First published in The Sun-Herald, 2005

On the run from the glamour and excess of Goa, I arrive in the holy town of Omkareshwar at the heart of India, the ferocious heat of the plains like a wild dog at my back. There are 17 of us in one rickshaw, making our way down the rutted road at the epicentre of a mushroom cloud of red dust – a many-limbed demon, trailing sari silk and unravelling turbans in our wake.

Straddling an island in the Narmada River, shaped like the symbol for the sacred sound ‘Om’, Omkareshwar is an ancient power place. Home to one of India’s 12 jyotirlingams – phalluses that symbolise the destructive and regenerative power of the Hindu god Shiva, pilgrims have come here since the beginning of recorded time, to worship at the shrine and bathe in the river’s holy waters.

Today is the Narmada’s birthday and I dive into a seething mass of humanity, to emerge on the ghats at the edge of the water, where an elaborate puja prayer ritual is underway. I buy leaf bowls, incense and a fistful of marigolds and send my birthday blessings out onto the green skin of the Narmada, worshipped all along her length as the mother and giver of peace.

Bodies crowd at the water’s edge. White-wrapped pilgrims with limbs as hard and brown as sticks; laughing women, heavy with tribal silver; shivering boys who stand waist-deep in the cold water and usher the tiny boats out into the slow current, where they form shifting patterns of light – thousands of fragile hopes, dreams and blessings sent out, against all odds, into the gathering dark.

Later, hundreds of fires spring into life up and down the steep rocky cliffs on both sides of the river and fireworks rent the night. Moustachioed young men roam in packs, flashing their teeth at the pretty girls with their kohl-rimmed eyes and hair sleek with coconut oil and henna. The jabbering cry of goats rises above the drone of the puja and the air is heavy with incense and smoke and the smell of roasting chickpeas and vats of festive, fragrant pulao and bhelpoori.

When the town returns to midweek quiet, I find a room in an ashram on the island, 20 minutes walk from the riotous temple area, and slow to the rhythm of the place. Days begin before dawn, with devotional music at full volume from the rooftops, and by the time I have finished my yoga practise, the children from the ashram school arrive and, with great joyfulness and at full bellow, engage in their morning chants. They are followed by the fruit wallah, her slender frame swaying beneath 20 carefully-stacked kilograms of papaya, melons, grapes and bananas. The tabla student sends his lilting melodic rhythms drifting across the Narmada while I bathe in the now-familiar modesty of wrist-to-ankle salwar kameez, dropping into the cold current between the shelves of exposed rock, washing away my sins.

The Shri Omkar Mandhata temple is at the centre of a maze of rat-runs, flanked with stalls selling beads, bangles, begging bowls, brass tridents and all manner of holy trinkets and tat. Here, wide-eyed village pilgrims, laden with blankets and children, jostle with naked babas, and cows and scabby mongrels, and long columns of beggars display their sores and wasted limbs for coins or a handful of rice.

One day, I allow myself to be caught by the current of bodies and swept into the temple. A brahmin priest hauls me deftly aside as I enter the cave-like inner sanctum, and places my offerings of milk and flowers on the jyotirlingam, said to have emerged spontaneously from the earth after a struggle between the gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. It is a small black stone, hidden beneath a stream of running water and mountains of vegetation, which are being swept away to make room for more offerings.

I want to stand for a moment, to contemplate the sacred; to feel the energy born of centuries of devotion, but the crowd is at my back and I am dragged out by my attendant, who (in familiar form) asks as to my marital status and how many hundred rupees I will be donating (to which I smile enigmatically), before launching into a long incantation. I give him my change (about 30 rupees) and he plays perfect outrage, then acquiesces to bless me with a smear of tikka on the forehead. I am then ushered unceremoniously out, past several smaller shrines, all manned by brahmins who demand payment. ‘Money, money,’ screams one as I pass, thrusting his begging bowl at me.

I leave feeling betrayed by the circus of empty ritual. But the sacred is all around me, in the timeless flow of the river under moonlight, the ancient rounded hills, the first sounds of the bells at dawn. Lean, graceful langurs, all tails and silver fur, and their stockier cousins with scalded faces and bottoms, perform breathless highwire acts on the bridge that spans the steep divide, and bully bananas and popcorn from the pilgrims, who walk the clockwise parikrama path around the island, a four-hour journey. ‘Hari Om!’ we call to each other as we pass. ‘Hari Om! Hari Om!’ – both greeting and mantra.

On the plateau at the top of the island, I explore the ruins of an ancient temple, littered with toppled idols, which was sacked by an army of invading Muslims in medieval times. And at the island’s westernmost tip, known as the triveni sangam, where the forked Narmada meets the gushing Kaveri, I drink chai and watch the sunset bruise the sky and the river meander away between the brown hills.

The endless cycle of samsara (birth, death and re-birth) rolls on as it always has on these banks. Filthy children with matted hair scrabble in the dirt until they are old enough to hack firewood from the poor trees with a sharpened stone, or carry their siblings on a hip. Fishermen pole their wooden dugouts along the banks and cast their nets in the lee of the sangam. A woman and her daughters pick their way across the exposed stones of the riverbed in three shades of violet, the brass water vessels on their heads glinting in the westering light.

But life is changing here. All down her sinuous length the river is being sacked. More than 3000 dams are to be built on the Narmada and her tributaries, by 2025, as part of the much-maligned Narmada Valley Development Plan. Thirty of those dams are large in scale, such as the one being constructed at the eastern edge of Omkareshwar island. Every afternoon, the blasts ricochet up and down the gorge and the old earth shifts in protest under my feet.

Opponents of the dam project, spearheaded by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement), say up to two million people will be displaced. The Omkareshwar dam alone will flood up to 6000 hectares of pristine teak forest, which contains many rare species of birds and animals, and displace an estimated 50,000 small scale farmers and tribal peoples. In the face of growing opposition, the World Bank withdrew from the project in 1993 after whole villages refused to be moved, declaring they would rather be drowned than lose their homes and livelihoods. Despite government assurances over the safety of the dams, 100 pilgrims, camped on the banks of the river during a festival near the Indira Sagar dam earlier this year, were drowned, after a mass release of water, aimed at meeting peak electricity demand, swept them away in the dark.

And still they come, wave upon wave of pilgrims, sending their prayers of light out onto the darkness of the river – prayers for peace.