A trek along the Narmada

Capt (retd) K.K. Venakatraman

Narmada is considered the holiest river in the India and a pilgrimage on foot performed around it, – ‘Narmada Parikrama’ or its circumambulation -, covering a distance of around 2400 kms, has been a centuries-old practice and is still done by hundreds of devout. But what has that to do with a teacher and why in a teachers’ magazine? So let me tell you about a trek along the river. I tell this story whenever teachers come to me depressed, feeling that the teacher’s life is one of the most ignored and lowly.

I was privileged (and blessed) to complete the Narmada Parikrama safely in a record time of 131 days, way back in 1988. A few details about this parikrama are worth noting. The pilgrimage is done by walking barefoot. The ‘Parikramavasi’, as the person is called, should not carry any money and survive only on bhiksha or alms; and whatever is given as alms should be received with utmost respect. Finally one should not utter harsh words to anyone during the entire pilgrimage, whatever be the treatment one would receive en-route! He or she also has to follow a few basic austerities like, vegetarian diet, not using soap or cosmetics for bath etc. Hence the Parikrama is a test of great endurance not only physically, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Having served in the Army, that too in the main fighting arm (Infantry), the physical endurance did not act as a deterrent as I thought of starting the parikrama, but it was difficult to overcome the fears of surviving on bhiksha and the hurt to one’s ego on such strange environments. And I was then the secretary of a group of reputed schools in the north-east!

Yet, I started on, choosing to do the trek alone, and accepting ready cooked food as alms, instead of cooking myself. Soon it became clear to me that though the people near the towns and villages near the Narmada route are generally pious and always considerate towards a pilgrim, there are occasions when the alms-seeker receives scant respect, courtesy and even attention. This was partly due to individual outlook of the alms-giver. But I realized that it was also because of the presence of a good number of ‘Pseudo sanyasis’ who went around as parikramis, living on people’s generosity, and who did not hesitate, if an opportunity came, to exploit the simple faith of the villagers! To top it all, the unimpressive dress and physical appearance of a parikrami, due to his strict life, also conceals his social background, giving him/her the look of a beggar or a poor illiterate villager. It was a truly a revelation to me, as I myself went through some such experiences of getting my ego crushed. It was only with great efforts that I could control the urge to retort to such insulting behaviour from some persons, esp near the towns. At most places en-route, there was hardly an opportunity to interact with the “educated elite”, the English speaking society or to reveal my professional background or social status. To the people on the trek-route, I was just one well-behaved and devout parikrami, and they left it at that. But the soldier in me kept on saying, “March on, regardless! Akela chalo.. re…!”

It was now the 81st day of my pilgrimage, the holy Makar Sankraanti, Jan 14, 1988. It is Pongal festival day for Tamilians. I was now on the North bank of Narmada, having covered more than half the distance and was now getting daily closer to my starting point, ie, the temple-town of Amarkantak, located between the Mahadeo Hills of Maikal Ranges in Shahdol District of Madhya Pradesh. Narmada originates from here. I was now at Akalwada, a small village in Tehsil Manawar, in the Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh, about 1310 kms from the sea.
As usual, I had stopped at noon to receive alms. It was then I happened to meet one Jayadev Singh Tomar, a teacher at the local govt middle school. Learning of my school connection, he casually asked me to pay a visit to his school, before I walked away from the village. I readily agreed and went with him to the school. It was an ordinary rural govt school, where I was introduced to the Head master. But to my great surprise, the HM, Sri Pratap Singh Tomar, was all courtesy and insisted that I must address the teachers and his students! He would just not accept my excuses that I have a long way to go..! Seeing the Headmaster’s earnestness, I then agreed and addressed the students for about 45 minutes in Hindi telling them about Arunachal, Brahmaputra and my schools. I also did not forget to talk about my Arunachali students, with whom our association was very close – and whose periodic letters to me enquiring about the progress of my Parikrama were a great morale booster in moments of loneliness!

As I ended my speech, the school children eagerly thronged around me, even though I must have looked a strange apparition in a dull dhoti, unkempt long hair and beard! They wanted me to tell them more things. The children had no uniforms and wore very ordinary dress, indicating their rural simplicity, but the warmth was really touching. I remember it still, even after 23 years! But, as I wanted to cover another 5 kms by sunset, I had to take leave of them. And the entire school, the Head master, the teachers and the children started walking with me, ignoring all my protests! They walked along the river bank for nearly a kilometer, till I persuaded them to return. Sri Pratap Singh was repeatedly saying my visit was an honour to them. He also wrote back to me when after getting back to Arunachal, I wrote letters of thanks to all persons whose hospitality I enjoyed during the parikrama.

This was a very memorable experience. Looking back, I realized the Head master was not only courteous to a stranger, but creative and imaginative in roping in a causal visitor to provide live valuable inputs to his students, in geography, history, culture, – all at no expense. Distinct impressions that they would carry for years. I am sure Sri Tomar must have been a model to many of his students and junior colleagues.

This incident also brought home to me the vital place of a teacher in a society and how an earnest teacher can spread joy all around him, even in the poorest of conditions. India can still boast of thousands of them, though little known outside their community; and therein lies the spiritual strength of the nation.

Capt. (retd.) KK. Venkatraman, former secretary of the VKV schools in Arunachal Pradesh, was instrumental in introducing many innovations in the all–round educational development of the first generation tribal students. He would be remembered for enabling 43 Arunachali girls to pursue Hr. Sec education, mainly in Science, in Chennai, at a time when the state did not have such facilities. He is currently a devotee at Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai.

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