Patal Bhuvaneshwar cave – Treasure trove of Indian Mythology

This entry is part 12 of 9 in the series Kumaon Itinerary

“If you will not visit these caves, you are not a true Indian”. Some other time, I would not have liked this absurd comment to my eight year old kid from a stranger lady. It is difficult for me to digest how someone may consider visiting a cave complex as a test of person’s love and loyalty for his country. However, on that day, I was not really unhappy about the comment.

While we were planning the Kumaon itinerary, research on the net did not convince us to include the cave complex in the trip. Few bloggers felt it was unsafe, slippery, and muddy and for those who liked it, I was not sure if it was due to their religious inclination or were the caves really worth a visit for a religiously challenged tourist.

I discussed these apprehensions with my friend Mona, who belongs to that region. She insisted that we must include it in the itinerary and added that some of her old aged relatives visited the caves and found them scintillating. So even with all the reservations, Patal Bhuvaneshwar was not completely stroked out from the plan.

Jaishree was not interested in including the caves in the itinerary as Tanmay was too young. We had already been to a few huge cave complexes in Europe, like “Grottes de Choranche” and “Grottes de Sassanage” in France and caves of Toirano in Italy, so the novelty factor was also missing.

However, at Chaukori, our drivers looked convinced that we must visit the caves. They suggested that the caves are only 36 km from there and can be visited with a small detour while moving to our next destination Jageshwar. So finally these caves were made part of the journey.

In Patal Bhuvaneshwar, as we were walking towards the cave complex, a young couple stopped us and insisted that we must avoid the caves. They strongly felt that with so many tourists inside the caves, it would be highly suffocating in there. So the doubts about the caves were there even when we were right at the entrance.

At the entrance of Patal Bhuvaneshwar Caves

We decided to enter in two groups as we did not want to take Tanmay (two years old) inside. My brother-in-law’s family was the first to enter. We decided to enter only if they would give a positive feedback. Rachit was keen in entering the cave with his cousins. We did not allow him as it might have been difficult to control three kids inside.

The first group, my brother-in-law’s family, was enthralled and almost pushed reluctant Jaishree to pay a visit. Jaishree agreed halfheartedly, yet, Rachit was stubbornly showing his total disinterest. The comment about his being a true Indian did the trick and he agreed to accompany us. I was glad that he decided to come along.

Patal Bhuvaneshwar is a lime-stone cave complex. Nature here is playing the role of a never-tiring sculptor, working in solitude and creating marvelous carvings and structures. As it happens in most of these cave complexes, dazzled human mind knits amazing stories around these conspicuous structures. In India, these stories are mostly woven around religious beliefs and interesting characters of mythology come alive and are immortalized in these structures.

I like mythology immensely. Perhaps regularly reading the children magazine “Nandan” in the formative years of my learning generated never ending interest in it.

These caves invoke spiritual fervor in a religiously inclined person. According to the religious belief, whenever Lord Shiva decides to descend from the celestial heights of his abode in mount Kailash, he passes through these caves. These caves are believed to be connected to the revered mountain at one end, and to the Rameshwaram Ghat, at the confluence of three sacred rivers – Saryu, Kaliganga and Ramganga, at the other end. These caves are also considered to be the abode of thirty three crore deities of Hindu pantheon including lesser gods like gandharvas, apsaras, vidyadhars, rakshas and nagas.

The entrance to the cave complex is through a vertically downward narrow tunnel. We descended by an iron ladder and thereafter moved down holding ropes to support ourselves on a sharp descent. The guide was prompt in helping Rachit and soon we were on a simpler trail.

There we walked on small steps that resembled skeletal remains of some character of dinosaur era. Guide was quick in drawing our attention towards those steps and told us that we were walking on the ribs of Sheshnag. He reminded us that Sheshnag is not only the comforting bed of Lord Vishnu, but is also responsible for holding earth stable. His hood shades the god and his yawn causes earthquakes.

Nag Kanya Ceiling (Lord Vishnu, resting on Sheshnag) in Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum in Pune

In Kumaon, I noticed many vehicles with the names of revered snake figureheads –Takshak, Vasuki, Sheshnag, and Kaliyanag engraved over them. Nags are worshiped all over India; however, the reverence is much pronounced in this region. According to the belief, gods and demons used naga Vasuki for churning the ocean. Later it was adored by Lord Shiva as his girdle and necklace. Lord Shiva, is the god of mountains. As nags are his ornament, so they are considered dear to him and are revered by Shiva’s devotees. Perhaps, this is the reason that these divine and powerful serpents are venerated in the region.

Mahadev in Sammidheshwar Temple, Chittorgarh Fort

Mahadev in Sammidheshwar Temple, Chittorgarh Fort

The narrow passage opened into a full-size cave. There the guide pointed towards seven small bowl-shaped kunds and a natural carving of a bird frozen in stone. He narrated the episode when Lord Shiva gave kheer to his beloved nags in these bowls and ordered Garud to keep guard. Garud was instructed not to turn his head until nags finished their serving. However, after some time Garud got curious, would some kheer be left for him, and turned. Lord Shiva noticed and cursed him to get frozen then and there.

Garud and nagas share interesting relationship. Both of them are understood to be the sons of sage Kashyap. Sage Kashyap had two beautiful wives, Kadru and Vinata, who happened to be the real sisters. The sage granted them the wish of powerful heirs. Kadru desired thousand offspring, Vinata asked for only two but with the rider that her sons’ strength should surpass that of Kadru’s offspring.

In due time Kadru laid thousand eggs and Vinata laid two. Thousand eggs hatched into serpents, however, Vinata’s egg failed to hatch. After waiting for five hundred years, impatient and uncertain Vinata broke open one of her eggs to find an embryo with only the upper half developed. The embryo cursed his mother of becoming slave to her sister Kadru for her haste and ascended into the sky where he remains even today as Aruna, the red glow of the dawn. Vinata had to wait another five hundred years when the second egg broke and revealed Garuda, who eventually freed her from the curse.

Garud

Garud

Interesting! I heard that it is not preferred among some Indian families to have marriages of their sons with real sisters, as the envy among the two never ends. Does this belief have something to do with this story!

There is something more to it. Is it possible that these stories have some connection with the early struggles between Shaivites (those who worship Lord Shiva) and Vaishnavites (those who worship Lord Vishnu)? Is it likely that the powerful nag kings (who were Shaivaites) got their nemesis in powerful bird kings – Garuda (the followers of Lord Vishnu) and thereafter started an unending rivalry between the two?

Garud and a Snake etched on the temple of Halebid, Karnataka

Some of the readers might be wondering that in view of their rivalry, how is it possible that both Sheshnag and Garud serve Lord Vishnu. According to the belief, Sheshnag was the only serpent, among thousand sons of Kadru, who disliked the maltreatment given to her stepmother Vinata and left the nag kingdom. Obviously it makes Sheshnag acceptable to Garud.

I see some similarity between this mythological story and Mahabharta as well. Thousand serpent sounds similar to hundred Kauravs, two sons of Vinata looks similarly disproportionate as five Pandavs. In both the cases, one from the majority side joined the smaller group (Sheshnag here and Yuyutsu in Mahabharat), rebelling against the atrocities caused by the majority. Is it possible that Mahabharta and Garud-Nag purana has some cross-inspirations?

On a lighter note, the clear message is “smaller the number, better the offspring are”. Was it a way to promote family planning in ancient times?

Coming back, while walking through the caves, the guide explained that in the beginning there were four doors and so the four directions to walk along. Those doors are namely – पाप द्वार, युध द्वार, धर्म द्वार और कर्तव्य द्वार (the door of sin and crime, the door of war, the door of righteousness, and the door of duty). He narrated that out of these four doors; three are closed now, associated with some important events of past. The door of sin and crime was closed after the death of Ravana. The door of war was closed after Mahabharat and the door of righteousness was closed after Yudhishtir attained nirvana. Today only the door of duty remains open. In other words, in this era, the only direction human beings can take is the direction of duty towards the Supreme Self. The guide flashed his torch in those directions and we could see some closed paths due to landslides.

There was a stream with many pebbles in it. Those pebbles were giving an impression of many people standing in an assemblance. The guide revered them as thirty-three crore devi-devta of Hinduism. I wonder could it be possible that the concept of thirty-three crore Gods and Goddesses was of the time when similar numbers of human beings were believed to inhabit the earth. Perhaps, it was a way to acknowledge the presence of God in every human being.

In religious symbolism a visit to this Cave is given equal significance as to a trip to Badrinath, Kedarnath, and Amarnath. In the cave there were natural carvings that resemble these tirths.

In one corner a stream was gushing down on rocks with white colored mineral deposit drooping like long locks of a yogi in meditation. The guide explained that those were Shiva’s matted locks bearing Ganga’s surging onslaught. He narrated how Raja Bhagirath wanted to liberate and bring eternal peace to the soul of his ancestors, who became victim of sage Kapil’s fury. With his severe penance, he convinced Ganga to descend from heaven. Ganga’s agreement, however, generated a fear that her mighty descend would cause a hole in the earth. Bhagirath prayed to Lord Shiva to help him out. Shiva got ready and attained Ganga in to his matted hairs before she came to earth and then allowed it to flow through a streak of his hair.

Further on, we passed through a tunnel believed to be Patal Bhairav’s body. We entered through its mouth with its tongue hanging down and came out through the other end.

We were then shown the formation, believed to be the original head of Bal Ganesha that Shiva cut in his rage. As Shiva realized his mistake, he repented and immediately put a Brahma Kamal over the head. There was a natural replica of Brahma Kamal over Ganesha’s head and it is believed that the nectar(water) dripping from its petals would keep the head alive for ever.

Scientific study of caves (Speleology) reveals that the continuous interaction of limestone rocks with water produces speleothems. These speleothems can be broadly classified as stalagmite and stalactite. Stalactite formations suspend from the cave ceilings and are created as water flows down the formation and evaporates leaving layers of calcite. Stalagmite formation rise upward from the cave floor and are formed by water dripping from ceiling formation. Are you finding it difficult to remember? An interesting way to remember the difference between the two. The C in stalactite refers to ceiling and the G in stalagmite to ground.

Our guide then drew our attention towards three Stalagmite formations that looked like three heads. He said that those heads represent the trinity of Hinduism – Vishnu, Mahesh and Brahma. Those three heads had three corresponding Stalactite over them. Out of these three, water was dripping over the heads of Shiva and Vishnu, but had dried over the head of Brahma. Guide explained that it happened when Brahma lied about finding the end of Shiva Lingam in his competition with Vishnu. That lie turned fatal to the trust in Brahma, even among his worshippers. Furious at Brahma’s lie Shiva cut his fifth head, Brahma lost his devotees and the falling water, nature’s अर्ध्य to the trinity, dried over Brahma’s head.

All over the world, the caves provide strong symbols to the believers of apocalypse of the approaching doomsday. How our country and the caves of Patal-Bhuvneshwar could be an exception! The guide drew our attention towards an ever increasing stalagmite and stalactite formation (approaching each other), prophesying that the day these two structures will meet will be the doom’s day. So the optimistic believers of apocalypse (is it an oxymoron), be happy, in 2012- is not the end of world 🙂 The two formations in Patal Bhuvaneshwar may take centuries to touch each other.

Moving around, the guide pointed towards a dark corner of the cave and told that there is a formation that reflects the last journey of Pandavas. It was pitching dark in there, so he discouraged us and suggested that we can probably leave that and move ahead. However, there were enthusiasts in our group who immediately took out their mobiles and requested the guide to show the formation. In that dark corner, we had to climb a little higher to have a look.

It was amazingly similar. There were clusters of stones that appeared like representing a group on a long journey, moving higher up in the mountains. At the lowest level that looked like the start of journey, there was a cluster of six stones. That cluster reduced by one when it seemed to move ahead (in height and distance). The pattern was repeating itself with one stone less each time. In the end, there was only one reaching higher up, symbolizing Yudhishtir’s reaching heaven and attaining Nirvana.

Churning of ocean as depicted on the temple of Halebid

It was time to come out and while coming out the guide indicated towards the treasures of the result of churning of ocean – Kaamdhenu (the sacred cow) and Airawat (the mighty elephant that carries Indra, the lord of rains). We were shown the stone formation that reminds the udders of Kaamdhenu and many legs of Airawat.

Indra on Airawat, Cambodia, Banteay srei

With this ended our trip to this wonderful cave and we came out stunned and impressed.

Everyone has to enter barefoot inside the cave. Walking barefoot inside the caves make the feet and the portion below knee greasy and blackened. Outside, while we were washing our feet a kid was asking difficult question about the truth of these beliefs and stories. I could sense discomfort in father’s reply as he wanted the kid to understand the science behind these formations without trampling his tender spirituality.

If my kids would ever have any doubt or dilemma about the supreme self, my simple message to them would be, “Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones. ” – Marcus Aurelius, philosopher and writer (121-180)

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