Exploring Brahmani's Garden
"Didi (sister), if you try to shut Brahmani Mata's mouth, she will slap you in your sleep," informed little Shikha.
Her brother went up to demonstrate. He covered the spout with his hand, and when he removed it, the water gushed out with a vengeance.
"See, Didi," she continued. "A boy in my class did this, and Brahmani Mata slapped him so hard in his sleep that the marks were still present the next day."
My little guides seemed so solemn, that I could not, in all honesty, laugh at their fanciful thinking. After all, I was in Bharmour, the place where fantasy becomes a reality--the land of the Gaddi tribe, the land of the Chaurasi or the 84 temple campus, and more importantly, the land of Shiva, known locally as Shivbhoomi. Once called Brahmpura, Bharmour was the ancient capital of Chamba. Its Chaurasi temple complex dates back to the 6th century C.E. during the reign of Meru Varman, the ruler from Ayodhya who founded the kingdom of Chamba.
Taking advantage of the sunny spring weather, I had headed out to explore the valley of milk and honey--the Chamba valley in the northwestern state of Himachal Pradesh. The area is underdeveloped, remote, and houses three of the Himalayan ranges--the Dhauladhars, the Pir Panjals, and the Zanskars. Three major rivers--the Ravi, the Beas, and the Chenab--run through the area, the Ravi draining most of Chamba. The landscape is characterized by snowcapped mountains, steep, narrow valleys, numerous crisscrossing streams, waterfalls and rivers, dense forests of pine, oak and deodar (cedar), and heavily terraced land.
The road to Bharmour is always "Under Construction", especially so after such a long and cold winter. Not knowing any better though, I accepted a fellow traveler's challenge, "Are you up for an adventure motorbike ride to Bharmour?" We left the quiet hill station of Dalhousie one early morning for Destination Bharmour. The ride was exhilarating. We serpentined our way through dense deodar forests, the fresh mountain air whipping against our faces. Riding pillion, I could also partake of the magnificent view; through the dark green foliage, I could catch glimpses of the white-headed Pir Panjals slicing upwards through puffy clouds.
Within an hour we found ourselves in the everglade clearing of Khajjiar. Khajjiar's claim to fame is that is the 160th place to be termed "Mini Switzerland". Fortunately, Khajjiar has more significant claims as well. Near the lake stands a 12th century temple dedicated to the snake god, Khajjinag. The temple is a fine example of hill architecture--a gabled pent roof, with stone and wood structure. This is the only temple that houses the statues of all five Pandavas. Khajjiar's festivals attract people from all over, some rolling their way into the temple when the spirit of the snake god possesses them.
We continued onwards, snaking our way downhill to the city of Chamba. Chamba holds the distinction of being one of the rare kingdoms that was continuously ruled by the Rajputs from 6th century C.E. till Independence in 1947. The first view of the city reminded me of a picturesque European hamlet. The city is nestled comfortably in the valley and surrounded by dense pine trees. In the center of the city stands the Royal Palace with its white façade and green roof. Alongside the city promenade flanked with shops, flows the mighty Ravi. Situated at 936 meters above sea level, Chamba was undoubtedly much hotter than Dalhousie (2,039 meters). We made a pit stop here, refueled, renourished, and continued forward. We were well aware that the road to Bharmour wasn't the best, and we wanted to make it there before dusk.
The path to Bharmour, though in hindsight quite treacherous, was 100% pure adventure. As the accelerator raced, so did my heartbeat. The one-lane road, at times disappeared under a layer of shale, rubble and/or mud. On one side towered the rocky Dhauladhars, and on the other a deep ravine through which the Ravi flowed furiously. To add a little more danger to the mix, the road coiled its way up and down mountains, twisting incessantly all throughout. A few times, my heart stopped for a second when we turned around a bend, and lo and behold, there came a large truck or bus hurdling towards us on this narrow one-lane highway. At other times, we had to squeeze through herds of sheep and goats making their way up to the highlands. When alone on the road though, the experience was nothing but divine. Bright skies provided a warm canopy, framed sometimes by a rocky cliff and vale, and at other times, by a forest of pines and deodar. The snowcapped Pir Panjals remained at a distance. The roaring Ravi filled our ears, and the green and yellow terraced landscape dotted with slate-roofed houses added a splash of color. We climbed higher and higher for over 3 hours, until we thought we wouldn't be able to go any further. The last 10 kilometers were pure hell. The bike spluttered, ready to die on us for pushing it so hard. At last, as we came around one bend, we saw the hamlet of Bharmour clinging to the sides the mountain.
According to local folklore, Bharmour used be the garden of the goddess Brahmani Devi. One day, her son's pet bird was killed by a local peasant. The boy, a bit too attached to his pet, died from grief. Brahmani, unable to live without her son, buried herself alive, and soon the trio began to haunt the local villagers. In order to appease the dead, the villagers beatified Brahmani and erected a temple at the site of her residence. Consequently, the entire area came to be called Brahmpura, or "the residence of Brahmani".
Today, Bharmour is the land of the Gaddis who are known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle and beauty. In the past, Bharmour used to be cut off from the rest of the world, and in the winters, the Gaddis used to leave these highlands for warmer climes. To this day, though many of the Gaddis have made their mountain residences permanent, the shepherds still travel up and down to access grazing lands for their sheep and goats. Walking through the winding lanes of the town, one cannot miss the odor of livestock.
The town is a walker's paradise with panoramic views of the Dhauladhars and the Pir Panjals. For those with a cultural bent of mind, the town provides an up close and personal perspective of hill architecture; stone and wood houses covered with slate roofs are characteristic of this place. However, Bharmour is better known for its Chaurasi (84) temple complex and the annual Manimahesh pilgrimage. Legend has it that on his way to Manimahesh (Shiva's abode--the Mount Kailash), Lord Shiva stopped by Brahmpura along with his 84 Sidhas (followers), who promptly set up camp and lit fires. Brahmani Devi was enraged by such desecration of her territory, and ordered Shiva to move on. After being thoroughly placated and appeased, Brahmani allowed them to remain. The 84 sidhas, enamored with the place, transformed themselves into 84 lingas (symbolic statues of Shiva) and took their residence in the Chaurasi (84) temple complex. Shiva granted Brahmani a boon stating that all pilgrims to Manimahesh would be expected to bathe in her pool as a gesture of their respect before they could pay homage to Shiva at the Manimahesh Lake.
Since the Manimahesh trail was still closed (it opens in July and August), we decided to keep ourselves busy at the temple. The complex is spread across an open area covered with concrete, with the Panchayat building (village government), three schoolhouses, and various shops bordering it. The entire village gathers here during the evenings--the crones sit around gossiping, while the future generation plays tag and hopscotch, and skips rope. Everyone hangs out until the evening aarti (worship) before making their way back home. I, too, decided to relax with the gods. After all, I was a bit dejected. The phone lines in Bharmour were down (which is the case 70% of the time) and the nearest cell tower was some 70 km away in Chamba. This meant that I couldn't reach my fiancé to assure him that I was safe and sound and on the ground rather than six feet under. But the uninhibited and spirited children wouldn't allow me to stay depressed. Two girls, Shikha and Puja, took me under their wing.
"Didi," said Shikha. "Do you know how to play five stones?"
I nodded, and soon the three of us began to play this children's game, giggling like 10 year olds. After a few rounds, the game couldn't hold the girls' attention any more, and we proceeded to count the temples.
"Are you sure there are 84 temples?" I asked.
"Oh yes, Didi," both nodded solemnly. "That's why it is called Chaurasi, meaning 84."
We started our tour by the bath tank, a small pool filled with rancid water. "This is where the men bathe. They then take this holy water to the temples and bathe the gods. Do you want to put your foot in?" Looking at the filth and listening to "you can even find frogs in here", I decided to skip this experience.
"This water comes from Brahmani Mata," said Shikha, pointing up into the Dhauladhars. She then led me to the fountain, from which flowed fresh, cool, spring water. "All this water comes from one little spot up in the mountains. It flows all the way down into Bharmour. And don't try to shut her mouth. She will slap you in your sleep." Though not a superstitious person, I, nevertheless, chose to follow my young guide's advice. When in Bharmour, do as the Gaddis.
We moved on to the Ganesh temple. Puja lifted up the covers to show Ganesh's amputated leg. "The Angrez (British) did this to Lord Ganesh. Now, my father makes sure that no one will destroy or steal anything." Puja's father is employed as a security guard here, and spends his nights safeguarding the treasures of Chaurasi.
Soon it was time for the audio version of the tour. The evening aarti began at 8:00 pm sharp. Bells began clanging at various temples in the complex. Each priest opened up his temple for worship. People moved from one site to another, appeasing all the gods, or paid respects to their favorite god(s). At the shikara-styled Manimahesh temple, the shivling was freshly washed and adorned with marigolds, while a saffron-clad sadhu (ascetic) with long dreadlocks rang the bell with immense fervor. Worship in Bharmour is a family affair. Two young boys rang the bells for the Guru Maharaj temple, while a mechanical clanger accompanied them. In spite of the simultaneous ringing at different locations, the result was melodious. This entire spectacle is a daily occurrence. One would suppose that the enthusiasm would decline over time. But the Gaddis have come up with an appropriate solution. The role of the pujari (priest) is rotated among the different Brahmin families, keeping things new for all and this zeal for worship alive.
Though the evening worship was better than a Broadway show, the highlight of the tour was no doubt, the Lakshna Devi temple. Lakshna Devi, a form of Durga who is depicted as a slayer of Mahisasur (the demon buffalo), is also considered by the Gaddis to be the writer of fate. The temple is built along the lines of a pent roof-verandah style with an antechamber replacing the verandah. Constructed by Meru Varman's famous architect Gugga in the 6th century C.E., the temple is constructed out of rubble and deodar wood. The wood masonry is a fine example of the Kashmiri and Gandhara schools of architecture. The entire façade, ceiling and pillars are intricately carved, a testimony of Chamba's fine workmanship. On either side of the entrance, in the antechamber, are two labyrinths etched into stone.
"If you step on this," warned little Shikha, "you will forget your way home."
In face of such severe sincerity, I decided to keep my feet as far away from these mazes as possible. This Eden, though quite seductive, was not my idea of a lifelong residence. And the beautiful and charming Gaddis, though exceedingly hospitable, were not mine to call "family". Tomorrow I would head back into the hustle bustle of civilization, back to those who I had left behind at home, back to a reality that I called "my life." But today, while I shared a Cadbury chocolate bar with these two girls, I would relish this unique experience--a personalized tour of Chaurasi peppered with more enthusiasm and folklore than accuracy. After all, this was Bharmour, the land where fantasy and reality blended into a perfect and harmonious marriage.
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When to go
The best time to visit Bharmour is in the summer and monsoons between May and August. The popular Manimahesh pilgrim (known as the Chhari Yatra) begins in Chamba and ends at the Manimahesh Lake (4000 meters) during the months of August or September. The starting point of the 13 km trek is at Hadsar (20 km from Bharmour). The lake provides a majestic view of the Mount Kailash Manimahesh. This pilgrimage also coincides with the Bharmour fair.
Bharmour is situated deep in the Chamba district of the northwestern state of Himachal Pradesh. It is about 70 km from the city of Chamba, and a five hour drive from the hill station of Dalhousie. The only way to get here is by road. Buses from Chamba operate regularly during the tourist season. Chamba is connected by road to most major cities in Himachal Pradesh and to Pathankot (Punjab). Private jeeps can also be hired. Tour operators in Chamba and Dalhousie can provide tourist information and excursion services.
Where to stay
Bharmour is on the off-the-beaten-track. As such, there aren't many facilities available. There are a handful of hotels. The best bet, though, is the PWD Resthouse. This old colonial bungalow has a dining room, sunroom, verandah, and 8 decent rooms with attached bath. The tourist fee is $4. Home cooked meals are available here at a nominal rate. For a complete cultural experience, you can even stay with one of the Gaddi families for a minimal fee.
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Published on 5/20/05