One of the most moving scenes in the Ramayana is the 'Bharat Milap' where the hapless Bharat, who is ashamed of having been placed in the invidious position of usurping the throne from Ram, entreats his brother to take back the throne and allow him to observe the 14 year Vanvaas in his stead. Half in Uttar Pradesh and half in Madhya Pradesh is Chitrakoot, where this incident is supposed to have taken place. It is a 200-225 Km journey from Kanpur (100-125Km from Allahabad, 250 Km from Jhansi), where I had gone to visit my cousin who teaches at IIT-Kanpur.
The road to Chitrakoot was horrendous. I was anticipating bad roads, but one of my colleagues, who had visited the place from Allahabad, said that that road was newly laid thus raising hopes that the road from Kanpur may have been improved as well. Needless to say my hopes were belied and the 6 hour journey from Kanpur to Chitrakoot will live in my memory as one of the worst that I ever had to experience and, currently, equalled only by the journey back from Chitrakoot to Kanpur. My cousin, his wife and his two cute kids were co-sufferers on the journey. If you can imagine a car travelling on a high frequency sine wave, you can approximate the major part of the journey which seemed to take place on a route where the name of road was optimistically given to strips of tar that connected pot-holes of varying depths. Where conditions differed from the above the State government had indicated its intention of building a road in the indefinite future by strewing rubble on a sketch of a path. Suffice to say that surviving the journey counts as one of my greatest achievements in endurance.
Chitrakoot has its own version of Char-Dham. The term normally connotes for the Chitrakoot-dwellers the Gupt-Godavari, Sati Anusuya, Janaki Kund and Kamad Giri. In addition, the Hanuman Dhara, Ram Ghat and Spatik Shila count as must-sees in the tourist itinerary.
The Chitrakoot visit is normally started with a darshan of the Kamadgirinath, who was supposedly worshipped by Sri Ram in the course of his Vanvaas there. The temple has the faces of the two deities - Kamadgirinath and SriRam. The mouth of Kamadgirinath is supposed to hold Saligrams. According to the priest, the Abhishek of the Saligrams happens by spontaneous emission of water or milk from the mountain. This temple is situated at the foot of a forested hill. The Hill is circumambulated (‘Parikrama’) by devotees and has the repute of fulfilling wishes. The near 5 KM ‘Parikrama’ is done by some devotees by measuring the distance by their bodies i.e they lie down at full stretch, place a coconut to mark the outstretched reach of their hands, get up and lie down with their feet place at the point marked by the coconut and so on till they finish the full ‘Parikrama’.
The ‘Bharat Milap’ temple can be approached only by way of the ‘Parikrama’ and is reputed to house the footsteps of Ram, Bharat, Sita, Kaushalya, Laxman and Shatrughan inscribed in stone. The local lore is that the stones melted from the emotions evoked by the meeting of Ram and Bharat and the footsteps were marked on stone as a consequence. It must be said that the footsteps seen in stone here do not have all contours and the toes clearly marked, which gives more credence to the local lore than would otherwise be the case.
The Gupt Godavari is a couple of caves where Ram and Laxman are supposed to have held court. It is also supposed to be the site where the Khat-Khata chor stole Sita’s garments and was turned to stone by Laxman. Godavari (and Ganga, says our guide) came in secret to have a darshan of the divine duo, apparently. The second cave has a continuous flow of water, which is knee-deep at best. The caves are reputed to be 950000 years old, according to the tourist guide. When we visited the place it was too crowded and hot for comfort, apparently because of the Diwali mela.
Atri and Anusuya’s Ashram is reputed to be situated in Chitrakoot near the River Mandakini. This river is, by repute, the same as the Mandakini that forms a part of the Ganga. Anusuya is supposed to have brought it into being in this place during a time of drought. The river is revered at the place called ‘Sati Anusuya’ where it is fed by innumerable springs.
The lore about Sati Anusuya is that she was so famous as a Sati that Saraswati, Laxmi and Parvati were jealous of her repute and sought their husbands to put her chastity to the test. Accordingly the trinity came as mendicants to the Atri Ashram, in his absence, and sought Anusuya to feed them. Anusuya was told that she had to be ‘Nirvastra’ (in the nude) while feeding them. Realising who they were by means of her yogic power, Anusuya converts them to children and breast-feeds them. The trinity remain there as children while their wives bemoaned their absence. Learning what transpired from Narad they came over to seek pardon from Anusuya, who then restores the trinity. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiv then give her the boon that they shall be born as her children (Another version says that the the three children remain as part-avatars with her). Accordingly, Brahma is born as Som/Chandra; Vishnu as Dattatreya; and Shiv as Durvasa. (The tale of Dattatreya has a strange twist. Kartaviryarjun alias Sahastrarjun was his devotee and gained his powers from Dattatreya. He, thereafter, became arrogant and caused Rishi Jamadagni to be killed. Jamadagni’s son Parashuram kills him in turn. Thus, the devotee of one Vishnu avatar gets killed by another Vishnu avatar!) Thus, this place Chitrakoot has also the repute of housing the trinity and is probably the only place where all three of the trinity were seen as children.
The Janaki Kund is supposed to be the place where Sita is supposed to have taken bath and prayed thereafter. The Spatik Shila is well-known for its fish which are fed by tourists with the monkeys competing for the food. The Ram Ghat has an evening Aarti, which is considered one of the necessary tourist do’s. The Ghat is reputed to be the place where Tulsidas was favored by a darshan of Ram. Sant Tulsidas’ birthplace is about 40 Km away.
The Hanuman Dhara is a temple situated on a hill where an idol of Hanuman is continuously bathed by a natural spring. The lore goes that when Ram came to the end of his Avatar, he blessed Hanuman with immortality and invincibility and asked him to seek a boon. Hanuman, apparently, said that the fires that set Lanka ablaze were still tormenting him and he needed a place to cool himself. Ram then created this natural spring with his arrow and gave this place to Hanuman to cool himself. The climb of 360 (560?) steps is not too arduous and the view from from the top of the plains and hills captivating enough - though there is no comparison with the vistas that open out on the mountains of the Kumaon and Garhwal ranges.All in all Chitrakoot has more to offer to the devotee than the nature-lover, particularly if you are comfort-loving and not the sort who feels cheated if the journey by road doesnt shake you up and crack your bones. I would, of course, love to visit the Gupt-Godavari caves again if ever I can find them bereft of crowds - but that is possibly a pipe-dream.