It was at the ripe old age of 50 that the late Amritlal Vegad, a Sahitya Academy Award winning Gujarati writer and artist living in Jabalpur, began circumambulating the holy Narmada — Amarkantak to Bharuch and back. He twice performed the parikrama between 1977 and 2009. It was done in multiple installments, covering a distance of over 4,000 km — an astonishing feat given his feeble frame and precise height. Very Nirad Chaudhuri! The driving force behind the labour of love was art. Spiritual solace was not even an incidental aim. Pushing him instead was the desire to see nature’s bounty and beauty at its most pristine.

Largely ailment-free till he shuffled off his mortal coil at 90 a few months ago, the experience to him seemed just like yesterday. Virtually every glimpse of the river’s alluring curves, the luminescence of its waters, the deep gorges, nature sculpted boulders, the surrounding hills and dales, thick forest cover, and lush verdure remained deeply etched in memory.

No less sharp was the remembrance of those he met during his peregrination: sadhus, hermits, fellow parikrama vasi, the poor tribal families he stayed with, the little food they happily shared, not to speak of the close brush with snakes. His pen-and-ink sketches, paper collages, and travelogues have preserved it all for posterity.

The Narmada gave him a foretaste of youth as a half-centurion. Otherwise his life, he said, had leapt straight from childhood into old age. The river revived him, revivified him, destroyed his ego, pulverised his pride, humbled him, chastened him. Pure joy coursed through his veins. What’s more, the river taught him to remain calm in the face of barbs and slurs from cynics and taunters.

Enshrined in his mind were the words of a fellow pilgrim: “A parikrama of the Narmada will change you forever”. “Wahi nahin rahenge aap” (You won’t be the same again). In a flash he realised the true meaning behind the parting words of his guru, Nandalal Bose, who taught him at Shantiniketan between 1948 and 1953. The great nature painter advised him never to chase success but focus his energies on leading a “sarthak” (meaningful) life.

While Vegad’s connect with the river was primarily art driven, those surviving off its bounty for ages share a bond beyond sentiment and beauty. To them it is simply “maiyya” (mother) on whose lap they gamboled and grew up. The river reared them. Abiding faith in the maiyya’s munificence implanted since time immemorial is palpable among those frequenting its banks.

Jabalpur’s Jelehari ghat, though adjacent to the crowded and famous Gwarighat, is an abode of peace favoured by the quieter sorts, and swimmers. An old wrinkled tree and an ashram with temple precede the descent into the bank.

It was 8 am when i rolled up at its steps with the soulful Indian Ocean number, “Ma Rewa taro pani nirmal, khal khal behto jaye re..” playing on my lips. The ghat had been virtually submerged after the heavy downpour the previous day. Luckily the waters had receded enough to reveal a sizeable part of the steps. The tea stall owner, a young woman, was warming the first kettle, a few swimmers were readying to dive, and one or two boats were tethered to the picket. Greetings of Narmade har! Narmade har! are exchanged between the regulars.

Thirty something “mallah” Ballu Barman, whose boat i clamber on, tells me he has been rowing since his teens. The profession gives him a sparse income, not more than 1-2k per month, but he manages because he stays with his father and five brothers. Sometimes he makes an extra buck by helping out at the local ashram. Pater too was a naavik, but is now a farmer. Nothing much has changed over the years except that the surrounding jungles have been cut. Cousin Rajesh, who has been in the profession for much longer, says they have full faith in maiyya. “We don’t complain! We are happy with what we have.” An excess of comfort is as bad as a surfeit of suffering, he says.

The cousins shout out for Mantu bhaiyya (chacha ji) who they say is a man of wisdom. Mantu, all of 70, is only too happy to join us. As fit as a fiddle, and a champion swimmer, he says he has been roaming the ghats of the Narmada since he was seven. His job as master craftsman at a local factory gives him a regular income, but his heart lies with the river he has been serving for decades, now as divisional warden with the local civil defence authority. All these boys, he says gesturing towards Ballu, Rajesh and others, are my bacche whom i taught to boat, swim, and save lives. “I am giving them back what i learnt from their fathers.”

He says he learnt to swim in the face of stern warnings from his farmer father not to go near the waters. But like most children he did exactly what was forbidden. “So i began taking two-second dips standing, then longer ones before taking baby steps forward into maiyya’s lap.” This is the boy who went on to save hundreds of lives from drowning and train umpteen swimmers for the Nationals and other competitions. Not bad for a “first year fail”.

Mantu travels to waterfronts all over the state. Many of his students, he says, hold good positions in sports bodies. Sometime back he was awarded the President’s medal for bravery. But what he counts as his real achievement is the value of selflessness he has ingrained in his boys. “They help strangers and expect nothing in return.”

Sadly enough, successive state governments, says Mantu (real name: Roop Singh Thakur) have done nothing for boatmen and fishermen, the first citizens of any river. They don’t as much have a medical or insurance policy. With the result that over 60% of them are compelled to scout for extra work to make ends meet. But they refuse to give up the profession of their forefathers. “Sadiyon ki aadat hai! Kaise jayegi?” (Habits of yore can’t be given up). He himself comes to the ghats twice a day, always available on call.

Crores of rupees have been spent, he says, but at the end of the day it hasn’t raised awareness a whit. “People throw mounds of dirt, pollute the river, risk their lives by diving without realising the dangers”. Water can be dangerous. It is not for entertainment per se. Drowning cases are dime a dozen; young lives are lost.

Amateur swimmers, a cheerful lot, come to the ghat in scores. They come as much for their passion for aquatics as their love for maiyya. Portly Ashok Grover and his wife Poonam, both hitting 50, have been regulars for the last 25 years. Ashok says his day is not complete without a couple of forays to the other bank.

Another enthusiast Vivek Bajhal, a river-only swimmer since childhood, went through a bypass surgery more than a year ago. Ordinarily doctors would have dissuaded him from going through the strenuous motions of the sport everyday, and that too in a gushing river in the thick of monsoon. Seeing the overall improvement in his situation, they had now told him to carry on uninhibited.

Vivek says he is an atheist, but has a "soft corner" and trust for the river, a living, breathing entity. Regarded as the purest of the country’s seven sacred, the Narmada has an aura which cleanses, heals.

Veterinarian and RSS functionary Govind Mishra’s bond with the river is even more deeply rooted, albeit, again, not overtly spiritual. While lakhs have circumambulated the Narmada’s course barefoot over the ages, he is among the handful who actually swam the entire single course of 1,310 km with a few friends between 1997 and 2000, again in multiple installments. Now 76, he thinks the feat could not have been performed without maiyya’s blessings.

Mishra says he has been swimming since he was 7-8. He learnt to paddle in a small river off Satna where he grew up, then began frequenting the Jelehari ghat after settling down in Jabalpur in 1957. The thought of a longer engagement with the river came during the golden jubilee of Independence. He along with some friends swam from Bargi, where a dam was coming up, to Jabalpur, a distance of 32 km. They covered the course in four hours flat.

Success egged them on to try swimming the entire course of the river. Twenty-five volunteered for the ordeal. All they took with them were a few items of clothing and other basics. Surviving mainly on a diet of sattu (desi flour) and chanaa (grams), they covered the entire stretch in 66 days spread over three years, swimming an average of 15-25 km everyday in 5-6 hours.

Progress depended on the nature of the current. To ensure there were no mishaps, accompanying them was a small boat with an oarsman. Still they had a close brush with death on at least five occasions, once when stuck in a whirlpool. In the end only five of the 25 made it to finish. The rest kept dropping out.

Friends, says Mishra, invariably ask what he got from the experience. Little realising that not everything in life is done for gain or self-aggrandisement. “Something has changed within which only i can know. It elevated by consciousness. Isn’t that enough?”. Besides, swimming a timeless river is in itself a beautiful adventure. Fear, for one, was an instant eject. “It was liquidated”. He now sleeps a good sleep.

The undulating path of the river is the Narmada’s USP. Shiva’s daughter traverses through some of the most difficult terrain in Madhya Pradesh, skirting mountains, boulders, and jungles, but becomes still and meditative the moment it enters Gujarat to reach its confluence in the Gulf of Khambat, an islet of the Arabian Sea.

Now cut to the world of artisans and craftsmen at Bhedaghat, 25 km off Jabalpur. The environment here is very different. The relationship of this community with the river is centred round the tourist traffic to the wondrous Dhuandhar waterfall and the AD 8-10th century Chausath Yogini Temple. Both are world heritage sites situated within a radius of 3km.

Sheikh Nawab’s family, which runs Karim Art, has been around for five or six generations. His forefathers were cooks (khansama) in the local circuit house, but his father realised the potential of the marble art business and set up shop. Around 100 shop owners and their families, he says, stay in the village. Together, they employ hundreds of local artisans, but there are many more from neighbouring villages who run knick-knack and eatery shops near the river. “Where would we be without Ma Narmada?”

Some like 85-year-old Ram Prasad Tiwari began life as a panda (temple priest), but branched out into the marble sculpturing business, Tiwari Arts, and later hoteliering, which his three sons now run.

Tiwari says his family’s connect with the Narmada goes back a good 200-250 years when his forefathers used to sit on the banks on a takhat (wooden bed) to perform the Satyanarayan puja and Narmada pujan for pilgrims, mostly Bengalis. Among them were zamindars, writers etc. Since they were no guest houses or hotels in the vicinity, most stayed with the priests as their guests despite the obvious inconvenience. They ate in stone utensils, slept on floors, washed their clothes. “They were real pilgrims, and their commitment to Ma Narmada was from the heart.”

He says he has registers with the comments of writers like Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Bhibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyaya, and many others. Members from leading zamindar families of Bengal were annual visitors.

Ironically enough, the boom in the marble art business, says Tiwari, came after the government banned the mining of marble at Bhedaghat in the early sixties. Prior to this much of the sculpting was done in soft stone and sandstone. “The angrez loved buying our paper weights and Shiva linga statuettes.” The ban boosted mining in the neighbouring villages from where the supplies began to pour. It included the much more durable hardstone which has now become the mainstay of the business.

But these, he feels, are earthly reasons. Finally, cosmic factors determine destiny. They run deeper. Our “bharan-poshan” (maintenance) would scarcely have been possible unless Ma willed it.

Onkar Dubey, whose daily maha arti at Gwarighat, attracts hundreds, belongs to another panda clan which goes back 13-14 generations. The clan has also produced a clutch of freedom fighters, he informs with pride. Living near the river transforms character and lives. Which is why there is no crime in the vicinity of the waters. And though snakes are aplenty, they don’t bite. No cases have ever been reported.

Happenings, be they good or bad, no longer affect him, says Dubey. On the contrary it is he who can subtly tweak them. In the beginning he performed pujas to derive “khushi”, now he does it “khushi-khushi” (happily). The only thing bothering him of late is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s efforts to take over the popular maha arti under its wing. “The regional adhyaksh has been putting pressure, but i haven’t relented so far.” But that is politics. The mother, he’s sure, will protect his interests.

So what is it that generates such profound faith in the Narmada? For the deification of Ma Rewa, its other name, is by no means less intense than the Ganga though the latter has traditionally been the gold standard. The reason, say experts, are manifold and depends on where you grew up and how much were you sensitised by the river’s proximity.

You are unlikely to meet on the banks of the Ganga the kind of people you run into during a teerth (pilgrimage) of the Narmada. Not even at Hardwar, Rishikesh, or Kashi. This I say from personal experience as well as those of others.

Take the case of the superannuated government official whom Vegad had met near Omkareshwar. His home was a bench at a village tea-shop, a bag his solitary possession, and village dogs his only friends, Said he: “I have no faith in gods and goddesses. People are full of filth. Ma Narmada is the only one i trust, the only one I want to keep seeing.”

Or the hermit who completed circumambulating the river within the prescribed three years, three months, and thirteen days living off just root vegetables, fruit, milk and curd. And that too only when offered. He never asked for food.

Doubtlessly it is the Narmada-centric tradition of parikrama initiated by Rishi Markandeya thousands of years ago to attain moksha (liberation) which propels hundreds to undertake the task every year. You can never be the same person after walking 2,620 km barefoot for over three years without stopping at a place for more than two days, travel light, take a daily dip, and cook your own food with not more than two days of stock. Pilgrims today travel in cars and cycles, even private aircraft. But there are no shortcuts to Eternity.

The Ganga may be the most celebrated and longest of the seven sacred rivers, but the Narmada at No 5 is the holiest as well as the oldest. There is enough evidence, both scriptural and scientific, to suggest it. The Matysa Purana clearly says the Ganga is sacred at Kankhala (Hardwar), the Saraswati at Kurukshetra, but the Narmada is sacred all along its banks, be it forest or places inhabited. Again, while the waters of the Saraswati purify one in five days, the Yamuna in seven, the Ganga immediately, but the Narmada purifies at the very sight:

Narmade twam mahabhaga, sarvpaphari bha

Twaydapsu ya: shilayarwa shivkalpa bhavantu ta:

The Rewa khanda of the Skanda Purana devotes nearly 1,200 shlokas on the Narmada’s sacredness. Other puranas like Bhagavata, Vishnu, Markandeya and Vayu reiterate that the banks of the Narmada are ideal for shraddha-karma (last rites). The Skanda Purana even says that since the Narmada is worshipped even by the gods, it is the ideal place to live. Narmada darshane mukte, says the Maitreya Upanishad.

Scholars also argue Shiva’s association with the Narmada is more umbilical than the Ganga. While a part of the Ganga emerged from Vishnu’s feet (Vishnu padabj sambhute/Ganga tripath gamini), the Narmada’s avataran (descent from above) happened from Shiva’s sweat. He is Narmadeshwar, and she his unmarried daughter.

The river’s antiquity was established by the momentous discovery in 1982 of the fossilised skull of Narmada Man at Hathnora village in Sehore. Archeologists put the skull’s age at 5-6 lakh years. It was the first and oldest fossil (homo erectus) from India. In fact, the descendants of Narmada Man were the first to use the earliest tools before the advent of human civilisation. Quite apart from hominids, evidence of the earliest life forms, flora and fauna pre-dating the advent of man have been found. Its banks are primeval. They predate the Himalayas.

Sangeet Verma, a documentary film maker who runs a research outfit, Shodh Nirantar, with a focus on traditional knowledge, says the Narmada has always been associated with sadhana (discipline), tyaag (sacrifice) and saparpan (surrender). Quite in contrast to the Ganga which came from devlok and is a river of samriddhi (wealth). On its banks were cradled some of our richest civilisations and classical art forms. But it is the Narmada on whose banks lie the beginnings of our tribal and folk culture. “Uske tat pe samriddhi ki koi jagah nahin hai” (material prosperity has no place on its shores).

Like the Ganga, the Narmada too has suffered over the decades. Dams have damned and defaced the river, especially the Sardar Sarovar and Indira Sagar. Its course has been disfigured beyond repair. Innumerable old temples dotting the banks lie submerged, ancient tribes displaced, and their customs, traditions buried in the sands of time. And though the mother’s overall cheer and compassion remain intact, things can never be the same.