River Mandakini and the ghats at Chitrakoot. Photo by authors
In Chitrakoot, where lava had once flowed in slow, incandescent coils, we sought a different reality.
We abandoned Google Maps and the 'perhaps, possibly' hesitations of historians and entered the certainty of an epic. The Royal Exiles had wandered in this scrubby, river-watered land and everyone who was anyone knew what had happened an aeon upon an aeon ago. He, that bearded man in an immaculate white robe, certainly did.
"They chose this place" he said, "because of the Shining Mountain."
We were on the bustling Ram Ghat of Chitrakoot, and had just asked our guide why Lord Ram, Lakshman and Sita had decided to spend most of their exile here. But, before he could reply, a bustling mass of pilgrims had separated us, and another person had answered. We looked around. Our informant was white-bearded, white-robed, sitting on one of the steps of the ghat.
"Chitrakoot is, literally, the Shining Mountain," he explained, pointing to the wooded eminence rising from the ghats on the other bank. His voice was as soft and clear as the rustle of autumn leaves fluttering in the wind. "The great mountain is hollow, and around its subterranean lake sit the real masters of the world: powerful rishis and munis. Sage Bharadwaj is one of them. And that is why he advised the Royal Exiles to spend most of their 14 years here, under the watchful eyes of the masters."
"If rishis live inside the mountain," we said, "then there must be an entrance to that subterranean cave."
He smiled gently, "Yes, there is, but only the enlightened can find it."
He stood up, nodded, stepped into a boat, and was rowed across the Mandakini.
We had brought a copy of The Ramayana, as translated by scholar and the first Indian to become Governor-General of India, Chakravarti Rajagopalchari. He had described the arrival of the exiled royal family in Chitrakoot.
Then they saw at a distance the Chitrakoota Hill. They were glad and began to walk briskly towards it. "How beautiful this region is," exclaimed Ram. "The forest here has fine edible roots and fruits. The water is clear and sweet. Rishis dwell in aashramas in this forest and we may most certainly live happily here in their holy company."
They proceeded to put up an aashrama there for themselves. Lakshman was a clever workman. He soon constructed a strong hut that was weather-proof, and made it comfortable and convenient. Single-handed, he completed the mud hut with windows and doors, all made of bamboos and jungle material.
Much of what is described in the Ramanaya is relevant today. A wooded hill still dominates the Chitrakoot landscape and is a major part of the mystique of the area. Much of this region is typical Deccan Trap country: undulating plains made of ancient lava fields. But there are also large patches of beautiful forest, well-watered with streams and rivers. Thriving shrines stand on the sites of legendary aashramas. And there's a temple reputedly marking the spot where Lakshman had built the first hut, Param Kutir, for the three of them. In fact, a walk through Chitrakoot and its environs is a fascinating tour of the locations of many well-known episodes of the great epic.
On the ghats, brightly decorated boats rowed past slowly; people bathed in the sacred waters; open-fronted shops were radiant with bright pyramids of sindoor; a little boy had his head shaved in the mundan ceremony, his relatives' cascading locks forming a perfect frame for his rapidly balding pate. The ghats were as alive now as they had been for centuries in a bright and unending tapestry of faith. Our guide's urgent voice broke into our thoughts. "Up these steps is where Lakshman built the Param Kutir, the first hut for the family". The simple wattle-and-daub shack has been replaced by a pillared temple, greatly revered by worshippers. Near it, a pujari assured us, was one of the 108 fire pits which Brahma lit before creating the world.
He also told us that it was here, near the Brahma temple, that Bharat held his great court to persuade his brother Ram to return to his kingdom. A little way down the steps, however, was another temple, the Bharat Mandir, with colourfully robed idols representing the court of Bharat. According to its officiating priest, this is where the great durbar was held.
We left the ghats and drove into the forested hinterland. Here, the Mandakini is a chortling forest stream, sparkling around boulders, serene. In a pavilion on the banks of the stream, a scholar read the Ramayana, creating a cameo of a distant age. This was Janaki Kund, where Sita reputedly bathed.
The certainties of one age are often in dissonance with those of another.
We left River Mandakini behind us and sought the brief appearance of another. Eighteen kilometres from the town, within two deep and linked caverns, water flows, bats squeak and twitter, and an outcrop of black rock thrusts out of the ceiling. The rock is all that remains of the audacious Mayank who dared to steal Sita's clothes when she was bathing. He was petrified by the enraged Lakshman. The stream, associated with the three royal exiles (and flowing through the caves) is said to be the Gupt Godavari, or hidden Godavari. It vanishes underground after emerging from the mountain.
Geologically, Chitrakoot is in the ancient lava lands of the Trap country of the Deccan where caves and rugged topography are a common feature. We trudged up 620 steps cut into another mountain. This is where Hanuman came to cool his anger after setting fire to Ravana's palace in Lanka. The high shrine dominating it is Hanuman Dhara. Further up a rather precarious flight of 167 steps, a pundit beckoned us to Sita's Rasoi. His explanation that she built her kitchen here to feed pious pilgrims seemed inadequate. But the view from this elevated place was impressive: the plains and weathered ravines surrounding Chitrakoot stretched to the far horizon like a great relief map.
That evening, we recalled that those who believed Chitrakoot Hill was hollow often added that, when it rains, 24 springs gush out of the hill at the same time. This can only happen, they argue, if percolating rain water fills the lake and it begins to spill over its banks, gushing out of its overflow ducts, which become springs.
We also recalled that the legend of world guardians sitting in a cave is a fairly common one, globally. That is when we wondered if our informant in the white robe could have been one of those immortal seers.
In Chitrakoot, anything can be believed, and usually is.