Walking the Narmada Parikrama

This account is of the first 10 days of the walk, directly from what I wrote in the diary. We have now walked 600km in 40 days and further posts are likely to be more integrated thoughts. Thanks to Kashyap Swaroop and people on the journey for pictures used in this post. We didn’t carry money or any electronic device.

It’s been 11 days on the road. We’ve walked close to 200km in 10 days, from Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh to Bajwada, Nemawar. We picked up Ma Narmada’s water from the banks of Maheshwar and the intention is to walk 800km upstream to the origin point of the river in Amarkantak and then turn towards the south bank and walk all the way to where the river meets the Arabian sea. From there, one takes a boat and crosses the sea to walk back where one started from. A total of some 3200km. And thousands of people do this- every year!

The parikrama is done on foot, without any possession. The definition of ‘possession’ can be different for different people. We’re walking without phones, in chappals (till now) and without money (but we have been offered dakshina). Traditionally, people do it in 3 years, 3 months, 13 days. People, also do it in 4 to 5 months; some quicker, some slower.

The first few days- we could barely walk 12–15 km a day. Legs ache, blisters hurt, the afternoon heat pinches and the ever changing context creates discomfort. We don’t usually take white sugar or a lot of dairy but there is no choice now. In the area we began to walk, sugar and chilly is all people seem to eat! But the love and gratitude makes up for everything.

It’s only been 11 days and we’ve slept in a village palace and a tribal hut; we’ve slept in a jungle and in a school courtyard; we’ve slept in a shipping container (with AC) and under a tree. The tradition goes that you receive whatever you’re offered and you fast when you’re not. We’ve still not gone without food; such has been the graciousness of the river and its people. Numerous things have bugged me- mosquitoes, loud noises of TV while sleeping in someone’s verandah, the fiery chilly, the super sweet tea, blisters on the feet, aching body and more. But something keeps you going. It’s not about a challenge- completing the walk is totally dependent on the river; I am no one to decide that.

Even writing this seems like glorification and talking about something very sacred but that itself seems to be asking me to write and share. Maybe it’s my ego, I don’t know; but I am writing.

I kept a diary (on Joseph baba’s suggestion) to write some thoughts and have managed to pen down something every day. I’ll try and put down the diary here. And I’ll also send it out to close ones because I don’t know if I’ll continue writing.

Day 0 (In Maheshwar- Jubin, Sarasvati and a friend Kashyap who will be on the journey first 3 days)

Just some lines that were spoken on the banks of Narmada in Maheshwar Fort:

“Wow, we’re going to live like Bhikhhus for the next few months!”

“We’re all just projections. Of the supreme… “

“The journey has begun! It has always been on”

Day 1 (Kaleshwar Mahadev temple, 2–3 km from Maheshwar)

Kaleshwar is supposed to be the god of time. ‘Kaal’ is time- one who can modulate time. We were all gung ho about walking 20km but just 2km down the road, time was stopped and the panditji asked us to stop for 3–4 hours and proceed after lunch! After a little resistance, we obliged. Little did we know that all our plans, even the ones made for two hours hence were going to be crushed.

Lal baba (the person who taught us to wear lunghis) and Sarasvati at Kaaleshwar

Before the walk, the guys are supposed to shave of their facial hair which I did and there are a few other rituals as well but we picked up what we liked. For instance, wearing white… White t-shirt, white dhoti and a piece of cloth on the head. It’s functional and felt right for a journey we were embarking on. Sarasvati was given an orange kurta by Lal baba at Kaleshwar temple which she gave up the next day and came back to white t-shirt and a deep yellow dhoti. People generally walk in whites and shades of yellow/red.

I was feeling in the moment and was writing this diary when a stranger walked up to me and said, “Panditji, kuch batate ho?” (Respected one, can you read my future?) I was taken aback! After a pause, I gently refused and the man walked away. He had assumed I was into astrology and that I could tell him something! I thought to myself, “Wow! Is the attire all it takes to become a saint!” In such a case, it’s so easy to get trapped in this and consider oneself something higher! A lesson to learn- clothes don’t mean anything. Saintliness is not in the clothes (or physical appearance).

The first night was spent at the humble Mandleshwar ghat and the evening was spent amidst mosquitoes wondering if all evenings were going to be like this! The night was pleasant in the courtyard of a school attached to the temple. We declined the evening meal since the panditji of the place who would offer us food would also give us lectures on rituals. Plus, our tummies were happy with the lunch and helpings of tea along the way.

Day 2 (Vasudha Organic, around 10km from Mandleshwar)

The usual schedule is to wake up by 4.30am and freshen up followed by a tea provided by the host (usually). One starts walking by 6am (sunrise) and carries on till 11am. On most days, there are several offerings of tea at villages that come along the way. Around noon, one starts looking for a place to stop for a while, have food and rest. There’s a general sense of what lies ahead from the village you’re in and there’s also a parikrama book. There are several people walking and the villagers are very welcoming. After a couple of hours of rest, one starts walking again till around 5 or 6 pm before finding a place to retire for the night.

For the first 4 days, we couldn’t walk more than 12–15 km a day and would stop by noon. But in some time, the bodies warmed up and now, we’re able to walk around 25–30 km a day. The longest walking day has been about 34km which happened to be through the forest of Lakkadkot (more on the forest later).

Day 2 was spent in company of a wonderful person named Lokesh who was the site engineer at an organic farm by the name of Vasudha Organics. We got a place to wash our clothes (we’re carrying just two pairs of clothes), bathe and make food that suits our palate (no chilly, less sugar). There are ways to modulate this but as Sarasvati says, “Let’s look at this also as an opportunity to look at ourselves. As Vipassana teaches, not to become a victim but observe whatever is happening.” We’re trying not to complaint about the chilly and white sugar but look at these few months as an experiment and test out our bodies.

The mind is an amazing thing. This is an excerpt from the diary-

“I’ve already had thoughts of stopping and finding/going to one place to meditate. But I know that’s just the mind wanting security. While in Vipassana, the mind wants the same- a quiet place with no schedule. When I have that (a quiet place with no schedule), the mind wants to work on something interesting. When the mind is given that, it wants to live free, do a wandering retreat. While on the wandering retreat (this parikrama), the mind wants to do something else! One can only smile.”

Day 3

The night was spent in a beautiful place called Dhaareshwar ashram in village Khegaanv. A kind hearted man named Badriji showed us the way and we also became the sounding board for his monologue.

Badriji’s home

On usual days, you might find a way to escape but such is the nature of the walk that you can’t resist anything. If someone is talking incessantly, if there is pin drop silence, if there is a blaring loudspeaker; you can only rest in that moment, however it is. One doesn’t have any control whatsoever on things external to you. No notes were made on this day. Maybe something I can add is that till this point, we had Kashyap who had a camera and some moments were getting captured. He was to step out of the parikrama in a day or two.

Day 4 (Khedi ghat a.k.a filthy ghat in my mind)

Straight from the diary-

I’m the kind of person who didn’t use someone else’s soap. Even of a known person. Today, I used a half broken soap from a filthy public toilet to take a bath.

We haven’t carried soap for bathing. The belief (or even common sense) goes that Narmada water (or any natural water body) is clean enough or pure enough to cleanse a human body. I get that in an age without chemicals. But is it still possible? How strong is our idea of hygiene? Do we really need all these face washes and shampoos and stuff?

I’d say- yes, it’s possible. The first three days- bathing on ghats, walking through beautiful villages, and relatively empty highways, I didn’t feel the need for any soap or shampoo (I’m almost bald at this point). But today has been a test.

After a beautiful 16km walk, we landed at a rather dirty and slightly depressing village called Khedighat. Dirty mainly because of the filth and stench on the river banks- Poverty stricken, strewn with garbage and plastic, sanitary waste and what not. How much more suffering is there to see? How much more pain is there to see? (all this suffering makes the longing for liberation immensely strong)

Sarasvati has had blisters on her feet since she’s the only one who has walked all barefeet till now.

There is a caretaker couple at the temple we’re staying at. Both of them used to work in the private sector earlier. The lady tells us- ‘Tyaagna achcha hai par is zamaane mein, phone toh rakhna chaiye.’ (Sacrificing comforts is good for the spiritual journey but you should keep a phone in this age).

I miss my Bluetooth speakers in the evening some but the absence has made me realize the power and beauty of chanting.

After note-

Another important point of this day was the departure of Kashyap. A wonderful companion in the first three days, Kashyap hadn’t walked such distances in chappals before and that was taking a toll on his foot. He also had to get back to his work in Bombay. The two situations resulted in his taking a lift and we decided to meet in Khedighat. But since we didn’t have phones and as fate would have it, we couldn’t meet in Khedighat and he had to move on straight from there. ‘No goodbyes’ in the true sense. We got to know about him the next day when we borrowed a phone and called him (we have a diary with some numbers written for emergencies)

fond memories with Kashyap

Day 5–6 (Brigeshwari, Barwaha)

After resting at the Khedighat temple for about 24 hours (thankfully Sarasvati had some footwear now), we moved on hoping for a better river bank (the mind doesn’t stop expecting). We reached Brigeshwari temple in Barwaha which was again a little dampening to the spirit. The temple was super low on resources- no grain to cook and an uninterested priest. But his aid was a gem of a person (this person must have undergone some tragic accident since his face was distorted from some burn or an acid attack). In the mosquito laden temple with an immensely dirty bathroom, this person made us feel at home with his caring words. He also got a basket of neem leaves to burn which would keep the evening mosquitoes away (they anyways go away in the night).

Writing about the difficulties one faces or undertakes is making me feel like Heinrich Harrer- the explorer who went to Tibet and wrote ‘Seven Years in Tibet’. Glorifying the pains we undergo can be a huge ego boost!

This night also marks our first meeting with fellow yatris- 4 elderly men (three in white, one in orange) from Maharashtra who had started their parikrama from Omkareshwar on the South bank and were on the road for about two months. Very kind people- they offered us a juicy guava since we were to get a meal at a very late hour that day (served with love and a lot of spice. Such is the nature of the region).

Day 6 (Sulgaanv)

‘No pain, no gain’? Absolutely. This day brought out the beginning of a very pleasurable phase- a road through the forest and tribal areas. The purpose of the walk is not to chase one kind of an experience. Everything will be shown- keep moving.

Straight from the diary:

Before the yatra, we were very particular in terms of what and when we’d eat. My stomach (probably mind) is very comfortable with- jaggery (instead of white sugar), less dairy and pre sunset dinner. But all this is thrown out of the window during the parikrama. We’ve been bombarded with white sugar, milk tea and chilly spice! There are places we ask for a black tea (wherever there is space to ask) but in most cases all you can do is be grateful and accept. And see how it dissolves our concepts of good and bad.

The occasional offering of a fruit makes us beam and these are the juiciest fruits we’ve had. Offered food has its own merit. It is pure gift.

We were in Barwaha which is a largish town and amidst all the traffic, two fruit vendors had offered us a guava each and four bananas, our most cherished meal.

A couple of days ago in Khedighat we made acquaintance with Dadaji who was a donor at the temple. He was curious about Vipassana and Ramana Marshi’s teachings which we discussed. At the moment of parting, he gave us 100 rupees each as Dakshina and his own chappals since mine were broken! I don’t have words for such gestures of kindness and grace.

I’m in a rather positive mood today and maybe that is because of the inspirig forest walk. We came across a couple of Sufi baba kutiya’s. And kilometers of dense trees all around.

This also talks so much about the state of mind. Some filth and the mind starts making plans of an exit. A little bit of beauty and now it wants to do this for eternity.

Maybe the learning is to realize that these are both representations of the same reality. Can we just be in the present? Be and smile. As the Dalai Lama teaches, love and compassion.

(In this moment, the kind-hearted pujari at the ram mandir in Sulgaanv where we’ve been offered lunch is singing a beautiful devotional song to an old blind lady who has come to the temple to pray but doesn’t have any money to offer)

Day 7 (Ratanpur)

Longest walking day till now. 27km.

Witnesses a lot of suffering again, pain and tears.

As we were moving towards the end of a beautiful forested stretch, a little pup hardly a few days old was purring in pain; and probably breathing its last. His or her mother was about half a km away in a destitute state.

We waited for a while and tried to feed biscuits and water. It mustered some energy but moths had already infested the pup’s body. We waited a while more to see if there’s anything else we could do. We left some more biscuits and water in its reach. I wonder what happened to it? Prayers.

Another frustrating highlight of these days has depth and stronghold of cast system in rural India. The first question one is asked is what caste does one belong to? No one in the city asks this and we’ve slowly formulated an answer here to weaken the stronghold- ‘We’re on the parikrama as a saadhu and have left such differences behind.”

The loud blaring aartis, strict rituals, a lack of a questioning mind- all this frustrates me but it brings me back to the same conclusion. Liberation. Be it the cast system in a village or a gated community in a posh city- the situation is the same. Suffering is inevitable. Buddha had nailed it 2500 years ago!

Day 8 (Lakkadkot jungle, the best walk by far)

If I were to suggest one stretch we walked till now (in terms of natural beauty), it’d be this. I know the parikrama is not about the scenic beauty but well, what to do. I just love forests and the adivasi way of life.

This day hadn’t started on a very bright note though. The temple we were staying at didn’t have a bathroom and I had to take a dump in a landfill (couldn’t find anything else in the 4.30am pre dawn darkness. It’s unfortunate to see that millions in rural India have to defecate like this. I am not against open defecation but it works only in an adivasi lifestyle where you’re not organizing your surroundings. We probably need neo-adivasi lifestlye). The shower was under a tap on the streets.

The day swung upwards after 3km when we came to Bavdi kheda, a tribal village where we met a seemingly genuine baba who has done 3 parikramas (the first one being in 2004) and is currently in the village for a year to meditate and get a small hut built for parikramavasis.

This was just the outskirts of the most pristine forest I’ve come across. And this walk also turned out to be a demonstration of collective energy as we walked 34km on this day. The forest is known to have wild animals like leopards as well but I’ve a feeling there would mostly be bears and foxes. The entire stretch used to be about 35km but now there is a beautiful ashram temple built at a 14 km point (Jayanti Mata temple. The name somehow translates in meaning to a place where one day is equal to one lifetime). We were asked to stop here and then carry forth for the next 21km on the next day.

But an interesting thing had happened. One of the babas in the group of four we met earlier had built an attachment to us (especially because Sarasvati reminded him of his daughter). They were with us when we started the jungle stretch. Apart from them, there were four more people from Maharashtra (a family, two of whom had done the parikrama earlier) and a solo guy from Nagpur who had retired from the air force and was now soul searching on the parikrama. This made it 11 people in all at Jayanti Mata at 10am. Another piece of information we had was the jungle shouldn’t be crossed early in the morning since the animals are on the prowl.

We had thought of staying at the temple since it was in such beautiful wilderness but the four babas and the family wanted to go through in single stretch since we were there at an appropriate time and could make it through in daylight. And one of the babas insisted we come along. Something in him would be very uncomfortable if didn’t come along and hence, we agreed. The solo guy would stay back but the ten of us moved on and decided to reach Pama Khedi, the village on the other end.

We walked swiftly, not stopping much and within two hours, we had covered half the distance! There is a Hanuman temple at this point with a pristine fresh water pool for drinking. We walked leisurely for the next few hours and made it to Pama Khedi by 5 in the evening. The solo guy had also eventually decided to walk and we met him at the fag end of the day.

a photo with the Jalana family clicked by a very kind woman in village Tipras

Day 9 (at home in change, Dharmeshwar ashram)

Straight from the diary:

Urges rise. Like this urge to write. Like tides in the ocean.

You act on some. On some, you don’t. The divine guides.

Same day, a little later:

We’re now in Fategadh. Rather, what used to be Fathegadh. Some 10 years ago, the head of the Punasa Dam was increased (or the dam was made) and this village submerged. There were some 150 houses, only three remain. The pujaris daughter who spent her childhood in Indore narrates the story of what used to be a bustling village is now a broken ghat and a temple on an island where they are the caretakers.

The families were given some money but it wasn’t enough to build a life somewhere else. Some people moved to become construction workers but this family decided to stay on. Earlier, they were cut off from everything for four months of monsoon, now a couple of small bridges enable them some connectivity. But there is no electricity, they have drawn some wires from kilometers away which gives them a few hours of supply every alternate day. But the young lady is happy. She feels that if the phone went away somehow, life would be even better. She has three siblings- a brother who studies in Banaras and two sisters who work at home. They seem to make a jolly band.

But the dam situation is hard to ignore and the phenomenon is interesting. It has submerged villages, destroyed some of the local ecology but has also brought about new villages. If one takes the instance of the Narmada Parikrama, the pilgrims would earlier go to some village but bow their route has changed and they go through new villages. New regions have river water now, the river has changed shape. It is so hard to say what is good and what is not!

I eventually come to love and compassion. People are the same everywhere. Ones whose villages have submerged, ones whose villages haven’t. Some of us are drunk in money; some in alcohol; some in other forms of intoxication. But all of our possibility is the same, that of the the supreme being. We’re all just projections of the supreme. May we all attain our highest possibility.

Day 10 (Mirzapur, Narmada Ashram)

Meditation in motion.

In village Tipras, we met a very kind and gentle woman who offered us Tulsi tea in the morning. She was fresh from a ten day Vipassana camp in Bhopal. The Maharastrian family happened to be with us during this break and this got Appa Sahib, the head of the family interested in our vipassana conversation as well. In parallel, I had been ruminating over meditation in physical stillness and meditation in physical motion.

It’s beautiful how both teach the same thing- Change. Constant change. Impermanence.

In Vipassana (or any other meditation technique), you try to observe the nature of reality happening within/on the surface of your body. And when in parikrama, you observe that constant change, in the outer world. We’re in a new context every day, every hour, every minute, every instant! The meaning of Parikrama Vasi is also that- the one who resides in change. How beautiful is that!

Thinking out more, Satyam Acharya had given us a beautiful analogy w.r.t meditation.

Consider only water fasting. And imagine a small pond with water and fishes at the bottom. Now while, fasting, you’re removing the water slowly to reach the fishes. These fishes are your vasanas/obstacles/impurities. Once the water is removed, these impurities in the mind arise and we get a chance to work on them. The depth of the pond would be different for different people (deeper the pond, more the time one would require to reach the depths).

In silent meditation, one lets the pond overflow and in the process some fishes/impurities are thrown out. And then we get a chance to work on them.

I don’t have enough experience to claim what works better but I’m guessing different things would work at different times. Now I wanted to try and take this to walking meditation in some way.

The medium we’re working with his physical change/change of context. The body tiring out can be equivalent to fasting where you’re removing water to let the fishes rise. Or maybe the change of context ruffles the water in the pond so much that impurities stand out distinctly and you get a chance to work on them/observe them.

The purpose of observing these fishes/impurities is to overcome defilements and perhaps move closer towards liberation which they tell me is similar to the instant when one sneezes. One is completely liberated in that moment. And as Jayanti Mata says, one instant equals one life time! Smile and keep moving.

Day 11 (Bajwada)

We’re now at a known place having covered 200km in 10 days. We pause for three days, reflect, speak to our dear ones and prepare for the journey ahead…

Narmade Har!

(this post was published from a halt in Gwari ghat, Jabalpur)

the one who walks

4 thoughts on “Walking the Narmada Parikrama

  1. Sir , did you manage to complete the parikrama considering there was complete lockdown announced mid way in March 2020. I am planning to start this journey this month. Can you share more details of the journey pls.

  2. Just started to read about the Narmada Parikarma.Evoked extreme curiosity but great fear as well involving the walking distance and perceived hardship. Hopefully reading like your blog will prove remedial.I am 81 and a NRI. I managed Mount Kailash Parikrama but Narmada one sounds even tougher. I would like to hear from others who have done it. [email protected]

Leave a Reply