the-south-asian.com AUGUST 2002
August 2002 Contents
- MAHABHARATA COUNTRY
In historic continuity Kurukshetra in Haryana surpasses ancient civilizations of Babylon, Akkad and Assyria that have long ceased to exist, but little thought has been given to the tourism aspect of the town where history blends with legend.
On the banks of River Saraswati, history is almost palpable. Sages once recited the Vedas here; Brahma and his deities performed yajnas; Vashishtha and Vishwamitra attained divinity. Kauravas and Pandavas fought a bloody battle and Lord Krishna delivered the message of Gita to Arjuna. It was here on this tract of land that the Hindus surrendered their crowns, Muslims lost their thrones and Marathas and Sikhs frittered away their power.
This is Kurukshetra. Eons ago, goes the legend, King Kuru came here on his golden chariot, which was magically transformed into a plough. Yoked to the bull of Lord Shiva and the buffalo of Lord Yama, the King began to till the land. Lord Vishnu descended on the fields and asked Kuru to sow the virtues of mankind. Kuru shred his right arm in a thousand pieces with Vishnu's Chakra and planted them. Vishnu granted Kuru two boons--the land would be named after him and anyone dying here would go straight to heaven.
Kurukshetra is just 160 kilometres from Delhi. We cruise down Sher Shah Suri Marg in a Haryana Tourism coach on a bright Sunday morning. Past Panipat, our first halt is at the Karnal Tourist complex, where passengers refresh themselves with cups of tea, sandwiches and South Indian delicacies cooked in Punjabi style. The land of the Mahabharata is barely 30 minutes and some 30 centuries away.
In Kurukshetra we meet our host, Ram Sewak Sharma in his Tata Safari. " Almost 18 crore soldiers fought the Battle of Kurukshetra. The fields turned red with blood," he says eloquently. But, 18 crores would have been rather cramped in a small town like this. He has an answer ready: "Don't forget, Kurukshetra was not just this town. In ancient times it was a vast region covering 50 kosas [around 150 kilometres]."
Sharma's assertion is supported by Sage Manu who places the ancient city between the old sacred rivers, Saraswati and Drishadwati comprising modern Panipat, the north-west corner of Jind and the eastern part of Patiala district. It was then called Brahma-Varta. It acquired many names: Brahmadevi, Dharamkshetra and finally, Kurukshetra, as it is known today.
As we weave through the town along the Pehowa Road, there are signs of a booming agro-economy. Tractors and bullock carts co-exist with Marutis, Lancers, Hyundais, Indicas and the ubiquitous trucks and tempos. Evidently little thought has been given to the tourism aspect of the town though Kurukshetra surpasses in its historic continuity the ancient civilizations of Babylon, Akkad and Assyria which have long ceased to exist.
Land Of Empires
Kurukshetra has seen the rise and fall of many empires. When the Vardhanas rose to power from Sthanvishvara [now called Thanesar] in the sixth century, it regained much of its lost gory. The period of King Harsha Vardhana was the golden age of Kurukshetra. After his demise it began to decline and later, the British reduced it to a small district."
Our first halt is at the Sannihit Sarovar which is also the first place where pilgrims take a dip during a solar eclipse. Sannihit means the assembly of the entire range of titathas and legend has it that a prayer performed here during amavas (moonless night) guarantees the benefit equal to one thousand Ashvamedha sacrifices.
Pandit Pawan Kumar, a local godman, walks up to us and offers to trace our ancestry for a consideration. He takes us into a dingy room and works out our lineage in under a minute. Even computers would be hard put to achieve this feat.
"These pattas [records] have been handed down from generation to generation," he tells us. "I can trace my family history down to the days of the Mahabharata. I am blessed to be born here in this holy place."
Sannihit Sarovar the Pandit tells us, is the only place that has been visited by all but one of the Sikh Gurus. For each Guru there is a Gurudwara to commemorate his visit. This is also the only place where even the British came for a holy dip. On our left, is the fading plaque commemorating the visit of Sir Edward McLogan, the Governor of Punjab in 1921.
An eight kilometre drive brings us to the Brahmasar Sarovar, the central point where pilgrims converge after a dip in the Sannihit. A row of deodar trees and two islands in the middle of the tank add to Brahmasar's beauty considerably. One of the islands is said to be the place where Brahma first performed his yajna.
Believed to have been excavated by King Kuru long before the epic battle of Mahabharata, the Brahmasar Sarovar is flanked by temples and places of Puranic interest. Ruins of some structures standing on the bigger island are said to be the remains of a small castle which Aurangzeb built. "This is one of the most sacred tanks," Sharma tells us. "A part of the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi were immersed in it."
As the Safari makes its way to Jyotisar, we are assailed by a feeling of awe. We are treading on history itself---not just ancient history, we are in the land of folklore. Here great empires rose and fell: a mighty city reached its pinnacle of glory and decayed slowly into oblivion to be rediscovered and reconstructed centuries later by archaeologists.
One survivor from that time is a banyan tree, 5,000 years old under whose gnarled and twisted branches is a marble chariot in which sit Lord Krishna and Arjuna. In case you doubt its antiquity, nailed to the trunk is a mutilated tin board which says: "Immortal banyan tree - witness of the celestial song of Bhagwad Gita."
Legend has it that it was at this spot that Lord Krishna stopped the chariot between the two warring armies to deliver the teachings of Gita to Arjuna. Carved out in marble, are the footprints of Lord Krishna.
Though some scholars put it around 10 B.C., no one knows the exact date of this historical battle or when the Mahabharata was actually written. But scholars are of the view that it is one of the greatest Epics in the world. Also probably one of the oldest and longest.
The epic as we know it today, contains 100,000 stanzas and is eight times longer than Homer's Iliad and Odyssey put together. In religious parlance, the Epic is called the fifth Veda, for it is said to contain every branch of knowledge. Woven in it is legend and history, myth and folklore, fable and parable, philosophy and religion, morals and romance, governance and warcraft.
Ban Ganga/Bhishma Kund
At Ban Ganga, also known as Bhishma Kund, the grand sire of the Kauravas and Pandavas, Bhisma, lay on a bed of arrows on the tenth day of the battle, struck by perfidy. But before he died, to quench his parched throat and lips, Arjuna shot an arrow into the earth from where a fountain of water from river Ganges sprang out and reached the mouth of Bhishma.
Here, at the very spot where we stand, the site of this dramatic gesture, is now called Ban Ganga or more appropriately Bhishma Kund. It is roughly five kilometres from Kurukshetra on the Pehowa Road in the Narkatari village where pilgrims bathe in this holy tank and earn the combined merit of all the tirthas (pilgrimages).
But we see no pilgrims nor tourists around, except some picnickers. For this, the local guide has a religious explanation: "According to the Vedas," he says, "there are three types of outings - tirath [visiting holy places], sair [stroll] and aish [enjoyment], Kalyug hai na. No one comes for tirath or sair anymore. Just aish and picnic."
But despite these pessimistic observations, Kurukshetra is a place revered by the devout for its sacred associations. The history of Kurukshetra is the history of ancient India. A place that has witnessed the rise and fall of powerful kings and mighty empires.
Bana, the Hindu poet, described it as a splendid city with busy, well-lit bazars, elegant temples, splendid palaces, artist's studios, sculptors' work-shops, colleges and schools. Today it is bustling town, with haphazard development and pockets of prosperity, but largely oblivious to its tourist potential.
But this does not deter, the pilgrims who congregate here during amavas to wash off their sins and ensure a place in heaven.
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