Over the years I’ve seen many examples of Indian religious symbols that occur in nature – things like the coco-de-mer, or rocks that resemble a Shiva lingam arranged in a temple and anointed with vermilion, just like formal sculptures of gods.
But up to now, I’d only seen these things in photographs, or displayed in a temple or museum. So it was special to discover for ourselves, a few days ago, a symbol of Shiva-Shakti in a mountain stream.
It was an unusually long walk for us, due to a patch of confusion at one point. We started, as we often do, by making our way down the mountainside and into the long cultivated valley that spreads to the east from below our guesthouse.
This valley, anchored by the village of Bintola, is one of our favorite places here in the Kasar Devi area. It’s quiet, rich with agricultural fields, with a small river running along the valley bottom. There are no motorable roads close by, so every time people need something from the town, they have to walk at least an hour. This means there are no sounds of motors or engines, other than the low bass thrum of an occasional water pump. You never hear recorded music down here in the valley either, nor television. Despite cell phones and electricity, life here is lived in a traditional, even timeless manner, and we know how lucky we are to experience it.
On this day, we planned to explore a side valley we hadn’t visited before. We started reasonably early while the weather was still cool, so people were outside gardening, carrying composted manure to the fields, and herding goats.
It took us a while to find a reasonably good path as we turned out of the main valley into a side valley heading north. We followed a few different promising tracks, only to find they petered out or went the wrong way, so we had to backtrack.
There was one stretch where found ourselves walking on the extremely narrow edge of a hand-fashioned bund at the edge of a rice field. Walking these bunds always feels precarious; one false move and you’re stepping on young rice plants, or alternatively, you might fall off the edge into the terrace below, breaking the bund as you go (not to mention breaking valuable plants and/or part of yourself). To make matters worse, the bund itself is often planted with tiny starts of chili plants, as people here in the valley try to use every inch of available space for food.
We made it across the bund safely, then looked around for a path. We couldn’t find one, but there, watching us with curiosity, was a local man. We asked him the way to Kesar Devi, and he pointed us up the hillside in the direction we were already headed. We followed a narrow dirt path winding slowly up a steep mountainside, the land mostly wild and uncultivated. After about 15 minutes, the path ascended a slope to an open, rocky plateau, and we came upon a few stone buildings and a small temple.
There are so many temples in these hills, it’s not at all unusual to come across another one. But this temple was unusual: It is roofless, and had been recently repainted in bright blue, which I’ve never seen before in this region.
I walked around to the formal entry gate. Even without a roof, it felt ceremonious to go through the gate, to ring the bell and arrive at the temple threshold. With nothing but the open sky above, I felt I was entering a very large space, a temple actually big enough to house the infinite presence of Shiva.
The colored tiles depicting gods and goddesses at the temple’s entry had all been recently daubed with vermilion and sandalwood paste. Inside, arrayed near the lingam-yoni, I found old stone sculptures of the gods, also recently anointed.
There was a dish of cotton wicks in ghee, waiting to be lit; carefully tended tulsi (holy basil) plants bloomed along a stone terrace above a line of small lingams. All the signs of active worship were here, but we were entirely alone, not a soul to be seen.
It was utterly quiet. Only the sounds of birds punctuated the open space around us. We did not speak to one another; we just sat in the temple, or wandered around outside its walls, listening and looking.
All around outside the temple walls were wild herbs – some escapes of the holy basil, and other fragrant herbs whose names I didn’t know. I gathered a few sprigs, and the scent accompanied me for the next few hours of our walk. Later in the evening, I chopped the basil into our salad, and tucked the other herbs into my pillow.
From the Shiva temple, we walked into a dry and rocky cleft between low hills. There we discovered some tiny red flowers that looked like miniature dahlias. A few minutes later, we arrived at the bank of a river, flowing between dramatically carved rocks. There was a convenient though crumbling concrete bridge, and a couple of ruined-looking stone buildings along the bank.
We gazed down into the water cascading from rock pool to rock pool, and then we saw it: a long rectangular rock with perfect edges laid in a perfectly round rock pool.
I hope the pictures show you what we saw: a perfect lingam and yoni in the riverbed. The water running around the lingam stone completed the imagery; it was exactly like the ritual lingam-yoni in every Shiva temple, complete with a trough to carry away the milk, ghee and scented water priests use to bathe the sacred icon.
The lingam-yoni was so perfect, I wondered if the heavy stone had been placed in the pool by human hands. I also wondered whether it had originally been placed in a standing position, to make it more like a conventional lingam. But the stone was so large and heavy, I questioned whether people could have placed it there, even knowing that people execute more impossible tasks than this – things like building Stonehenge on an elevated plain, or erecting huge pyramids in deserts and atop high mountains. Still, I thought, maybe it really is a naturally occuring lingam-yoni. Perhaps people built the blue temple close by exactly because of this find, its presence indicating that in this location, Shiva-Shakti energy is strong.
Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter how the lingam-yoni got here. It’s enough to sit quietly, listening to the sound of water rushing through the rock crevices and watching the water sparkle as it cascades into pools before rushing away again, down the mountainside.
We found a good path that ran parallel to the river, heading uphill into a forested area crowded with low-growing shrubs and small trees. Soon the river was far below us, and presently we noticed richly green fields of rice and taro planted along the riverbank far below us. The fields were long and narrow, wedged between the river and the near-vertical slope that rises straight up from it. The fields looked beautifully made and maintained, and I was puzzled; there were no proper houses nearby, just two tiny stone buildings with collapsed roofs. Whoever has been tending these fields, and whoever plans to harvest them, must be walking quite a distance to reach them.
We continued up the river valley as it narrowed and the way grew steeper. Abruptly the path turned downhill between two rocky walls, and all at once, the narrow gorge opened into a flat little river valley.
It was a pretty place we had come to, grassy and bucolic. The little stream wound to the right, and we crossed at a place with convenient stepping stones. Cows’ footprints told us this was a watering place, but we saw no other trace of people or their domestic animals.
We stopped to consider where we should go. Three cone-shaped green hills rose above us, crowned with tall pines. We knew we were near the Kasar Devi temple and the well-maintained Binsar road leading to it, but from where we stood, we couldn’t see the huge cellular towers that mark the temple’s location, nor any distinct footpath heading up any of the three hills.
The lay of land in the tiny river valley was easy, and we thought it would be fun to head further upriver. Or, we thought, we could climb one of the hills, and see if we could find the Binsar road.
It was getting hot, and the humidity was high. We’d brought some extra water and snacks, so we had a few handfuls of dal and peanuts, drank some water and thought about what to do. The hills, green and parklike as they looked, looked more and more like a poor choice. It would be easy to head up – easy in the sense that the trees weren’t too dense, so we’d have a clear view – but it would be difficult to make our way up such a vertical slope, and as we’ve learned, there can be snakes in long grass like the grass blanketing these hills. We imagined if we did head up, we’d eventually find a long-range footpath leading to the Binsar road, but no matter how much we scanned the hillsides, we still couldn’t see any sign of a path.
The little river valley was pretty, and tempting. But it was getting hot, and we knew it would take us close to three hours to get back to the guesthouse if we simply retraced our steps. The last 45 minutes would also be the tiring uphill slog out of the Bintola valley that we know so well. We decided to leave the little river valley for another day, one when we could start earlier and know exactly where we were heading.
We retraced our steps to the river, then up the hill to a well-worn footpath where we’d already seen goats and people. Just as we’d guessed, the track had an easy upward grade, and we could see that it led directly to a group of houses, and among them a brand-new, bright-yellow temple that shone like a beacon across the hills.
As we walked towards the temple, we met a group of middle-aged women resting beside the path. They’d laid down the big grass bundles they’d been carrying on their heads, and were ready to be amused. They called out to us, and one of the women stood up to do a little dance. I joined in, then did a spin right there on the path. They laughed and cheered; I told Alan, “They know my reputation.” (There’s a small school above our guesthouse, and every morning we pass the children, I do a little dance for them. It makes them laugh.)
Soon we reached the temple, and found it was so new, it was still getting the finishing touches on its first paint job. There were a couple of workmen, and I was surprised to see a few visitors enjoying the spectacular views into the Bintola valley.
We walked uphill from the temple and discovered we’d reached the end of the Balta road that switchbacks six kilometers down from the Binsar road. That’s why there were visitors: They’d arrived on the motorcycles we saw parked at the end of the road. We’d always wondered where the Balta road ended up, and now we know.
There’s a little shop right by the Balta road offering local vegetables (so we were told by our friend Prashant when we showed him this photo; our Hindi just isn’t that good).
By now we’d been walking more than three hours, and the heat and humidity had increased. The rainclouds had cleared and the sun was shining brightly – beautiful, but I wasn’t enthusiastic about walking up six kilometers of tarmac-road switchbacks with the sun streaming down on me.
Alan pointed out that we didn’t have to walk the entire road, as are lots of informal footpaths between the long switchbacks. We took a couple of these rocky dirt paths, cutting off a lot of distance. Then Alan pointed out our guesthouse across the gorge, very close as the crow flies. He took another few steps and found a footpath we hadn’t seen before. It led straight into the forest, offering shelter from the sun.
The pine-needle-cushioned surface was much pleasanter to walk on than tarmac, and immediately I felt energy returning, taking pleasure in the walk even though we were still heading uphill. Soon we came to an opening in the trees where we could see our guesthouse, with all the surrounding village houses. The second photo is a zoom-in, with the orange arrow showing the columned front porch of our cottage.
Directly below us was a tiny Durga temple with an orange roof. We have visited this little temple; it’s the same one that faces us across our valley. Every morning we can hear a conch being blown at the temple, its sharp distinctive sound softened by the distance.
It was easy to fall asleep that night, especially after the unexpectedly long walk. As I drifted off, I could smell the fresh herbs tucked inside my pillow case, and hear the rushing of the river through the Shiva-Shakti pool.