Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Forbidden Valley

“This valley is cursed, son. Every male entering this forbidden valley either loses his memory or becomes impotent!” Yikes! Shouldn’t they’ve put a sign saying that at the mouth of the valley as a warning? And…er…does one get to choose the punishment, I wondered? And what about this man, sitting here in the very lap of this beautiful valley…doesn’t the curse apply to him? “I am a baal brahmachari. I’ve vowed to remain celibate all my life…by choice”, he said, as though he’d read my thoughts. “Don’t worry...that curse was centuries old. A Gond princess, a tantric priestess, used to meditate in this valley. She believed that the valley was formed like a mandala (cosmic pattern) and one could acquire greater spiritual strength if one meditated in this valley. And in order to remain undisturbed during her rituals, she had the uttered the curse to protect herself from the distractive influence of any male force. Even male animals wouldn’t enter this valley in those days. But today, the curse isn’t as potent…visitors are safe here”, he said. Behind that mask, I thought I saw him smile...

But I’m getting ahead of my story. It all began on this hot summer day; the car was hurtling along the highway to Nagpur (90 kms away and from where I had to catch a plane to Delhi in the evening). Since I had some time and had heard about an ancient abandoned temple in the forests of Rukhad, I thought of stopping there, en route. However, once off the highway, the sorry excuse for a road had busted the car’s radiator. The driver disappeared into the forest with a jerrycan and since the summer heat was baking me alive in the car, I followed him into the woods. We reached what, in the monsoons, must have been a roaring river. Now in the dry season, it was just a little rivulet hiding under the boulders. While the driver was busy dragging the can along the river bed, I stumbled along the stones and caught sight of a bright red rag fluttering on the bank. “Tantric baba, sahab!”, the driver said. “We should go for darshan.” So, unaware of the curse, I thought, ‘what have I got to lose’, and off we went, following the river, into the mouth of what would soon be known to us as the forbidden valley.

Following a dung-dotted trail, past a cow tied to a stake and her sprightly calf, we reached a cave. It was empty, but for a beaten utensil sitting on a wood fire, the milk bubbled and boiled inside; an assortment of idols, and surprise, surprise – a solar panel. We must not have been waiting for more than a few minutes, when rose from the slope that led to the banks a massive head, with hair that grew almost as if it had a life of its own. The figure was swathed in black robes, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses and his face behind a white cloth mask. As he sat down in front of us, I noticed a trident by his side; I’d be lying if I did not confess to being mildly intimidated. After the aforementioned introduction, he told us about the magical valley where on specific days, one could hear “an om merging into the azaan, for both are cosmic truths”, and where at night the river fairies often play with the spirits of the forest. He claimed that these fairies and spirits had taught him all he knew about tantra. Apparently, this holy man had once been a regular college going kid who had been drawn to this valley because “the spirits called me to inherit the powers of this place”, he said, in the very words I’ve written. So he had a degree. Does that make him any more real than the imposters that abound? My companion had no such doubts for sitting there, jerrycan and devotion clasped between folded palms, he seemed to have forgotten all about the radiator.

“I could keep you rooted to this very spot if I want. Would you want me to?” He asked; my expression must have given my thoughts away. I smiled and asked him if he’d ever done that. He laughed and said, “Sure, just ask that cow. Actually a leopard that lives in a cave on the opposite bank had caught this calf and I used mantras to control the leopard’s mind and body and rescued the calf. These powers are not mine to keep. There are a few places in this country where geographic forces, mountains, rivers, underground streams etc. all come together to create a vortex of tantric energy. If you meditate here, even you could find yourself blessed. If you don’t believe me, stay with me for a while and you’ll see for youself…or, I could control your mind and body and make you stay here even if you don’t want to…” Hmm, interesting offer, but with a plane to catch in three hours, I had to pass. “Think about it. Why would I spend my time in the forest, spinning yarns? What do I get?” He had a point. As I got up to leave, I asked him why he kept his face and eyes covered. “You’ll go blind in 15 minutes if you were to look at my face and eyes. I could remove them if you don’t believe me”. The driver looked horrified but I smiled and shook my head. So this was a high stakes game, but I didn’t have 15 minutes. “I’ll be back”, I promised…and I’ll keep you posted.

Mystique of the feminine

The sexual connotations associated with Tantra are not altogether off the mark. Tantra can be traced to some fertility cults, like in the ancient Druid societies, apart from being tagged to most legends around Shiva and Shakti in the Hindu scriptures.

The Tantra philosophy propounds the attainment of pure consciousness or bliss by the symbolic union of the feminine energy (Shakti) that is dynamic, and the static masculine energy (Shiva). In Tantra, Shakti is considered the primal divine force – the fountainhead of cosmic energy and power. Little wonder that Tantra constitutes religious norm in most matriarchal societies.

Kundalini Yoga, that arguably makes the most ostensible harness of Tantric traditions, talks of awakening the potent energy that rests at the base of the spine – Kundalini Shakti – to rise through the six other energy centres (chakras) in the body to ultimately unite with the energy of Shiva in the Sahasrara chakra at the crown of the head for the realisation of the Shunya mandala, the blissful Void.

Tantra doesn’t enjoy popular following as a mainstream practice like Yoga, thanks to misplaced notions of having to do with black magic, or even some depraved exploitation carried out in its name by dirty delinquents. It is, however, still practiced in places like the Kamakhya Temple of Assam, the Viswanath Temple of Varanasi, and lately convened as an academic discipline in Thanthra Vidya Peedhom in Kerala.


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