(Part II of a four-part series)
The origin of Hiranyakeshi.
I walked up to the temple, which, despite some renovation and painting, looked old and quaint. Peering through the locked doors, I saw a shivling a few metres below. The back of the temple was, in fact, a hill, and around the main temple were small caves. I circled back to the pond; the water was still and littered with brown leaves. The only ripples on it were caused by impatient dragonflies whose wings spurred the water, and clumsy spiders that scrambled both on and under them. And yet, the water was clear; I could see the moss lining the bottom. The gomukh, however, was dry.
At the other end were steps leading into the pond; I sat on one of them and dipped my hand into the still waters, careful not to touch the spiders. I expected it to be cold, but the water was, surprisingly, warm. I collected some on my palm, but it trickled back softly, and the ripples it created went far, but not far enough, for they could neither reach the gomukh nor break the stillness around them.
It is the undefined moment, laced with solitude, that often defines an experience. For me, this was the moment. It was as if time had stopped flowing to let the river flow with the pulse of the grove around it, into civilisational and natural prosperity. I do not know what passed through me as I sat gazing at the pond, but it must have been a prayer, for at the end, I was left with tears and gratitude. After all, it was the Hiranyakeshi’s waters that had sustained and nourished my ancestors, and just as she flowed in their veins, she did in mine.
The spell was broken by the arrival of chattering visitors, so we decided to move ahead. At the entrance, a young man was collecting a measly sum of five rupees each tourist fees levied by the Gram Panchayat. To my great annoyance, a few tourists grumbled and tried to bargain on the amount (honestly!), but the man seemed unperturbed. He asked them to go ahead and visit the temple first and pay on their way back. He turned to us and after exchanging pleasantaries, explained to us the Gram Panchayat’s objective of developing the area through these fees. We complimented the paved pathway and the beauty of the temple, and he beamed with pride.
“The shivling – there are seven of them, all located deeper into the caves. Many years back, Pendse guruji explored the caves and found them. This is a ‘jagrut devasthan’ – the area teems with wildlife, especially foxes, bears and snakes, but they do not appear during the day. Post sunset, the snakes appear and encircle the main shivling.”
I shivered in the sun.
“This place is indeed peculiar. Many people who visit feel a strong desire to take something – anything – from here back to their homes. There is nothing around, so they take a stone with them. However, they return the very next day and place it back where they took it from. I have seen many people return, and I have asked them why. Each of them gives me the same answer – that they dreamt of Shiva that night, and he asked them to return the stone to the temple. The dream would make them restless and only after returning the stone to the temple environs would they feel at peace.”
“Indeed a jagrut devasthan,” I murmured, taken in by his faith and conviction.
“Indeed,” he agreed and then continued in a more business-like manner. “We plan to build a better road to come up here. The parking place will also improve and we are planning a small bridge on the river further off. Hence these funds.” For a sum of ten rupees, I found his accountability both amusing and admirable. We paid and felt better when the annoying group of tourists paid without hassles on their return. We walked back more leisurely, glancing at the stream, the nascent Hiranyakeshi babbling and jumping through the trees, and talked of the faith and conviction such places evoke in the minds of the people.
Non-religious and non-ritualistic otherwise, both my husband and I appreciate the roles faith and conviction play in our lives; we believe in divinity and finding it and surrendering it to in our own, humanly imperfect but devoted ways.
As I delved into my own spiritually stirring experience of the place, he piped up, “there is definitely something in that place. I felt it too, a strong desire to take something – anything – from there. And since there was nothing specific around, I too thought of taking a stone back with us.” I was surprised and I could see he was too, as these were not experiences we were familiar with.
The stream of Hiranyakeshi kept with us, and then sharply veered off under a bridge and into the forest. Back in the car, we hit the road, and saw on Google maps that the river disappeared for sometime (probably underground?) and reappeared a few kilometres further up the main road connecting Amboli to Ajra. We set off, now following the river virtually. Sugarcane flanked both sides of the road, interspersed with an occasional patch of jowar, full ears standing tall, reaching the sky. The fields stretched out wider and bigger than earlier; this was clearly an area of intense agriculture, and its simplicity hid the age-old prosperity that followed bountiful produce.
There was also another phenomenon that struck both of us. The sheer number of buffaloes around us had simply gone up! They were everywhere – strolling along the roadside, grazing on a grassy patch, or simply standing in the fields. We found a spot near the small village of Gavase, where a bend of the river came close to the main road. We drove up to it, and found a half-built bridge across the river, as well as a herd of buffaloes on the other bank, sprucing up for a bath.
Led by a rather enthusiastic man, ostensibly their owner, about half a dozen buffaloes gambolled towards the river and entered it with unmistakeable glee. The owner, who, strangely enough, came dressed in a spotless white shirt, followed them in as well and started giving each a good bath, pouring water on their backs and giving them a good rub. The buffaloes enjoyed themselves; they splashed and swam around and affectionately nudged their owner.
In the middle of it all, his chappal floated up out of nowhere, and a young one swam behind it till it entered deeper waters. From the other side, we waved frantically at him and pointed at the chappal; he merely waved back and got back to bathing his buffaloes. It was only after he had bathed them, driven them out and settled them basking in the sun that he came back and retrieved the chappal. The task, it seemed, was routine.
The unfinished bridge wasn’t going to take us to the other side anyway, so we drove back to the main road. Just before the Ajra sugar factory, we had a simple, local thali at a pretty restaurant. It was then time to hit the road for our next big (perhaps, the biggest) stop: Nool.
Gauri Noolkar-Oak is a transboundary water conflicts researcher and has studied river basins in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. She is also a co-founder of The Tilak Chronicle and tweets @curiousriparian.