EXCERT from THE PRINCE OF MAHESHWAR
The Narmada is a holy river, born from Lord Shiva’s sweat, one of the seven most sacred rivers of India. It flows wide and brown in an east to west slash right across the middle of the sub-continent, the official border between North India and South, a stream that begins in the Amarkantak plateau and doesn’t stop till it sweeps into the Arabian Sea, 1247 kilometres away. A man is purified by the mere sight of the Narmada; to bathe in the waters absolves him from all his sins – but if you’re really serious about the whole thing and want to go for broke; eternal salvation can be attained by doing a parikrama.
This is the only river in India where a parikrama or sacred circumambulation is performed. Pilgrims believe that by walking along the riverbank from mouth to source then back again on the opposite side, visiting each of the holy places en route, salvation will surely follow.
One would hope so – this little circuit is 2,500 kilometers long and takes more than three years to complete. That’s three years of walking; battling heat, battling cold, battling pain; three years of sleeping in temples or under trees, waking early in the morning, bathing at a different spot in the river every day, three years of prayers, special puja ceremonies to the gods, three years of solitude, lost in the world of a pilgrim, a ‘mahatma’ on the road.
Understandably, not everybody has the odd three years to chuck away in pursuit of eternal salvation so, in the short term, mini-parikramas occur. Some of them seem to have a spiritual sponsor, someone who has hijacked the event in the name of this or that brand of Shiva – so it was with this extraordinary event. Frankly, I never did understand what was happening. Whatever it was, it had all been going on for quite some time.
I had no idea what it all meant.
I tumbled into an orange Breughel, hovered lost in the middle of it all, eyes out on stalks, watching the carrot circus go by. Everybody was very excited, quite a few were very stoned, all of them wanted to talk to me. I was quite auspicious, I was a cosmic sign – so I shook a lot of pilgrim hands and smiled my cosmic smiles. I had no option. I was there.
This word kept coming up. I thought it was some kind of religious chant but actually, Omkareshwar is a town, about twenty five kilometres away on a bend in the holy river Narmada, another of the multiple stations of Lord Shiva’s Cross. Which explained the second word:
Everybody was busy.
Each pilgrim had to arrive and settle, undress, dispose of his clothes, go down to the Narmada and bathe, wash several times very thoroughly and pray, dry off and pray some more, change from wet underpants to fresh ones then carefully don his new orange outfit, just bought from a pilgrim shop up the road. His old clothes were packed in a bag, collected and carried away in a mysterious but completely practical truck.
Each carried a bright yellow pole. Each pole must be studiously wrapped by his owner in what appeared to be Christmas decorations; that excellent gold spiky tat that Hindus love, yards of red string and tinsel. Each pilgrim must then go down to the edge of the ghat and slowly fill two orange plastic pots with holy Narmada water. There’s a bit of whispered prayer, then two orange lids are put on two orange pots and both are tied up in a square of orange material. String is tied around the material and each pilgrim hangs one orange bundle at either end of his decorated pole. Once complete the pole, with its identifying tinsel and number, is placed on a rack in the middle of the square.
Eventually, over the course of about three hours all one thousand poles are laid out, all one thousand men are dressed in orange; all two thousand plastic pots of holy Narmada water are dangled from their poles and about as many chillums were passed from hand to hand. There was just one last thing.
One thousand men, about to set off on a long march, need a piss first. On a shout the crowd dispersed. In every direction orange men widdled akimbo, turned with their backs to the ghat, hovered in the time-old position, squatted, some hid behind a tree – but more just let rip where they stood. That attended to, the ranks swiftly re-formed and the countdown began.
The Preacher’s skin was almost completely white, blotched with viteligo. I suppose he was Indian, but he sure didn’t look like it – this guy looked exactly like an old American hippie to me; long hair, wild beard, crazy, scheming eyes. He saw me in the crowd – but there was malevolence in his eyes. I kept thinking of Marlon Brando in ‘Apocalypse Now’.
‘Piss off!’ he was saying with that poisonous glance, ‘this is my patch. Go away!’
He sat on a truck with a band and a squawking microphone. His long red robe, his beads, white skin and fierce concentration marked him in the crowd. I was as marked a man in my own way too, the only other white man in Maheshwar – and I had a camera, which seemed to make me nearly as popular as he was. I decided I wouldn’t piss off, seeing as he and his band had kept me awake all night. His sadhu ju-ju didn’t get to me. I didn’t get the feeling it was a private occasion.
Swami Marlon picked up the chant. His nasty little eyes flickered around the crowd. He was quite a showman. The toad priest smiled with all the sincerity of Liberace and launched into the show.
‘Narmadey Ha-a-ar!’ they roared. Two thousand orange arms waved in the air.
‘Narmadey Ha-a-ar!’ Once again the arms went up.
I was in the middle of it, in the drum, the bang and shout of it, surrounded by noise and wide-eyed orange pilgrims, all having the time of their life. In front of the assembled crowd Swami Marlon waved wildly, conducting the throng. He stood with his microphone, arms swaying wide, his robes swinging wild and free. The rhythm built up, the drums bashed out, his cries grew louder and louder. Orange men danced crazily, elbows held high, wrists bent back, swooping and swirling and crying out, ablaze with the whole damn thrill of it all. Then, on the Swami’s dramatic signal, one thousand orange lungs burst forth with one great orange shout:
Those one thousand men – and three brave women – had become one. They turned and flooded to the water’s edge. Something sacred and smoking was paraded through the mass, a few more priests appeared amidst a lot of shouting; everybody crowded by the Narmada for more blessings then, on some invisible signal, they all hurtled back up the steps to where they’d come from, a swarm of milling orange bees – shouting, waving, singing, chanting, shoving – it was a controlled bedlam. Suddenly a mass lunge and group kafuffle as one thousand poles were grabbed, swung in the air and placed on one thousand shoulders.
‘Narmadey Ha-a-a-r!’ Swami Marlon shouted.
‘Narmadey Ha-a-a-r!’ they all replied.
‘Narmadey Ha-a-a-r!’ he shrieked again.
The excitement was building. He babbled something in Hindi then, with one wide diva gesture, hurled his final blessing to the wind.
‘Narmadey! Narmadey! Narmadey! Ha-a-a-r!’
Then, from the crowd, in a volcano of excitement, one massive shout.
With all the cavalier idiocy of young men off to war, the great flood began. A liquid orange snake erupted out of the square and spilled up the road into town, a joyous beginning to their very own Kokoda Trail of faith. A large grey ambulance staffed with serious looking doctors followed slowly up the hill.
Oblivious to all but the marathon in front of them, lost in the slog, the sweat and the prayers, every year pilgrims are mown down by feral trucks, passing buses and the like – it was a statistical probability that some of the men I saw marching up the hill would die by nightfall.
But then again, so might I.