The train lurches into Mirzapur station two hours behind the scheduled time, long after the early morning mist has cleared. It appears to be a typical Purvanchal town, worn away by time. Workshops containing carpet looms flash by. Once outside the town precincts, the taxi races ahead. Turrets on each side of the road comprise the gateway to Devi kshetra. For, ahead lies Vindhyachal, verdant swathe of the lush Ganga basin, hallowed by a fabled triad of ancient shakti temples—Vindhyavasini, Ashtabhuja and Kalikhoh—other pilgrimages and ashrams.
The Himalayas are deva bhoomi, land of the gods; and this is siddha bhoomi. The efforts of spiritual aspirants are said to be rewarded quickly here. One’s curiosity is fuelled by reports of fleeting glimpses of exalted beings late at night in the forested Vindhya hills, of reclusive seekers, and of frequent supernatural phenomena. An aged Aghori with dreadlocks points to the base of a hillock that overlooks a pond and observes: “A snake and mongoose live together inside a hole over there. It is a mark of siddha bhoomi.”
Quizzed about his diet, the Aghor regimen being commonly associated with consumption of forbidden things, he picks up a green gourd and says, “This is what I eat.”
He was a government functionary earlier. Retirement benefits having accrued to his erstwhile family, he made his abode under a tree beside a small Ganesh shrine on the hillock. He has since relocated to the domain of Lord Shiv Varanasi, about 70 km away, to build an ashram on a plot of land, donated by a disciple.
Vindhyachal is also adi peeth, the earliest locus of feminine power, perfectly complementing the adjoining Varanasi. Shiv and Shakti are never apart. Traditional lore cites Varanasi and Vindhyachal together as being the oldest places in the world, surviving pralay, the periodic dissolution that is followed by resurrection. Lord Shiv is believed to prop up the region with his trident when the great deluge swamps the earth, to be laid down after the flood waters recede.
Such metaphysics underlie reality. The supplicant must undertake the trikon parikrama, pilgrimage to the shrines of Vindhyavasini, Ashtabhuja and Kalikhoh, located on hills, a few kilometres apart, at one go, at least once in the event of frequent visits to the town. Timing is crucial as the doors of the temples remain shut in the afternoon. The principal shrine, of Vindhyavasini Devi, consecrates the site where one of the 51 or, as some believe, 52 pieces of Sati’s body fell. Pauranic accounts hold that after Sati, the primeval shakti, relinquished her body by her father Daksh’s sacrificial pit through rage over Daksh’s deliberate ploy not to invite her consort Shiv to his yagya, Shiv traversed the cosmos, carrying her body on his shoulder. Fearing that such grief would destroy the world, Vishnu dispatched his Sudarshan chakra to fragment her body. Wherever a portion fell—throughout the subcontinent, and in Nepal and Sri Lanka, across the sea—it became sanctified. These shrines bound the whole together, like a thread strung with beads.
The temple is doubly revered as it is believed to mark the place where Goddess Durga killed the demonic Mahishasur. The battle between Mahadevi and the demons Shumbh-Nishumbh was also said to have been played out in this hilly terrain, resulting in their destruction. ‘Durga Saptashati’ in Markandeya Puran, 700 verses that comprise the Chandi Paath, recited to invoke the goddess’s blessings and protection, recounts the saga.
Shops lining the pathways to the temple display a profusion of colour and wares: vermilion and orange sindoor mounds; offerings of batasha, puffed rice, elaichidana, makhana and coconuts; hibiscus and marigold garlands; pictures and images of deities; puja items; and vibrant-hued chadars. Special intercessions via the rite of phool sajja entail priests decorating the deity with flowers at the behest of supplicants. Her sringaar is integral to the regimen of worship, as too music, with drums and nagada playing. A Kajali competition in June every year demonstrates the rich musical legacy of the region. The nine-day spring and autumnal worship, Navratris, attracts huge crowds. Embodying Lakshmi, the goddess showers grace instantly.
On Ashtabhuja hill, accessed by a steep flight of steps, the deity’s eight arms wield a wide array of weapons. She embodies Saraswati, and is also identified with Krishna’s elder sister, who, escaping the murderous Kansa’s grasp, came to rest here. The Shakt and Vaishnav strands thus coalesce seamlessly. Nearby, Kalikhoh verges on a dense forest, where tigers still roam. Hungry langoors wait to be given prasad by pilgrims. Mahadevi’s formidable emanation Kali killed the demon Raktabeej at this place after drinking every drop of his blood, which had the power to generate thousands of Raktabeej if it fell on the ground.
Shrines of other deities nestle in the valley and atop the hills. And the Ganga, a rippling expanse, flows onwards to Varanasi.