Sunday 6 April 2014

Enchanting Madhya Pradesh - Tempestuous Narmada

After spending a memorable day in Kanha (Enchanting Madhya Pradesh - On the Forest Trail) we left the resort after lunch. It was a leisurely 4 hrs drive to Jabalpur via the state highway that took us through the NH12A. The roads here are single carriageway, but with sparse traffic and excellent road conditions, we were cruising along, crossing the Narmada and past the Bargi dam. I was happy to sleep through most of the part. Santosh was excited to be getting closer to home and this was reflecting in his driving. He was more talkative than ever however that did not affect my slumber.

We were booked in at the Shagun resort at Bhedaghat, which is about 20kms from Jabalpur. Tripadvisor had made our preference as the River View which, as the name suggests, supposedly has a view of the Narmada from all its rooms. However, since it did not have any availability, Vinod ji had suggested Shagun with its cottage style accommodation (Enchanting Madhya Pradesh - The planning).

Shagun indeed had quaint cottages in a quieter part of the town. Didn't yet know then that the famed Dhuandhar falls was only a few minutes walk from the resort. However, we were a bit disappointed with the quality of the rooms, especially since they came with a decent price tag. One of our cottages did not have running hot water while the other one though equipped, required the same manual labour. Moreover, being the holiday season, it had a high tourist influx and a reduced work force. The place was in jeopardy. After spending the whole of the evening waiting for our tea and snacks, my brother persuaded us to take a walk to the Dhuandhar falls. It was about 8pm and with the place having gone very quiet, I was apprehensive. The hotel manager assured us that it was completely safe and there wasn't any reason to fear for safety. So, leaving our parents in their rooms to rest we left for the falls.

It was a short walk, but it was extremely dark on the roads with very inadequate light being offered by the street lamps till they altogether ran out. The main traffic road was closed for repairs and we took the diversion through the bylanes lined with makeshift shops selling marble wares. At that late hour for a village life, the place was getting quieter. Most of the shops had closed down or were being cleaned up and rearranged for the next day. Much before we could have a glimpse of the mighty waterfalls, we could hear its thunder in the distance. The area by the falls had been modernised with viewing platforms and was lit up by fluorescent tube lamps. It was a place trying to invite tourists. Everything in the area was drenched in the spray. Apart from us, there were only a couple of people around. The roaring water was appearing from the pitch darkness and was falling in a 30 feet white cascade, reflecting the inadequate fluorescent lighting. Even in the dark, the mist could be seen rising from the gushing waters - the falls living up to its name. It did present an intriguing picture and I could not wait to see it in its full glory in daylight.

Despite wanting to have non-vegetarian food, none of us were much in the mood to travel the 5kms into town on a cold night, so we had our dinner at the resort itself. It did not turn out to be a very wise decision as we were not told earlier that the restaurant had been taken over by a political party for their conference. The alternative was to sit under the open sky in single digit temperature without a heating arrangement. We huddled in one of our rooms and finished a very long dinner, waiting for the food to arrive. Finally it was bedtime.

The Marble Rocks and the Dhuandhar

Shagun resort cottages in the early morning
Running hot water!

We ended up debating about when to see the Marble Rocks and the Dhuandhar falls. The reviews and tips over the internet had been varying and it appeared it would be best to see them once in the morning and then again in the evening, so as to experience them in their full glory. We were unable to reach a decision so finally, we decided to rely on local knowledge. The locals told that during this time of the year, the Marble Rocks are better seen between 9am to 11am and then again in the afternoon. The Dhuandhar is beautiful throughout the day, but the mid day sun creates a rainbow in the mist. Following the suggested timings sounded like a good idea and perfectly suited us.

It was a few minutes after 9am when we reached Bhedaghat - the start of the boat service to take us to the Marble Rocks. The place was less than a couple of kilometres from the resort, but just to save some time, we took an auto rikshaw. It was still early and the crowd was gradually building up. The first part of the boat ride was to bargain for the ride itself. We had been told by the locals that there is a designated route for the boats and if we wanted to go any further, that would be at an extra cost of about Rs 50 or so. We got a 20 seater boat for Rs 620, that was the rate displayed on the board, even though smaller boats were asking up to Rs 900 for the same trip. Our boatman even offered to take us the extra bit further up the stream as well - at the same price, though we had a hunch, that would not happen. So, with all six of us perched on the colourful boat, we started on our trip. We were accompanied by five boatmen - that is the regulation, they said -  for safety reasons. One of them was also our guide.
By the time Narmada has reached these parts of Jabalpur, it has gathered enough water from the streams it encountered through its journey and has a width of about 300 ft. It falls through the 30 ft of the Dhuandhar falls and then narrows down as it makes its way through the gorge carved out of limestone and basalt rocks. These are the famed Marble Rocks which run picturesquely for about a couple of miles. As the mighty 300 ft is squeezed into a width of only 60 ft at the narrowest stretch of the gorge, also the most spectacular called the 'Bandar kood' or Monkey Leap, the waters are extremely turbulent and dangerous. The marble here is soft and can be even broken by a little pressure of the fingers. The river has been cutting through these marble for centuries carving out this deep gorge for itself. It is hard to imagine that during the rainy season, the waterfalls and the deep gorge we would see, completely disappear under flood water. The tourist season closes and most of the people leave for the town for drier lands. The viewing platforms at the Dhuandhar are unassembled and taken away and put back when the flood recedes.

The boat journey started with rocks that didn't quiet look like marble but our guide was pointing out interesting shapes starting from elephant heads, elephant legs to overturned cars. His recited his stories in rhymes, drawing reference to current affairs and poking fun at bureaucracy. The place has been a popular site for Bollywood movies from their very early days and he had anecdotes to liven up the stories. As another boat appeared behind us, I could hear the same lines being repeated in the same pitch. Apparently someone at the ghat makes up these stories and the notes are then distributed to the boatmen.
As we moved on to the 'Bhulbhulaiya' or the Maze, named as such due to the arrangement of the rocks, the marble started to change their colour and texture. The pinks and blues were becoming more vivid and the surface smoother. The excitement of seeing something magnificent was taking over all of us and soon we had forgotten all warnings and were running from one end to the boat to the other, gaping at this spectacular creation of nature. Our boatmen were silently changing their positions, shifting the weight so as not to overturn. Only a couple of times as we were passing the narrowest and the most spectacular of the rocks that they had to request us to disperse. I will let the pictures talk, hope they can do justice to the beauty.
The route of the boat ride ends at the Monkey Leap where we have the option of getting off the boat on to the rocks for a while. However, we did not want to do that in order to avoid any risk of a kid slipping into the turbulent water. We wanted to go ahead further. Even though the price was apparently agreed at the start, we were told we would have to pay Rs 1000 to take us any further. Arguments were ensuing but a question on their integrity, since they had promised to take us ahead at the same price, got us the offer of paying whatever we felt like at the end of it. The water got more turbulent as we reached the other end of the narrow gorge, not too far from where we were. A smaller boat would have definitely found it difficult in those waters. Our boatmen skilfully manoeuvred the boat around and we had the most amazing view of the marble rocks stretching on both our sides. No wonder people do advise to go for these extra few feet.
The end of the route at Monkey Leap
We returned after about an hour and half, speechless from the experience. There were kids perched on top of the hills ready to jump into the deep waters for Rs20, waving at the tourists for a bit of extra entertainment.
We thanked our boatmen for a memorable trip and paid Rs 750, a bit higher than what the locals had suggested.
Local boys jumping in
We roamed a while around the shops selling marble ware and then we started to walk back towards the hotel and Dhuandhar. The Chausath Yogini or the temple of the Sixty Four Yoginis, is about a couple of hundred metres from the Bhedaghat. Legend has it that Lord Shiva rested here with his bull Nandi while on his way to marry Parvati. This temple also has a unique depiction of the Lord riding his bull and accompanied by his wife, not to be found elsewhere. The temple was built in the 10th century AD by the Kalachuri kings but was almost destroyed by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. The place had been in ruins but has been since restored. It now houses the sixty four yoginis encircling the courtyard with the temple in the middle. Situated on a hillock, a steep 108 steps take us to the temple.
After offering our prayers, we started back towards the resort. Our plan was to visit the Dhuandhar falls before lunch. Santosh came looking for us and gave us a very helpful lift.

Dhuandhar was a different place during the day. It was bustling with tourists and was very crowded. We decided not to join the crowd. Instead we went up another platform built at a distance that gave a panoramic view of the falls as well as a magnificent view of the narrow gorge. The rainbow on the mist had to be missed in favour of avoiding the crowd.
We refreshed ourselves with some delicious freshly pressed sugar cane juice before we returned to the resort for a late lunch.
We had planned to go back to the Bhedaghat for the evening Narmada aarti, however were given a wrong time, so by the time we reached, the ritual was already over. After some marble ware shopping, we walked back to the hotel - on a very quiet, dimly lit road. The auto-rikshaw service had ended much earlier and it was 9pm then. We walked past the River View. We had met a family earlier who were staying at the River View and on being asked how the place was, their response was 'Rubbish rooms, rubbish food, rubbish service, good view'. We were not missing out much, we guessed by that response.

The food service was much better tonight at Shagun and the vegetarian food was delicious. It was another cold night as we went to bed.  

Early morning at Dhuandhar 

Woke up at 5:30am to go back to the Dhuandhar falls for the sunrise. It was a refreshing sleep especially waking up to the chirping of the birds. The roar of the falls could be heard from our rooms in the quietness of the early morning. As we tried to leave the resort in the early hours, found the gate locked, so my father went in to ask for help and one of the staff on duty let us out. The hustle-bustle of the normal day was yet to start, the shops were closed and we had Dhuandhar to ourselves again, at least for a while.

As we were waiting for the sun, the staff at the hotel who had let us out joined us. He said he wanted to make sure we were all safe since it was so quiet around. He stayed with us the couple of hours we were at the falls.
Narmada is considered the most holy of all the rivers in India. Even a sight of the river is said to cleanse all sins, so no wonder the place was thronging with early bathers. Idols of deities were lined at every nook and corner with devotees offering their prayers with colourful vermilion.
The mist, or 'Dhuan' arising from the falls
The shops had started to open by the time we were returning, so had some freshly made tea before returning to the hotel.

Narmada - a view from the top

We were told that a path by the Narmada gave a very different perspective of the river, so after breakfast we decided to find it. The path started close to the Motel Marble Rock after we went through a village tucked in a nondescript corner of this major tourist destination. It was a concrete path through fields of wild basil. The path had collapsed at places due to the monsoon floods. At this time of the year, it was really difficult to imagine how destructive the river could be.
The way to the village
A local school boy of about 15 was going around the path playing with his puppy friends. His name was Raju. My asked asked if he would like to accompany us and show us around and he readily agreed. The view was spectacular from the viewpoints perched on the cliff edges. With a sheer drop on to the rocky cliffs and the deep gorge below, it was not a place for people with fear of heights.  I skipped the view of the Monkey Leap, as it required clambering over some rocks to the edge and had a kid tagging me. But there was enough to see even without that. The day trips had started from Bhedaghat and we could hear the guides belting out the same lines just as we had heard the day before.
My niece always complains why do the dogs come to me rather than to her. I soon became his favourite
Our  own Raju guide!
Shivlings are collected from here by the locals during Shiv Ratri. The concrete path destroyed by the flood
They kept us company
Bored of the view
We returned to the hotel for our lunch. We were leaving for the final destination of the trip - Amarkantak