'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

'Jabali's City' - Or Is It?

Note: Shall explain the title towards the end of the post. For the time being, the MP travelog continues...

We were in Jabalpur, a city deep inside Madhya Pradesh, for a day and a quarter.

From near the city bus-stand, I boarded a six-seater rickshaw. Nearly an hour of travel (the first half dozen kilometers of these were over some outrageous - even by MP standards - city roads; things improve outside city limits as one gets onto the 'National Highway' to Bhopal) left me at the village of Bheraghat, on the banks of the Narmada. A short walk from here are the Dhuandhar waterfalls; the river splits into two and makes an impressive plunge - something like 50 feet. The two streams then rejoin and the river proceeds to seethe thru a very narrow gorge (at some points just about 30 feet across) it has, over the aeons, sliced through a huge mass of limestone. The gorge slowly opens out - and the river widens - past the temples of Bheraghat.

The limestone walls of the Dhuandhar-Bheraghat gorge(*) are impressively massive and the rock is sharply foliated. At the lower levels, the grey limestone appears metamorphosed into milky white and porous marble - giving the area the popular name 'Marble Rocks'.

A very striking feature of the gorge is the pronounced slant of the its walls - as one looks downstream, an inclination of the order of 15-20 degrees from the vertical, from top right to bottom left, is clearly visible - and this inclination is faithfully (and intriguingly) reflected in the foliations of the rock masses. To explain this slant, one is tempted to invoke the (oft misunderstood) Coriolis force, which causes free-moving objects to veer rightwards in the Northern Hemisphere and determines which way cyclonic stomes whirl (and *does not* determine which way water draining off a toilet bowl is going to spiral). However, my (naive?) understanding of this force tells me the slant should be (looking downstream) from top left to bottom right, just the *opposite* of what Bheraghat shows. Well, I dunno!

Speculation: The river is alleged to be over a hundred feet deep within the gorge => only the upper portion of the gorge (less than half) is visible. This upper portion might well have been cut when the Indian landmass was in still the *Southern* hemisphere, during its long journey towards the collision with Asia - so the 'Coriolis slant' of this upper portion should actually be consistent with being in the Southern hemisphere, as is indeed observed. And perhaps deep down in the gorge, the river might have 'switched' the slant. Well, that should be enough geology for now!

From Bheraghat, manually rowed boats take tourists up the river into the deepest part of the gorge; here the rock walls reach almost a hundred feet in height. Some local kids perform the dizzying (but quite safe) stunt of diving into the river (which must be very deep indeed in these parts) from dozens of feet up above - for a tip from the boat-travelers.

But the real highlight of this boat-trip was a guide who spoke (in Hindi) almost exclusively in rhyming couplets. From descriptions of the rocky highlights on either side to general fundae about the Narmada, from PJs (some quite neat) to Bollywood gossip (several Hindi movies have been filmed here, most famously, the 'O Basanti' song sequence from 'Jis Des Mein Ganga Behti Hai' and the later 'Pran Jaye Par Vachan Na Jaye'), he kept the rhymes and alliterations flowing. Pity I did not record him (to, those kindred spirits who read this and decide to visit Bheraghat: look out for "Ramesh guide"!).

Here are a few samples from memory, which I won't violate by translating:

"Yahaan ki gehrai hai ek sau assi foot - one eight zero,
aur yaheen se hoti hai meri commentary shuroo!"

"Yeh hai Narmada ka pani, Dekhne mein green,
haathon mein clean, peene mein behtareen!"

"Woh Patthar dekhiye, lagta, baitha hai koi Rishi akela...
lekin AB dekho, peechhe se dhakka de raha hai koi badmash chhela!"

"Bhaiyo, ab pahunche soocide point,Yahaan mana hai tairna...
lekin phully allowed hai... kya? ... soocide karna!"

"Yeh thaa gufa Rishi Jabali ka...
Jinse hai naam shahar Jabalpur ka!"


Now the 'Jabali' (pronounced 'Jah-bah-lee')connection:
My recently released (online) work of fiction, 'The Loop' mentions one 'Jabali University' as the character Lucky's alma mater. The university's name was chosen after several weeks of deliberations.

Satyakama is an Upanishadic Seeker. A striking feature about this guy is that he does not know his caste - indeed, he is of dubious paternity. When asked by a prospective Guru about his family background he says: "My mother - her name is Jabala - told me: "If anybody asks you about your parents, just say "I am Jabala's son" ".

Despite protests from some orthodox quarters, the Guru accepts him and Satyakama (or 'Jabali' as he was known after his mother) goes on to become a famous Vedanta exponent. In brief, his story is that of someone from the dark fringes of society gaining acceptance among the elite. (A matter of detail: Lucky's trajectory in 'The Loop' is more of an 'anti-Jabali' nature!)

A particularly poignant episode in the young Satyakama-Jabali's quest: during his apprenticeship, Jabali is assigned the job of taking care of his Guru's 'ranch'. Ond day at Sundown, he sits down to rest next to an aged, quietly ruminating bull. Suddenly, he hears the bull whisper to him: "That which you seek (the Absolute) is to be found far to the north. It can be found in the east as well... and the west and the south; up in the skies and down in the bowels of the earth."

Mysteriously, Jabali (spelt 'Javali') resurfaces in the Ramayana, as the proponent of a seriously cynical Nihilism! He advises Rama: "There is no Heaven, no afterlife, no absolute Dharma or whatever. So, simply do what you want and don't care about the consequences, as long as they are to your advantage!". I am quoting (from memory) a quotation here - from Amartya Sen's 'Argumentative Indian'(**).

'The Loop' refers to the above Bull-episode in the parable, 'The Bovine Comedy', featuring a "bull, who spoke". The Nihilistic Ramayana aspect of Jabali is alluded to by the character ... well, enough of that digression!

Before I heard "Ramesh Guide", I had indeed pondered the etymology of 'Jabalpur' - it seemed to mean 'the city of mountains' (from 'jabal' an Arab word meaning 'mountain'; there are several rugged and rocky (but not really big) hills in the area). The Jabali association came as a bit of a surprise. And on the way back from Bheraghat, I was still more surprised when a 'Hotel Jabali Palace(***)' caught the eye. Well, there is (still) no 'Jabali University', yet.

Anyways, despite all those personal connections, I still see 'Jabali's City' as a bit of spurious - etymology, there being no major mountains in the area notwithstanding.


(*)India does not appear to have many limestone-dominated regions (karst landscapes as they are technically known). Some interesting limestone formations do exist around Ettimadai-Madukkarai, just inside Tamil Nadu as one threads the Palghat Pass - here one sees see plenty of massive chunks (some up to 30-40 feet across) of foliated rock; and these rock chunks, their size apart, have an odd 'woody' look. Similar rocks are visible near Kondapuram station in interior Andhra Pradesh as well. But neither of these regions has full-blown karst features - caves with stalactites etc.

Correction to the above note, added in Feb, 2010: The Belum caves near Tadipatri in AP (not too far from Kondapuram) are described by Wiki thus:

(The Belum Cave system) has a length of 3229 meters, making it the second largest natural caves in Indian Subcontinent. Belum Caves have long passages, spacious chambers, fresh water galleries and siphons. The caves reach its deepest point (120 feet from entrance level) at the point known as Pataalaganaga.


(**) - A bit of guesswork: Amartya Sen *very likely* read the 'Javali Episode' of Ramayana in his native Bengali. There, the sage might have indeed been named 'Jabali'; and while reaching out to a beyond-Bongland audience, Sen might have 'corrected' the name to 'Javali', under the impression that the 'b' must have been an artifact of Bengali pronunciation (which, as is well-known, turns 'Vimal' to 'Bimal' and 'Vivek' to 'Bibek'). Sen could have let 'Jabali' be, since the 'b' was from the 'original'!

(***) - Perhaps elsewhere in this country, one might find a 'Yajnavalkya Bar' or an 'Uddalaka Aruni Restaurant' or a 'Gargi Boutique'


  • At 10:03 AM, Blogger sufiyah said…

    jabl only means a rock....not not ahill or a mountain.....whether the etymology is spurious or not am not certain eighter.

  • At 10:06 AM, Blogger sufiyah said…

    jabl only means a rock... not a hill or a mountain.....whether the etymology is spurious or,, not am not certain eighter.

  • At 7:18 AM, Blogger R. said…

    thanks sufiyah for visiting.

    yes, wikipedia says 'jabl'/'jabal' can mean rock (for instance, the rock of gibraltar is 'jabal al tariq') - apart from hill or mountain. in that case, jabalpur is better named than i thought - 'the city of rocks' - there are indeed several very rocky hillocks around the place.

    and that makes the 'jabali's city' etymology even more suspect!

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