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Amarkantak is one of the towns of Annupur district, in Madhya Pradesh. It is notable for being a pilgrim town, owing much to its religious identity; in fact, it is sometimes called “Teerthraj”, which means “the king of pilgrimages”. The region around Amarkantak is considered a natural heritage, and it is where several important geographical features of India meet, such as the Vindhyas and the Satpuras, with the fulcrum being the Maikal Hills. Amarkantak is also where the Narmada River, one of India’s most sacred rivers, originate. According to the Indian census taken in 2001, Amarkantak has a population of 7,074, majority of which are men, at 54%. The town has a mean elevation of 1,048 meters above sea level.
There are several theories about the origin of Amarkantak’s name. One states that Amarkantak is a Sanskrit word which literally means “immortal” (amar) and “obstruction” (kantak). Legends say that the place was the abode of the gods but that it was obstructed by the Rudraganas, hence the name. Another story states that the poet Kalidas named it Amrakoot, by virtue of the dense forests which contained lots of mango (amra) trees. Amratook later became Amarkantak.
Regardless of the etymology, Vedic literature does not mention Amarkantak but the Puranas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana do. According to history, the Suryavansha emperor Mandhata founded a settlement in the valley of the Riksh mountains and named it Mandhata. He was succeeded by his son, Purukutsa, whose queen gave the Narmada River its name. Legends say that the area once belonged to the ancient city of Ayodhya, which was the birthplace of the Hindu god Shri Ram. In 788, the Hindu philosopher Adi Shankara consecrated the Narmada River and founded the Pataleshwar Mahadev, in what would eventually become Amarkantak.
Somewhere in the 10th and 11th century, the area in and around Amarkantak was given to the Kalachuri King by the Chedi King in dowry. The Maharaja of Kalachuri, Karnadeva then constructed temples at Surajkund. In the early 19th century, Amarkantak came under the rule of the King of Nagpur before it was eventually occupied by the British empire when it claimed India as a colony.
Amarkantak owes much of its religious importance to the fact that it is the source of the Narmada River, which is 150 million years older than the Ganga, and is considered by many Hindu devotees to be the most sacred river in India. Amarkantak itself is considered sacred, and is believed to be one of the doorways to nirvana.
There are many mythological stories that have been told about Lord Shiva and his daughter Narmada that have been attached to Amarkantak. One legend states that when Lord Shiva destroyed Tripura by fire, one of the three ashes fell on Amarkantak, which turned into thousands of shivalingas (symbols of Shiva). One such symbol is still present today at Jwaleshwar. It is also believed that whoever dies at Amarkantak is assured of a place in heaven.
Aside from its historical importance, Amarkantak is also a town rich in biodiversity. Its ecosystem is unique, closely resembling those of isolated valleys. This makes every plant genus in the area important because if one plant dies out, the whole genus does, as well, since it does not live through any of its variant species. As such, Amarkantak is considered a natural heritage area, both in India and in the world.