Chitrakoot: Retracing Lord Ram’s footsteps

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Chitrakoot is the sort of place where every stone you stumble upon dislodges a mythology, and every blade of grass has a story to tell. Often, you are no longer sure where history ends and mythology begins… And that in essence, is the story of Chitrakoot. To my surprise I found that it actually existed. Nestled on the winding banks of the Mandakini, roughly equidistant from Khajuraho and Allahabad; relegated to mythical status and forgotten by the modern world. A place where Lord Ram spent 11 of his 14 years of exile. 

But even before Lord Ram set foot here, Chitrakoot had been a holy hotspot. This was the place where the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh were – for want of a better word – reborn. This episode takes you to the story of Sati Anusuyya. The chaste lady in question was the wife of Sage Atri, the mother of Durvasa and an icon of feminine piety. 

According to legend, having heard a lot about Anusuyya’s piety, the Divine Trinity decided to test her. (That she was beautiful, was no coincidence) So Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva disguised themselves as sages and approached her for alms. But they sort forth a condition. They received alms from a person only in his/her purest state – nude. Very well, the lady answered, seeing through the act. Transforming the Unholy Trinity into their childhood forms, she breast-fed them and placed them in a cradle.

Meanwhile, the two-million-minus-three gods felt their prolonged absence, as much as their wives. After wandering far and wide, the feminine trio came to Chitrakoot and begged Sati Anusuyya to reinstate their husbands to their former states. She relented and the gods learnt their lesson. The entire story is beautifully depicted at Mata Anusuyya’s Pracheen Mandir. 

As the wheel of time turned, Ram came with Sita to this very ashram during his years of exile. Here, Mata Anusuyya gave Sita lengthy discourses on piety, which she was to put to deadly use later. Sita also received a magical sari that would never get dirty. Mata Anusuyya’s Ashram is the first of the four holy dhams at Chitrakoot. Actually, there are 30 such holy spots scattered over an area of a few dozen kilometres. 

Being rather short on time, it made sense to take a conducted bus tour of the four main dhams. And what a bus! This was Tetanus on Wheels (for Rs. 25 it seemed quite a bargain). Crammed into the last row of this dilapidated behemoth, I waited for it to fill up. Young overweight women were being helped up the rickety steps like sacks of potatoes. Their rolls of flesh strained the seams of their blouses – a fate not different from what the bus suffered. Suddenly, a voice penetrated through the bustle. 

“Laddu nahi chadhega, peda nahi chadhega. Mataji aur behnon, agar chadhega to sirf ye 10 rupye ka packet chadhega.” (No laddus or pedas as offerings. Mothers and sisters, if anything will be accepted, it is these 10 rupee packets.)

With this, the self-appointed guide in the bus launched into a short orientation of Chitrakoot and the legend of Mata Anusuyya. And then, like Her Holiness’ handpicked sales representative, he walked down the aisle handing out packets that contained bangles, a packet of bindi, a mirror and god knows what other feminine sop. “What’s more, the packet will be returned to you after darshan”, he added. The packet sold like Kalashnikovs in Kabul. Things really went ballistic when the man announced that offerings could also be made on behalf of those unlucky souls who were absent.

Amid all this brouhaha, the bus started. Its agonising creaks were soon drowned by people singing devotional songs. We travelled 14 km to a cliff-face, where nestled between its base and the river was Mata Anusuyya’s Ashram. Apart from the rocky overhang, I wasn’t much impressed. Not until we travelled further to Gupt Godavari. Taking a cavernous route through dim-lit caves, the sacred river disappears under a tree outside, just as mysteriously as it appears. Countless years of water flowing through the caves had created weird-shaped ridges. It was unreal. The air grew heavier and sweaty bodies jostled against each other. People’s religious invocations grew louder as the environment grew more hostile.

“Bol Siya Balram Chandra Ki…” a voice would prompt, as the resounding “Jai” would echo eerily. The same passage was being used for entry and exit. The pundit at the end of the tunnel insisted on a mandatory 10-rupee donation in exchange for calling out the donor’s name to the cave gods. Impatience outweighed religious leanings and people angrily stormed past him. 

Even after the holy bus was back on the road, the claustrophobic air of Gupt Godavri hung around my head like a heavy cloak. Hopefully, Dham 3 would be better. I don’t know if Ram heard my prayers, but we stopped in a forest clearing. This was Sphatik Shila. As we dismounted, the conductor barked, “Twenty minutes!” I walked to a gigantic slab of stone on the riverbank. It looked like a layered marble cake that had sunk on account of its own weight. A seated pundit beckoned people up and asked them to sit quietly in a circle. BUT NOT ON THOSE RED MARKS! He wouldn’t continue till all were quiet. An angry glare, and it was story time…

His conjugal bliss threatened by the constant presence of his younger brother, one day Ram took advantage of Lakshman’s absence to spend some time with Sita in the woods. (This plight of Ram and Sita have long been fodder for high-priests of ribaldry.) It was here on this marble (sphatik) stone (shila), that Ram adorned Sita with a necklace of flowers. 

Indra’s son Jayant, who was watching the love-play disguised as a crow hopped onto the ground and pecked Sita on her foot. Sita cried out in pain, shattering the still air. Quietus Interruptus. An angry Ram plucked a blade of grass and darted it like an arrow at Jayant. The blade stuck on like a tail and a howling Jayant flew across seven seas, through the three worlds, to Brahma and Mount Kailash until he was redirected like an undelivered package to Lord Ram. 

Ram told the repentant Jayant that he had cast an evil eye on Sita Mata (the peck being symbolic for penetration). The misdeed would never have happened if he hadn’t seen anything in the first place. Saying this, Lord Ram gouged out one of Jayant’s eyes and consecrated it into the Mandakini. And ever since – and here I pause for effect just like the pundit had – ever since, all crows see with only one eye. (Remember how they tilt their head and avoid looking face-front?)

And what of the red marks, asked an old man astutely. The pundit chuckled like a magician letting the audience in on his favourite trick. In a conspiratorial tone, he lowered his voice and explained: That big blob is Ram’s knee where he bent one leg, that is Ram’s toe and those are Sita Mata’s footsteps. Now quietly take two parikramas (rounds) – one for Sita and one for Ram – and make way for the next group. The group of awed pilgrims staggered back to the bus in religious stupor. The conductor did little to mask his impatience at their sloth. With one sold-out trip crawling to a slow end, the cash register was ringing in his ears, but very faintly. 

The bus lurched to a stop at the fourth dham. There was some perverse diminishing equation between the dhams and the time spent at each. At Janki Kund it was down to 5 minutes. Half the passengers got down in an attempt to squeeze the bargain to its last paisa, while the rest thought – three out of four ain’t bad. In this state of confusion, I rushed down the 100-odd steps to the riverbed to the spot where Sita used to have her daily bath. More imprints. Scrawls of red. When I looked back at the steps, I realised I was the only passenger from the bus. I hot-stepped up to the waiting bus. I wondered if centuries later, all those 100 steps would be daubed with red blobs recounting the story of an ardent devotee who left behind his footprints. 

The bus sped to Chitrakoot, eager to disgorge its present occupants. The Kamad Giri hill loomed in the distance. Supposedly hollow from the inside, it has an underground network of caves where sages have been meditating for centuries. Only someone with enough bhakti in him can gain access to it. For now, it would remain unexplored. So would the torrent called Hanuman Dhara. Nor could I pinpoint Bharat Milap – the exact spot where Bharat had divested his elder brother of his wooden slippers so he could put them on the throne at Ayodhya. What I did manage to see apart from the 4 main dhams was Ram Ghat. This was where Lord Ram had taken his first dip in the Mandakini. This was also where Tulsidas saw Lord Ram’s divine form, fulfilling the life-long dream of the Ram-Bhakt. 

There was a bust of Tulsidas with an inscription of the popular couplet “Chitrakoot ke ghat pe, bhayi santan ki bheer”, its latter half made infamous by schoolboy smut. But not in Chitrakoot. Here, Ram’s name was on every lip. Perhaps the ascetic life of Ram, Sita and Lakshman had rubbed off on the place. The air of still sanctity was disturbed only by the hordes of Indian pilgrims. And to cater to them, Chitrakoot, with its narrow lanes dotted by akhadas, crumbling buildings, cheap eateries, dharamshalas and shops dispensing religious paraphernalia, fought with itself for space.

I noticed a peculiarity here. Despite the West’s fascination with worshipped phalluses, elephant gods and all things spiritual, there was not a single foreign tourist. But for an Indian who’s grown up on borrowed editions of Amar Chitra Katha, Chitrakoot is mythology resurrected to reality. And uncannily, the place seems to live up to its name – scenes (chitra) that seem the design of some great mind (koot).  

Just as I was taking my last rickshaw ride in Chitrakoot, a revelation dawned on me. You don’t have to be religious to be spiritual. Yet, there remained a nagging thought in my head. Like so many other places in India, there was so much here that was suspended on mere belief. These myths begged to be dissected. But Chitrakoot was like one huge conspiracy theory – with no loophole. Here, struggle as you might, you end up being a believer.

Author: Anurag Mallick. This article appeared in 2002 in Deccan Herald (Sunday).

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