When the river came alive.
“Become one with the boat.”
My arms struggle to find a rhythm as the kayak pushes into the open waters of the Bhima River. I’m told just two things: align your knuckles with the paddle’s edge, and don’t make sudden movements or the boat will topple.
The vast expanse and depth of the river didn’t scare me, but I didn’t want to fall into water that looked flush with chemical waste and sewage. I gripped the paddle hard and focused on the hollow of the boat I sat in. The kayak didn’t topple that day, the first of the Jal Dindi, and I reached land elated and a shade darker from the scorching sun.
Aerial view of the Bhima River. Image source: YouTube.com
The Jal Dindi, an annual water pilgrimage down the Indrayani and Bhima rivers in Maharashtra, began in 2002, by gynecologist Dr Vishwas Yevale. The Dindi was started for river awareness, health, and spirituality. The path begins from Alandi, a pilgrimage town that is the resting place of 13th century Bhakti poet, Saint Dnyaneshwar, to Pandharpur, another pilgrimage town and the main centre of worship for the god Vitthal. The stretch of almost 450 km is generally covered in 12 days, in motorised boats and kayaks. This was its 16th year.
I joined the Dindi with the goal of learning about the river by becoming one with it. All I had to do was keep my phone and camera off, and absorb. On most days the sun was draining, but the water was cool and inviting. It heaved gently, a dark navy blue or green, with velvety ripples on the surface.
Once, while the motorboat was idling by a bund, I put my head down on the edge of the boat and let my fingers trail in the water. There was no sound, except the indistinct chatter of the occupants of the boat, when suddenly I felt the river breathe. Two tiny waves came towards the boat, and with them came the spirit of the river. He told me he was there: silent, strong, and steadfast. In the brief moment, the river engulfed me in its presence, and I stopped desperately hunting for purpose. I found peace.
Becoming one with the river
There was no easy way of learning to move ahead on the river: I would have to row even if I felt like my shoulders were going to pop. I would have to let my mind drive my muscles. It was only on day three that I finally fell into a rhythm. I rowed for almost three hours, with little breaks on the banks of the river or on small islands.
My temporary rowing coach, Suhas, paired with Dr Vishwas’ encouragement, relieved the strain. Shashikala aunty, a 60-year-old enthusiastic participant, was thrilled by the whole exercise. “We just need to go for it without any fear, don’t we? Things work out then,” she remarked.
When I swam, the river played along with me. I bounced around and let him cool me. When I sat on the bank, he sat with me. The river changed physically, too, and I couldn’t fix a gender for it. The colour of the water went from brown to blue to green. It changed from deeply dirty to tolerably clean.
The banks were sometimes rocky and sandy, and other times lush with crops. Ibises, different kinds of herons, terns, and ducks relaxed on her edges and islands, multi-hued dragonflies skimmed the surface, and fish plopped in and out of the water. One thing was common: all the animals seemed to want to get away from us quickly.
The gates of the bund. Image source: Facebook/jal.dindi
Going down the river is never an easy feat during Jal Dindi. The water is full of big and small bunds. For the lucky men, the gates of the bunds opened and the water flowed so that the boat could pass through. There were just one or two such fortunate passages. For the rest of the sojourn, the boats had to be hauled out of the water, onto the bund, and lowered on the other side. Each time the motor had to be detached and moved over separately.
We crossed at least three such bunds every day. The kayak could be moved by two people, but the boat needed 6-10, people depending on the height of the bund.
Still, the men didn’t tire for a moment. They pulled and pushed and lowered and hauled with alacrity each and every time, without displaying any fatigue. Then, in the evenings, they joined in the singing and dancing with just as much enthusiasm.
Bhimashankar temple on the banks of the Bhima. Image source: sandrp.in
I slowly learned that it was the draw of Pandharpur and its Lord Vitthal that drove them on without much difficulty. I was fascinated by this magnetic pull of faith that ended fatigue and powered bodies.
“He drives us, he’s our source of energy,” they told me, referencing their Lord Vitthal. Was I missing out on powerful energy by being atheist?
The women, however, six of us, stood aside and watched the mens’ straining muscles. I could see in each man a strong sense of instinct throughout the entire Jal Dindi journey. They didn’t have to be told what to do, they just did it. Sixteen years of hard travel had fine-tuned their rhythm: they were independent but cohesive. Each man may have come with a different purpose and ability, but they flowed together. I still felt like a guest, bouncing on the edges to jump in.
Lord Vitthal drives them. Image source: Facebook/jal.dindi
Fortunately, there were other moments to participate. Every evening the 22 school boys and their teacher, among the 70 participants known as Jal Warkaris, led the Hari Paath in the temple we were staying in. This chanting, singing, dancing, and general merriment of religion in practice rubbed off on me. I lost my skepticism and joined in enthusiastically. In the three hour line in Pandharpur to see the deities inside the temple, the women in line behind us sang so beautifully that I wanted to learn a bhajan.
Devotees at Pandharpur, an important pilgrimage centre. Image source: pandharpurdham.com
Throughout the journey, Dr Yevale peppered our conversations with questions I had no inkling of, the most difficult being: Will we see a clean river in our lifetime? He spoke passionately about how scientists needed to challenge the changes the river was facing, rather than chasing temporary solutions to the pollution. He constantly prodded my mind. Just before leaving he had warned me of the fatigue the Dindi would bring. “But you will see that there is more beyond that fatigue, when you let your mind work over your body. And then you will experience the most peaceful sleep ever.”
River Bhima, a tributary of the River Krishna. Image source: Wikipedia.com
I did, even after I came back home. During the Dindi I used to be up until 12 or 1 AM and fall asleep satisfied, tired from rowing or swimming or dancing. I would then wake up at 4 AM with the loudspeakers blaring the morning rituals, fully rested.
Dr Vishwas, along with the other people in the Dindi, showed me my limits and encouraged me to push past them. I found a calming energy.
When Dr Vishwas told me, “You are going there to have a conversation with the river,” I was perplexed. But the river and I had communicated, in a language I did not know I knew. Now, every time I pass over the bridge of the Mutha River, a tributary of the Bhima, I feel like I’m passing by a friend’s home. Really, it has been much more than I bargained for.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Shatakshi Gawade
Cover photo credit: sakaltimes.com