By Rachna Singh Chopra
A must-visit before you shed your body
He who wants to feel the presence of eternal power should come to the sacred Bhuvneshwar situated near the confluence of Ramganga, Sarayu and Gupt-Ganga.
-Manaskhanda, Skandapuran, whose 800 verses refer to Patal
Patience had become my second nature. I was ready to wait an eternity for that something I could not define. Yet, behind my bold demeanour and stubborn will was a heart that squirmed for that one drop of nectar that would quench my thirst forever. Putting aside pressing assignments for an unfamiliar destination in the heart of Kumaon, in India, I headed out.
The journey was captivating too—mothers combing little girlie hair into neat plaits, boys with straw baskets hung over their backs, men peeping out from dhabas (eateries) awaiting the first batch of morning tourists, snow-fed peaks conversing with the breeze, an occasional roar of the leopard… Then we reached Patal Bhuvneshwar, the humble village that boasts of an underground cave complex of Lord Shiva, a Hindu god. Pandavas, the five brothers in the Hindu epic Mahabharata, had visited it before shedding their mortal frames.
Ringing the bell at the cave entrance (which is in the shape of Sheshnag’s hood ) I uttered a prayer to the Lord of Lords. Sliding down the slimy moist throat of the great serpent (a slippery ladder of stony steps) with the help of ropes, I visualized how the mighty Pandavas must have wriggled through this narrow entrance. Down the 21st step with dragon faces jutting out of the stone walls beckoning me, I felt an upsurge of energy as if going into the hidden domains of my inner self.
The cave opened up suddenly into an egg-like space. The 1,000 mighty feet of the Araval elephant in stone stood adjacent to the sacrificial pit where the serpent yagnas have taken place. Mustn’t all serpents of desire be sacrificed before one qualifies to tread further. Takshak and Vasuki serpents, made immortal in stone, clung to the ceiling and closely guarded this spot. A heart-shaped rock referred to as Shiva’s wish-fulfilling kamandala (water pot) came next.
I clasped it reverently in my palms and searched my heart for traces of wishful desire, but found none. I delved deeper, vying to decode the hidden esoteric symbolism entrenched in the walls. Just then I saw the most amazing sight… well-marked ribs of Sheshnag on the cave floor. From here, one moves carefully balancing one’s feet on these ribs.
But I almost tripped upon the severed head of Adi Ganesha, that awaited its resurrection by the chant of 1,008 mantras! An 8-petal lotus in stone covers it lovingly from atop and sustains it by a regular drip of water. The Muladhara Chakra, I mumbled to myself, with Ganesha as its deity, needs to be resurrected first as the snake-like kundalini rises up the spine!
Adjacent to this stood the miniature stone idols of Kailash, Nanda Devi, Trishul, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamunotri and Amarnath. Seeing them completes all pilgrimages, I was told. Just when I was getting comfortable, the angry jutting out tongue of Kala Bhairav reminded me that I am a creature borne of time, and escaping the clutches of time is my only route to deliverance.
To enter through this narrow tongue into the womb is to be not born a second time. Escaping through its narrow tail is the route to Brahmaloka, so say the Puranas. Crawling on my stomach, wrestling with adamant limbs, I wriggled into the womb of Kala and stayed enveloped in its pitch-dark for a few seconds. As my torchlight scanned the walls, I spotted the steep tail.
Seeing its slippery cruel climb, I decided I was not yet ready! Those who have ventured with the help of ropes have met with quicksand, I was told. Coming out blackened from head to heel wasn’t funny. Next came the four doors-those of Sin and War are believed to have closed after the end of Ravana (a character in the Hindu epic Ramayana) and the Mahabharata respectively.
I walked through the Dharma Dwar, and emerging from the Moksha Dwar, I found myself in a spacious enclosure, and instantaneously felt an expanse of having symbolically reached! Here, one witnesses the Parijaat tree brought by the Hindu god, Lord Krishna from Lord Indra’s empire (fully laden with fruit and leaf in stone!), Ashoka Vriksha and the four lingams representing the four eras.
Prophecy goes that when the Kaliyuga lingam, believed to be growing steadily, meets the cone growing simultaneously from above, it shall be the end of Kaliyuga. A steep passage leads to the spot, where, myth believes, Hanuman kept his tail in Bheema’s way and broke his pride as Bheema was unable to move it with all his strength.
Getting humbled is a prerequisite to moving further on the path to liberation, I mused and cautiously moved on. A huge mass of rock in the exact contour of a ripped-up skull lay right ahead of me. Drops of water oozing from a protruded rock from the top (in the shape of an udder) fell precisely in the centre of this skull at regular intervals.
This, I learnt, was the fifth head of Brahma, severed by Shiva’s fury and timelessly sustained by Kamadhenu’s nourishing udder. The spot, I was told, was to pay homage to one’s forefathers. But I bowed silently to the soft loving that nature endows when life snatches something precious away. Next in the sequence was Saptakunda, the sacred pond guarded by the mythological swan with its head turned away as a curse for drinking the nectar meant for Shiva.
Moving a few more steps, one spots the magnificent locks of Lord Shiva himself. One entire wall of the cave is combed to reveal the separate hair strands of Shiva dripping with the shimmering Ganges. The thought that I was perhaps a mere thread in the giant locks of Shiva, or that the unstoppable whirl of Ganges swapping the entire planet begins from this innocent drip, made me dizzy.
Along the cave wall is seen the constellation of a zillion tiny stones, described as the milky-way or the 33-crore gods and goddesses worshipping the Ganges. At the base is Nandi, the holy cow. I experienced a sensory overload, but by now I was close to the heart of the cave where Shakti is worshipped.
An emergence of fire is believed to have shot out from this spot that was later sealed with a copper lid by Adi Shankara, and human sacrifices to Goddess Kali stopped only after this incident. Three stones embedded on this copper plate (representing the three natural powers) are periodically bathed by water drops from the stone roof above, with magical precision.
Reaching the end of the cave, through Koteshwar Mahadev’s locks and fangs of many a serpent, I was led up to the final decision making point-the game portal. The chausar board in rock is laid out, and clearly seen are the stone relics of Shiva (with Ganesha in his arms!), Parvati, the five Pandavas and a witnessing audience.
Just as at the end of one’s life ensues an exchange of records with our creator, here commences a game of chausar with none other than Lord Shiva himself, which decides the onward course of one’s spiritual journey. Here one can win heaven like Yudhishthira did, or be given the verdict for yet another round of pilgrimage as was the case with the other four Pandavas.
As I stood motionless flipping through the years I have lived and left behind, the guide motioned me to return. The visit ended here, but not the search it ignited within me. As I emerged out of the dark Patal into blinding daylight, I was convinced I dwell somewhere amidst the many faces embedded in these walls… that I have already existed in time, am already dead and buried! Or perhaps am yet to be.
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