I was on a road trip from Shimla to Manali via Kinnaur, Sangla Valley, Lahaul and Spiti, passing through the famous Kunzum Pass that opens only for a small window of time during July-August. Our first stop was Thanedar, not too far from Shimla.
On a foggy day, we climbed the Hatu Peak, with the hope that the fog would eventually lift and allow us to take in the beauty of the Himachal landscape. It had other plans though. I saw our first Kathkuni or stone-and-wood temple on its peak, dedicated to Hatu Mata. Surrounded by fog, the temple appeared even more mystical.
Inside the temple, there is just a natural rock that is worshipped. The purohit told me that the rock was Draupadi.
This is where Draupadi fell and died when the Pandavas were on their way to the Himalayas, after handing over their kingdom to their grandson Parikshit.
Over time, she has come to be known as Hatu Mata, and is treated like a deity. This was the Pandava footprint in the Shivalik Range of the Himalayas.
On the same trip, as we reached the mystical Chandratal Lake in the Lahaul region, we heard the story of the Pandavas again.
We were told that this was the place where Indra’s chariot descended on earth, to take Yudhishtir, the eldest Pandava, to Swargaloka.
It then dawned on me that we had been following the final journey of the Pandavas, though we seemed to have missed the places where the other four Pandavas fell.
During their exiles, both Sri Ram in Ramayana and the Pandavas in Mahabharata travelled across the country.
It was almost like an opportunity they seized to travel and acquaint themselves with the vast country. While Ramayana footprints stay on two or three paths connecting Ayodhya to Rameshwaram, Pandava footprints are found across the country.
I wonder if there is any part of India that does not carry their footprint, even if it is generally believed that the Pandavas did not really travel southwards. In a small village called Arvalem in North Goa, six small caves carved out in native laterite stone are known as the Pandava Caves. Five of them, believed to be belonging to the five Pandavas, now have Shivalingas installed in them. Belief is that the brothers stayed here during their agyat vas or the last year of their exile and prayed to Shiva. The sixth cave is called Draupadi’s Kitchen. Interestingly, it has a kitchen-like platform with depressions carved on it, which look like utensils to hold food. The legend does not end here.
The caves are located next to a natural waterfall, creating a pond, which is believed to have been created by Bhim. Bhim Goda is a term used for many water bodies across the country that are attributed to Bhim, as if he alone was responsible for arranging water supply for the family, or perhaps, he was the one who had the power to dig wells and ponds. The most famous of these is the Bhimtal in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand. It is a huge lake with a Bhimeshwar Mahadev Temple on its banks, indicating that Bhima did indeed live there and installed and worshipped a Shivalinga that is now known by his name. In the heart of India, close to Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, you find the famous Bhimbetka Caves where we have pre-historic rock art, an indicator that the land has been inhabited since ages.
The hall-like entrance to the caves is believed to be the baithak or the living room of Bhim, giving the place its name Bhim Baithak, which later got distorted to Bhimbetka. The Chambal River that flows through the southern slopes of the Vindhyas and covers parts of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, is believed to be a cursed river. It is one of the rare rivers that is not worshipped. A legend links it back in time to the Mahabharata. It is believed that it was around this river that the infamous dice game that led to the disrobing of Draupadi took place, and that she cursed the river that her waters would not be drunk and that no one would worship her the way most other rivers are worshipped by the people they nourish. It is up to you to believe or disbelieve this story, but my basic research says that it is true that the river is not worshipped.
Ironically, today, it is one of the cleanest rivers in India and boasts of its aquatic biodiversity. Another place where you find the footprints of the Pandavas is Mahabalipuram, where the earliest stone temples are named after the five brothers, and the most beautiful sculpture on these rockfaces is called Arjuna’s penance. I am yet to read the original Mahabharata, and abridged versions never carry the real locations that the Pandavas travelled to. Even when this is mentioned, it is not easy to map those locations to their current names. However, every pilgrimage site has an intersection with the journeys in these epics; be it in small towns and villages or remote lakes, you always find the footprints of the Pandavas.
Technically, we will never be able to figure out if the Pandavas actually travelled to these places or not. Even so, culturally, their travel is so well woven into the warp and weft of this country that one can never be without them, no matter where one stands on this land. Do these common stories bind us together with some invisible threads? Did the travelling pilgrims carry these stories with them when they travelled? Or did the storytellers at these ancient pilgrimage places tell these stories to the travellers visiting their land? Were the places trying to own a piece of the Mahabharata, and the easiest way was to get the Pandavas to travel to them? Or is it that the descendants of the Kuru dynasty or the residents of Hastinapur travelled and settled all over the land and took their legends along with them? Extracted with permission from Anuradha Goyal’s book Lotus in the Stone, published by Garuda Prakashan
Were the places trying to own a piece of the Mahabharata, and the easiest way was to get the Pandavas to travel to them?