There are so many places to visit in and around Binsar that it was difficult to decide which to see on this trip and which to keep for another… for one trip is surely not enough for such a wonderful place. Faced with the prospect of Bageshwar-Baijnath and Kausani v/s Patal Bhuvaneshwar, for only one could be completed in the only day we had left, we decided to settle for Patal Bhuvaneshwar, giving precedence to spirituality over tourism. Looking back, it was a good idea, for the trip to Patal Bhuvaneshwar was truly unforgettable, and Kausani is a place we can visit at leisure another time!
The trip began on a positive note, the scenery on the route being even more beautiful than anything we had seen so far. The snow capped mountains were visible just over the peaks of the nearer mountains, and I tried vainly to get them on my camera. Unfortunately they were still too far off to be captured, and by the time we approached them, they were enveloped by clouds, refusing to show us even a glimpse! We thanked God for helping us to decide on Patal Bhuvaneshwar, for Kausani would have been a wash-out with the cloud covering the
Himalayas, the main attraction of the place!
As we sped along the winding roads, we approached the river Sarayu and remembered our trip to Ayodhya when the river was full and we had a wonderful dip in the clean river. Now the river was dry and the river bed was seen clearly with their polished pebbles attracting us. We stopped for a while at a place which Samhith christened ‘stone-heaven’, for all we could see were stones of all shapes, sizes and colours……. We collected quite a lot of them, as many as we could carry, and as to the rest, we decided to photograph them so that we could see and remember the wonderful sight!
Our driver was amused that we would be so interested in the dry river, and informed us that with the advent of summer, the snow in the higher reaches of the Pindhari glacier would melt and the river would flow again. Of course, he added that the rains would arrive and flood the river and the villages around. The people in this area lived in the permanence of draught and floods alternating through the years. Neither the change of state, government or name had changed anything in the area…As of now, both banks of the Sarayu were covered by wheat fields, their greenery contrasting with the stony hills at whose foothills they lay.
A little further on, as we left the river below us and climbed higher over the mountains, I tried to explain to Samhith how different plants and trees grew in different areas, at different heights. As an example, I told him about the mango trees which grew in such abundance in the Konkan area, and the pine trees which covered the mountains here. Suddenly, our driver laughed and said, “Madam, aap theek bol rahe ho, par Bhagwan ki Shakti dekhiye, yahaan pe aam aur kele bhi ugte hain!” (Madam, what you say is right, but look at the power of God, here, we have mangoes and also bananas growing at this height!). He further explained that the area we were approaching was among the highest in the area, but the only one which, amongst all the pines and the few Deodars and oaks, one could also spot mango as well as banana plantations! Try as they might, they never flourished outside this area, he said. Of course, he wasn’t an expert, but we soon came to a grove of mango trees, all of them in full bloom. In a month or so, the mangoes would grow, and by peak summer, we learnt that they would be huge, almost the size of a small papaya! As to bananas, they were next in line, and I excitedly photographed some of them from the moving car! (Just a clarification: I really have no idea about which plants grow where……. I was too happy to get rid of biology after school, but I certainly did not expect to see mangoes and bananas at the top of a mountain from where we could see the snow capped
Himalayas! Besides, they made a change from the omnipresent pines!!!!)
We approached Patal Bhuvaneshwar after a four and a half hour ride from Binsar, and after a short drive through a small town/village, came to an abrupt halt at an arch! I looked around vaguely, wondering where the apparently popular caves were, and our driver pointed to the arch, and told us to simply follow the path from there.
Usually, my experience is that the first section of any path is in good condition, and deteriorates further on, but here, it was the opposite! As soon as we stepped on the path, we realized that it took a sharp turn downwards, and most of the path was broken, a new one was being built, but was nowhere near complete. This sunk my expectations, and I wondered what lay ahead as I managed to walk down the path without falling down, and came to the proper path, which, thankfully was in a very good condition.
On one side, the path hugged the mountain, and on the other, we could see the valley with its pines and deodars extending far into the distance, while other mountains loomed in the distance, extending up to the horizon.
A short walk brought us to the caves which give the area its name, and here were the ASI boards which informed us of their importance.
All we could see was a collapsible door in front of which sat a guard, and it certainly wasn’t an impressive sight, and I wondered what we were doing here. Meanwhile, we were approached by another guard who told us that we had to hand over our cameras at the entrance and pay the entrance charges at a small cabin which we had ignored. The lone chap sitting in the cabin told us that there were no lockers or anything for the cameras, but he would take care of them, and that we should also hire a guide, since otherwise we would not understand anything about the caves. While I hesitated, he smiled and his manner implied that we need not necessarily hire the guide, but if we did not, we would not even be able to enter the cave! Taking his cue, we agreed to hire one, and one of the many people lounging around came over and said he would take us in.
We stepped into the collapsible door after being frisked by the guard, and suddenly, I felt myself entering a different world! It was immediately apparent why the place was called ‘Patal’ Bhuvaneshwar – just the sight of the tiny tunnel-like cave leading downwards made me feel I was entering the bowels of the earth – the nether world or ‘patal’ as it is called in Indian mythology!
It’s a pity photography is not allowed inside, for I am sure I could have taken better photographs of the place than those which they sell outside. At least I would have shots of the tunnel and the rough steps, some cut into the stone, and some simply boulders placed at strategic positions for grip and ease. Even then, I could barely manage the descent, managing by holding on to the chains provided and to Shankar every now and then! We had to crawl through a few sections, and even slide along at times!
Our descent came to an abrupt halt after about 5-7 minutes, and I found myself on a ledge from where we had to jump down. That was easy, and when I did, I turned around with a gasp, for I was in a subterranean cave, one which could easily hold around 50 people, and the ‘ledge’ I had jumped from was actually an outgrowth from the stone wall, which, at first glance reminded me of the hood of a snake!
At once I realized the importance and the interest the cave holds in the mind of the Hindu tourist, for here was a place where it was so easy to relate to the stories we have been brought up on. The stone just had a suggestion of curve, and to my mind, it immediately conjured up an image of a snake – Adishesha no doubt! No wonder people turned up here in large numbers!
A minute later, I was proved right when our guide began his lecture telling us about this being the inside of Adishesha. He pointed to a series of bumps on the surface, and told us that these were the ribs of Adishesha. While my rational mind could see the association of ideas, I found myself appreciating not just the beauty of nature which had created such a place, but also the imagination which led to it being idolized and eulogized! To continue about the ‘ribs’, this formation was approximately at the centre of the cave/tunnel throughout and did, indeed look like ribs. I really wish I had some pictures of them!
For those of you who are interested, here is the history/legend of the cave – this cave has apparently existed since the beginning of time, and has been the abode of gods and goddesses. It has remained closed to humans except for certain instances in every age/yuga. It first opened to one of the ancestors of Lord Ram in the Treta Yuga, when he was fleeing from a demon, and Lord Shiva granted him darshan here. He also informed the king that the cave opened for him only because of his need and his worth. The cave opened again in the next Yuga when the Pandavas passed by on their way to the
Himalayas, and they are believed to have rested here for a while. It closed again, only to be opened for Adi Shankaracharya in the present age, who asked for the cave to be kept open for the upliftment of humankind. Of course, the legend also says that this cave has four gates, one each for truth, righteousness, duty and nirvana/moksha. Of these, only one remains open now, the one for duty, since that’s all one can do in this age of sinfulness. So it really does not matter if the cave is opened in this age. Also, the cave is believed to be an indicator of the Yuga, and its progress, and is believed to indicate the end of the Yuga. It will be destroyed along with the world at the end of this age, and will again be formed in the new cycle of life, or so goes the legend.
Getting back inside the cave, our guide took us through the various formations of stalactites and stalagmites, each representing to the believer, some form of the lord. We passed by Ganesha in his original form, waiting for the elephant’s head to be fixed on his neck, while the Brahma Kamal (lotus of Brahma) dripped nectar on him, keeping him alive. We passed through Vasuki and Takshak, the two great snakes, Patal Devi, the guardian of the netherworld, the swan of Lord Brahma, cursed for trying to sip the holy water, his head turned away from the bowl of water he was supposed to be guarding, the Kalpavriksha, the wish fulfilling tree, the thousand legs of Airavat, the elephant of Indra, the Parijat tree, the tree from the heavens, and many many more…….
But this cave surely belongs to lord Shiva, for it is He who is most evident here. Firstly, to me, this seems just like the kind of place the lord with no attachments would love to be in! Secondly every small projection from the ground resembles the lingam, the form we pray to Him in. Further emphasizing this are the drops of water which fall perennially on these small lingams, yet do not collect and stagnate as they do at most places. How easy it is to believe in the stories of the descent of the Ganga, especially when you see, just at one place, standing out against the black surface of the rock, white streaks aplenty, in bunches, resembling hair, with water cascading down them, filling a small pool with clear water, again, let me assert, not stagnating, but tasting sweet and heavenly!
As I write these words I wish I could show you the cave as I saw it through my eyes – not through the eyes of those who are just concerned with making it a place of pilgrimage, for here is a place which is truly spiritual! I wish we could learn to appreciate the beauty of nature more, and try to keep the beauty of the place intact, learning how to keep it clean and unspoilt, the way it has remained over centuries without any help from us! I wish people would learn to pray with their hearts rather than with flowers and incense, water and milk, for I can see the place becoming as crowded as any other temple, easily accessible as it is by road! I shudder to think what will happen when hordes of people descend on this place and desecrate it with filth that they leave behind. As of today, in spite of advertisements and even a website, the caves are still their natural self, apart from a few human and inevitable changes. I can only pray to the lord to take care of the place he has cared for over the ages, and not allow us to spoil his work and his presence!
I did buy a set of photographs at the cave, but have not uploaded them yet, since the photos can be seen on the temple website which also has lots of other details. This post is not as much about the structures in the cave, but about the feelings they induced in me. If you are interested, please do go through their website and see all their photographs and details.
Patal Bhuvaneshwar is located in the Pithorgarh district of Uttarakhand, 91 Kms from the city of
and 210 Kms from Kathgodam. The journey from Kathgodam will take around 4 hours. The distance from Binsar is 120 Kms, and this took us about 4 hours. Pithorgarh
There are few options for accommodation at Patal Bhuvaneshwar itself. The KMVN has a rest house here, but we did not see it, so I have no ideas about it. We did pass via a resort called Parvati Inn which is about a couple of kilometers away. There are more options at Gangolihat, where the shrine of the Devi is popular and attracts plenty of pilgrims. Gangolihat is 14kms from Patal Bhuvaneshwar.