Cultural Geographies of River Narmada at Mandla

Guest blog by Architect Sneha Khulge.

“My mornings would begin by taking a quick dip in the River Narmada.
After school, my friend Rajkumari and I would race to Narmada’s edge and swim across the river.
She lived in a palace across the Narmada and we would spend our afternoons playing there.
I would go back to Narmada in the evenings with my mother to offer prayers and perform aartis.”

My grandmother’s stories of her early years in Mandla, introduced me to and made me curious about the city of Mandla. These stories fascinated me, for her childhood was very different from mine. I revisited these stories which I had heard in my childhood, during the time of selecting a research topic for my undergraduate thesis. Having spent an entire afternoon panning over its satellite image, Mandla convinced me that it had a substantial scope for me to explore and initiate a research for the next one year. A tribal history, a riverfront, the fort ruins, the religious institutions and a race towards urbanising hinted towards diverse and conflicting urbanities. With a preliminary research about the city and its history, I arrived with a set of pre-conceived notions. However, Mandla nurtured a far more complex riverfront than I had expected and it was only through subsequent visits that I started realising the layered intangible nuances that build the socio-cultural complexities of the riverine landscapes. I repeatedly walked along the riverfront during different times of the day, to better understand its shifting riverscape.

Mandla is a district headquarters and a ghat-city, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, looped by River Narmada on three sides. Right from the point where you enter the city, the presence of the river is felt almost everywhere, not just physically, but in the customs and the rituals, in the daily activities and the everyday conversations, in the museums and the libraries. The river is looked at, by its inhabitants, as an omnipresent entity which is driving the way of life in the city. 

A view of the rocky profile at Sahastradhara

At Sahastradhara, which translates to “a thousand streams”, located on the northern outskirts of the city, the river splits into a number of courses, meandering its way through the mighty rocks along the riverbed. During the monsoons, her violent currents completely erase the existence of these very intimidating rocks. The flowing waters and the enduring rocks strike a dynamic dialogue, in space and in time.

The city today is a collection of about twenty four ghats, built during different eras. The nature of activities and the character of the ghats is influenced by the communities engulfing them.

Rapta ghat, the west end of the city is the point of convergence. The city walks down here for sunsets and evening prayers. An old age home, a museum, temples and administrative offices, spill out into the series of steps interconnected by a continuous stretch of platforms and pavilions. While the rest of the ghats in the city serve as a critical community space, Rapta ghat assumes the scale of a public waterfront.

Rapta ghat forms one of the edges of the administrative precinct of the city. Tree-lined roads, the district court complex and the government offices, the grandness and the upkeep of the ghats as compared to the ones in the rest of the city, all attest to the city’s colonial history. Jail ghat, near the district jail complex, is a monumental flight of steps, flanked by educational institutes, administrative offices and a regulated public garden while the Collectorate ghat in the precinct is a ghat privately accessing the riverfront within the Collector’s residential complex.

Bania ghat with segregated bathing sections for men and women.
The eastern edge of the riverfront, away from the core city.

As I walked along the riverfront, the ghats offered insights into the way of life of the riverine communities. A covered section of steps and platform on Nana ghat, serves as a space for changing clothes for women. A small shrine splits Bania ghat into two, separating the bathing section for men and women. However this is a luxury in the riverine city that not all the communities enjoy. As you walk further north east along the riverfront, away from the city core, the ghats become rather more modest and crude. As per Census 2001, forty five percent of the city did not have toilets in their households. The city continues to depend primarily on the river for sanitation even today.

At Raj ghat, the southern tip of the city, at the confluence of the rivers Narmada and Banjar, are the ruins of the fort, Garha Mandla. Out of the fourteen bastions that once marked the territory of the fortress, only three continue to survive today. The fort built during the fourteenth century, secured itself with the river on three sides. Two estuaries were constructed to protect its northern edge, each connecting to the river on the east-west axis. The inner one, demarcated the ruling class, while the outer one marked the boundary of the commons. Today the city has grown further north and the estuaries have been reduced down to open drains with sewage disposed into them that eventually flows into the river.

The evening sky casted an eerie vibe over the fort precinct. It radiated a sense of being abandoned. All objects belonged to a past, that have witnessed both glorious and gloomy years. Assuming the precinct to be full of energy, I had decided to spend the evening here. However, Raj ghat was nothing close to what I had imagined it to be.

The ruin landscape within the fort precinct at the southern tip of the city.

It was only the next morning, when I came back to the fort, that I witnessed the community life. Men and women engrossed in fish drying, cooking and segregation within the labyrinth of the mud houses and on the vast open ground, boatmen and fishermen preparing their boats and nets along the river bank, the hustle around the hand pump, the pandas chanting the morning prayers, ice-cream carts ferrying around and kids playing across the roads, completely took over this ruin landscape. 

Raj ghat, the tip of the precinct, is quite resilient to the flows of waters, unaltered by any pressures of urbanisation. It serves as an open ground during summers, accommodates the flooding river during monsoons and is an urban farm during winters.

Chauraman ghat; a critical platform for the Dheemar community, who are actively involved in fishing activities.

The nature of the ghats drastically shifted as I walked along its eastern edge. The reliance of the communities on the river for livelihoods became even more prominent. Rangrej ghat had been one of the focal points of the protests of Harijan Andolan, pre-independence, where Mahatma Gandhi addressed a huge crowd as part of the movement against the discrimination of untouchables. The city has its own contribution to the freedom struggle and towards Adivasi development and has witnessed events of protests and demonstrations. 

Rangrej ghat was known as a platform for saree dying. With advent of industries and mass production, this occupation is now extinct here. Rangrej ghat now serves primarily for bathing and worshipping. However, from this point I could sense the commotion of Chauraman ghat, a few metres away. The mornings of Chauraman ghat are bustling with fishing activities and daily chores. The ghat supports livelihoods of the densely inhabited Dheemar community around it. Since involved in occupations such as ferrying, fishing and farming which are governed by the seasons and the tides, the community struggles to enjoy a stable living.

Rangrej ghat, one of the old settlements along the riverfront.
Community around Raj ghat, another old settlement along the riverfront.

As I was walking towards Hanuman ghat, the east end before the city disintegrates into the farmlands, I was joined by a few women who were returning for lunch from the farms, where they worked as labourers. They gave me a quick tour through their neighbourhood and their homes. The houses are made of thick mud walls with niches that serve as storage spaces, covered with sloping roofs over them as a response to the harsh weathers and heavy rainfall. Most of the mud houses across the old settlements of the city followed a linear layout, maximising cross ventilation, with a number of tweaks to suit their personal needs such as a shed outside their house for the cattle, shared courtyards, hand pumps, shaded verandahs and smaller extensions outside the house.

Mandla and its riverscape has evolved over various eras, to give it the identity that it holds today. The dependency of the settlements on the river is quite intricate and complex. Communities have evolved, survived over the years and the river has been a perpetual spectator to the changing times. Settlements rooted themselves into these river banks, water being the significant community resource. Forts, temple complexes, pilgrim sites, spaces of worship, ghats and palaces form an integral part of the riverscape,  and unfold the story of the city. With every layer that annexed the existing fabric, the riverscape negotiated spaces to accommodate and adapt to the influences. The activities, rituals, customs and traditions revolving around the river are often camouflaged under the guise of the sacredness of the river. However, they are highly governed by the social, political and economic factors. Through history, rivers being an important resource have always faced issues of social access and discrimination, protests, boundary disputes, conflicts over development and community displacement. River becomes a central space for segregation, congregation, celebration, demonstration, subsistence, recreation and relaxation.

Southern tip of Mandla where the river makes a u-turn.

Sneha Khulge is an architect based out of Mumbai. The article takes root from her undergraduate thesis titled “River and the Community”, which studies the intricacies and interdependencies between a river and the communities inhabiting it and further proposes a community centric public realm for Mandla. Her thesis has been recognised on various platforms at national and international levels.

Sneha’s thesis can be accessed by clicking here: River and the Community

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