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Our steel web of sacred geography

The Ramsetu debate, according to our justifiably cynical public, seems more about Lakshmi than about Vishnu , writes Renuka Narayanan.

delhi Updated: Sep 22, 2007 17:48 IST
Renuka Narayanan

The Ramsetu debate, according to our justifiably cynical public, seems more about Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, than about Vishnu (of whom Ram is the seventh avatar). Socho zara, says the common man. A multi-crore project like Sethusamudram means huge kickbacks from contracts to whoever hands them out, especially with elections not all that far away, he notes. The BJP mooted the project and now that this sarkar is trying to get it going, the BJP is basically spoiling sport: what does the BJP care about Ram? But everyone loves to love Lakshmi and fervently hopes to be loved back by her!

Much is made of the fact that India became one political entity from Kashmir to Kanyakumari only in 1947. So how come the sub-continent always thought of itself as ‘one’. The concept, Aa setu himaachala, may have had something to do with it: from Rameshwaram to the Himalayas, runs the Land of King Bharata, the Island of the Rose-apple (bharatavarshe jambudvipe).

To fix the notion, Adi Shankara brought Namboodri priests from Kerala to be the Maharawals of the Badrinath shrine and swapped everyone around between Puri in the east, Dwaraka in the west, Badri-Kedar in the north and the southern peninsula.

I remember taking punga with a German researcher in India from some provincial town, I think it was Tubingen. She declared, “Indians never travelled. It is something new for them.” I asked, inside or outside? She said, both. We know that’s not true. Yes, we did not cross the seas. But there was an ancient practice of yatra or pilgrimage, since before the Buddha’s time. If you join the dots there’s a huge grid of sacred geography underpinning this enormous sub-continent of ours and we should not be in such a hurry to accept feringhee opinions on ourselves and our ways. Do let us apply our own minds to understanding ourselves, so that neither the feringhee nor our own cynical politicians can make fools of us as they repeatedly have.

Just think: there are twelve jyotirlinga or Shaiva shrines of special sanctity scattered all over India. The Dwadasa Jyotirlinga Stotra lists them: Saurashtre Somanaatham cha, Srishaile Mallikarjunam, Ujjayinyaam Maha Kaalam, Omkaare Mamaleswaram, Himalayeto Kedaram, Daakinyaam Bhima Shankaram, Vaaran-aasyaam cha Viswesam, Triyambakam Gautamitate, Paralyaam Vaidyanaatham cha, Naagesam Daarukaavane, Setubandhe Ramesham, Grushnesam cha Shivaalaye.

Then you have the places where bits of Sati’s body are said to have fallen, of which two famous examples are Kamaakhya in Assam and Maihar in Madhya Pradesh. There is a separate Devi circuit memorised as “Kanchi Kamakshi, Madurai Meenakshi, Kashi Vishalakshi”. There’s the Char Dham, which you’ll see shivering small-town South Indians, most woefully clad in thin woolies, staunchly essay in the Himalayas: Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamunotri. Nothing in their entire lives has prepared them for mountain cold, but they gamely quake and quiver on this very holy pilgrimage as an act of pure faith. Each year the Amarnath pilgrims from every corner of India brave the real and present danger of terrorist attacks in J&K.

The south has a six-temple circuit to Kartikeya and the nine important, beautiful Navagraha temples of the Thanjavur district. Plus there are all those great stand-alone temples that you just show up at wherever you’re from and are welcomed at without questions: be it Dakshineshwar in Kolkata or Tirupati. Yes, there are issues at some temples, like not allowing women or non-Hindus. But the issue here is that there’s a dense, huge grid of tirthas and kshetras that has held up Bharat since forever. Other layers were added with Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Sikhism and Christianity.

The point is, sacred geography is an old, ticking concept. To dismiss it as just stories is unrealistic. Development does NOT have to be exactly there. Think how Kashi, Mathura and Ayodhya became flashpoints only because a certain ruler who died in 1707 disrespected the common people’s beliefs. We’re still paying the price for his deeds, aren’t we?