PILGRIMNATION BY DEVDUTT PATTANAIK
#04, Hidimba temple
A 30-part series that explores the idea of India through its pilgrim routes Hidimba temple in Manali is a reminder of how old wooden temples may have been built before stone became the material of choice
In Manali, in Himachal Pradesh, on hills wrapped by misty lush green deodar forest, is the temple of Hidimba Devi. She is identified with the rakshasa wife of Bhima, the hero of the epic Mahabharata. The ancient shrine was enclosed by a wooden temple, about 500 years ago, by a local king.
This unique structure -a reminder of how old wooden temples may have been built before stone became the material of choice -has three canopies made of timber, and topped with a metal cone. A simple structure, it has carvings on the doorways, indicating familiarity with Shiva and Shakti, Vishnu and Lakshmi, as well as Buddha. There are images of animals such as elephant, lion and camel, and motifs representing auspiciousness and abundance such as the pot. Also interesting are the horns and heads of deer placed on the outer walls, reminding us of tribal origins of the temple. Within the temple, the goddess is represented by a gigantic rock and a tiny brass image. A rope hangs above the rock, said to be where, in earlier times, criminals were tied and their bodies dashed against the rock, once again reminding us of the temple’s roots. Nearby is a temple dedicated to her son, Ghatotkacha.
Every year, after all of India has finished with its Dussehra celebrations, on Vijaya Dashami day, the goddess travels to the Kullu valley on her palanquin, and with her arrival start the week long celebrations of Kullu Dusshera, that witnesses local deities of the hills, arriving in their palanquins, to pay obeisance to the presiding deity of the royal family, Raghunath Ram, of the Ramayana.
The story goes that the local king once coveted the pearls that were in possession of a peasant, which were in fact `pearls of wisdom’, a concept beyond the grasp of the greedy king, who tortured the poor peasant. With his dying breath, the peasant cursed the king that all that he sought to eat would turn into worms and all he sought to drink would turn into blood.The king suffered greatly and begged the gods to forgive him. Finally, he was advised to bring the image of Raghunath Ram from Saket in the Gangetic plains to the hills, which he did. By Ram’s grace he was forgiven and the curse removed. The gods of the hills arrive to greet Ram. This suggests an ancient practice designed to reinforce the authority of the royal family, each deity embodying the spirit of villages that constitute the kingdom. Hidimba is the patron goddess of the royal family, hence it is her arrival that marks the beginning of the celebration.
People of the hills say that Rishi Jamadagni once went on a pilgrimage across the three worlds. And everywhere he went, he collected images of the gods he met. The gods told him that these images would root themselves at the spot they touched the ground. So Jamadagni placed the images in a basket, and carried the basket on his head, travelling without placing the images on the ground until he reached his home. For he knew, with all the gods in his home, he and his descendants would forever be blessed.
But near Himachal, he faced a great storm. The basket slipped from his head, and all the gods fell on the ground, on the various hills. These are the devatas of Kullu and Manali, who come together each year during Kullu Manali to meet each other and gain audience with Raghunath Ram, patron of kings, and the great royal mother, Hidimba.
In neighbouring Uttaranchal, in the valleys of Har-ki-Doon, famous with trekkers, are wooden temples dedicated to various characters of the Mahabharata, including Duryodhana and Karna. From these hills, Pandavas are said to have accessed Swarga, paradise, abode of Indra.
These stories remind us once again how the idea of India is not a function of political power, as Westernised scholars assume, but on faith and pilgrimage. The hills are united by the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Both epics speak of rakshasas, that the heroes encounter. In the Mahabharata, the rakshasas, are often called asuras, though strictly speaking asuras refer to the enemies of devas (gods) and rakshasas refer to enemies of rishis (Vedic sages) who sought to establish Vedic culture based on yagna, the ritual of exchange.
Rakshasas, like gandharvas, and nagas, were probably hostile hill and forest tribes, unfamiliar with the Vedic ways. Some mingled and merged with the Vedic way, others remained at the fringes, and some chose to stay away altogether, as happens when cultures meet and clash.
Today, no thanks to colonial influence, and the domination of God-Devil template found in Islam and Christianity, we are conditioned to view rakshasas and asuras as evil.
But the word `evil’ cannot be translated in any Indian language. Puranas describe these `demons’ as descendants of Brahma and Kashyapa just like all the gods and sages, reminding us of universal brotherhood and the concept of vasudhaiva kutumbakam, the whole world is one family. And so, though the Pandavas did not make Hidimba, a queen of the Pandava clan, and her firstborn, Ghatotkacha, the true heir of the Pandava kingdom, her people saw her as a form of the mother goddess, an embodiment of Shakti, part of the local pantheon, and connected with the wider Hindu canon