We first discovered the pull of the Narmada during our two weeks in Maheshwar last December. It was during our time there that we first met parikramavasis: the devotees of the holy river who make a 2,600-kilometer pilgrimage to circle her entire length. Some start at the river’s mouth on the Indian Ocean, walk along her northern bank, circle her source at Amarkantak and return to the mouth. Others start at Amarkantak and complete their journey there. Wherever they start, all the parikramavasis perform their journey in a clockwise direction, keeping the Narmada on their right.
It’s an arduous and impressive journey, a pilgrimage of devotion to the Narmada, one of the holiest rivers in India, and to the goddess that the river is.
I know many, if not all, rivers in India are said to be holy, but the Narmada is special in certain ways. For example, there’s a story that says that when the goddess Ganga (the huge holy river that crosses most of India and passes through the holy city of Varanasi) is feeling a bit dirty, she takes the form of a black cow and goes down to the banks of the Narmada to bathe and purify herself.
While we were in Maheshwar, we went to the river every day. This was easy because we were staying so close to the bank and the ghats, the steps that lead down to the river and all its activities: pilgrims and residents bathing and washing clothes; priests and worshippers praying; tourists feeding fish; and locals selling snacks, tea and boat rides.
Even if we had been staying further away, I am sure we would have made daily visits to the Narmada. There was a pull to the river, to its activity and to its quiet. When we walked the bank downriver, away from the royal fort and the main ghats and towards the smaller temples and ghats, we would often fall silent, walking in companionable rhythm along uneven ground, avoiding cow pies and rubbish, and watching the fish in the river, the birds in the shrubberies and trees, the light sparkling on the water.
That’s not to discount the draw of human devotion. I also loved sitting on the ghats and watching people pray, either alone, in small groups, or in large groups led by a priest or two. I loved the rhythms of the chanted prayers, and the bells, and the sweet wafts of incense borne on the river breeze. I loved the absorbed faces of people in prayer, and the graceful gesture when someone would bend into the river, scooping water into their hands and raising it to the sky with an uplifted face.
The Narmada’s devotees: parikramavasis and free-range pilgrims
Nearly every day we would see the parikramavasis. At first, we didn’t understand who they were, why we kept seeing small groups of people who looked like sadhus, orange-clad and often barefoot. These people were different from regular sadhus, though: they walked purposefully, each with a stick, a sizeable bag, a metal tiffin carrier, and what appeared to be a roll of white styrofoam, kind of like an unusually thick rolled yoga mat.
We learned that they were parikramavasis, and what the pilgrimage is about, from two Italians we got to know in the first few days in Maheshwar. We actually met them on the morning bus from Indore to Maheshwar. We were already seated when we saw them board: two small people, both in traditional Indian dress. He was an older gentleman, with white hair and beard and pale skin, wearing a white kurta-pajama. She was about 50, I thought, with jet black hair pulled back into a long braid that hung over her red blouse and sari. Though she was pale, too, we both thought she was an Indian married to a European.
The two of them sat behind us, and after a few moments I realized they were speaking Italian. We started to chat together in English, and exchanged some information about Maheshwar, about where we were planning to stay, and so on. They kindly shared some bananas with us, and I called the hotel where we had a reservation to see if the manager could take this pair of travelers as well. We agreed we would share a rickshaw from the bus to the hotel once we arrived in Maheshwar.
We learned that this pair were not, as we had assumed, a couple; rather, they were longtime friends and soulmates who had met because of their devotion to a particular Indian guru. They had been traveling back and forth between Italy and India for the past 25 years, spending time with their guru until he passed from the body. Now they were spending time along the Narmada, at holy places like Omkareshwar, where they could pray, meditate and bathe twice a day in the holy river.
I learned a lot about the goddess Narmada from these two Italians, and about some elements of Hindu practice that I hadn’t understood before. It was the Italian woman who told us about the parikrama, the pilgrimage around the Narmada.
Parikrama is very much the same idea as pradakshina, the devotional walk people take around Annamalai (Arunachala) in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu. Annamalai is the holy mountain where Siva is said to have manifested as a column of light, and where the well-known spiritual teacher Ramana Maharshi lived for more than 50 years.
The pradakshina route is just 14 kilometers, easy to complete in less than a day. It’s especially easy if, like us, you wear shoes. The truly devoted ones do it barefoot.
The full Narmada parikrama is 2,624 kilometers (give or take a few kilometers). Pilgrims can start at the source in Amarkantak, Madhya Pradesh, at the river mouth at Bharouch in Gujarat, or anywhere along the river. Wherever they start, they keep the river on their right. When it’s time to cross the river’s sea mouth, they take a ferry to the other side, but they do not cross at any other point.
There are many rules for conducting parikrama. Pilgrims are supposed to do the walk barefoot, and are supposed to stay as close to the bank as possible. Sometimes they do have to go inland when there’s an obstruction; when we were at Mandu, we saw a group of parakramavasis traversing a stretch of open land, about a kilometer from the river bank. Parikramavasis are supposed to carry very little – just enough food for a couple of days – and to carry no money, depending always on the goddess to provide. People along the way often feed the parikarmavasis; to do so is to share in the good karma they are generating.
This practice of circumambulating a holy place, always keeping it on your right, is common to Hinduism and Buddhism, and possibly to other religions as well. I remember circling the big stupa at Bodhinath in Nepal in the early 1980s, joining the pilgrims who walked along, spinning the prayer wheels at the base of the stupa (always counterclockwise) while reciting mantras and clicking through the beads on their malas (rosaries). Many pilgrims went still further, taking a few steps and then stopping to do a full-body prostration on the ground; they would circle the entire stupa this way, not just at ground level, but on the upper levels as well.
There are a lot of temples in and around Amarkantak – I’ve been told there are 22, and we’ve seen perhaps 12 of them – and it looks to me like most, if not all, offer accommodation to the parikramavasis. Simple rooms, water, bathing facilities and food.
We saw one of these ashrams when we were in Maheshwar. We took a boat across the river to the southern bank and walked through a village to the large temple we had seen from the ghats below the fort. There we found not just the temple itself, but a series of buildings for residents, and as it turned out, lodgings for parikramavasis. We happened to arrive just before 11:30, time for the midday meal, and the swami in charge of the food asked us to join the others. We were served with rice, huge wholemeal chapattis, and dal. It was interesting to watch everyone, the special rituals of handwashing and blessings, the swami keeping an eagle eye on everyone’s plate to make sure each person had enough.
The parikramavasis are here in Amarkantak, too. We see them walking out of the woods and towards town in the mornings, and we greet each other: “Narmadei har,” or “In praise of Narmada. One morning we ran into three young men at the tantric temple close to where we were staying. I don’t know how long they’d been traveling – perhaps they had just started? They looked fit and hearty, and happy with their journey. They were also very much interested in selfies, just like so many people we meet.
The parikramavasis aren’t all young – far from it. I look at some of them and think they must be my age, in their 60s. I don’t think I could do what they are doing. It’s not just the walking, walking, walking, day after day. It’s doing that in all weathers – rain, wind, cold, heat. It’s the mosquitoes, and sleeping on hard surfaces, the uncertain food supply (they are meant to carry only enough for a day or two), and of course the inevitable dysentery and fevers that beset people traveling around India.
Whenever I encounter them, I see the companionship between the parikramavasis, the warm smiles when they stop to greet us, to ask us where we’re from and where we’re going. However much hardship this pilgrimage entails, it also delivers great joy to those who pursue it.
If you’d like to read another point of view about Amarkantak and parikrama, go to Shailesh Harani’s blog post, “Narmade Har!!” (** river of dreams & maa reva). It’s an absorbing read with lots of photos and human interest.