Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Mountaintop Shrine

So let us see, this temple is on top of a mountain. A significant mountaintop, for several reasons, including its position like an island in the air among many significant peaks. Nanda Devi has been worshipped for as long as anyone knows, and from behind her blazes out the sun at six in the morning. Other watchers of the mountain shrine include Chaukhama, Neel Kanth, Hathi Parbat, and the Kedar and Yamuntri-Gangotri peaks. The shrine stands small and gray-white on a rock on this mountaintop 14,000 feet closer to the sun. The top is itself no larger than a medium sized house, and the shrine the size of a quite small storeroom.

The first time I saw the mountaintop shrine of Chandrashila I was a little disappointed by its lack of grandeur. No one expects a Tirupathi in clouds, and the shrine was oddly compelling, but the lack of hindu fervor was a little marked. Hindu fervor often manifests itself in too much material consequence, sometimes trodden underfoot, and generally writing over a place its unmistakable presence. Well, none of that here. Just quiet, and cairns, and the clouds rolling in occasionally, blotting out everything you can see. In fact, when the clouds do roll in, which is anytime after about 9:30 in the morning (I was there in October), you could be anywhere: on a bugyal with miles of rolling grassland, on rocky territory 2,000 feet below, really anywhere. But youre not. You're in an area the size of a house, and if you step wrong, it’s a long way to fall.

What is interesting to me is that the 'real' temple, Tunganath, with all the accouterments of hindu fervour, is about 1,000 feet below Chandrashila, on the same mountain. Well protected by what may be called a house rock, it is easily reached by foot or hoof in a matter of a few hours from the nearest roadhead, Chopta.

Thats strange, i thought, why would the really important temple be placed lower than a lesser shrine? Just looking at it in terms of the rhetorical positioning of religion, the old shrines are always the geographical apex, you walk up to the gates of a god, not down.

Of course, one may argue that if youre building a shrine to whichever god at over 13,000 feet above sea level, in the middle of the Himalayas, you would be looking for a sheltered spot, and not someplace like Chandrashila, mercilessly open to the elements. Perhaps you would be right too. But the fact this argument overlooks is that this is religion. Faith is a very very powerful thing. If the temple that currently stands at Tunganath stood, for the sake of argument, atop Chandrashila, there is very little doubt in my mind that the shining path would find its way to the mountaintop. This would make not just good religious practice, but also, lets face it, excellent business sense. But the main temple does not stand at Chandrashila, and I have a hypothesis about that, but need to argue it out at some length (even with myself) so bear with me please.

Ok, first, the position. Apparently, it not uncommon in the area that the shrine to a deity stands below the apex point of a mountain. There's a parallel example relatively nearby: Madhmaheshwar.

I believe that the temple of Madhmaheswar is not on the ridge, but some below. What is significant, though, is that the top of the ridge is called 'bura' Madhmaheswar. In several languages, 'bura' means old, and the nomenclature of the location can be taken to mean that the location on the top of the ridge was a worshipped spot before the shrine lower down was built. If this is the story of Madhmaheswar, is it too much of a stretch to imagine that Tunganath and Chandrashila have a similar relationship? That Chandrashila is in fact the older (and possibly original) shrine, much pre-Hindu, and that Tunganath, the hindu temple came later? It’s all about how old these places are, relative to each other, and as far as I can see, there isn’t much information about Chandrashila at all.

A temple is after all simply a physical marker of a location that is considered a repository of spiritual power. That power may be derived from any of a number of sources. It may, for example, be attached to the image or god to whom the shrine is dedicated, or it could mark a geographical spot already considered 'jagrata' . The concept of something being ‘jagrata’ brings into question the chronology of possible sacredness; was the spot regarded as extra-ordinary before the advent of a shrine that marks the spot, or was a physical item that in a sense ‘carries’ the sacredness placed at the spot, therefore consecrating it?

Given the history of Hinduism on the subcontinent, it would not be a stretch to surmise that at least some of the current sacred places in the mountains function somewhat like palimpsest. So an older location, sacred to local people for centuries, may be appropriated into the Hindu fold, and become a Hindu sacred place. The somewhat limited reading I have on the subject says that there are several examples of this sort of appropriation within the space of religion. In Bengal, for example, Manasha, or the goddess of snakes/ protector from snakebite is commonly understood to be pre-hindu. Stands to reason, really. Snakes have probably inhabited the lush Bengal countryside longer than contemporary Hinduism. There are some other examples of such forms of appropriation from Southern India. In the mountains of Garhwal, the god they call Bhairon Devta is also possibly pre-hindu, although as completely appropriated as Manasha.

So there is more than the possibility that the moon-shrine at Chandrashila is older than the Ram story overlay that is currently available. It’s called Chandrashila, for one thing, which translates almost perfectly as ‘rock of the moon’, and there are competing local legends about it. One says that the moon meditated there (hence the name). The other says that Ram (of the Ramayana) meditated there to get the favor of the gods/ not being Brahmin, he was (naturally) disadvantaged from the godly point of view. The moon story sounds older, simply because a pantheistic pre-hindu mountain society would be more likely to worship the moon than it would some north Indian male kshatriya from the plains.

Hinduism is famous for its ability to mutate, include and change to suit time and place. Witness the linga at the Tunganath shrine. The original linga, on view at times of lesser pilgrim activity is really a quite powerful looking piece of rock. Bent somewhat to one side, it has veinlike striations and what may be described as a distinct head; rubbing ghee and pouring milk on it is quite the experience.

Altogether, a little too real a lingam for public consumption. So the processes that expunge such older preoccupations have decreed a cover-up. At Tunganath, this takes the shape of a silver plate with a stylized depiction of a face (presumably Shiva), and a snake. Very pretty, very smooth, very clean. No veins or heads in view.
At Chandrashila, this is what you see

That’s Ram, by the way. He’s got a mangalsutra around his neck. What actually interests me is the red fabric covering the background completely. What does it cover? Is there some sort of a depiction of the moon there? Is she identifiable? But I’m running ahead of myself here, so let me take a couple of steps back.

Our guide said that your blood freezes if you spend the night on Chandrashila, even in a tent. Strange, considering people spend days not so far below the peak of Everest (something our guide knows). There’s a sense of local people not wanting you to be at the peak after dark, and the mountaintop itself is kind of strange. Apart from the temple, this is pretty much all there is

Cairns. Built by locals when people die, or to appease the mountain gods, or for prayer fulfillment. The point being that cairns are put on mountaintops because mountaintops are considered sacred, and this one, oh this one is clearly special. So special, in fact, that the later Hindu overlays of legend and religion did not build a large temple, did not divert pilgrim traffic there; something that Hinduism has consistently done to older forms of religion/ icons it has co-opted. In fact what practicing Hinduism has constantly wanted to do is to wipe out the traces of older forms of religion, and replace them, as completely as possible, with its own prints.

And this is where it gets confusing for me. There has been a process of erasure, clearly, but why has this place not been co-opted as completely? Could it be that there is something somewhat unpleasant, perhaps fearful associated with the original legends of Chandrashila?

Please be aware that I’m pretty much thinking aloud here. I have no facts or documents to back my claims. But it is possibly the lack of such concrete information that is allowing a story to be woven from the air. The mountain air may be thin of oxygen, but it is thick with story and legend, so see this as a story, if you wish.

And so, with that apologia, back to the hypothesis.

I think that there is something powerful associated with Chandrashila, possibly something so powerful that mainstream Hinduism thought it was better left alone.
Look at some of the things we do know, or can extend our knowing to:

1. If Chandrashila is older than Tunganath, it is VERY old. We don’t know that much about seriously pre-hindu rites and religious practices, mostly due to deliberate efforts on the part of later cultural re-inscription.

2. What we do know about very old religions, such as the Incas and the Mayans, is that old religion tends not to be pretty. Prettifications and cleanups are a concomitant of the modern world.

3. The mountains that watch Chandrashila are all very important, very jagrata peaks.

4. People who live at the mercy of the elements have historically worshipped those elements. The mountains give, and the mountains take away. Propitiation for protection.

5. Propitiation involves giving. The more serious the need for propitiation, the more serious and valuable the given thing.

Which brings us to the explanation that would pull together several of these seemingly disparate threads: the local unwillingness to allow outsiders to spend the night there, the fact that Chandrashila is not a major mainstream Hindu shrine, the physical evidence of its importance in local lore, the half-hearted Hindu overlay…

Could the god of Chandrashila have been a blood god?


Sujoy said...

Really nice...apologia notwithstanding

Beq said...

Blood Goddess you mean. After all feminine spirits/deities have always been harder to appease...and their blessings are considered much much more powerful.
By the way, Chandrashila is almost perfectly aligned with Nanda Devi. In fact the sun rises from directly behind that mountain.
Chandramma legends- In Umaprasad's piece on Madhmaheshwar (I think), he mentions a local legend about the moon committing some sort of a crime for which she had to go underground at a point on the ridge. In a separate piece I read there is mention of the fact that Chandramma rose from Chandrashila. The two legends could very well be related, and the 'crime' could well be a blood crime.
Whatever the tradition, modern Hinduism has been here for almost a millennia now, so I guess even the local people wouldn't really know anything apart from a general awe, love, and fear of the place.
Great post.

randomrandom said...

great post. loved it.

Ami said...

Loved it: theories and pics and description of the lingam.
One thought: if Tunganath dates from Shankara's time, it's 1200-1400 years old (depending on the version you follow). Then Chandrasila wouldn't be pre-Hindu (in the sense we understand it now - though there was no use of 'Hindu' before Shankara).

shonedeep said...

Liked it a lot (for some reason I hadn't read it earlier - which I find quite strange). Any how, great post. And we MUST have a chat about this!