Sanctuary Asia Magazine, April 2000

editor: Bittu Sahgal

NARMADA: India's Soul in Danger

by Rainer Hoerig

Omkareshwar, a sleepy town less than a hundred kilometers southeast of Indore, is one of the famous pilgrim sites along the river Narmada. Like a natural citadell the temple-crowned island rises more than 30 meters amidst tranquil waters. Ancient ruins and massive gateways suggest that it must have been a bustling town in the past.

Sitting at the bathing spots in view of the towering cliffs I befriend Sunderlal Kevat, a local boatman who takes me on a tour around the island in his shaky dug-out canoe. As the day heats up I request Sunderlal to stop for a bath. I ignore his danger warnings and dive into the bluegreen waters in excitement. But coming up to the surface I realise someone else swimming right in front of me. Two gulpy eyes target me from a few meters away sending shock waves down my spine. Don't panick, an inner voice shouts at me, any rapid movement may encourage the croc' to sink its murderous teeth into your flesh. Gently but firmly I head back to the safety of the shore, arms and legs wobbling like rubber. Finally I realise the full meaning of Sunderlal's warning!

Later on Sunderlal demonstrates how local fishermen drive away the huge beasts. He beats the water surface with cupped hands creating a sound heard far and wide. "Some thirty years ago, when I was a boy, there used to be lots of wildlife here," narrates the boatman puffing on his beedi (Indian cigarillo). "From my village I spotted wild boar and deer. Even tigers used to approach the river to drink. But nowadays so many people come to cut timber that the animals get frightened."

For about 100 km upstream the river traverses one of the largest remaining forests of central India. Here in the vicinity of the Punasa Gorge wildlifers have observed tigers, leopards, bears, wolves, anteating pangolins, flying squirrels, hyeanas, black buck antilopes, several kind of deer, monitor lizards and mugger crocodiles besides eagles, hornbills, jungle fowl and many more. Clearly this stretch of the river serves as a refuge to rare and endangered species. But, as a broad line of whitewashed stones stretching across the riverbed into the forest a few kilometers upstream of Omkareshwar indicates, they live under Damocles' sword.

Wandering in these forests rejuvenates my senses. Sunlight breaks through the canopy of Teak, Mahua and other mighty trees. The dusty road reveales pugmarks of deer and wild bore, occasionally traces of a big cat. Calls of monkeys, cookoos and mynahs fill the air. The smell of the earth is intoxicating and refreshing. Perhaps Sher Khan is watching me from his hide-out in the underwood? This is the land which made the Indian term "jungle" familiar all over the world. Captain J. Forsyth narrated his explorations in the Narmada valley more than a hundred years ago. Rudyard Kipling came to the Mahadeo Hills to write his famous Junglebook. To me it appears as one of the great treasures that this great country is left with. These vast forests give birth to a network of big and small streams that nurture the mighty Narmada. But just 2,5 percent of the Narmada's catchment is protected by the National Parks of Kanha (924sqkm), Panchmarhi (461 sqkm), Satpura (524 sqkm) and the Bori Sanctuary (485 sqkm).

"Narmadey Har!" Five lean figures repeatedely bow their heads to the ground in front of a black stone statue, wrapped in red silk and put up under a white-tiled canopy resembling a Hindu temple. "Now offer the flowers you have brought, one by one," commands a half-clad priest sitting nearby. He starts singing a hymn appeasing the goddess, the five pilgrims repeating the refrain. "We hail from Sopari in Narsinghpur District," says Balwan Singh who owns a small farm there. More than a year ago they had started for the circumbulation of the Narmada river, in the footsteps of scores of pious Hindus who have performed the holy "Parikrama" since time immemorial. "I left home after four of my children died in quick succession," explains Balwan Singh. "I wanted to overcome the shock by worshipping goddess Narmada so that my two remaining kids would survive!"

Imagine to walk barefoot for 2600 km with just a blanket and a begging bowl in your hand. You would surrender your frail existence to the river and its people. Everyday you shall offer prayers to the river by floating tiny oil lamps on the water. Never turn back, always keep the river to your right, that is the custom! You would probably pass through the whole journey of your life again. Unexpectedly you may discover a whole new world around or find answers to long-pending questions. "I have experienced so much joy, so much tranquility," narrates Balwan Singh. "Goddess Narmada takes care of all my needs, sometimes she even speaks to me. Everywhere we go, people offer us water, food and a place to rest."

Balwan drags out a small wooden picture frame from his bundle. A lady in a red silk saree, riding on a crocodile through turbulent waters, is spreading her arms to deliver blessings and wealth. Green hills in the background are dotted with shiny white temples. An ample description of the Narmada river and its soul. The old seers wisely imagined her riding a crocodile. These fierce reptiles act as a kind of river police, eat up carcasses and large predatory fish. Crocodiles are for the rivers what tigers are for the woods - indicators of a healthy ecosystem. But in the not too distant future, goddess Narmada may be deprived of her trusted helpers.

I have always been fascinated by the idea of worshipping rivers as gods and goddesses. Rivers are key witnesses and fecilitators of man's evolution. From the stone age onwards men have set up their dwellings near flowing waters. The first cities as well as the first industries were built on the banks of famous rivers. Unfortunately modern city-dwellers like us have forgotten about the importance of water since we simply turn on the tap to quench our thirst.

All along her 1312 km long course, the Narmada is decorated with thousands of Hindu-temples. To villagers and townfolk she is like a mother: "Narmada Mai". They arrange festivals in her honour like the spectacular "Narmada Jayanti", when thousands of oil lamps are floated at night from the sprawling bathing steps of Hoshangabad. Narmada literally means "the giver of joy". According to ancient Hindu scripts, the Puranas, the river was born out of a drop of Lord Shiva's sweat while he was dancing on the hills. She is been portrayed as a strongwilled virgin who with quicksilver-like movements escapes all advances of heavenly princes. That's why she is also called "Rewa", the leaping one.

Amarkantak, 1057 meter above sea level in the Maikala range of eastern central India. In an elonged valley on a plateau the waters of numerous springs collect to form a tiny rivulet. It flows into an ancient pond surrounded by a dozen shiny white temples. Scores of pilgrims come here every year to perform bathing rituals in the river's virgin waters. In the main temple they offer prayers to a colourfully decorated black basalt-stone statue of Narmada Mai.

From here the young river meanders westward through colourful meadows endowed with lofty sal forest. After a few kilometers it plunges over a 24 m high cliff at the Kapildhara falls, down into a narrow gorge that is overgrown with thick jungle and strewn with cyclopic boulders. I take rest there on a rock and observe the games dragonflies play across the clear water. Their violet and purple bodies glisten in strokes of sunlight that break through the forest's canopy. I listen to the river, its roar and its murmur, how it gurgles and splashes. I try to count jumping drops and imagine the long journey ahead of them. It may take a few months until they finally join the ocean. This exciting drama has begun millions of years ago and it will continue for millions of years. I can sense the odem of eternity.

The Narmada is the only major stream in India that flows in an east-west direction, in a rift valley formed 400 million years ago by movements in the earth's crust. Tectonic activity is still on as earthquakes at Jabalpur (1997) and Khandwa (1998) painfully demonstrated. The socalled Narmada-Tapti-Son-lineament, an east-west depression in the Deccan peninsula channels the monsun winds from the Bay of Bengal to the heart of India. Heavy showers cause huge flash floods for which the Narmada is notorious.

Within her 99.000 wide basin between the Vindhya mountains in the north and the Maikala, Mahadeo and Satpura ranges towards the south the Narmada has formed an exciting variety of landscapes. In a continous process of erosion, grinding of rocks and sedimentation the river transports huge amounts of boulders, sand and clay from the hills to the sea. Cutting through hard rock it has formed gorges like the famous marble rocks near Jabalpur and the Punasa gorge with waterfalls at Punghat and Dardi. The broad alluvial plains created by millions of years of sedimentation are said to be amongst the most fertile soils in India. The vast sheet of water in its funnel-shaped estuary provides breeding grounds for riverine as well as marine fish - a cradle of life! "Narmada's sediments are a documentation of the evolution of life in India," explains palaeonthologist Dr. G.L. Badam at the Deccan College in Pune. "By analysing fossil remains of gaur, buffalo and some deer we could establish proof of their evolutionary origin on Indian soil!" According to Dr. Badam the valley at one time was home to hippos and 22 different species of elephants. His collegue Arun Sonakia unearthed a 150 to 200.000 year-old human skull from the river sediments at Hathnora near Hoshangabad, the earliest remains of man in India. Ancient cultures have survived till today in the Narmada valley.

Cymbals and drums echo through the crystal-clear night calling young and old to a hillock near Domkhedi village. Up there hundreds of dancers whip up the dust. The girls' sarees glow in the soft moonlight. Young men arrive like big cats on the prowl, clad only in loincloths, their dark skin decorated with a pattern of white circles. As the day dawns a huge pile of firewood is lighted. The leopard dancers put on huge hats made from peacock feathers and tie brass bells to their wrists and ankles. Beating drums they draw circles around the fire and slowly fall into a trance.

With the spring festival of Holi the new year dawns in Domkhedi. Yesteryear's sorrows go up in smoke with the huge bonfire. Here, where the Satpura and Vindhya mountains close up to squeeze river Narmada into its last gorge, life has hardly changed since thousands of years. Domkhedis inhabitants belong to the 8-million-strong people of the Bhil, descendants of western India's indigenous people who still maintain a close relationship with the land on which they survive. They cultivate maize, millet (jowar), lentils (tur) and vegetables on their hilly, rainfed fields. Women collect leaves, fruits and roots from the forest to supplement their diet or to make good for crop-failure. In times of distress they offer prayers and coconuts to mother Narmada. "We are Adivasi. We are born for a life in the jungle," explains Pervi Bhilala who together with her three brothers owns 15 acres of land in Jalsindhi village on the opposite bank of the river. "This land means everything to us, it nourishes us and our animals. We just work for four months in the fields to gain enough food for the whole year."

Domkhedi and Jalsindhi gained nation-wide prominence during the 1999 monsun. Because of the upcoming Sardar Sarovar dam in neighbouring Gujarat Narmada's floods were enhanced and water crawled up the hills into both the villages. But the proud Bhils refused to vacate their houses even if they would drown. Fortunately Narmada Mai stopped rising when the waters had reached their neck.

Standing on the 85 meter high crest of the Sardar Sarovar dam I am shaken by contradictory emotions. The huge mass of concrete poured right into the river's way, the gigantic canal heading off from here upto 500 km, the mighty machines and transmission lines certainly represent a technological achievement. But at what price does it come? The mighty river is raped, its holy waters pressed through pipes and turbines with all living creatures in it crushed. Will Narmada Mai tolerate such blasphemy? Is India really prepared to sacrifice its natural wealth, its history, its people and its soul? One thing I know for sure: The struggle over this river will continue for many years to come.

BOX: The Price to Pay! Impacts of the Narmada Dams

In the 1960's, when trust in technology was still intact plans were put up to construct 30 huge dams and thousands of small weirs across the Narmada river and its tributaries. Bargi and Tawa dam have been completed, half a dozen more are currently under construction. Half of the river is going to be turned into still waters. A continuous series of lakes created by the Sardar Sarovar, the Maheshwar, Omkareshwar and Narmada Sagar dams would stretch from Rajpipla eastwards upto near Hoshangabad. The ecology of the whole region would be thrown out of balance:

- More than 50.000 hectares of forest and an equal amount of farmland is planned to be drowned.

- The transport of stones, sand and nutrients will be seriously impeded affecting agriculture and fisheries.

- Wandering fish, crocodiles and turtles will be decimated.

- Wild animals will either drown or be driven out of their forest home. Many of them will be killed by farmers defending themselves and their crops.

- Many an archaeological site will be lost forever, especially around Maheshwar and west of Hoshangabad.

- Around half a million farmers, boatmen and Adivasi will be uprooted and left to an uncertain future. Inefficient rehabilitation schemes cannot compensate them for the loss of their familiar environment, of the warmth of their neighbourhood, of divine protection by ancestors and local gods.

- Thousands of fishermen downstream of the dams, even in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Cambay will be put out of work by the inevitable decline in fish.

- The age-old tradition of the Parikrama will come to an end, since the path on the riverbanks along with temples and dharamsalas (lodges) will be buried under water. The village folk who by custom serve the pilgrims will be dispersed far and wide, away from the waters.

- The huge reservoirs will provide a fertile environment for vectors of infectious deseases like malaria, bilharciosis and diarrhorea. Its massive weight may induce earthquakes in the tectonically active region.

Alternatives to big dams have been developed all over India. Anna Hazare and Rajendra Singh have transformed arid, thirsting villages in Maharashtra and Rajasthan with small watershed-based irrigation schemes and afforestation under active participation of the people.

BOX: Cocodiles in peril

Scientific evidence suggests that crocodiles have lived in the Narmada's waters since at least 2 Million years. But neither the forest department nor the reputed Bombay Natural History Society can say how many crocodiles have survived in the river today. Romulus Whitaker of the Madras Crocodile Bank estimates the number of muggers (crocodylus palustris) to range from one to two hundred. A small population of saltwater crocodiles (crocodylus porosus) would live in the Narmada's estuary near Baruch.

Crocodiles feed on carcasses and predatory fish thereby cleaning the river and helping fishermen to catch more of the smaller fish. They prefer to live around shallow pools of water in which they trap and kill their prey. In February and March female muggers lay upto 50 eggs into a hole dug out with their hind-legs in sand or mudbanks. Resting in shallow waters nearby, the crocodile guards her nest against mungoose, dogs and other predators. After two months the crocodile babies hatch, assisted by their mother.

There are just about 10,000 muggers left in the wild in India. Their survival is threatened by rampant pollution of rivers, by poachers as well as by the construction of huge dams. "Dams hamper the movement of crocodiles along the course of the river," says Romulus Whithker. "Since most of the shallow pools get flooded they find it difficult to prey for fish in reservoirs. When its water is let off during the summer season crocodile's nests become isolated and the females can neither protect them nor help the babies to hatch. Wherever we have done surveys of crocodiles in dam reservoirs we saw big crocodiles, no small ones which means their recruitment rate is next to nothing!"



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© COPYRIGHT Rainer Hörig 2004