Tuesday, October 14, 2008

First Trip To India: Chitrakoot - One holy place in two states

Chapter Six - Chitrakoot - One holy place in two states

Chitrakoot is an important Hindu pilgrimage place. It was in Chitrakoot's deep forests that Rama and Sita spent eleven of their fourteen years of exile. It was here that the Trinity of the Hindu pantheon, Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh, took their incarnations.

There are a lot of places that can be visited in Chitrakoot and chances are that you'll be the only Westerner there, because it sees few foreign (or "white") visitors. A very important place is the Ramghat, where there's always a lot of religious activity going on. Boats can be hired to cross the Mandakini river. Kamadgiri (also called the original Chitrakoot or the embodiment of Rama) is a hill at which base are several temples, especially important to pilgrims, who often complete the ritual circuit or parikarma of the hill to ask for a blessing. Interesting for us too, is the Bharat Milap temple, marking the spot where Bharata is said to have met Rama to persuade him to regain the throne of Ayodhya.

Opposite Kamadgiri lies another hill, a bit out of town. One can climb this steep hillside to visit the Hanuman Dhara temple, which is the location of a spring, said to be created by Rama to assuage Hanuman, returning after setting Lanka on fire. At the base of the stairs that go up, you are more or less supposed to take a sip from the holy spring water which will also contain some leaves from the holy plant (for a donation). On the way you'll see several people selling religious stuff, offering blessings or selling food for the monkeys (yes, there are plenty; this IS Hanuman territory). The temple itself is a very plain white-painted building. You must wash your hands and feet before entering. It's nice to sit in front of the holy spring for a while and look at the faithful, who sometimes are really fanatic about receiving a blessing.

The views over the plains across to Kamadgiri are good. It's a quiet place in the sense that you are not being hassled for money. Nowhere in Chitrakoot, in fact. And no tourist prices : a book of 30 postcards was Rs 5. And no tourist facilities... The only place where, for instance, you can find soft drinks is the MP and UP Tourist Bungalows. I stayed the night in the former (the latter had no vacancies). A large single room with attached shower (hot water was wishful thinking, though) cost Rs 100. Doubles are Rs 125 (all rooms plus 5% taxes). There are apparently also cheaper rooms available. The people are friendly in this place. Simple meals can be had. I only took breakfast. It was indeed simple, but good. And cheap.

Upstream from Ramghat, along the Mandakini river, is the Janaki Kund. It's in this idyllic setting that Sita used to bathe during the years when she and Rama were exiled. Her footprints can still be seen here. Many people seem to follow her example and come to bathe in these especially blessed waters. The monkeys that live here perform acrobatic somersaults from the trees into the river. A funny sight !

Getting to Janaki Kund is not particularly difficult. It's only a few kilometres away and you can get there by road or by boat from Ramghat. Another few kilometres beyond Janaki Kund is another densely forested area on the river banks : Sphatik Shila. You can climb up to a boulder which is believed to bear Rama's footprint. A couple of temples are around.

A highly interesting spot, I think, is Bharat Koop. It's the place where Bharata stored holy water collected from all pilgrimage places in India. It's about 16 kilometres out of town and is a small, isolated spot. 18 kilometres from the town is a pair of caves. One of them is high and wide with an entrance through which one can barely pass. The other one is long and narrow with a stream of water running along its base. It is believed that Rama and his brother Lakshmana held court in the latter cave, which contains two rocks that are throne-shaped. The place of these caves is known as Gupt-Godavari.

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