The Power Trip, The Pioneer, Aug 2002

Patience had become second nature. I was ready to wait an eternity for that something I could not define. Yet, behind my bold demeanor and stubborn will of one who would not ask a second time, was a heart that squirmed for that one drop of nectar that would quench its thirst forever. Putting aside urgent assignments for an unfamiliar destination in the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand, for an undecided number of days, I headed out. Only the journey was important, destination was not.

Mothers flashing content smiles while braiding girlie hair, young boys carrying straw baskets over their backs kick-starting the day by kicking stones with sticks, men hanging out at dhabas awaiting the first badge of morning tourists, snow-fed peaks conversing with the breeze, an occasional roar of the leopard… these comprised the views of the humble village of Bhubneshwar that boasts of Shiva's underground (Patal) cave temple. This is the place, I had heard, where Pandavas (five brothers of the epic Mahabharata) shed their mortal frames after a game of dice with none other than Shiva! Not without reason are 800 verses of the Manaskhanda Purana refer to Patal.

Ringing the bell at the divine portal in the shape of Sheshnag’s hood (King of serpents), I uttered a prayer before sliding down the slimy throat of the great serpent (a slippery ladder of stony steps) with the aid of ropes. Down the 21st step of this narrow tunnel with dragon faces jutting out of the stony walls beckoning me, the cave opened up suddenly into an egg-like space. The 1000 stony feet of Araval elephant carpeted the cave floor. Takshak and Vasuki serpents, made immortal in stone, guarded the sacrificial-pit (a natural hole in the stony cave) where the ancient fire rituals of serpents were performed. I took the hint. Mustn’t all serpents of desire be sacrificed before one can qualify to tread further?

Right ahead, a heart shaped rock (Shiva’s wish-fulfilling bowl) asked from me a wish. I clasped it fervently in my palms, and while my mind frantically paced to ask for an appropriate favor, my heart resigned to the silence of the cave. Lighter in spirit for having shed the weight of desire, and won this test of intent, I delved deeper. Carefully balancing my feet on Sheshnag's skeleton that carried a close resemblance to a live snake, I almost tripped upon the severed head of Adi Ganesha. A 108 petal stone lotus covering it from atop lovingly sustains it by a regular drip, awaiting its resurrection by the elephant head. Adjacent to this stood the miniature stone idols of holy pilgrimage spots of Mt Kailash, Nanda Devi, Trishul, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yamunotri and Amarnath. As I was about to yield to the myth that seeing these miniatures is equivalent to completing all pilgrimages, the angry jutting out tongue of Kala Bhairava stood in front, dripping with sticky drops of saliva. He is the fierce manifestation of Shiva associated with annihilation, describe the scriptures, and from its tongue through its tail is the route to the highest celestial worlds.

An indescribable yearning to be freed from the toll of time propelled me to venture (though excruciatingly) into the narrow mouth of Kala Bhairav. Crawling on my stomach, wrestling with adamant limbs, and careful not to bruise my head by the sharp sloping edges of the passage, I wriggled into the womb and stood enveloped in its pitch-dark for few seconds. As my torchlight scanned the enclosed walls, I spotted the slippery cruel climb of its tail, and decided I was not ready yet! Coming out blackened from head to heel wasn’t easy, yet this extra dose of adventure further vet my appetite, and I moved onto the next sequence—the four doors. Those of Sin and War are believed to have closed after the end of Mahabharata. I was ushered into the Dharma Dwar by Patal Bharaivi, the female winged protector of the cave embedded at the entrance, and emerged from the fourth door of Moksha, I felt an expanse of having symbolically reached!

Here, I witnessed the Parijaat tree brought by Lord Krishna from Indra’s empire, fully laden with fruit and leaf in stone, the Ashoka Vriksha and the four lingams representing the four eras. Prophecy goes that when the lingam representing Kali Yuga believed to be growing steadily, meets the cone growing simultaneously from above, it shall be the end of our time. A huge mass of rock in the exact contour of a ripped skull lay right ahead of me. Drops of water oozing from a protruded rock from above (closely resembling an udder) fell precisely in the center of this skull in regular intervals of time. This, I learnt, was the fifth head of Brahma, severed by Shiva’s fury and timelessly sustained by Kamadhenu’s nourishing udder. This spot is where one paid homage to forefathers.

Moving a further few steps, one spots the magnificent locks of Lord Shiva himself! Most unbelievably, one entire wall of the cave is combed to reveal the separate hair strands of Shiva, acquiring a shimmering white hue dripping with the glorious white Ganges. The thought that perhaps the unstoppable whirl of Ganges mapping the entire planet begins from this innocent drip, made me dizzy. Along the cave wall is seen the constellation of a zillion tiny stones, described as the milky way or the demigods worshipping the Ganges. At the base is Nandi, the holy cow, and the hand of Vishwakarma (personification of the abstract creative power inherent in deities).

Sensory overload of myth and intrigue began to warm up my mind. The journey into the cave, I had sensed from the start, somehow correlated to the journey into our own hidden selves. Being led, I reached the heart of the cave where Shakti is worshipped. An emergence of fire is believed to have shot out from this spot that was later sealed with a copper lid by Adi Guru Shankaracharya for humanity’s sanity! Three stones embedded on this copper plate (representing three natural powers) are periodically bathed by water drops from the stone roof above, with magical precision.

We now reach the end of the cave, the final decision making moment, where one can either win heaven, or be given the verdict for yet another round of birth. To decide this fate, one has to ensue a game with none other than Lord Shiva himself! Through Koteshwar Mahadev’s locks and fangs of many a serpent, one is led up to the game portal. The chausar board (an intelligence and skill building game played since the time of Mahabharata) is spread out in rock, surrounded by stone relics of Shiva (with Ganesha in his arms), Parvati, the five Pandavas and a witnessing audience. Here commences, just as at the end of ones life, an exchange with our creator that would determine our onward course.

As I stood nostalgically glancing at all the years I have left behind, the guide notioned me back, as it was past five, and time to return. The visit that stood testimony to a near experience of liberation ended here, but not the search that it ignited within me. As I emerged out of the dark Pataal into blinding daylight, I was convinced I dwell somewhere amidst the many faces embedded in these walls... that I have already existed in time, dead and buried, or perhaps yet to be.