In her long journey from Amarkantak in Madhya Pradesh to the Gulf of Cambay, the Narmada traverses 1,312 kilometres dotted with temples. Like the Ganga, this ancient river has thousands of devotees, many of them from far-off lands. They are the ‘gora babas’ or white sadhus who lead the ascetic life — of meditation, a frugal diet and the occasional chillum. None of them came to India to become ascetics. So what happened? A shrug, a smile and two words explain it all: “My guru.” Many of them have applied for Indian citizenship. As their applications remain caught in red tape, they wait — for that piece of paper. And for salvation.
Narmada Shankar, 44
Originally from Austria
Clad in an ochre loincloth, his matted hair coiled high, Narmada Shankar greets us with an Om Namoh Shivai. He lives in a one-room dwelling, surrounded by the many fruit-bearing trees he has planted. His chelas or disciples run errands for him and help cook his meals. Exactly what he did some 20 years ago for his guru, Brahmachari Raghunathji Maharaj.
Stockl Erwin was training to be a priest in Austria when he set out on a journey to find an answer to the eternal mystery — death. Travelling across Greece, he changed course and landed up in Omkareshwar, where he met his guru. His parents tried to take him back to Austria but failed. And made their peace with him when, on a trip to India, his father found Narmada Shankar giving first aid to poor villagers at the ashram. “My father was so happy. He said, ‘Eighteen years ago, I told your mother our son was a loser, I can now tell her he is a hero’.”
In 1993, Narmada Shankar undertook the Narmada Parikrama, circumnavigating the river on foot without once crossing it. “It
took me three years. I would start at sunrise and stop at sunset, carrying my
meagre belongings on my head and eating whatever I was given in ashrams and homes on the way,” he recalls. His one wish is “to die on the banks of the Narmada”.
Omkarpuri Baba, 52
Originally from France
At the Juna Akhada in Omkareshwar, sitting in vajrasana pose, Omkarpuri Baba recalls how he came to India 22 years ago, went to the Kumbh Mela in January 1989, met his guru, Srimahant Kalyanpuri Baba, and stayed on to be his disciple for life. “So much love. Guruji ne bahut prem diya — apne bachhe jaisa (he gave me as much love as he would his own child),” he says, taking a drag of the chillum. Like the other disciples, he swept and cooked for his guru until his death. “Aur namoh narayan bas (And prayer; that’s all),” he adds.
He refuses to tell us his real name, but does say he worked in the Navy and was an only child. “Forget about the foreigners who have made this land their home. Write about the way this land is going to be destroyed in the next two decades,” he instructs me, pointing to the overflowing gutter snaking its way into the river and a heap of discarded plastic and other waste.
Pujari Ram Das, 53
Originally from Italy
Ram Das, born Oscar Spill in the harbour city of Ancona in Italy, came to India in 1975 as part of a team to research India’s holy men. The team split over whether to go north or south. Spill decided to go his own way, found his guru, Raghuvir Dasji, on the banks of the Narmada and stayed with him for 20 years. “After he passed away I roamed the country till I reached Janki ghat in Varanasi and learnt the puja rituals from priest Ram Palak Das. I then served as the pujari in a temple in Ayodhya before the trustees of the Hanuman temple asked me to come to Indore,” he says.
Pujari Ram Das wakes up at 3.30 am and meditates for an hour before cleaning the temple, bathing and dressing the deity, and preparing the prasad for the gods. Does he occasionally offer a prasad of pasta? The lines around his eyes deepen as he laughs, “No, only Indian fare.”