Kishkindha: Planet of the Apes

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While present-day Hampi basks in the erstwhile glory of the Vijaynagar empire, part of its history lies buried under the debris of rocks and boulders. Just across the swift-flowing Tungabhadra, literally a stone’s throw from the village of Anegundi, you’ll stumble across what used to be Kishkindha, the monkey kingdom of Vali and Sugreeva. It was here that Hanuman was born. It was here that Shabri fed wild fruits to Rama. And it was here an important chapter from the Ramayana was enacted. The Kishkindha Kaand. 

Apart from the strains that the 14 years of exile bestowed on Lord Rama, it also gave him the travel opportunity of a lifetime. And travel he did. When Sita was abducted by Ravana from Panchvati, he and Lakshman followed the southern trail till they drifted to this monkey empire. Sugreeva had just been banished by elder brother Vali. The two brothers were once devoted to one another but fate had made deadly enemies of them. 

Once a Raakshasa named Maayaavi came at midnight to the gate of Kishkindha, their capital, and challenged Vali to a duel. The mighty Vali never refused a fight and rushed forth followed by Sugreeva. Seeing the two vanaras charge, Maayaavi fled and disappeared into a great cave. Vali ordered Sugreeva to wait at the entrance for him and entered the cave after the demon. Sugreeva waited long, but Vali did not come out. He then heard an agonizing groan, followed by a trail of blood. He thought Vali had succumbed to the giant. To make sure that the victorious Raakshasa would not rush out and destroy Kishkindha, Sugreeva blocked the entrance of the cave with a huge rock and returned to Kishkindha with his tale of Vali’s death. 

He was persuaded by the ministers and elders to become the king in Vali’s place. In fact, Vali had been victorious and came out after removing the rock with his great strength. He thought Sugreeva had betrayed him and drove him out of Kishkindha. Sugreeva was forced to take shelter on the other bank of the Tungabhadra, near the ashram of Matanga Rishi. Once, the Rishi had cursed Vali that he would die if he set foot on the land; Sugreeva therefore felt safe near this ashram. 

Hanuman, the son of the wind-god and Anjana became Sugreeva’s minister when they took refuge on Matanga-parvatam (in Hampi). It was Hanuman who spotted the itinerant princes from Ayodhya and arranged a meeting. During his temporary stay, Ram stayed atop the present-day Malyavanta Hill. The Raghunatha Temple with a large image of Ram is testimony to the fact.

Worries were exchanged. And a deal was struck when Sugreeva showed Rama some jewels which the latter recognized as Sita’s. The cavern where Sugreeva hid Sita’s jewels for safety is known as Sugreeva’s Cave and can be found today right at the southern edge of the Tungabhadra. Nearby, you’ll find a sheet rock with streaks that are explained as marks made by Sita’s garments. So it was decided that Rama would kill Vali and in return Sugreeva with his army of monkeys would help Rama find Sita. 

However Sugreeva, who had tasted his brother’s ire wanted proof that Rama had the strength to overcome Vali, who allegedly had the strength of sixty thousand elephants. Whoever faced Vali lost half his power to him. It was what gave Ravana the idea to tackle him from behind but the monkey king clamped his hand down, keeping Ravana is his armpit for six months. It wasn’t until Ram shot an arrow that pierced seven trees that stood in a line, that Sugreeva was pacified. It’s believed that somewhere in the jungles those seven trees can still be found. 

I didn’t have such good luck. But I did visit Anjanagiri and Anjani Gupha, a cave dedicated to Hanuman’s mother Anjana. The cave that has an underground network has been blocked because of threat from wild animals. A further climb up the winding steps leads to the Hanuman Temple, which till date is guarded by monkeys. Baba Bhagwan Das offered a simple meal of rice, dal, green chillis and salt but such taste, it seemed like blessed food. 

To further the episode from Ramayana, Rama killed Vali while the two brothers were engaged in hand-to-hand combat. And Sugreeva was crowned king. In present-day village of Nimbapuram there’s a big mound of ash that’s supposed to be the cremated remains of Vali. But my trip to Pampa Sarovar threw up another version. 

Baba Ram Das, guardian of the Lakshmi Temple and Pampa Sarovar came here from Lucknow 40 years ago. As he handed me his card (!) and we walked up the temple steps, he showed me what seemed a piece of porous rock. It was a piece of Vali’s bone, he said calmly. The backdrop of Pampa Sarovar is a wall of rocks that’s called Vali Killa (Fort). It’s believed the army of monkeys had built the bridge to Lanka using these very rocks. Whatever they couldn’t take with them remained, just the way you’ll find them right now in Hampi.

As I questioned Baba on local myths, he transported me to the time of creation when Brahma created the 4 Vedas, the 4 directions, the 4 castes and 4 sacred ponds or sarovars. Ganga was still in heavens and one had to take a dip in these sarovars to wash away one’s sins. While the others were Mansarovar in Kailash, Bindu Sarovar in Siddhapur, Gujarat, Narayan Sarovar in Kutch, the fourth was where we stood. Pampa Sarovar. 

Folklore talks of a devout woman called Shabri, a disciple of Sage Matanga who had fed ber (wild berries) to Rama. In antiquity (Treta Yuga), Shabri was chased away by local seers because she was a poor low caste woman. Almost immediately, the water in the pond became rotten, though no one linked it to her banishment. When Rama came that way, the local sages told him their problem. Rama touched the water and lo and behold! The water became twice as dirty. The Lord sensed something was amiss and questioned the sages. Shabri was duly reinstated and when she took a dip in Pampa Sarovar, the water became fresh once more, as it remains to this day.

Nearby you’ll find Shabri’s Gupha (cave), which magically, is naturally air-conditioned. The cave leads on to an underground path that snakes under the Tungabhadra to cover 4.5 km from Pampa Sarovar to Pampapur (Hampi), opening out near the Virupaksha Temple. A mystical place since eternity, this was where Lord Shiva married Parvati. According to folklore, Shiva was undergoing a penance on Hemakunta Hill nearby and as Kama’s arrow found its mark, the ascetic God found himself strangely attracted to Parvati. But on sensing Kama’s presence, he opened his third eye and reduced the God of Love to cinders. This legend led to Shiva’s personification as Virupaksha (Virup Aksha or The terrible-eyed one). The river took its name from Parvati’s name Pampa and the sacred area came to be known as Pampa-kshetra.

But back on the other side of the Tungabhadra, right adjacent to Shabri’s cave is the magical Lakshmi Temple. Vidyaranya Swami, the seer from Sringeri Math who laid the foundation of the Vijayanagar Empire first came to this place. For 24 years, he undertook a penance for the cause, but when no visions came to him, he thought of quitting in disgust. But that very night, the Goddess Lakshmi appeared to him in his sleep and asked him to make a wish. The Sage in mockery asked for a rain of gold for an hour and 15 minutes. And don’t snigger as you read this, the next day it rained gold. The temple was constructed in 1336. And the idol is made of pure gold. Photography is prohibited. If you think I’ve just let prospective art smugglers onto a big secret, you underestimate religion and the power it wields. Not so long ago, a man of similar beliefs ate a fish he caught from Pampa Sarovar. The very day, he was struck by paralysis and was reduced to a quadriplegic. After months of suffering, a yagna was arranged. The man was just getting back some strength in his legs, as I returned from Hampi to Bangalore.

Getting there: 375 km north of Bangalore via Tumkur, Chitradurga and Hospet 

Travel Tips: The terrain is barren and the weather dry. Dress light and drink lots of water. The locally available tender coconut is best. The distances between monuments is considerable, so hiring a cycle is the best way to explore Hampi. For any shopping, books and local info including stay and guides, contact Aspiration Stores, Main Road, Hampi.

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

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