THE DAY IS FEBRUARY 1, 2020. There is massive excitement in the air. Congregations of devotees are on the banks of River Narmada in the town of Maheshwar, in the Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh, chanting ‘Jai Narmade’ (salutations to River Narmada). Some are immersing saris, coconuts, rice, and turmeric in the water, and then removing them. Boats are ferrying families that have promised 1,300 metres of fabric (the breadth of the river, between two shores) as a ‘thank you’ to the holy river for prayers answered.
This extensive fabric (polyester, sadly) will later be cut into five-metre pieces and distributed to the needy as saris. We’ve serendipitously landed up in Maheshwar on River Narmada’s ‘birthday’. This fabric immersion ritual is especially meaningful in a city that earns its primary income from its handloom trade. The celebrations run all day long; in the evening, they culminate in singing, dancing, and lighting of diyas at the ghats. The village across the river plays Ma Rewa by Indian Ocean. The popular Indian folk band wrote this song 20 years ago on River Narmada.
Through the afternoon, a group of women in orange polyester saris clean up the little mess made by the devotees. There is no plastic! This is thanks in part to these women, who refer to themselves as ‘sisters’ or ‘keepers’ of the Narmada. All the efforts by the government, the attention from the Narmada Bachao Andolan (a social movement running since 1985 to save the river), and the locals’ reverence have paid off. Among the five biggest holy rivers in India, Narmada is considered by some to be the holiest. Local legend goes that when Ganga feels unclean, she comes and cleans herself in the form of a black cow in Narmada.
If you’re a true seeker, the folklore around its inception is the most interesting titbit: Narmada came into being when Lord Shiva, deep in his meditative trance, dropped a bead of sweat. It is said that wherever the river flows, mahalingams of Lord Shiva will form, so the ghats are filled with small and big Shiva temples, some of them constructed by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar—a big devotee herself—and well over 300 years old.
Even though Maheshwar is often described as the Benares of Central India given its similarities—the ghats, temples, and its famous Maheshwari saris—it is much calmer, cleaner, and more distinctive. While Varanasi finds itself perched prominently on the top of pilgrim itineraries, Maheshwar so far has been considered a ‘passing-through’ town. But this reputation is quickly changing due to growing awareness of Maheshwar’s hotel experiences and its textile traditions.
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