Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.

Legend of the Nerbudda River.

The legend is that the Nerbudda, which flows west into the Gulf of Cambay, was wooed and won in the usual way by the Sōn river, which rises from the same tableland of Amarkantak, and flows east into the Ganges and Bay of Bengal.[1]


All the previous ceremonies having been performed, the Sōn [2] came with 'due pomp and circumstance' to fetch his bride in the procession called the 'Barāt', up to which time the bride and bridegroom are supposed never to have seen each other, unless perchance they have met in infancy. Her Majesty the Nerbudda became exceedingly impatient to know what sort of a personage her destinies were to be linked to, while his Majesty the Sōn advanced at a slow and stately pace.


At last the Queen sent Johilā, the daughter of the barber, to take a close view of him, and to return and make a faithful and particular report of his person. His Majesty was captivated with the little Johilā, the barber's daughter, at first sight; and she, 'nothing loath', yielded to his caresses.


Some say that she actually pretended to be Queen herself; and that his Majesty was no further in fault than in mistaking the humble handmaid for her noble mistress; but, be that as it may, her Majesty no sooner heard of the good understanding between them, than she rushed forward, and with one foot sent the Sōn rolling back to the east whence he came, and with the other kicked little Johilā sprawling after him; for, said the high priest, who told us the story, 'You see what a towering passion she was likely to have been in under such indignities from the furious manner in which she cuts her way through the marble rocks beneath us, and casts huge masses right and left as she goes along, as if they were really so many coco-nuts'.


'And was she', asked I, 'to have flown eastward with him, or was he to have flown westward with her?' 'She was to have accompanied him eastward', said the high priest, 'but her Majesty, after this indignity, declared that she would not go a single pace in the same direction with such wretches, and would flow west, though all the other rivers in India might flow east; and west she flows accordingly, a virgin queen.'


I asked some of the Hindoos about us why they called her 'Mother Nerbudda', if she was really never married. 'Her Majesty', said they with great respect, 'would really never consent to be married after the indignity she suffered from her affianced bridegroom the Sōn; and we call her Mother because she blesses us all, and we are anxious to accost her by the name which we consider to be at once the most respectful and endearing.'


Any Englishman can easily conceive a poet in his highest 'calenture of the brain' addressing the ocean as 'a steed that knows his rider', and patting the crested billow as his flowing mane; but he must come to India to understand how every individual of a whole community of many millions can address a fine river as a living being, a sovereign princess, who hears and understands all they say, and exercises a kind of local superintendence over their affairs, without a single temple in which her image is worshipped, or a single priest to profit by the delusion.


As in the case of the Ganges, it is the river itself to whom they address themselves, and not to any deity residing in it, or presiding over it: the stream itself is the deity which fills their imaginations, and receives their homage.


Among the Romans and ancient Persians rivers were propitiated by sacrifices. When Vitellius crossed the Euphrates with the Roman legions to put Tiridates on the throne of Armenia, they propitiated the river according to the rites of their country by the suovetaurilia, the sacrifice of the hog, the ram, and the bull. Tiridates did the same by the sacrifice of a horse.


Tacitus does not mention the river god, but the river itself, as propitiated (see [Annals,] book vi, chap. 37).[3] Plato makes Socrates condemn Homer for making Achilles behave disrespectfully towards the river Xanthus, though acknowledged to be a divinity, in offering to fight him,[4] and towards the river Sperchius, another acknowledged god, in presenting to the dead body of Patroclus the locks of his hair which he had promised to that river.[5]


The Sōn river, which rises near the source of the Nerbudda on the tableland of Amarkantak, takes a westerly course for some miles, and then turns off suddenly to the east, and is joined by the little stream of the Johilā before it descends the great cascade; and hence the poets have created this fiction, which the mass of the population receive as divine revelation.


The statue of little Johilā, the barber's daughter, in stone, stands in the temple of the goddess Nerbudda at Amarkantak, bound in chains.[6] It may here be remarked that the first overtures in India must always be made through the medium of the barber, whether they be from the prince or the peasant.[7] If a sovereign prince sends proposals to a sovereign princess, they must be conveyed through the medium of the barber, or they will never be considered as done in due form, as likely to prove propitious.


The prince will, of course, send some relation or high functionary with him; but in all the credentials the barber must be named as the principal functionary. Hence it was that Her Majesty was supposed to have sent a barber's daughter to meet her husband.


The 'Mahātam' (greatness or holiness) of the Ganges is said, as I have already stated, to be on the wane, and not likely to endure sixty years longer; while that of the Nerbudda is on the increase, and in sixty years is entirely to supersede the sanctity of her sister.


If the valley of the Nerbudda should continue for sixty years longer under such a government as it has enjoyed since we took possession of it in 1817,[8] it may become infinitely more rich, more populous, and more beautiful than that of the Nile ever was; and, if the Hindoos there continue, as I hope they will, to acquire wealth and honour under a rule to which they are so much attached, the prophecy may be realized in as far as the increase of honour paid to the Nerbudda is concerned.


But I know no ground to expect that the reverence[9] paid to the Ganges will diminish, unless education and the concentration of capital in manufactures should work an important change in the religious feelings and opinions of the people along the course of that river; although this, it must be admitted, is a consummation which may be looked for more speedily on the banks of the Ganges than on those of a stream like the Nerbudda, which is neither navigable at present nor, in my opinion, capable of being rendered so.


Commerce and manufactures, and the concentration of capital in the maintenance of the new communities employed in them, will, I think, be the great media through which this change will be chiefly effected; and they are always more likely to follow the course of rivers that are navigable than that of rivers which are not.[10]


Notes:


1. Amarkantak, formerly in the Sohāgpur pargana of the Bilāspur District of the Central Provinces, is situated on a high tableland, and is a famous place of pilgrimage. The temples are described by Beglar in A.S.R., vol. vii, pp. 227-34, pl. xx, xxi. The hill has been transferred to the Rīwā State (Central Provinces Gazetteer (1870), and I.G. (1908), s.v. Amarkantak).


2. The name is misspelled Sohan in the author's text. The Sōn rises at Sōn Mundā, about twenty miles from Amarkantak (A.S.R., vol. vii, 236).