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Dharmic Circuits: Sacred Pathways – Part 1

Chandrashekhar Temple

Kshetra, Desha and Yatra

The Hindu sense of space is sacred. It has a center and a periphery.  The centre has multiple locations. They are the Teertha Kshetras of India. The periphery coincides with the boundaries of the cultural space of Bharatvarsha and the phenomenon which connects these multiple centers to Bharata’s peripheries is the process of Teertha Yatra.

Teertha Yatra is literally the sutra which binds Bharatvarsha together. It is the underlying thread of unity in the Hindu society. Dharma is what sustains Bharatvarsha and teertha yatras are the threads of unity which bind all these different kshetras together. There are millions of these kshetras, even after so much destruction and the varieties among them is bewildering.

Yet there is an undercurrent of unity in them. The prana of Sanatana dharma flows through these sacred kshetrams keeping them alive and the teertha yatras perform the role of the nadis (veings) which take the prana to every nook and corner of this sacred land.

 Life as a Journey

The teertha yatras also aligns with the nature of the Hindu society. A Hindu is an inveterate traveler. In spite of innumerable hurdles, every Hindu tries to undertake some sort of a teertha yatra at least once in his lifetime. Old age doesn’t deter him, financial worries don’t discourage him, the dangers of journey ahead don’t discourage him. He just goes with the flow and travels.

In a way, a Hindu is always prepared to travel for life itself is a journey for him. He has been transmigrating through various lives in various bodies, times and places since eternity and this life is just a passing station. He takes utmost care of it, but also knows of its ephemeral nature. To keep traveling until the final destination of moksha arrives is the goal of this seemingly endless journey. Therefore in some sense when living life according to dharma, the entire life becomes a teertha yatra and all of us are nothing but teertha yatris.

Teertha yatra is a journey – service towards this spiritual goal. The ultimate goal of all these arduous journeys fraught with all the dangers is to take a turn inwards; to look for one’s own real self; to search for moksha or liberation. The role of the sacred kshetras is to enhance this search. These teerthas make this inner journey easier. It is because the great rishis and devatas have made this place very powerful through meditation. The divine energy that resides in these sacred teerthas makes the inner journey of the teertha yatri easier. The word teertha literally means a ‘ford’, that place in a river which is comparatively easier to cross.

Sacred Geography

In this way, entire Bharatvarsha is strewn across with these sacred kshetras. On any given day, during any time of the year some divine yatra is being undertaken. If one were to plot a live map of these paths of teertha yatris, then entire India would be lit up with lines criss-crossing every nook and corner of this great land, a map denser than that of modern roadways. For many, teertha pathas (pilgrimage trails) are nothing more than treks in a jungle. Long before the British and then independent Indian engineers reached into the interiors of India, the rishis and teertha yatris of India had mapped the entire sacred land of Bharatvarsha in this way.

This is palpably evident when talking to any common practicing Hindu. Those with no sense of geography, those who have never looked up a single map of India closely have the entire chart of the sacred teerthas of India stored in their memory. They carry this map of the real India – the sacred Bharatvarsha, right in their minds, complete with the nodes, the entry points, the destinations and the entire pathways of these sacred journeys.

Even without the privilege of any formal education, the idea of India is not only conveyed to them but also propagated to them. Entire India lights up in their minds when the sacred teerthas are mentioned and the best part is they have not learned this in any classroom.  This is all without any state investment in mass education. This is a part of their culture that they grow up with. Regardless of their status in literacy, they are highly educated as far as the cultural knowledge of the sacred kshetras go.

The Sacred Circuits of Chamba

These sacred routes or teertha yatras do not just exist at the national level. The sacred circuits are repeated at ever smaller levels. This re-occurrence of the same fractal patterns is practiced down to the level of areas as small as a modern district. In the Chamba district of Himachal Pradesh, the story of the teerthas and yatras plays beautifully every year.

The most sacred teertha of this district is the Mani Mahesh Kailash – the mountain which is considered to be the sacred abode of Lord Shiva by the inhabitants of this region. The mountain peak is forever laden with snow and is a part of the range which is impassable even today. At the feet of the Kailash is the Mani Mahesh Lake which is the center of attraction for all Hindu pilgrims. It is in this lake that all the devotees take a sacred dip and have darshana of Shri Mani Mahesh Kailash. The lake affords a spectacular darshana of the mountain.

This is how it goes with the Hindus and snow-covered sacred peaks:  Mountains are not to climb and conquer, but to revere and have darshana of, and lakes are the places to go to. It is as if the mountain itself is the deity in the garbha-griha, and the lake is the confluence of the mandapa and the antarala, the farthest place where humans go to and where they have the darshana of bhagwan.

There are three main routes to Mani Mahesh Lake. Many pilgrims from Lahaul-Spiti come through the Kugti pass, others from the Jalsi pass. However, the most famous route is the one that goes through Chamba and traverses almost the entire length and breadth of the Chamba valley and the modern district of Chamba.

All roads stop a little further from Bharmaur, the ancient capital of the Chamba kings. The peak of Mani Mahesh remains unclimbed so far by any human being and is thus a ‘virgin peak’ in the mountain climbing lingo. Mani Mahesh Kailash is the final destination of so many devotees in many senses of the word.

The mountain attracts pilgrims from every small nook and corner of the district, and also the wider Bharatvarsha. Every Hindu in Himachal has at his heart’s desire to undertake the journey to Mani Mahesh Kailash at least once in his lifetime. This sacred mountain behaves as a cultural magnet, a spiritual center which attracts pilgrims from every ancient temple in the district of Chamba and various other districts nearby. At the center of the spiritual life of a large mountainous range, Mani Mahesh Kailash links various other pilgrimages all across the state and even farther.

Chandrashekhar Temple and the Largest Shiva Linga of Himachal

In a remote village Saho, nesting in the secluded valley of the Sal River, in the hills of Chamba district of Himachal Pradesh, lies the Chandrashekhar Temple. The present structure is attributed by Laxman Thakur to be one thousand years old, but the core and the Shiva Linga is older. (Thakur 66) The village is 18 kilometers from the Chamba town and is completely surrounded by high hills. The village is situated on a fortunate semi-plateau that opens up for a few kilometers between the high hills. As a result, the view is spectacular. Wherever you look, there are layers upon layers of mountains, but a few square kilometers of open meadow-like region offers itself for farming and other human activities. While the river flows much below, the village of Saho sits comfortably amidst the mountains with a fairy tale like ambience of flowing fields and open meadows overlooked by snow-capped peaks in the background.

The temple is built in the Himachali pahadi architectural style with pent-roof and wooden beams. The walls of the garbha-griha are built of stone but the roof is wooden. Three sides have the customary rathas housing Ganesha, Parvati and Kartikeya. The temple is a very old one with its core going back to at least 1200 years old. The Shiva Linga is huge and one of the largest in the hill temples of India and the largest in Himachal.

The temple has a legend which binds it directly to the Mani Mahesh Kailash. It is said that once a great saint lived in this village near the river Sal. Early every morning he would take a dip in the holy waters of the River Sal. One day when he woke up he realized that someone else had taken a bath in the sacred waters of the river before him. So the next day, he hid himself before dawn to see who was bathing in the river even before him.

To his utter surprise, he saw three children bathing in the waters. He revealed himself and tried to catch them but could get hold of only one child. This child was none other than Lord Shiva himself. He was called Chandrashekhar in that form. The other two children called Chandragupta and Mani Mahesh were also Shiva in different forms. The child then appeared after a brief disappearace in the form of a Shiva Linga where the Chandrashekhar temple stands today.

The other two forms of Shiva are also associated with temples at different sites. Chandragupta went to Chamba town and was worshipped there in what is now the Chandragupta temple in the Lakshmi Narayan temple complex in the center of the town. The other child Mahesh went to Bharmaur where one can still find the Mani Mahesh temple at the great temple site.

To a ‘rational mind’ accustomed to linear view of time and material explanation of every aspect of the world, this might seem as just a story. But this great myth actually binds all the sacred geography of the Chamba district in one sutra, in one thread. Chamba is at the center of the Chamba district but Saho lies north of it.

The temple legend connects it directly to the Mani Mahesh Kailash, the most sacred center of the region. Various other sacred temples are connected in one cultural consciousness through these legends which manifest themselves in teerthas which in turn get their sanctity from these legends. The extremely remote temple of the Shakti Temple, Chhatrari is a place where the Great Goddess, Parvati, resides. (Handa 48) The myths, the legends, the deities  – all appear and reappear in this way on the sacred geography of India. In this way, through the rainbow of myths and legends, a great cultural unit is born and the spirit of Sanatana Dharma lives on through these yatras.

Every year, the Chandrashekhar temple celebrates various festivals, two of which are celebrated with much gusto. One of them is of course Shivaratri when a great fair is held and thousands upon thousands of devotees come to this extremely remote village of the Himalayas to have darshana of Lord Shiva in the form of this huge Shiva Linga.

The Mani Mahesh Yatra

The other festival coincides with the Mani Mahesh Yatra which is undertaken every year around August/September or in the month of Bhadon. A great festival is celebrated at the Chandrashekhar village in Saho village before the Yatra, or as it is called Jatra in Himachal. People congregate with bhajans and discourses and meditation sessions that are held at the temple for about a week.

Then the Jatra proceeds towards Mani Mahesh. Thousands of devotees proceed on foot and some on vehicles from the temple. As they move along towards Bharmaur, the last great town before the Mani Mahesh lake, the Jatra keeps swelling with more and more devotees. Thousands of devotees join them in Chamba where various other temples also simultaneously initiate this jatra and as the procession proceeds towards Mani Mahesh Lake, more and more temples and jatras join this procession. After Hadsar a few kilometers from Bharmaur, all motorable roads end and the pilgrims have to necessarily proceed on foot, for thirteen more kilometers.

The teerthas provide goals to the devotees. The legends provide meaning. The story that can be verbally told in a few minutes is being told by these Hindu pilgrims every year in a span of many days and weeks, as they trudge along the mountain highway from every corner of the region to the Mani Mahesh Lake. After reaching here, the story ends in a meaningful conclusion, only to start again the next year, continuing the divine dance of teerthas and the jatras.

Bharmaur: An Impossible Capital

The Mani Mahesh Jatra is the sacred lifeline of this region and this has been so for hundreds and perhaps even thousands of years. This is why the ancient kings of Chamba chose Bharmaur as their capital. The Chaurasi temple at Bharmaur is also an important center of pilgrimage. Bharmaur is also connected to the legend that binds the Chandrashekhar temple at Saho with the Mani Mahesh pilgrim route. It seems inconceivable that around 1200 years ago someone built a capital at this extremely remote and inaccessible place, right at the foothills of the Great Mani Kailash peak.

Bharmaur is hard to reach even today. It is at a great height and the road ends a few kilometers from here. The Mani Mahesh Lake is the source of the Mani Mahesh Ganga, once again the sacred geography repeating itself everywhere. The lake is the end point of the sacred Mani Mahesh Jatra.

In many ways, Bharmaur is the end of the line, the last post of civilization and yet it is here that our ancestors decided to build a capital, right at the feet of Lord Shiva, even though it was a very difficult place to live and to reach. Not only that, they also built eighty four temples at Bharmaur by clearing a great area at the edge of the valley. Two of the greatest of these temples are built in complete Nagari idiom and the largest of all is called the Mani Mahesh temple.

How great must have been their shraddha and how great their devotion and conviction to do this! What is unbelievable is that our ancestors kept the flame of bhakti alive even in these remotest of locations. Because of teerthas and jatras, the flame of Hindu dharma is still alive. The teerthas are still alive and wherever there are teerthas there is great flowering of art, architecture, sculpture, music, dance, and all other art forms and sciences. Culture remains alive where dharma remains alive, and teerthas and jatras keep dharma alive. Mani Mahesh Jatra with its various temples and legends is a testimony to this marvelous creation of Sanatana Dharma.

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Notes and References

  1. Handa, O. C. Ancient Monuments of Himachal Pradesh. Museum of Kangra Art Publications. 2010.
  2. Thakur, Laxman S. The Architectural Heritage of Himachal Pradesh: Origin and Development of Temple Styles. Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. 1996.

Image Credit: hindu-blog

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