A River Tells A Story

The first thing that hits you as you reach the end of the road is the sound. It doesn’t just hit, it assails; and as I came to realise, it takes over all your senses. The river Parvati rushes all the way down from the Man Talai glacier where it springs up as a tiny brook, gathering tributaries and waterfalls in its widening swathe, displaying its audible impatience as it rushes to meet its more popular counter-part Beas in the Kullu Valley. And, in one of the many sinuous bends the river takes to plough its way down, lies a small village called Manikaran, now a bustling pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Sikhs. Manikaran’s provenance is uncertain but if you listen carefully, amidst Parvati’s roaring din, you can hear many stories.

When I reached Manikaran for the first time in the mid-1980s, the motorable road ended at Manikaran, on the opposite bank. Today I believe it extends further up the mountain to a hydropower project. You had to cross a small metal bridge to reach the village. My first encounter was with a sadhu — smeared with ashes, wearing his basic habit but carrying a fancy rucksack with a sleeping bag tied to its top. Sadhus play an important role in the continuing allure of Manikaran by providing an unending supply of stories and mind-bending herbs to make the stories sound credible.

So, on Dusshera night in 1986, when all the tourists had departed to witness the Ramlila in Kullu, I sat with a sadhu outside an ancient temple. Among the many stories he recounted about the mountains in the region – including one about an ancient Shiva Temple which is struck down by lightning every year and rebuilt painstakingly by its priest with loving care – he shared an interesting legend about how Manikaran came to be and how it was named.

Legend has it that goddess Parvati came down to the river for a bath one day, wearing a precious stone gifted by her loving husband, Shiva the creator-destroyer. While she was busy with her ablutions, the serpent king of the river started coveting her gem. Caution soon yielded to avarice and the serpent king wrested the ornament away from Parvati. She was obviously distraught and went weeping to Shiva and complained about the bully (with the sadhu providing a side-bar on the couple’s infinite love and their timeless coupling).

Enraged, Shiva switched on his third eye. So powerful was Shiva’s wrath that the serpent king had to cough up the gem. And, to top it all, Shiva’s revenge was so violent that the gem split into millions of small hot and burning pieces when the serpent spit it out. Wherever they fell, hot springs gurgled up.

And so it came to be that the river – with its impetuous, abundant, ferocious and untamed demeanour – was named Parvati. The bend in the river is her ear and the small hamlet perched on a rock in the bend is the ornament in her ear, or Manikaran, a phonetic twist to the purer term Manikarn. That night, sitting on a cold marble platform, Parvati’s roar suddenly seem to grow louder at the end of the story.

Reprinted With Permission from Talking Myths Projects: http://www.talkingmyths.com/a-river-tells-a-story-2/
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