India’s rivers are usually associated with placid basins, being nurturing and life-sustaining, and venues of faith and the faithful. The Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh is one of the holiest in India, with its ghats at Maheshwar and temples of Omkareshwar.
But we seldom glimpse the unbridled flow of rivers in their natural habitat, unrestrained by human hands. A short distance from Jabalpur in southern Madhya Pradesh, you can see one of the country’s key rivers in all its might as it crashes and leaps with wild abandon, creating the famous ‘Marble Rocks.’
First, a little about the Narmada itself. The source of the river is in the Amarkantak Plateau in Madhya Pradesh, where the Vindhya and Satpura ranges meet, with the Maikal hills as the fulcrum.
Before the Narmada reaches the holy sites along its banks, it surges through raw nature in the district of Jabalpur close to its origin, creating some of the most fascinating natural formations in India. Its frothy waters cut through the naturally occurring marble hills – also called Marble Rocks – and creates a spectacular waterfall and a jaw-dropping gorge.
It is at Bhedaghat near Jabalpur that the Narmada switches from flowing through mountainous terrain to the plains in the most dramatic way. This phenomenon gives us two of the most gorgeous formations created by this river’s might – the Dhuandhar waterfalls and the Marble Rocks.
The word ‘Dhuandhar’ is a composite of ‘dhuan’ and ‘dhar’, which literally translates into ‘smoky stream’, an apt description for the mist or dhuan that arises when the stream of water leaps and plunges into a narrow gorge. The cascading waters are broken by a small cliff, which creates this spectacular waterfall. It drops 30 feet or 9 metres and the spray created due to this force throws up striking rainbows.
After the Dhuandhar falls, the Narmada pulsates through a narrow gorge for around 3 km. Since the river is squeezed into a space only a third of its regular width, it creates a high-pressure situation in the rocky gorge, which are the famous Marble Rocks.
Marble is a metamorphic rock usually formed from sedimentary carbonate rocks like limestone and dolomite when they are exposed to intense heat and pressure. It is believed that the chemical composition of the rocks at Bhedaghat is high in magnesium, due to which it is similar to soapstone in softness, which causes it to easily erode under gushing water.
According to Dr V N Agrawal of Sagar University in Madhya Pradesh, the formation of marble at Bhedaghat took place in multiple phases during two different ages – the first one is highly metamorphosed and deformed and belongs to an early fold phase; and the other, practically unaltered and undeformed, to a later age.
During the rains, the water rises almost to the top of the gorge before levelling off in the wider basin. Thus the facade of the gorge is constantly corroded, exposing fresh stone and leading to a perennially white facade. The gushing water is constantly warring against stone in a battle for supremacy between the Narmada and the hills of marble.
This combination of factors – intense water pressure, a narrow gorge and easily eroded stone – give us these breath-taking Marble Rocks.
It’s a sight to behold. At the gorge, the stone is a beautiful white hue. The two sheer faces of the gorge, almost 100 feet tall, create a narrow passage which leads to a wider basin. The gorge is colloquially called bandar kudni based on the tale that the gorge was once so narrow that monkeys could jump from one side to the other.
On entering the basin, the rock walls grow farther apart and an occasional island rises from the depths of the river. The falling rays of the sun paint the stone in varied hues, of blue, pink, yellow and green.
The area and its amazing natural formations have captured the popular imagination for centuries. There are many small temples in the vicinity of the Narmada basin. The area has been documented as early as the 1870s, when British artist Edward Lear created a fabulous watercolour of the rocks. The rocks have fascinated the Hindi film industry so much that legends like Raj Kapoor have shot here as has his granddaughter Kareena Kapoor Khan, who filmed at the site 40 years after he did.
The best way to experience the Marble Rocks is via a boat ride on the Narmada. The ride lasts an hour and runs from the basin right through the gorge. It gives you access to the most amazing part of the formation, the 100-ft-tall cliffs of corroded marble, which are beautifully textured and is of hues.
Not to be missed is the entertaining commentary of the boatmen as they tell you their tales, legends of the rocks, and tales from Bollywood. They also ascribe shapes to the rocks, some of which are difficult to discern! The rocks are best visited in the evening ‘under the pale moonlight’ as expressed by James Forsyth, a British army captain in the mid-19th century.
Faith and religious mythology can’t be far behind when so many other stories have been created. Hanuman is said to have leapt across the chasm on his way to Lanka, and Indra’s celestial elephant is believed to have left a footprint on a rock here. According to local lore, Ahilyabai Holkar, queen of the Malwa kingdom and a great builder of temples, installed a Shivling on one of the rocky outcrops.
Fact and fiction apart, the gorges of the Narmada are an astonishing sight and a timely reminder of the might of nature, which may look docile but can even cut through stone.