In the first part of the Toyota River Drive, we take the Toyota Yaris along the banks of the Narmada, or the ‘Rewa’ as it is locally referred to. Rivers are rightly called the lifelines of civilisation, with many ancient cultures like the Egyptians (along with the Nile), the Mesopotamians (along with the Tigris and Euphrates) or the Harappans (along with the Indus) rising up along a river bank. This because nutrients in the river waters give the soil the required nourishment for sustainable agriculture. Hence, the first step towards conserving and protecting the lifelines of India is to understand the people, their culture, even the flora and fauna that’s around them. The objective of the Toyota River Drive is to not just to drive along some of the biggest rivers in the country, but it’s an exercise driven by the dream of a better future.
It is said the name ‘Rewa’ originated from the leaping motion of the water from the river’s rocky bed. Two of the 16 ancient Puranas have entire chapters dedicated to the Rewa and wherever we went, the name sprung up across storefronts, signboards and even on historical monuments, some of them centuries old. Also, the locals all along the 1500km Narmada road trip still refer to it as ‘Rewa’, which says something about the religious and cultural importance of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh’s most important river. Pilgrims flock to the river in droves each year hoping to cleanse themselves of their sins.
Unlike the other six holy rivers in Indian mythology, the devotees don’t need to take a dip in the river per se. All they need to do is to visit its shores. Legend says the river Ganges visits the Narmada to purify itself of the sins of those who have bathed in it
To most of middle India, through which the Narmada flows, entire livelihoods are dependent on it. People in those villages and towns refer to the Narmada as an ever-present companion –a giver of life and giver of joy; the latter being the literal meaning of the name ‘Narmada’. Never is it just a river, somewhat unique to our country because neither in India or anywhere else in the world (except ancient Egyptian culture) have rivers been personified.
Our journey with the Toyota Yaris actually began in Mumbai, from where we drove up to one of the oldest settlements in India, Bharuch, all the while challenging ourselves on the fuel efficiency front. The Yaris even tells you how much money you’ve saved using a light foot, and our record was Rs1150!
Bharuch, situated just a few kilometres from the mouth of the Narmada, is where it meets the Gulf of Cambay or Khambhat as it is now known. Why the English name you ask? Because traders from as far back as the second century AD knew the port as a gateway to the Asian mainland.
“Never is it just a river, somewhat unique to our country because neither in India nor anywhere else in the world (except ancient Egyptian culture) have rivers been personified”
Mahammadbhai Aglodiya, a Yaris owner in Bharuch, joined us at Nanavati Toyota dealership along with his family as we set a course for Rajpipla, near the Shoolpaneshwar Wildlife sanctuary, and then on to the mega (and we mean truly mega!) Statue of Unity, the tallest statue in the world at 182 metres, and a truly impressive sight to behold. This giant tribute to Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, on a river island in the Narmada downstream from the Sardar Sarovar Dam, is one of the biggest infrastructure projects to be undertaken on a river in India.
Along with Mahammadbhai’s family and staff from the Bharuch Toyota dealership, we soaked in the spectacular sight of the memorial, dedicated to one of the heroes of our freedom struggle. The memorial will now draw the attention of the world towards the regions surrounding the memorial and much of Central India.
We also got time to talk to Mahammadbhai about his Yaris and his reasons for buying it. Safety was his first and immediate response, the 7 airbags on all variants being the factor that drew him to the Toyota fold in the first place. He also mentions the silent performance that allows the Yaris to co-exist with, and not disturb the tranquillity of, the Narmada.
From Rajpipla, we headed off to Barwani in Madhya Pradesh. As we left Gujarat, the tarmac literally crumbled to dust. The Yaris easily absorbed any and all bumps and prevented the harshness of the road surface from getting into the cabin. The superb ground clearance and solid suspension setup neither bottomed out nor made the occupants uncomfortable or uneasy. As the roads became narrower and meandered through a number of villages, the manoeuvrability of the Yaris came to the fore. The incredibly refined engine and the CVT made our task a lot easier made the stop-and-go traffic easier to deal with.
A megalithic (carved out of stone) statue – the tallest in the world –of the first Jain Tirthankara, Lord Rishabhadeva is just a few kilometres outside Barwana, in a temple complex called Bawan Gaja. The statue is around 900 years old and is a very important pilgrimage site. Moving on from Bawan Gaja, we travelled to Rajghat just outside the city. Here we saw young men diving in to the Narmada as priests and the devout shook their heads in disapproval, all from the belief that the Narmada is hardly a river to dive into.
“The superb ground clearance and solid suspension setup neither bottomed out nor made the occupants uncomfortable or uneasy”
The next day we left for Hoshangabad. A few hours of driving later, we arrived at Maheshwar Fort. Its location on the banks of the Narmada ensured that the Fort has been flooded a number of times, with several signs pointing to where the water level was on certain days in the distant past. This 17th-century fort was also the capital of the Malwa empire during the Maratha Holkar reign, led till 1818 by the great Maratha queen Rajmata Ahilya Devi Holkar. The fort is also important artistically as there are a number of intricate hand-made stone carvings that are centuries old and are regarded as one of the finest examples of their kind.
From Maheshwar to Hoshangabad, the roads were choc-a-bloc with people out for the Navratri festivities. The errant jaywalkers a constant hazard while driving, as the services of the sharp all-wheel disc brakes of the Toyota Yaris were often called upon saving us the blushes more than a few times.
The drive to Jabalpur was rather leisurely and the Yaris, with its peppy motor, allowed us to keep a fairly good pace while on our way to one of the bigger towns on our route. All through the drive to Jabalpur, I was at the back catching up on some sleep. The roof mounted air vents kept the cabin cool and the plush ride does wonder on such a long drive. Jabalpur had a few rather interesting sights but as luck would have it we reached only around evening, heading directly towards Madan Mahal, an 11-century fort constructed inside some huge rocks on the top of a hill.
The last day of our drive took us through some of the nicer roads of MP, through canopies of trees with the only residents being packs of monkeys, and soon we reached Amarkantak, our final destination.
Amarkantak is a town like few others, as it is entirely committed and devoted to the Narmada. A number of religious places exist in Amarkantak, the Narmada Kund, the origin of the river being most prominent among them. The place has a serenity that few places as important as it has. At its centre is the reservoir where the Narmada flows down from the plateau and meets a number of tributaries. As we arrived at Amarkantak on the eve of Dussehra, when the Narmada Kund was brimming with pilgrims. The evening aarti had a breathtaking splendour and grandeur. Large earthen lamps were lit up all around the kund. Their glow ensured that the reflection of the Narmada temple in the waters of the small reservoir where the river originates looked absolutely stunning.