Narmada, Kapila, Tantra and Kabir

Amarkantak’s setting in the Heart of Central India looks like a mythical hotspot of untold stories amidst a backdrop of forests of sal, palash and mahua, unmarked trails and gurgling brooks that noisily tumble down rocky slopes. If it wasn’t for the plans of a road trip through Madhya Pradesh that took its seed in the year 2016, I would not have even gained awareness about this temple town of myths and legends.

As part of the Achanakpur-Amarkantak Biosphere Reserve in the heart of Central India’s tiger wonderland, Amarkantak is a crucial biodiversity home to some of the subcontinent’s endemic and rare floral species, 67 threatened faunal species, and oldest indigenous communities. Researchers often describe it as one of the most dramatic and ecologically diverse landscape in the Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh states of India, along with being one of the least developed and disturbed areas in both the states.

Beyond the fascinating tribal culture that exists in and around Amarkantak, the air resonates with lores and traditions. It’s a strange vibe that just invites you to come and participate. For a change, I personally connected more with raw feminine power of a place, rather than the historical context. Maybe it’s the mythological element that is prevailing in the air. Or the fact that, this was my second solo in the same year. Or maybe it’s the fact that I just turned a year older, and none wiser. Or maybe it is the fact that a random stranger stopped me in the middle of road because of my dyed hair color, and you learn a new anecdote on how a tribal woman was proud to show her tattoos that seem to chronologically outline her life. And while I am being charged 10 rupees for keeping my shoes safe while I step into the heart of Amarkantak’s religious history, I can’t help wonder that I still have to find creative ways to hide my tattoos because it doesn’t fit the acceptable image of societal propriety.

Some scholars, identify Amarkantak as the Puranic Riksha Parvat where Shiva and his consort Parvati meditated. Others draw parallels with the ancient city of Amrakoota mentioned in Kalidasa’s lyrical masterpiece Meghadootha. But I loved the part of a spurned lover making her own way, because she wanted to “move on”. According to the folk lore Narmada, once betrothed to Sone (one of the few male rivers in the country), and later spurned by him in favour of Jolila, swore celibacy and changed her course to flow in the opposite direction from Sone. While Sone and Jolila flow towards the east, the majestic Narmada, who is also referred to as Shankari aka Shiva’s daughter, changed her course towards the west and rebelled against the gods and mortals to find her destiny in the Arabian Sea. While the source of Narmada is literally a house of worship, the source of the Sone river, Sonmuda, is not far from the Narmada Kund, and offers a plunging view of the forested landscapes from the cliff edge. It’s as if the parting of ways of the couple led to different views of the world!

The walled temple complex of the Narmada Udgam Stha comprises of a constellation of white-washed temples built around the sacred kund (tank) – a stepped progression of shrines that seem to emerge from the depth of the sacred tank from which the holy Narmada is believed to emanate. Here Narmada is worshipped as the life-nurturing mother goddess who sits atop a crocodile.

As she travelled further from her source, the incipient Narmada takes the first 100ft plunge down a rocky ridge into a gorge that cuts through the dense forests. Adding the name Kapil Dhara to her mystical repertoire, as a homage to the ancient sage Kapila who is said to have spent years meditating here. Kapila, a Vedic sage, is often identified as one of the founders of the system of Samkhya, one of six darshans (systems) of Indian philosophy, and has often been regarded in Hindu mythology as a descendant of Manu, (the primal human being and a grandson of the creator-god Brahma).

At a stone’s throw distance away from the origin of Narmada, lies the cluster of ancient temples of the Kalachuri period, built over centuries by various ruling dynasties, and currently protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. The Nagara-style temples with their curvilinear shikhara and pillared mandapa are considered as the prime example of architecture style that flourished under the rule of Kalachuri kings of Tripuri who were also responsible for establishing Amarkantak as a centre of art between the 8th and 12th centuries.

Incidentally, the same Kalachuri dynasty is more reknown for another remarkable monument – the Chausath yogini temple of Bhedaghat. It is more closely connected to the Marble rocks of Jabalpur and less to Amarkantak, but there are two reason why I am mentioning it. One, the temple is built by the same dynasty who comissioned the Shiva and Vishnu temples in Amarkantak. Two, the religious philosophy behind this ancient structure closely relates to one of the most unique temples of India that is being built in Amarkantak.

The 125 ft wide temple, considered as the largest yogini temple in India, has been built in granite by the Kalachuri Dynasty in the 10th century in accordance to the Khajuraho architecture style. Despite the name chausath which means 64 in hindi, the circular cloister consists of 84 square pilars arranged in 81 cells housing 81 unique yogini statues, and 3 entrances. According to Mula Chakra of Sri Matottara Tantra (a manuscript that can be found in Nepal), 81 yoginis are usually worshipped by royal families. The text also mentions about nine matrikas, Sapta-Matrikas with Chandika and Maha-Lakshmi, forming the inner circle of the chakra. Each of these nine matrikas issue nine Yoginis, and therefore forms a chakra of eighty-one.

Each unique Yogini seems to be paying homage to the supreme performers of Tandava and Lasya (the feminine form of Tandava) at the centre – Shiva and Parvati. The main temple of Gauri-Shankar adds another unique feature to the temple – the statue of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati sitting on the the bull Nandi. This is unusual because the usual norm in a temple dedicated to Shiva is that his vehicle ‘Nandi’ the bull is placed outside the main shrine. According to historians, Mohammad Gauri, the Mughal Invader reached Jabalpur and attempted to destroy the statues of Yoginis with his sword. But when he tried to destroy the Shiva-Parvati statue, he was attacked by a swarm of Bees and he hastily left the statue alone.

The Yogini history of Madhya Pradesh has an interesting connection to overall Indian philosophy. Because of the secrecy amongst the practitioners, much of the knowledge of Yoginis is often depicted as that of a tantric cult. Probably, some of it has to do with the fact that Yoginis are also associated with cemeteries and battle field where they feed themselves with the dead ones, as shown in Rudra Upanishad after the battle between Shiva and the demon Jalandhara. Google defines Yogini as representation of both female master practitioner of Yoga, and a formal term of respect for a category of modern female spiritual teachers (in both Hinduism and Buddhism) in eastern countries such as India, Nepal, and Tibet. Based on that belief, each Yogini in a yogini temple is considered to depict a different posture of Yoga. However, many believe that Yoginis represent the composite energies of the transcendental power- Maha Shakti (Feminine Super Power). They are usually 64 or 81 in numbers. These numbers are significant. These derive from Ashta Matrikas (Eight Divine Mothers) or Nava Durgas (Nine forms of Goddess Durga). An interesting fact is that Yoginis are always shown independent of male consorts.  Even in architecture, they appear solo. Some people also consider Yoginis as 64 different Goddesses who have the power of destruction.

While the truth of the origin history is difficult to be determined, one fact remains – the Yogini temples typically do not follow the common practice of architecture followed in Hindu temples and have an open-to-sky format, with a circular cloister, and an open shrine in the center of the circle dedicated to either Shiva or Bhairava. Amarkantak incidentally decided to celebrate this Feminine super power through the unfinished unique temple of Shree Yantra—the sacred geometric representation of the omniverse. The moment I saw the image of the temple on google as well as in person, I was immediately transported to Bayon. The only difference would be while Bayon faces looked “crumbly” and pre-historic, these had a sheen of polish and refinement.

The design and architecture of Maha Meru Shree Yantra Temple follows the age-old stipulations laid down in Sri Vidya tradition of the Tantric school of Hinduism. The idea is to build a 3D representation of the famous Maha Meru Yantra, also referred to as Sri Chakra — the sacred geometric representation of the omniverse. Massive sculptures of faces of four goddesses — Kali, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Bhubaneshwari, crown the entrance gate adorned with ornate sculptures of the 64 yoginis — female deities associated with Tantra. While the temple is currently closed to all visitors, you can peek past the barricade to see two beautiful idols of Goddesses placed at end of the corridor – one of Saraswati and the other of Mahalakshmi. These represent Tripura Sundari, the ultimate representation of Shakti. Despite being more than 30 years since the project started, the construction is undertaken only during the Guru Pushya Nakshatra, which is considered auspicious, and falls on an average of about 4-5 days in a year.

The quest for truth and stories continues to the outskirts of Amarkantak, crossing over into the borders of Chhatisgarh. Nestled on the edge of the deep, dark woods, stands a white-washed hut called the Kabir Kothi which is reputed to have been the place where medieval poet and mystic Kabir lived and attained enlightenment. Beyond the legend of virgin birth, his naming during the medieval times had an interesting stor. It is said that he was named by a Qazi who opened the Qur’an several times to find a suitable name for the child and each time ended up on Kabir, meaning ‘Great,’ used for none other than Allah himself.

Similar to Rahim, Kabir Das was a Bhakti and Sufi movement saint of medieval India. In the 15th century, when Persian and Sanskrit were predominant North Indian languages, he chose to write in colloquial, regional language — not just one, but a mixture of Hindi, Khari boli, Punjabi, Bhojpuri, Urdu, Persian and Marwari. Even though orally transmitted, Kabir’s poetry is well known amongst the masses because of its simple language and the depth of spiritual thought it usually imbibes. While my awareness of the great saint started from the Hindi textbooks in school with his most popular couplet:

काल करे सो आज कर, आज करे सो अब।

पल में परलय होएगी, बहुरि करोगे कब॥

Translation – Whatever you need to do tomorrow, do it now. The time is lost in moments and you will not recognise it. If the moment is gone, the work will remain undone forever.

Kabir Das on value of time and work ethics.

The man is vastly known for a large group of philosophical followers called as Kabir Panth, extending across north and central India, who identifies Kabir as the originator of the Sant Mat sect, guiding them towards salvation. In a country of Idol-believers and religious oppression, Kabir was unique with his philosophy of muwahid or believer in one God — formless, without attributes, who is beyond time and space, beyond causation. In the Dabistan of Mohsin Fani and Ain-i-Akbari of Abul Fazl, Kabir’s God has been described as Shabda or the Word. And the irony is, in all the places where Kabir is immortalised as a pilgrim spot, it is his idol that stands in the centre of the homage. Kabir Kothi is no stranger to that same concept. Saint Kabir was right when he said:

दुनिया बड़ी बावरी, पहार पूजन जाए ।

घर की चक्की कोई ना पूजे, जिसका पीसा खाए ॥

Translation – People are such fools that they go to worship the stones. Why don’t they worship the stone which grinds for them the flour to eat.

Kabir Das on Idol Worship
According to the saint, real religion is a way of life that the people live and not made by the people colouring it with their own definitions. According to him, work is worship and responsibility is like religion. He had a simple belief: live your life, complete your responsibilities, and work hard to make your life eternal. Never go away from the responsibilities of life like Sanyasa. It is the family life which imparts the real meaning of life.

He did not associate himself completely with either Hindus or Muslims. And yet, as per legend, after his death, there arose a conflict between Hindus who wanted to cremate his body and Muslims who wanted to bury it. In a moment of miracle, flowers appeared beneath his shroud, half of which were cremated at Kashi and half buried at Maghar.

The Kabir Chabutra, as it is popularly known as, is associated with another local folklore. Narmada river is said to have washed the feet of Saint Kabir with milk and few drops fell in the Kund from where she had come out of the earth (also known as Kabir Kund). So even today, between 8.30 till 9.30 hours in the morning, one can see strands of mysterious milky substance ooze out in the clear waters of a pond here. Well, I did arrive at the location post-lunch, so I couldn’t relate with this said phenomenon, but fortunate few have vouched for it.

Is it strange that separate instances of culture and history, built a phiosophical town at the edge of civilization? For a history buff like me who enjoys the experience of time captured in stone and a culture that has gone by, I enjoyed the philosophy of a small town. Probably because I could correlate with the tattooing of baiga women based on momentous occasions, or maybe its the philosophy of Kabir, or maybe its simple story of a broken-hearted river, finding and establishing a bigger identity.

Further Readings:

If you want to read more about the incomplete Shree Yantra Mandir, click here. Trust me, the proposed plan of the temple will simply astound you!

There are total of 72 works done by Kabir Das. Not that I am well-versed in any of it, but some of the famous ones are Kabir Bījak, Kabir Bani, Rekhtas, Anurag Sagar, the Suknidhan, Mangal, Kabir Granthawali, Vasant, Sabdas, Sakhis, etc. Kabir Math (a temple) in Varanasi (aka Kashi) and Kabir’s tomb in Maghar are two interesting recommendations for places to visit, if you want to connect to the man behind such interesting philosophy.

Related (and not-so related Posts):

Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh

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