him aside. He then pointed to a signboard which, he said, would bear him cut. That was another bit of misinformation. The sign merely proclaimed it to be a ‘Protected Monument’. Later, we learnt that archaeologists had, indeed, dated the temples as belonging to the 10th century. No, one, however, could tell us who had built them, or why they had been built in this spot. We believe, however, that these monuments were sited here because it was close to the legendary source of the Narmada. In fact, just across the road from this group of abandoned shrines is the walled complex of the Narmada Udgam.
We walked into the complex. “All are welcome”, said the pujari, hospitably. We found that a number of shrines had been built around two large tanks. Water from the basement of a single-celled temple trickles eventually fills up the little tank and then overflows into the larger one. From there, it emerges as a stream which, eventually, becomes the mighty Narmada.
Pilgrims bathed, drank holy water from the small pond, consulted pundits sitting on small platforms or under a shed with a corrugated-iron roof, painted green. Some devotees, after their bath, even had themselves massaged by professional masseurs. It was all rather low-profiled and relaxed. The idol of Narmada Devi, installed apparently by that powerful reformer and missionary, Shankaracharya, was dressed in a white sari with a red border. Curiously it had the large, almond-shaped, metal eyes often associated with tribal deities. It is quite likely that Narmada Devi was the Mother Goddess of the first people to colonise this fertile valley and she retained her physical attributes when she was absorbed into the vast Hindu pantheon.
Amarkantak has grown around the Narmada and we followed the growing from the little trickle of its source, through the watered green meadows where rills added to its strength and into a forest where, according to a legend, the sage Kapil once had his hermitage. There’s no trace of the hermitage today: thatched huts do not survive for centuries. Now the path began to get a little tacky underfoot and there was a distant roaring as if an enormous steam engine was exhausting its boiler. We trod, gingerly, around a bend in the forest path and were dewed in a cloud of cold spray. There, ahead of us, the Narmada, full of power and fury, thundered down a 45-meter cliff filling the forests with its foaming anger. “Yes”, said a middle-aged man, collecting herbs freshened by the spray, “the river is angry. Kapil Muni had ordered the river to stop, but she had broken through these cliffs and plunged down. She still roars with her rage, even after all these ages!”
Because of this tale, they call these falls the Kapil Dhara and, for the first time since we had seen its birth we realised how easy it is for people to deify rivers. There is a certain, compulsive, logic in the view that since living creatures cannot grow so powerful, so quickly, the Narmada must have divine attributes. And, if she does, then these roaring falls are a clear manifestation of her implacable power.
Amarkantak, in its green bowl in the old Vindhyas, is the serene epitome of that titanic power.