Walking to River Betwa’s source – Moving Upstream

River Betwa & other rivers in the region. (Base layer: OpenStreetMap)

Over the past few years, as part of the Moving Upstream series of projects at Veditum, we have been diligently walking along rivers in India and documenting the socio-ecological situation that exists. These exercises aim to establish a publicly available baseline for a better understanding of our ecological condition, while allowing an intimate understanding of the grassroots and reality of our current times. As we repeat these exercises over time, we will hopefully start to understand & visualise change – both ecological and social. 

The Betwa was a natural succession from walking the Ken river – documenting the river ecosystem and life of riparian communities. The Moving Upstream fellowship in collaboration with the Out of Eden Walk is slowly taking on a form, and the current walk was part of the second fellowship offered under this program. 

Through December 2019, four of our fellows, in pairs of 2, walked about 400kms along River Betwa. Mohit Rao and Astha commenced walking from Orchha, where our first fellowship had paused. Kabini Amin and Ishan Gupta started walking from a village close to the confluence of rivers Bina and Betwa, then walked upstream along River Betwa till the source of the river, at a perennial spring in Jhirri Village.

These experiments are expected to produce multifold outputs, though never limited to just the physical observations, interviews and other documentation. We’re currently working with our fellows to consolidate and publish what they’ve found. In the mean while, however, sharing a few extracts from their reflections at the end of the walk.

Special thanks to FFEM – Foundation For Environmental Monitoring for support on this walk with their water testing kits.

Kabini, a communications designer with a focus on graphic design and image making, created some wonderful illustrations while on field. Here’s a peek into her notebook:

Field recordings: a lone blackbuck sighting.

Post the walk, she writes on ‘practice’:

“I’d been noticing how empty my brain felt, throughout. My travel sketchbooks are usually filled with insightful writing. Lots of Aha! moments. This one has felt devoid of it, it’s very unfamiliar, this. Whats becoming clear though, is how much this walk was rooted in ‘practice’. I’m usually the fly on the wall, noting observations in the sketchbook. This walk put me in the middle of the scene. It’s pulled together, from the years of ‘observing’, a surer sense of practice for me.”

Mohit has been a reporter for 8 years and is currently working as an independent journalist. He shared this image while on the walk:

“Two people from Gudholi village voluntarily and without me even asking walk around an hour through the forest to show me the shortest route to Ranchorji temple”

And then Mohit’s reflection by the end of the walk looks at the whole arc: 

“As I watched the last sunset over the Betwa during the course of the fellowship, I basked in the after glow of achievement. I had walked more than 200km. I had conquered to an extent the fear of walking alone, the fear of asking people for places to stay, even shed the inhibitions I had of not having access to clean toilets. For someone who spent most of their sleeping hours in a soft bed, I was surprised by the refreshing sleep I’d get sleeping on a hard floor after a day’s walk. 

I had to walk alone for the last five days, and I found it easier to explain this project as being a Parikrama for Betwa River. People understood it better than a project to document the socio-ecological landscape of the valley. At the start, it was a lie. Parikrama has a religious and devotional meaning, and being an Atheist, the Betwa evoked no such emotion. But somewhere along the way, it perhaps did start to resemble a religious zeal to complete the mission: walk from Orccha to the confluence of Betwa and Bina. This pushed me through the pain in one of my knees, through the slush and muck of the streams and Fields, and even saw my tired body manage a rapid pace on the final day so that I could cover the over 25km distance to get the confluence. 

Now, my body aches, but my mind brims as it tries to etch the scores of memories collected through the trip.”

Astha, who works on biodiversity and conservation with a primary focus on birds, writes in her end walk note:

“Apart from all discussions, sometimes I stood for moments and held in thought “how must this have looked in the past”. After walking 120 Km of Betwa I found myself with hundreds of people who walked , joined us on the way and left many stories unveiled. I can never forget the feeling of earthy aroma, green crops, wet mud , smell of the forest, voice of people, delicious food, shades of water and existence of river. I am not sure when I would come again, but the string of memories would be in mind and heart forever.”

A misty morning on the Betwa
A misty morning on the Betwa

Ishan has been involved in the WASH sector as a product designer working on low-cost and open-source water quality testing kits. Naturally he noticed a lot of things water. Here’s a quick snapshot of some field recordings:

In his post walk reflection, the idea of gratitude shines through, as it does in everyone’s notes, but he points out some important and generally unasked questions as well:

“I am grateful for every roof provided over my head, every puri, every blanket that ensured I was able to continue the walk. Every person I encountered along the way who was willing to extend a hand or a cup of chai, and especially the women who provided for me, sometimes behind the scenes, sometimes known only by their husband’s name without whose hospitality things would have been much more difficult or even impossible.

The walk raised many more questions about riparian life, natural resources, human-nature relationships and interactions, and social bonds (solidarity). I am looking forward to going home again, but I suspect things may not be the same ever again…”

Many forms of water. From the banks of the Betwa.

Walking for us, as a practice, is an attempt to introduce a fair amount of pause in an otherwise fast paced era. It allows for deep personal reflections as well as an intimate connection with the land and people. The effect that a simple act of walking can have on people is incredible, and coupled with the detail visible in documentation – we’re all prepared to roll out applications for our next fellowship.

We’re planning for more fellowships under the Moving Upstream banner, and actively looking for interesting collaborations. If you’re interested in collaborating or publishing some of our work, please reach out. Contact: [email protected].

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