Ever since the evolution of Hindu civilisation, rivers, mountains, and everything nature has been worshipped. The uniqueness of Hindutva is not seen in any other culture or in any community. Hindu samskruthi irrespective of the geographical region is known for worshipping rivers and mountains and considered them as Gods is a common practice even in the 21st century. We have heard of parikrama to Mount Kailash, Manasa sarovar, Girivallam in Tamil Nadu but parikrama to a river is not as popular.
For Hindus, rivers are one among the Panchaboothas and considered sacred. Among all the rivers, Ganga and Narmada are uniquely worshipped in India. The practice of circumambulation or pradakshina to the river was passed on to us from our rishis. The pradakshina to Narmada River is believed as good as doing one Aswamedha yagna. It is not just a belief even in practicality; it is like one yagna because it calls for the highest levels of physical and mental discipline.
The Parikrama – A Spiritual Trek
The Narmada, one of the oldest rivers, born on a hill at Amarkankat in Madhya Pradesh and its confluence is at the Arabian Sea at Bharuch of Gujarat. The 1320 Kms long river passes through three sates but three fourth of it runs across MP itself. The entire stretch of the river except its mouth runs between the ravines of Vindya Mountain. It is the only Jeeva Nadi (Lifeline) that runs from east to west and is the very reason to believe it to be auspicious. People who take a vow to perform Narmada parikrama need to walk on the south or north bank of the river path. Trekking on river terrain is a real challenge for parikramavasis. The parikrama stretch is about 3000 or more km, takes from 10 months to 3 years depending on the strength of the person.
Pradakshina means going round the deity and prostrating after completing the pradakshina. Locals who speak Hindi dialect say parikrama, in the South it is parikramana. Parikrama to river means circular journey on foot around the holy river. Parikramavasi is one who takes parikrama, can start at any specific point of the river but keeping the river at the right-hand side. Usually, they begin at the birthplace of Narmada and continue to go only on the one side of the river, either on south bank or on north bank till its mouth at Gujarat. At the confluence, parikramvasi crosses the sea by boat to get down at the other side to continue the trekking. If parikrama started from south bank parikramavasi go to north bank and is vice versa, of the river bank. To complete the parikrama the trekking continues on the river bank till it reaches the starting point. At any point in time parikramavasi should not cross the river. At Amarkantak the birth place of river, where water is flowing underground there on the ground yellow colour is painted to indicate the parikramavasis not to cross the river. No other river is as venerated as Narmada, though Ganga is considered holier than the holiest, parikrama is not practised on Ganga.
Rituals of the Parikramana
Anybody interested and can bear the hardship are eligible to take part in this ritual. Since parikrama demands highest levels of discipline and strictly laid rituals are the major challenges make many people to withdraw from the ritual. People who go on parikrama have to give up their worldly comforts for months sometimes for years. To start with they have to give up their coloured cloths and have to ware only white saree or dothy. Earlier shoes were forbidden but now a days they use footwears with exceptional. Sleeping on the bed is unacceptable but allowed to carry a mat with them. Parikramavasis are permitted to take one sling bag with one set of clothing, ma Narmada’s photo, one bottle with holy Narmada water, pooja items, a few Vedanta books, and if required, a medicine kit in their backpack. During parikrama, they are not allowed to hire a helper and have to carry their luggage till they complete the parikrama.
The toughest part of the parikrama is no food or money is to be carried but one is allowed to accept food and money offered by others. If a man and wife are going together they should treat each other as Narmada Bakths. Generally parikramavasis go in a group of 2-4 people but many Sadhus go alone. On an average one had to walk about 20 to 30 kms each day before they reach the next shelter which is generally an Ashram or a mandir. At some places in Madhya Pradesh, they may have to walk a long stretch between thick forests. During the Parikrama, they are not allowed to stay away from the holy Narmada and may have to confront the river bed covered by slush, rocks, jungles, thorny bush, and highway with heavy traffic (which is insensitive to parikramavasis).
If parikramavasis are lucky they get food but ask any parikramavasi they say “mayya knows our needs and she will never make us starve”. While on my Narmada Bramana the lady whom I met at Shoolapani jungle Ashram, narrated how Mayya fed her the food she wished. At one point she walked for kilometres still she could not reach any shelter. At late evening she and her Husband, a bank manager from Maharashtra, found shelter at a mandir which was closed after Pooja. Bone-chilling night, no bed, no food did not deter the couple from the ritual. Instead, both were chanting Ram naam and Narmada astaka till next day morning. But the lady who was awake for whole of the night could not bear the cold and hunger for any more, prayed mayya at dawn to give her a big tumbler full of hot tea. On the next morning, the temple priest who saw them went back home to bring hot tea in a big tumbler as she wished. The lady was in tears filled with devotion while narrating this incident. I was awestruck seeing the parikramavasis simplicity. They are much revered by the locals and will never go hungry. Ashrams situated on either side of the bank, run by Sadhus and Babas are the one who are nurturing this great ancient ritual by providing food and shelter for free, otherwise this ritual would not be possible without their support.
Spiritual Activities of Parikramavasis
Every day at Bramhi mahurth irrespective of climatic conditions they must bathe in holy Narmada. If Ashram’s provide breakfast they can eat. Otherwise, continue to travel on an empty stomach. Usually, as they believe no villager, no Ashram send them on an empty stomach. Then the walking goes on till the evening or at next shelter. Again bathing, Pooja, singing of Narmada Astaka composed by Adi Shankaracharya “Sa bindu bindu shuskalam taranga ranga vanditham……” and food provided by the ashram and retire for the day to rejuvenate the spiritual energy for the next day. The sadhus do not eat anything till late afternoon until they receive and feed all the guests. They eat the leftover only after every guest finishes their meal. They consider feeding guests is their dharma and Karma. Many parikramavasis during their long parikrama feed Sadhus and the poor on their way with the help of their relatives.
Last but not the least, every parikramavasi should keep their ID cards, certified by M P/D.M/BDO/ chairman of the municipality or from any other higher official performing Govt. job before starting parikrama.
Saviours of the Narmada
The eco-friendly Hindu Dharma and sadhus see nature’s strength as superpower or God. River Narmada as Goddess and as a daughter of lord Shiva is emotionally attached and people never call her by name. Instead they always call her ‘mayya”. Locals greet each other as “Narmade har” heard reverberating throughout the entire stretch. They treat Narmada as though it is their mother and throw all the responsibility on her and believe completely that she takes care of their welfare. Belief is such strong that people leave their houses and jobs and go on parikrama for a long period and come back home to see their houses are kept in order.
River Narmada is mother to all and with such emotions for mother Narmada, they drape her with saree with great grandeur. Thousands gather around the river on the first day of the Shravan-mas, carry saree with hundreds of meters length (depending on the breadth of the river) to tie the one end of the saree to one side of the bank, and carry the remaining part of the saree along with them till they reach the other side of the river bank to tie the other end of the saree to the river. To reach other side of the bank, they may go by boat or may wade through the river depending on the water current with saree in hand. Saree draping ceremony is a visual treat and ashrams situated on the bank take the lead in this ceremony. Sadhus’ vigilance against sand mining is so strong that local goons are afraid to touch the sand for mining. Sadhus never ask the government to tar or cement near the ashram as it allows free flow of rainwater into the river bed. Thick vegetation covering the ashram is seen with varied species of birds and deer moving freely. Ashrams are either thatched or tiled with mud flooring. A few ashrams have one or two electric bulbs for the entire premises. They build small temples of various deities with the meagre resources they have to keep the Hindu Dharma vibrant. Parikramavasis should visit as many temples as possible of multiple Gods to keep themselves spiritual throughout the ritual.
Amartya Sen and Mamata Banerjee may say that Sri Ram has no association with Bengal culture and may uphold the supremacy of one Goddess. But Hindus worship all Gods with the same devotion. Existence of one God will not negate the significance of another God in true Dharma. There are Ram Bakths chanting Sri Ram and Shiv Bakths chanting Har Har Mahadev go parikrama hand in hand chanting Rewa or Narmadhe Har. Apart from spiritual activities parikramvasis also have to clean the garbage thrown in the river and have to remove the garbage collected in mind and body.
The Sanatana culture is still alive at the roots but it is unfortunate the cultural values have eroded at the upper levels. The urban and the semi-urban population are still unaware and hardly care for these ancient values rendering them as confused, rootless Indians.
(The writer is a senior dietician and managing director of Varenya Nutrition Concepts, Bengaluru)