If rivers could be rated according to grace, the Narmada would be the strongest contender. The river runs a rather picturesque course from its point of origin, to where it meets the sea. The watershed of the Amarkantak Plateau where the Narmada begins its journey also feeds the Sone River. While the former flows westwards towards the Arabian Sea, the latter flows in a northwesterly direction and joins the Ganges.
The Narmada originates at the meeting point of the Vindhya and Saputara Ranges on the crest of the Maikal Hills. Its mythical source is not far from its geographical origin. The spring-fed temple tank of Narmada Kund, which is surrounded by temples dedicated to the river goddess, is believed to be the source of the Narmada. Like many other temples, the water is channeled through a stone snout into a tank that serves as both cattle trough and a public bath.
The Narmada is the fifth-longest river in India and runs approximately 1300 km. It is also the largest west flowing river and forms the traditional boundary between the northern and southern parts of India. Considered among the holiest of Indian rivers, it is believed that a mere glimpse of its waters can deliver salvation and this is a constant influence in the lives of people who live along its banks. This has ensured that some of the most prominent centers of pilgrimage in central India are sited along its course. While the geographical origin of the river is attributed to a fault line in the earth’s crust, there are many legends about its mythological origin.
Once there were severe drought and famine-like conditions on earth. The gods petitioned Shiva to relieve humanity from this terrible situation. Shiva meditated for several days to sort out the problem and so intense was his meditation that he began to perspire profusely. Droplets of his perspiration fell to the ground and from it developed a beautiful maiden with whom all the gods became besotted. They pursued her hopelessly, but the divine lady kept eluding them. Shiva was extremely amused by the situation and named her ‘Nar Mada’ (one who gladdens the hearts of men) and requested her to flow for the salvation of mankind. In the Narmadeshwar Temple at Amarkantak, the goddess is seated on her crocodile mount (a common attribute of river deities). In her four arms, she holds objects that reinforce her essence, one of them being a Shivaling that signifies her devotion towards her father and creator.
Yet another legend narrates that a couple of teardrops that fell from the eyes of Brahma (creator of the universe) yielded two rivers-the Narmada and the Sone.
Celestial romances and weddings have always been an integral part of Hindu lore. It is not surprising then, that this theme features in a legend associated with both the Narmada and Sone, who were deeply in love with each other. However, just before their nuptials, the groom-to-be succumbed to the flirtations of another rivulet, and the livid Narmada stormed-off to the west vowing to remain a virgin.
According to some versions of the Puranas, Narmada was incarnate of Tapti (the daughter of Surya and Chaya). She is also said to be the sister of Shani (Saturn) and Savitri (Parvati), which makes her particularly auspicious. It is believed that the Ganges visits her once a year in the guise of a black cow to cleanse herself of accumulated sins. Pilgrims often undertake the Narmada Parikrama (circumambulation of the river), an arduous journey of 2600 km from Bharuch to Amarkantak, and then back again.
History and legends apart, the Amarkantak Plateau where the river rises, is one of the most scenic hill stations in central India. The river meanders through a thick blanket of deciduous forests until it reaches the edge of the plateau. From here, it splits into two channels and cascades down a 150-foot drop as the Kapildhara Falls. The two streams meet a short distance away and flow towards Dindori, (90 km from Amarkantak) where the river becomes wider as it is joined by several other rivulets.
This region is rich in fossilized mollusks that date between 40 and 200 million years and offers enormous possibilities in the study of the formation of landmasses between the Tertiary and Jurassic periods. In 2002, the fossil of a large carnivorous predator christened the Rajasaurus Narmadenis was excavated in the same belt. This reptile, which measured 30 feet in length and over 10 feet in height, lived around 67 million years ago. Paleontologists have unearthed hundreds of fossilized dinosaur eggs between Dahod and Jabalpur. Interestingly, one of the largest and earliest tyrannosaur fossils ever found, which is now on display in the British Museum of Natural History, was also excavated in the same area.
Unlike most rivers in central and southern India, the Narmada descends in a series of great cascades until it reaches the plains. Near the town of Mandla, at the Shahasradhara falls (thousand cascades) the river is broken up into several swiftly moving streams by huge basaltic formations. Locals believe that these rocks are remnants of an ancient dam; however, there is little archaeological evidence to support this theory.
The tiny island of Maheshwar is one of the better-known religious sites in the middle course of the river. According to local lore, it is situated at the center of the universe, on the axis which connects the center of the earth to the polestar. The island has an intimate connection with the Holkar Dynasty; in the 18th century, it served as their capital. During this period, the town was embellished with numerous public works, which includes Rani Ahilvabai Holkar’s fort that towers over the riverfront and provides a magnificent panorama of the Narmada. Maheshwar is also famous for its handloom industry, especially for the unique Maheshwari sari that takes its name from the town.
Downstream at Omkareshwar, the river splits into two channels before re-joining in an ‘Om’ shaped oxbow formation. The island formed thus, is one of the most important centers of Shaivite worship in central India. Amid the numerous relics of the Brahmanic era, which include shrines in various stages of dilapidation, the Shri Omkar Mandhata temple stands out like a jewel. One of the twelve Jyotirlinga shrines of Shiva, it makes the island particularly propitious. Steps from the temple lead to the bathing ghats where eager boatmen in gaily-colored boats wait for passengers.
Omkareshwar is also the point where the pro and anti-dam dispute begins. Until recently, the people of Omkareshwar had to rely on oil lamps and lanterns. Following the construction of a dam just upstream, they have benefited greatly. Not only has the dam employed the locals, but now they also enjoy an uninterrupted power supply. However, while the villages downstream have profited from the dam, many villages in the reservoir areas are now submerged. This very saga of displaced villagers and farmers gave birth to the Narmada Bachao Andolan. The width of the river gradually reduces as it flows past the agricultural town of Khalghat. The picturesque town of Barwani in the Nimar district is the last important settlement along the river in Madhya Pradesh. Surrounded by the Satpura Hills, it rises from the lush Narmada Valley and is often referred to as the Paris of Nimar’.
Barwani is also the focal point of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), a movement that was spearheaded by the environmental activist Medha Patkar. The construction of large dams on the Narmada and its impact on the millions of people living in the river valley has become one of the most controversial social issues in contemporary India. The NBA’s opposition to the construction of large dams on the river symbolizes the struggle for an impartial society. Harping on the development card, the government plans to build 30 large, 135 medium and 3000 small dams to harness and channelize the water of the Narmada and its tributaries. However, opponents of the dam question the human cost and ecological sustainability of such large projects. They also believe that water and energy can be provided to the people of the Narmada Valley and Gujarat through alternative environmentally sustainable technologies. While both proponents and opponents of the dam refuse to back down, the people of the Narmada Valley will have to wait and watch which way the tide turns.
From Barwani, the river flows on through a small part of Maharashtra before entering the state of Gujarat. The narrow river then gets a new lease of life at Chandod where two more tributaries join it. In the monsoon, Hilsas spawn upstream making this area one of the richest riverine fishing grounds in western India.
The Narmada continues its journey towards Ankleshwar and the city of Bharuch. These twin cities lie on opposite banks of the Narmada, connected by a bridge built in the colonial era. However, the British connection runs deeper; few are aware of Ankleshwar’s association with the British war against the Spanish. Once famous for its teak forests, it was stripped bare to build the British warships that fought the Spanish Armada (1588- 89 AD).
The river finally meets the Arabian Sea near Bharuch, which is the oldest settlement in the Narmada Valley. It was an important trading center in the 1940s and at one time, the Parsi community was the mainstay of this town. Parsi surnames are often associated with their place of birth or occupation and many still have the telltale surname of Barucha. Their homes, fire temples, and the tower of silence still survive. UNESCO’s Parzor Project is trying to preserve these buildings along with their unique water- harvesting system based on underground tanks called ‘tankas’.
The beachfront in Bharuch also plays host to one of the most widely celebrated festivals in India, the Chaat Pooja. Primarily a north Indian festival, it is celebrated with great pomp. Today Bharuch’s importance as a port has been diluted due to excessive silting, but the city is highly industrialized. Excavations along the Narmada suggest that the people of this town once traded with the Greeks and Romans. Even today, this city by the sea where the Narmada ends its journey is rather prosperous, thanks to the benevolent river that nurtured it.