At the ancient boundary of Aryavarta

5th century Sanskrit poetry already contained detailed descriptions of parts of India outside the Gangetic core of what then was called Aryavarta. Somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries, when the Adi Purana was written, the notion of Aryavarta had expanded southwards till the Narmada river. When my host in Indore proposed an early morning dash to Omkareshwar in the Narmada before the morning’s meeting, I was very happy. This temple town lies just across the southern border of the Aryavarta of the 8th century, and its most famous temple is in an island in the middle of the river. Near the middle of the featured photo you can see the northern branch of the river curve around the island. Beyond it you can make out a cluster of white buildings which is the town of Omkareshwar. Upstream of it, to the right of the photo you can see the barrage built in 2007.

The island was already a place for pilgrimage in the 8th century, when the philosopher-to-be, Shankaracharya, came here to meditate and learn from its scholars. The historical town was certainly here in the time of Ahilyabai Holkar, in the 18th century. It presents an interesting face to the visitor now. Seen from the island (photo above) windows appear high above massive walls. It took me a little while to recall that the level of the river would have been about thirty feet higher until the 20th century, so the windows might then have looked out on the water just below. The road that leads down to the boats must have been built much more recently.

Looking upstream you see the barrage immediately. Newly cut steps in the rock lead from the car park down to the river. Already this early in the morning people were going down for a dip in the water. You can see a small crowd at the water’s edge in the photo above. The level of water behind the barrage must have been about 30 meters higher than downstream.

The sacred island is called Mandhata. One can cross to it from the town using either of the two bridges, or by boat. From the car park it is easy to take the new suspension bridge. As we hurried across it, I paused to take a photo. The boats had already started ferrying people across the river. The morning light was nice and warm on the buildings. It was a comfortable temperature on the high bridge; most people around me had a light sweater on. I realized that there would not be much of a crowd in the temple. Our tight schedule had brought us here at a good time. Unfortunately, the same schedule would take us back much too quickly. I barely had time to see the temple, walking through the town was out of the question. I would have to make another trip in future.

Once there was a river

In the 9th century CE the Adi Shankaracharya crossed the Narmada river and met his guru. The foundations of modern Hindu philosophy can be traced back to that event. I decided to make a quick dash to this immensely historical place in early January, and drove across the Narmada. The experience is totally disjoint with the classic sanskrit poetry that one grew up with. As the car swept over the bridge, my mind played back the lines Maha gabhira niira puraa paapa dhutam bhootalam (Your deep waters which overflow the banks and wash away the sins of the earth). Those waters have been reduced to a thin stream.

Through the 1990s a protest movement against damming this river in the west was perpetually in the headlines. Now, crossing a bridge between Omkareshwar and Maheshwar, far to the east, I saw how limited was the scope of those unsuccessful protestors. Upstream barrages are much more destructive of ecology than dams downstream, since they affect longer stretches of the river. The Narmada is one of the main westward flowing rivers of India, but almost nothing about the barrage upstream of Omkareshwar, entered the public discourse.

I was not surprised when I read that this tells on the fish population in the river. The mahaseer and the hilsa which the Narmada was known for, even a generation ago, has been replaced by imported catfish and carp. The trickle of water below the imposing bridge is a reminder of the lost connection with history. Have people gained or lost? Talking to farmers around here, one has the feeling that the water diverted to irrigation has been a gain. But if you talk to fishermen, you hear a different story. If these problems were not complex, we would have solved them by now.

At the other end of the country

2012-05-12 19.44.43Yesterday as we ate mawa jalebis, we noticed that there was a rival shop just across the lane. The two shops facing each other had the same name, each claimed that it was the original and oldest, and that it had no branches anywhere. The Family and I laughed at this petty display of what was clearly a falling out of partners. That, inevitably, reminded us of a trip to Tripura several years ago, and of our best meal in Agartala.

To get to Tripura from Mumbai you have to cross two countries: most of India, and then Bangladesh. Tripura is surrounded on three sides by Bangladesh and connects to India only through a narrow neck in the east. We flew to Kolkata, and then over Bangladesh to Agartala. On the plane The Family found that we must eat in a restaurant called Adi Shankar. This was well-known in Agartala. We set out on foot from our hotel near the old palace, and eventually, after asking for directions a couple of times, landed up in front of four restaurants in a row, all called Adi Shankar.

I was flummoxed. The Family looked around and found a small shed with a tailor’s shop. She asked the tailor which of the Adi Shankars was the best. The old man replied that the four restaurants belong to four brothers, who quarreled about their roles in their father’s establishment after he died, and ended up dividing the restaurant. He told us that the best food was made by the eldest brother, and pointed out his shop. Since this was the only review we had, we took it at face value, and walked in.

2012-05-12 19.44.13We were early for dinner by Bengali standards, and the place was completely empty. The result was that we got the owner-cook’s undivided attention. Adi Shankar specialized in Ilish, a fish whose name can cause some Bengalis to launch into interminable reminiscences. (It is the national fish of Bangladesh, one of the triumvirate of countries with a national fish.) The tastiest of the fish is supposed to come from the Bangladeshi river called Padma. We were assured that the fish served in this restaurant comes every day from the very same Padma. We had Hilsa four ways: fried, as a starter, cooked in a thin curry, fried and then cooked into a curry, and, finally, cooked in a mustard paste.

What can one say about a meal after three years? Only that the memory still remains fresh in our minds. We must have eaten other things that evening, but we remember nothing else; the memory of the taste of that fish has overwhelmed everything. We took photos of the owners of the restaurant before we left. We went back for dinner once more, but that evening a large party had apparently finished all their Ilish, so we had to make do with other fish. I hope the family is still in business, and that their love of food remains fresh, because some day I want to go back there.