Amarkantak By vaibhav_arora

NOTE: This part two in a series of articles about Vaibhav Arora's off-the-beaten-path trip through Amarkantak. 

Previous article: A Little Bit of Bastar (and Amarkantak) Part I

After this invigorating walk and the sun-rise, I started walking back from Sona-muda (I didnt go inside mai-ki-bagiya due to the monkeys and also because I was a bit tired and hungry).

The first stop was the Sriyantra Tantrik temple. This is a very interesting structure (as was explained to me by a few locals through the course of the day). The construction of this temple started several years ago (some say as far back as 1912) and is still going on. The principal reason is that construction commences and concludes only during auspicious muhurat (time-frame) as per astrological considerations. After the auspicious time-frame is over, construction is halted and the labor returns to their home-town.

The locals avoid conversations about the temple it certainly didnt have much following or mentions in a positive tone. Photography is prohibited and there's a sign on the closed main gate that says Rs 500/- fine in case of violations.

So I had to tiptoe in while the priest was away fetching water and had to jump out the wall into the fields to get out after taking these photos. :)

The temple is dedicated to shakti and is a 'yogini' temple. The temple has a circular periphery decorated by swans (seen below)

 

The temple is shaped like a 'sriyantra' per some locals. The central part is shaped like the mountain that was used to churn the seas by the gods to get divine nectar (or amrut) out as per the legends in the puranas.

Hence you see the giant snake (which was used as the rope for the churn) depicted around the central structure.

The entrance of the temple (currently closed) is no less fascinating and shows a god with many faces.

The rest of the entrance is also decorated with shakti depictions.

Overall, a very eerie but fascinating temple and completely worth the time (and the risk!! ;)

My next stop was the kalachuri group of temples - they have very little decorations and no ASI guide was available so I scooted off quickly.

I stopped again at the Narmada temple, this time in excellent morning light and was able to take better shots.

A few old statues in the temple date back to 10th century AD. One of these is a small elephant and the local belief is that if you can somehow pass under the 4 legs, it brings long life and prosperity. This explained the enthusiasm of the group of young men visiting the temple - it was a kind of race for them to pass under the elephant. See below:

I was hungry and stopped at one of the many breakfast shops that line the main street of Amarkantak. I had, in quick succession, a plate of poha, a couple alu-bondas, some pakodas and two cups of excellent tea (on instruction, the shopkeeper cum cook was able to resist the temptation of sweetening it by the cartload as Indian cooks usually do). This savory spread was accompanied by some raw tomato and chilli chutney (that i was to regret later...the next morning specifically).

I again walked to Vasant Bhojanalya (it's near the bus stand area) and was greeted by an additional host - Mithoo the alexandrine parakeet. He spoke his name and whistled like crazy. He also looked quite smart to me and eager to escape his cage :)

I then asked a taxidriver regarding the possibility of visiting Kapildhara and Dughdhara - twin waterfalls on the nascent narmada river situated about 7 kms from the town. They didnt seem too keen to pick up a lone traveler (suspecting, and rightly so, my likely disinclination to pay for the entire cab). I finally found an autowallah who was willing to do the round for Rs 150/-. We drove on a heavily battered road for about 5 kms and came to a parking lot. From here on I was on foot. There's a small tribal art museum as one approaches Kapildhara. The exterior is rather pretty.

The area near the waterfall had 6 different villagers (including tribals) selling various herbs and oils based on ayurveda and other systems of ethnic medicine. Cures for ailments ranging from baldness, blood-sugar, joint pains, blood-pressure and many more are available at rock-bottom prices (and i do not mean to sound flippant here - some of this stuff actually works and is very popular apparently). I had not ever seen most of the herbs that they were selling.

I went down kapildhara that are scenic falls and worth the visit.

Dugdh-dhara (a little downstream) was a disappointment due to a large contingent of school-students who had jumped into the water and were happily taking a bath - I didnt take a single snap there.

After about an hour of this walk up and down, I was back in the auto and off to town. Post lunch, the next stop was the Sarvodaya Jain mandir (Temple) opposite the dharamshala I was staying in. This modern temple, dedicated to the first tirthankara, Adinatha, is being constructed by the traditional method of placing stones atop each other with as little lime-mortar as possible. It has an impressive madapam (seen here)

The size of the temple may be gauged here (From the tree and the crane).

No concrete is used in the construction and any bricks you see in the pictures will be removed once it is completed in 2014.

The temple also houses, purportedly, the largest ashtadhatu (8-metal) jain idol anywhere in the world! Seen below -

Irrespective of the veracity of this claim, the idol is done well and the temple is also worth a stop over.

The sun was quite direct and the postprandial muscle relaxation forced me to rest for a bit in my room. I got out again in the late afternoon and walked over to a couple of Ashrams that I hadnt seen earlier, viz Mrityunjaya ashram and Sri Ram kutir.

Mrityunjaya Ashram has a decorated gate and a superb Queen of Jhansi (Jhansi ki rani) idol - probably done in bronze with a rock for the base. Seen below are the gate and the self shot in front of the Jhansi ki rani statue (to give a better idea of size)at the Mrityunjaya Ashram.

Sri Ram Kutir has a well decorated gate and a manicured garden. I learnt from the guard that the well-maintained ashram is available for stay by any visitors for free! however, one of the people staying inside or working in the establishment must refer the person desirous of staying here.

The main temple inside the kutir actually has a south Indian sytled gopuram! (seen below).

It was about 5 pm when I decided that I'd had had enough of Amarkantak and that it made sense to move towards the main draw of this trip ... the state of Chhattisgarh. Little did I know that this sudden urge to move on ... on the cold evening of 22nd December was to cost me dearly ....

Uncomfortable Transfers

My next destination was north of Jagdalpur, over 500 kms by road. Given my experience of the previous day (arriving over seven and a half hours delayed due to the fog, I was convinced that the train that I was scheduled to take from Pendra Road to Raipur at 9:30 am the next morning - the Jammu Tawi - Durg Superfast special would be delayed beyond redemption). I had to take a bus.

So, I started calling up the principal bus operators of Chhatisgarh such as Mahindra travels, Kanker roadways and Royal travels to find out the best way of getting from Amarkantak to Raipur and onwards to Kondagaon (an hour and a half north of Jagdalpur). A few were unhelpful and others all gave conflicting advice regarding the time taken by road.

Then, I finally had some luck and got through to the local man-in-charge of Kanker Roadways at Bilaspur. Matku Kasturia had this to say: "Vaibhavji, if you can, by all means, take a train. It will save your time, money and more importantly, your body from the ravages of the roads that connect Chhattisgarh with Madhya Pradesh". I was in love with this man - he didnt care about the Rs 120/- that his bus company would have made if I had bought a ticket. He wanted me to ride safe and enjoy my vacation!! How could I not follow what he had to say ...

My next steps were clear now - take a bus or shared taxi to pendra road, buy a general class ticket (for the first time ever in my life) and hop onto any one of the mail / express /passenger trains that connect pendra road to Raipur. Take a bus from there.

So at 5 pm, while the light started fading, I was sitting with a large, wheeled bag under a pipal tree in front of the sarvodaya jain mandir at amarkantak, waiting for a taxi driver who would take me down to Pendra Road railway station.....and there were none! This wasnt the tourist season - the last bus driver had left a bit early down the hill as it was getting cold and he'd rather get home before sunset.

I asked Mr Anil Pradhan (a taxi driver who brought and took away passengers from the dharamshala regularly) if he'd be able to take me down (and i was willing to pay more than what I had paid while coming up). The amount would be sufficient, however, he just wanted to get home to his family. So that was that and i continued to wait. It was about 6 pm.

The town is so small and the people so helpful that even two shopkeepers and their assistants all rallied around, asking others if there was any taxi headed downhill. 'There will be one, shortly, with a bengali couple from the Mrityunjaya Ashram'. Nice!! Ashok-the driver- gave me his number and assured me like a dutiful officer 'Sir, I will not leave you behind, dont worry'. That assurance kept me warm for another hour till I called him back (he had gone to Mrityunjaya Ashram to pick up the couple) only to be told 'it will take time'....this waiting game continued till 8:30 pm when suddenly, the same white jeep pulled up and from the driver's window, a beaming Mr Pradhan said out loud 'Vaibhavji, shall we go?'

'But Mr Pradhan, you said you're going back home ... three hours ago'

'Sir, the car's owner called and said I have to drop his guest down at Pendra road so I was going anyways - why don't you come along, I will drop you and you can pay me whatever you like' . Talk about luck!

We started the downward descent and all i remember is the detailed story of Narmada and a smiling Mr Pradhan navigating the totally wrecked road never even once looking at it! I and the passenger in the middle seat prayed to our respective gods while the driver continued nonchalantly.

It took us about three quarters of an hour to reach the station. I requested mr pradhan to help me out with the bag and help me find a hotel for the next few hours (the first scheduled train that would take me to Raipur- Sarnath express- would arrive at 1 am - I had four and a half hours to kill and it was freezing out there). After being bounced around a couple hotels near the station I settled for a dorm accommodation for one hundred rupees and chained my luggage to the bed.

I paid Mr pradhan another one hundred (the going fare per person between amarkantak and pendra road is rs fifty but he is a good story teller and a helpful chap). In case anyone is looking to go there, he may be reached on +91-9098866989.

I didn't get much sleep and my stomach was hurting already (thanks to the raw tomato and chilly chutney from the morning). Around 1:00 I dragged my luggage to the railway station and bought a current ticket to go to Raipur and shortly after that I was seated, very uncomfortably, on an iron bench at Pendra Road station next to a trader who dealt in fabricated steel and was headed towards Sarguja. We exchanged pleasantries and killed the hours chatting about the general levels of corruption in Chhattisgarh, the maoist situation, etc. More importantly, he assured me that the parts I was headed to later (Bastar) were perfectly safe for an average tourist.

The durg ambikapur passenger passed by and so did another train in the opposite direction (my intended direction of travel was south- south east from Pendra Road). The temperature dropped further, my stomach felt worse and every single minute I doubted my decisions and questioned if this trip was too adventurous for me. At 2:30 the arrival of Sarnath express was announced and I could see the train approaching rather rapidly. Despite the fog, the train was delayed for just over an hour....finally. And then, as the train leveled with the platform, my mode changed from relief to panic - the train was arriving at platform number 2 and I was at 1 (the scheduled platform) and there was no way to cross other than climbing up an overbridge. I ran as fast as i could with my fifteen kilos of luggage.