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Journey along the Narmada River
May 13, 2000

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The goddess Narmada will be left here, submerged by her own waters!
I don't know how Bhagavan navigated that rocky, pitted road down from the hills to the Narmada River. Medha, Pravin and I, his grateful but shaken passengers, were relieved to see the small village of Hapeshwar, which marked the end of our ride. The orange flags told me that this village has a temple. It is one of the many temples along the Narmada River dedicated to the goddess Narmada. This river, like the Ganges, is very holy to Hindus. "They are building another temple up in the hills, because this one will be submerged by the Sardar Sarovar Dam," Pravin, an activist with the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) explained to me. "The problem is that no one is willing to move the idols. According to their tradition, anyone who moves the gods will lose all of their descendents, and their family line will be finished."

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Pravin stands next to a clay pot of water from the sacred Narmada River
The temple priest, with his long dark beard, gentle smile and piercing eyes, chatted with Medha, while Bhagavan, Pravin and I entered the temple. This is the first Hindu temple I've ever visited, so I followed Pravin closely and quietly. We slipped off our sandals and entered through the large doors and into the quiet courtyard. Inside the door sat a small, dark man with an orange cloth around his waist. "Many Hindu pilgrims come through here," Pravin whispered to me. "The Narmada River is mentioned in the Puranas (ancient Hindu texts) as a holy river. It is also known as "the Mother" and "the Nourisher." The river starts up in Amarkantak, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, and flows 1300 kilometers to the Arabian Sea. It is considered very holy to walk from the source of the river all the way to the sea, stopping at each temple along the way."

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Bhagavan and Pravin outside the chambers of the goddess Narmada
We walked up the steps to a platform leading to the central shrine. Bhagavan lifted the lid off of a large, black clay pot, dipped in a metal cup, and drank with reverence the cool water of the Narmada River. Pravin and I did the same. (OK! I know that it is dangerous for me, since I'm not from here, to drink the river water in India, but I did it, and I far! Don't tell my Mom - she would have a heartattack!) Bhagavan is a Hindu farmer who lives farther up the Narmada River. He has volunteered his time to the NBA since they told him of the government's plans to inundate his home and crops in the reservoir behind the Maheshwar Dam. To him, the Narmada River truly is the Nourisher, as it provides his crops with water. He respectfully walked toward the main shrine, past the large stone cow and the small stone water turtle, to the goddess Narmada herself. Rising from a lotus flower, on the back of an alligator, the image of the goddess peacefully gazed at us from inside her colorful chamber. Gifts of coins, flowers, and fruits were laid at her feet. After Bhagavan had paid his reverence, we each ate a bit of coconut that had been left (they told me that's what I'm supposed to do, so I figure the goddess Narmada didn't mind), and then left the temple to continue our journey.

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The villagers who remain in Hapeshwar use a hand pump to get water from the river
A few women were using a hand pump to get water from the river, but otherwise the village seemed very quiet. "Many people from here have already left for resettlement," Pravin told me. The monsoons will be coming in June or July, and people want to be out before the river rises behind the unfinished Sardar Sarovar Dam, 60 kilometers (37 miles) downstream. Last year, before the monsoons, the government allowed the dam to be raised 5 meters, despite a court ruling that put a hold on construction. This caused 33 MORE villages to be submerged. Last year, the monsoons were smaller than normal. This year...who knows? We carefully walked down to the river, where an orange motor boat was waiting. Fortunately, the spot where it was docked was very steep, because the lower and flatter areas are covered with silt. You see, the dam not only keeps the water from flowing downstream, but it also stops the dirt and anything else that is being washed down the river. In a free-flowing river, the silt leaves a rich, fertile layer of dirt along the banks of the river. When the monsoons are over and the water level goes down, people can farm on the shores, in what is known as "draw down agriculture."

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Pravin, Medha, and our boat driver carefully pick their way along the cracked, dried silt
But when the river is dammed up, the silt doesn't flow downstream. Instead it clogs up the river banks and low-lying areas with a layer of thick, wet mud that is a lot like quicksand. In some places the silt is 3 meters (10 feet) deep. It can trap cattle or humans. One girl has died in a nearby village by getting stuck in the silt. We motored upstream along the river, towards a village on the opposite shore. "We just bought this boat with money donated by Arundati Roy, from the proceeds of her book," Pravin explained. Arundati Roy is an Indian writer, and the book, The Greater Common Good, is about the Narmada River. It was what first made me want to visit here, and I recommend reading it.


monsoon - seasonal wind in the Indian Ocean, India and southern Asia, characterized by very heavy rainfall
shrine - a place dedicated to a saint or god where people go to pray
reverence - honor or respect
silt - mud or fine earth deposited from running or standing water
draw-down agriculture - seasonal agriculture that takes place on river banks when water levels recede
tributary - a stream that flows into a larger stream or other body of water
contemplation - concentration on spiritual things as a form of private devotion
absolve - to clear of guilt or blame; to pardon

"Before then, we would walk between villages and paddle across the river in the traditional small wooden canoes called dhungis. This trip takes about four hours by foot!" Along the shore, a group of men and women were standing on the rocks. I couldn't figure out what they were doing. "They are Adivasis, the native people of the Narmada, worshipping the river," Pravin explained. Wow! The Adivasi religions are different from Hindu, but they think this river is sacred, too! "Thanks, Arundati!" I thought as I carefully climbed out of the boat on the other side 10 minutes later. "Bleck!" was my next thought, as my foot sank a few inches into the mud. I tried to rinse the mud off in the river, but the closer I got to the water, the mushier the mud became and the deeper I sank. I tried several places, and then just gave up, accepting my filthy feet. NOW I understand the true meaning of the word 'silt'!

We walked along a valley with a small stream that is a tributary to the Narmada River. "During the monsoons, this all fills up and boats can go all the way up to the villages." I was told, as we picked our way along the dry earth, crisscrossed in every direction with deep cracks. I could look down cracks that are big enough for my foot to fall into, and see three feet below me. It was all silt, now dried out by the sun. I've never seen anything like it.

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Two young Adivasis on their way to the river, across the desolate layer of silt
We were headed to Dhomkhedi, a small Adivasi village that now gets submerged every year due to the dam. But my head was already swimming with so much information and so many ideas, and the heat of the midday sun was making me tired! When we got to the village and the meeting started (with representatives from four surrounding villages as well), I was lulled to sleep by the rhythm of the Adivasi language. How embarrassing! I slipped out of the hut and lay down under a tree -- sharing the shade with a goat, a buffalo, and a picture of the goddess Narmada - and stared out across the dry, yellow hills, wondering what will happen to this village.The Hindus believe that contemplation of the Narmada River can absolve people of their sins. Will that work for the men who are building these dams without consulting or informing the villages they will submerge? Will a reservoir have the same powers? Check out this week's Making a Difference for more information on how you can help.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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