Jabalpur, the town on the Tropic of Cancer. The town that invented the game of Snooker (yes, you heard me right), the town that is gateway to the largest tiger reserve in the world (Kanha – with Bandhavgarh and Pench next door), Kipling’s very own Jungle Book country. The town that is home to the one and only, Marble Rocks –a Grand Canyon of sheer marble on both sides with the river Narmada flowing down its gorge….Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Acharya Rajneesh (Osho) and new age guru Deepak Chopra have all, at some point in their lives called Jabalpur, home. A town that loves to celebrate, lives to celebrate and celebrates life – joie de vivre in its very essence.
Settlements along river beds annually immerse themselves in time-honoured rituals called floods. At some symbolic level, the act of submergence subsumes the identity of these riverine towns in the larger persona of the rivers they bank. There are innumerable examples around the world of cities that bask in the reflected glory of the rivers that flow past them. Closer to home, cities like Varanasi, Allahabad, Hardwar etc come to mind. These are the Ganga kinare wala towns. Their socio-economic and cultural growth takes sustenance from the river. Their identity is derived from the reverence bestowed by the people and their place in history is entwined with the passage of ‘old man river’. But, as with all things else, there are exceptions. Every once in a rare while, a city deviates from its course and sets out to stamp its own identity. Jabalpur, along the banks of the holy Narmada, is one such place.
Affectionately referred to as Ma Narmadey by the locals, Narmada is one of the holiest rivers of India and in mythological folklore is said to have originated from the sweat of Shiva as he sat in intense meditation. In more temporal terms, its source is Amarkantak in the east of Madhya Pradesh. Jostling between the gentle slopes of the Vindhya and Satpura hills and propelled by their gradient, it gurgles on an energetic course through much of Madhya Pradesh on its journey westward. It traverses Gujarat at a more languid pace before flowing placidly past Vadodra and Bharuch into the Gulf of Cambay on the Arabian Sea. Dotted along its course are centres of spiritual significance for Hindus, like Jabalpur, Ujjain, Omkareshwar and Mandleshwar. Jabalpur’s name too has hoary origins and is derived from the legendary saint Jabali, who finds mention in the Ramayana. Jabali rishi had his ashram at Bhedaghat on the Narmada. Some even associate Bhrigu rishi’s tapasya at the same location.
But you wouldn’t know it, if you arrived at Jabalpur railway station, that you were in the presence of such divinity. Depending on which side of the rail platform you alight, you could be excused for completely missing the halo. If you exit from platform 1, you run into men of war! None of your ubiquitous ash smeared sadhus in saffron that populate pilgrim towns. This is the cantonment part of Jabalpur and pretty much defines its predominant characteristic. Jabalpur is the largest cantonment in the country and the ‘olive green’ is all-pervasive. The platforms at the opposite end lead you into the civilian part of town. Quite indistinguishable from the multitude of hot, bustling and overcrowded cities of north India, you might say. Perhaps. But you would be grossly perfunctory of approach if you failed to notice the difference. There is something about Jabalpur which in uniquely, well….. Jabalpur. That’s what its people have made it. As melting pots go, there are few that can rival its diversity.
Much of Jabalpur’s history has been determined by its geography. If you ever entertain the temerity of using the map of India for target practice, you would invariably hit bull’s eye if you hit Jabalpur. It’s dead centre. And that can be fairly significant in geopolitical terms. In common perception, the Vindhyas delineate the north-south divide in the Indian psyche – and Jabalpur sits on top of this heap. Early recorded history speaks of the rights of passage as ruling dispensations in the North embarked upon their southern conquests and powerful southern kingdoms returned the compliment. The Gondwana became a favourite watering hole enroute. From the Mauryas to the Satavahanas, back to the Guptas – the pendulum never stopped swinging. The Mughals, the Marathas continued this proud tradition of chasing their tails. Battered and bemused, the local Gond dynasties, the original sons of the soil, watched these comings and goings with some amusement and a degree of trepidation as well – much like the natives view visiting hoard of tourists. But not all were birds of passage and every advancing wave deposited a few settlers. Most likely, attracted by its salubrious clime and the bountifulness of Ma Narmadey. But what this did for the local DNA was an exercise in periodic rejuvenation of stock, a reaffirmation of its multi ethnic character, resulting in a gradual but definite metamorphosis of the Gondwana region.
And more was to come. With the arrival of the British on the scene, Jabalpur’s unique location assumed strategic significance. A foreign power intent on pan India domination, needed to keep its outposts logistically connected. Redeployment of forces and munitions from one end of the country to the other could result in fatal delays. For the first time in its history, the region changed from being a pass through for battling armies to a strategic hub feeding its spokes. This laid the seeds of the burgeoning cantonment that exists today. Being the nerve centre of its military effort, it needed to be populated by people who were more aligned to British interests. This resulted in the settling of the British and kindred communities like the Anglo Indians and a steadily increasing supply of Christian converts – courtesy the missionaries let loose on unsuspecting Adivasis (tribals). As the needs of the Empire grew, Christians from even distant Bihar, Goa and the far south made Jabalpur their home. In 1904, the Gun Carriage Factory and ordinance depots were set up to feed the war machine.
Archive photo carousel of Jabalpur during the British raj
Post 1857, Jabalpur had firmly established itself as a secure garrison town with its own courts and Central Prison to dispense summary justice, quell local ambitions and rebellions against the Queen. This was to leave an interesting and colourful impact on the town’s character in the years to come. As the British administrators went after the Thugee system in the Oudh and eastern provinces, the captured convicts were incarcerated in the large and well provided Central Prison in Jabalpur. Deprived of their main earning members, the families of these convicts followed their bread winners and settled down in small pockets around the prison. Over the years, a thriving community of Gorandias, Thugs and Pindaris made their presence felt and the town soon earned a reputation of being home to red necks of all shades. Being to the profession born, the descendants continued to exercise a healthy disrespect for the law and imparted an exciting, if dangerous, edge to city life.
The pot continued to melt. Post independence, a large number of displaced Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan found their way to Jabalpur. Quite likely, the Punjabis’ close association with the Army lent a certain degree of comfort and a number of new migrants became contractors and suppliers to the armed forces. The Sindhis, Multanis and Khatris happily took to mercantile activities and gave the local banias a good run for their money. Some made their mark in the timber trade which the richly forested region offered and further branched out into ancillary transportation business. This injected a strong Punjabi élan and verve to an otherwise staid population who, with much grace and piety, made space for these new migrants. Within the span of a few short years however, the penniless refugees soon became the more affluent sections of society rivalling the Gujarati Patels who had hit a gold mine in the Bidi trade (rolling tendu leaves and tobacco). So much for grace and piety.
Interestingly, the pot hasn’t stopped churning. With the reorganization of the States post independence, the large and sprawling Central Provinces and Berar was split up to form much of today’s Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Chattisgarh with some peripheral territories merging with Maharashtra, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh. Jabalpur had always been the centre piece of the erstwhile CP & Berar but lost out in the sweepstakes for being the capital of Madhya Pradesh. The Muslim dominated pocket of Bhopal, which had infamously resisted merger with the Republic of India, was a cause for concern for the fledgling country. The sectarian bias needed urgent fixing and Bhopal was designated as the capital. As compensation perhaps, Jabalpur retained the MP High Court, the State Electricity Board, the West Central Railway Headquarters and of course its prima donna status as the queen of cantonments and its ordinance factories. This has ensured a constant flow of people from all over the country moving in for business and employment. The very easy-going and accommodating attitude of the local people has made assimilation easy for new settlers.
So, a lot of water has flown down the Narmada since our story began. What we see today is an amazing kaleidoscope of people of varying ethnicity, origin, beliefs and religion living in complete harmony. Barring one incident of communal strife in 1961, the city has been entirely free of any sectarian dissonance. While Hinduism remains the dominant influence, other religions also weigh in with their considerable presence manifested in the numerous temples, churches, mosques and Gurudwaras adorning the landscape. But nothing defines Jabalpur more than its celebration of religion. It is to the eternal humility of the inhabitants of Jabalpur that they willingly concede that their Durga Puja celebrations are second only to those of Kolkata; Ganapati celebrations are second only to Mumbai; Janamashtmi second only to Mathura; Guruparb second only to Amritsar, Christmas second only to the Vatican and its Id celebrations rival those in the House of Saud. But their Holika dahan – that is special. The only one of its kind in the world – something quite uniquely… Jabalpur.
Come the festive seasons and it all hangs out there – in its most noisy, flamboyant, frenzied, rambunctious, colourful and completely over-the-top expressions. A clear winner in scale and size are the Durga puja celebrations with its pandals reportedly second only to Kolkata in number and grandeur. The whole town decides to get involved and for ten days it is celestial party time. The Ganesh utsav runs a very close second and the innumerable pandals are veritable tourist attractions in themselves. Completing the troika are the Holika pandals which are installed for seven days in the run up to Holi. I know of no other city which has statues of Holika and Prahlad installed in pandals like Durga and Ganapati! Holika is finally set alight with much gusto and fanfare at midnight, signalling the commencement of Holi. Not to be outdone, the Sikh processions celebrating Guru Gobind Singh rival in pomp and pageantry and are enthusiastically awaited every year. At a more sedate but equally impressive scale are the processions enacting the crucifixion of Christ and the remembrances on All Saints Day. Not to forget Christmas, but especially New Years’ eve which has a universal spirit enhancing appeal. As if taking a leaf from the Hindus’ book, the Muslims also install Tazias in pandal like structures which the faithful revere before taking them out in a grand procession during Muharram to the accompanying chants of ‘Ya Ali, Hai Hussain’. The uninhibited display of religious fervour and devotion on all these and innumerable other occasions is indeed quite in-character.
So that is Jabalpur, the town on the Tropic of Cancer. The town that invented the game of Snooker (yes, you heard me right), the town that is gateway to the largest tiger reserve in the world (Kanha – with Bandhavgarh and Pench next door), Kipling’s very own Jungle Book country. The town that is home to the one and only, Marble Rocks –a Grand Canyon of sheer marble on both sides with the river Narmada flowing down its gorge. In case you are still thumbing through your copy of the Ramayana to figure out who Jabali rishi was, let me give you reference points of more recent vintage. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Acharya Rajneesh (Osho) and new age guru Deepak Chopra have all, at some point in their lives called Jabalpur, home. A town that loves to celebrate, lives to celebrate and celebrates life – joie de vivre in its very essence. Though why it is called Sanskardhani, I do not know.
It probably has much to do with the omniscient, the omnipresent, Ma Narmadey. It is not an in-your-face kind of presence. It is not obtrusive. A stranger to the town would probably miss it altogether. But there is a quiet confidence among its people, born from a sense of inheritance. A humbling realisation that they are the custodians of a great and revered source of life. They learn respect. As you approach its numerous ghats, the draw is magnetic, almost hypnotic. The sight is riveting and profoundly calming. Words seem superfluous, sentences hang in mid-air, as speech gives way to thought. Thoughts become silence. You sit very quiet and listen. The river talks to you as it gently laps the banks, the wind calmly rustles through the tall grass and the temple bells in the distance chime tales of eternity. It is as if you have always been here and nothing ever changes. An enormous feeling of timelessness overwhelms and is deeply rejuvenating. It cannot but have an immense impact on the denizen of this quaintly vibrant town. And then they go dancing on the streets. The streets of their Sanskardhani.
Read also: The Living Ganga
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