It was the month of February (2019) and I was in Dandakaranya yet again, looking for springs, river udgams and rock art caves.
Although the current was swift, the depth was manageable. Wading ankle deep I reached almost the middle of the Mawai river. Soothing sand and teasing gravel greeted my feet. Frolicking, it suddenly struck me, “was I standing on an inter-state border”?
The Mawai is one of the smaller, but perennial tributaries, of the Banas river which in turn feeds the Son River. More importantly it now forms the border over a large part of its length, between the recently created state of Chhattisgarh and its progenitor state of Madhya Pradesh.
Then the wrongness of it all struck me … not the bifurcation of the state, but treating a river as a border. While cartographically a river line might be the most convenient border between nations and states and has been so over the centuries, ecologically it is a very poor decision. It is akin to portioning a house between feuding brothers, to rob it then, of its extant homeliness.
Two banks of a river make it whole. But if they were to be looked after by two different wardens, horrendous and hideous results could sometimes follow.
Even administratively it is a poor decision since a river course is not static over time and space. As a result the border becomes a source of conflict and bitterness between people on both banks.
But I wasn’t in the forests of Sanjay National Park (Sidhi district) of north east Madhya Pradesh to lament a cartographic error. It was the month of June (2017 to be precise) and I was looking for perennial sources of water in and originating from the forests. In addition I was looking for caves that held prehistoric cave art. That the latter endeavor could have almost cost me my life or limb is another story for another day!
Day one in the field had been pretty hectic and had taken us to the Banas – Son confluence, a number of interesting and varied springs and to the udgam, origin, of the Kudmar River. It wasn’t till 11pm and we were ready to hit our beds, when Sri Vijendra Khobargade, the Park Assistant Director who had very graciously agreed to escort me round the park, asked “if I had interest in historical sites too”? To my enthusiastic yes, he said that if we started early the next day, we could visit Harchoka across the Mawai in Chhattisgarh.
Verse 26 in section 11 of ‘Aranyakand’ of Srimad Valmiki Ramayan reads:
तत्र संवसतः तस्य मुनीनाम् आश्रमेषु वै || ४-११-२६
रमतः च आनुकूल्येन ययुः संवत्सरा दश |
“While Raghava stayed comfortably taking delight in those hermitages of sages, indeed ten years have smoothly elapsed”.
Ram’s sojourns and exploits during his 14 year exile ,vanvas, from Ayodhya spent at Chitrakut, Panchvati, Kishkindha and Lanka as narrated both in Srimad Valmiki Ramayan and Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas are far better known amongst devotees than the 10 of those 14 years that he in the company of his brother Laxman and wife Sita spent wandering in Dandakaranya, the forests of Dand named after an ancestor of his, who had in the past been banished to those forests.
Legend has it that having sought blessings from sage Atri and his wife Anusuia, the trio left Chitrakut for Dandakarnya and reached the ashram of sage Suteekshna at the mouth of the great forests. Ten years later they returned to the same ashram before proceeding south westwards to the ashram of sage Agastya who directed them to Panchvati (Nasik) on the banks of the Godavari River. It was here amongst other events that Sita was abducted and taken away to Lanka by Ravana. The rest as they say is history!
Geographically, present-day Chhattisgarh, west Odisha and north Telengana forming parts of the Son, Mahanadi and Godavari basins and falling east of the Vindhyan mountains and west of the Eastern ghats is where Dandakaranya was spread. Followers, devotees and experts on the Ramayana have identified, based on local names of places, folklore and anecdotal evidence, the path taken between Ayodhya and Lanka and around 197 places visited by them during the exile.
This is about two such sites located in north-west Chhattisgarh.
Early next morning we started for Harchoka, popularly claimed to be the gateway to Dandakaranya. The state of Chhattisgarh has ambitious plans to ‘develop’ it and others as tourist destinations around Sri Ram’s sojourns in the state.
Currently, Harchoka is a small sleepy village on the banks of the Mawai and claims its place in the sun from a subterranean network of caves located on the river bank. Local folklore has it that the trio of Ram, Laxman and Sita spent a night here with Sita utilizing one of the caves as her kitchen (Choka in vernacular) and hence the name of the village.
One has to descend a few steps to reach the cut stone caves. These, despite the fresh coat of color are clearly ancient. A statue in one of them and a swing of nails kept in the court yard were notable features. A retaining wall raised all around the cave complex is a much later addition to presumably keep the floodwaters of the Mawai from subsuming it.
It was the month of February (2019) and I was in Dandakaranya yet again, looking for springs, river udgams and rock art caves. But unlike my 2017 visit to Harchoka, this time around as a casual visitor, I was in the state as a guest of the state forest department that I had once been part of.
After spending some unforgettable days in the forests of the erstwhile Korea state, the crowning glory of which was a successful search of the udgam of the Banas River (refer my previous post) I was on my way back to Raipur, the state capital when the driver made an offer I could never consider refusing. A brief detour could take us to a cave called Sitabhengra?
It turned out to be two rock cut caves a few steps up a hill named very appropriately Ramgarh. One of these is called Sitabhengra and the other Jogimara. Sitabhengra has two rooms on either flank. The caves carry information inscribed in the Brahmi script of an episode dating to 3rd and 2nd century BC.
Verse 24 and 25 in section 11 of ‘Aranyakand’ of Srimad Valmiki Ramayan says:
“Rama stayed there (Dandakaranya) for nearly ten months at some place, elsewhere for one year, somewhere else for four months, and for five, and six months elsewhere, even somewhere else for more than a month, and for more than one and half months elsewhere”.
From the point of view of convenience, there are three different caves, security, accorded by a clear view and suitable height and sturdiness, provided by the rock cut structure, these caves at Ramgarh must have encouraged the trio for a much longer stay then those at Harchoka.
Folklore has it that much later these caves even hosted the famous Kalidasa as he created perhaps his finest verses for the ‘Meghduta’. One can only imagine the beauty of these surrounds during the month of Ashadh (June-July) when a love lorn yaksha used Megha, a cloud, as a messenger to convey his longings for his yakshini far away in Alaka on Mount Kailash!
It is hoped that careful handling, with lots of imagination, will be in place as the State of Chhattisgarh goes about ‘developing’ these beautiful, historical places as sites of tourist attraction. Amen!