River Narmada always evokes fond memories of my aunt Nagalakshmi, who made Jabalpur her home.
My first tryst with Narmada was in the ‘70s when I visited my aunt’s home as a teenager during my college vacation. She took me to Bhedaghat, about 20 km from Jabalpur, promising me a beautiful experience in Narmada.
This ancient river flowing east to west predates the formation of the Himalayas. When the Indian tectonic plate collided with the Eurasian plate about 50 million years ago, marking the uplift of the Himalayas, Narmada continued to flow serenely through the cataclysms. Over the years, the soft marble rocks in Bhedaghat yielded to the power of the mighty river and let her carve the marble, creating a beautiful gorge.
The boat ride through the gorge, accompanied by a slight drizzle, is etched in my memory. On either side, the rocks exhibit a thousand different hues and shades of yellow, blue, pink and black, mesmerizing the onlookers. Another memory is of Narmada taking the form of a smoky cascade and plunging down to become Dhuandhar Falls some distance away from these marble rocks.
Now, 50 years later, the benevolent Narmada once again beckoned me on my recent trip to Indore. A two-hour drive from Indore to Maheshwar (or Mahishmati of Bahubali fame) brought me to the banks of Narmada. The dancing waves of the river viewed from the Narmada Ghat espouse a sense of meditation and peace. Maheshwar is also the home of Maheshwari saris, woven in the finest handloom traditions. This ancient town celebrates the memory of its famous queen Devi Ahilyabai Holkar, who ruled Malwa kingdom for thirty years from 1765 to 1795, marking a unique period of peace and prosperity. The Ahilya fort on the Narmada river bank stands as a testimony to her simple lifestyle, valour, sagacity and eminence.
I was also fortunate to visit the sprawling caves of Bhimbetka in Narmada valley near Bhopal that depict pre-historic rock shelter paintings made by early humans of the Indian subcontinent. This natural ‘art gallery’ is an archaeological treasure and is considered an invaluable chronicle of the history of man.
During her journey of more than 1,300 km from the humble source of Amarkantak to Baruch near the Arabian Sea, Narmada tumbles down the rocky riverbed and loose rocks get impregnated with minerals. Due to her strong and forceful currents, they split into small rocks and get moulded into smooth ellipsoid stones known as Banalingams. Revered as Swayambu (self-manifested) Lingams, these Banalingams are Narmada’s unique gift to mankind.
Narmada not only supports a great variety of aquatic life but also nurtures teak and hardwood forests which are older than those of the Himalayas. The banks of Narmada are dotted with temples and are associated with myths and folklore that are part of timeless Indian tradition. Narmada is a thing of beauty and a joy to those who come into contact with her.