A remote cave where people pray to 'deathless' Yogi-Christ

It was Paramhansa Yogananda's "Autobiography of a Yogi", which has sold in millions around the world since it came out in 1946, that talked about Babaji, saying the "deathless Mahavatar" domiciles in the forested hills beyond Ranikhet.

The book, widely regarded as a gem in spiritual literature, said the secluded master had retained his physical form for centuries, perhaps more, since giving yoga initiation to Shankara and Kabir.

His chief 19th century disciple was Shyamacharan Lahiri, widely known as Lahiri Mayasaya, who in 1861 was introduced by Babaji to Kriya Yoga - in the very cave that still nestles in the tranquility of the lower Himalayas.

Unlike other caves regarded holy in India, this one is as remote as it can get - the mountains served only by natural light. Away from this obscure hilly hamlet whose main hub is a tea stall, a dirt road takes off to the sacred cave, cutting through mountains and broad enough to take only one small car at a time. Most people, however, prefer to walk.

Beyond a point, the dirt road ends, giving way to a rough and narrow hilly path that is arduous and at times steep, involving an energy consuming climb of 40-60 minutes - depending on one's physical ability.

The first prize of the climb is a well-built meditation hall maintained by the Yogoda Satsanga Sabha, which leases the hill where the cave is located. Further up, but not too far away, is the cave, located amid rocky ledges.

With a few stone steps leading to it, the cave, served by natural light, has a big opening. But it can take no more than a dozen people at a time because its earlier deep interior has been covered by a plastered stone wall.

The silence of the place is broken only by the constant chirping of the many species of birds in these hills. Inside the cave is a little altar, marked by stones. Barring two incense sticks lit every morning and a few cushions kept for those who find it difficult to sit on hard stone, there is little else there.

Locals say that similar caves and hills in this sprawling region have been homes for sages who meditated for decades and spread divinity. But no one is more revered than Babaji, described by Yogananda as "deathless" and one who looks around 25 years old, fair skinned, of medium built and height, with copper colour hair and dark eyes, the body radiating a perceptible glow.

The only hand sketched photograph of Babaji comes from Yogananda's book - showing him seated in lotus position, the eyes looking up.

"Even today people talk of seeing strange lights in the hill at night," confides hotelier Mahinder Singh Rautela, who lives in the nearby town of Dwaharat, from where Kukucheena is an hour's drive.

"Villagers who sometimes step into the forests in search of their lost cows say they have been helped by a young stranger to find their cattle. But invariably the person disappears once the cow is found," Rautela told a IANS correspondent.

To save it from vandalism, the Yogoda Sabha has built an iron gate to the cave and the meditation hall. Both are locked at night and most part of the day except when there are visitors.

"People come from all parts," says Vibha Chawla of the Sabha, describing the cave's serenity. "Some find it difficult to climb but they manage it. It is all faith."

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