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April - June 2023

The Himalayas as described by Bharavi

The Himalaya mountains form the northern physical boundary of our land, and have been protecting us in many ways. In the psyche of Indians, the Himalayas represent everything that is sacred and other-worldly, as a place filled with very important holy spots, a place where ascetics resort to, searching for the highest purpose of life and  spending their lives in contemplation of the divine. Above all this, the Divine Mother Parvati was born as the daughter of the Himalayas, and resides there with Lord Shiva.

Poets from ancient times to now have described the scenes of the Himalayas in different ways. Kalidasa is known for his great love for these mountains and we find his charming descriptions about them in many of his works. His Kavya “Kumarasambhava” especially, is set in the Himalayas entirely and the opening verses of the Kavya provide an elaborate picture of the Himalayan landscape : snow-filled peaks, medicinal herbs, trees, animals, waters and the celestial beings residing there etc.

In the essay “Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda”, we learn that the Swamiji said the following about the famous opening verse of Kumarasambhava “ The important words in this verse are ‘Devatatma’ (ensouled by Divinity) and ‘Manadanda’ (measuring-rod). The poet implies and suggests that the Himalaya is not a mere wall accidentally constructed by nature. It is ensouled by Divinity and is the protector of India and her civilization not only from the chill icy blasts blowing from the arctic region but also from the deadly and destructive incursions of invaders. The Himalaya further protects India by sending the great rivers Sindhu, Ganga, and Brahmaputra perennially fed by melted ice irrespective of the monsoon rains. Manadanda implies that the poet affirms that the Indian civilization is the best of all human civilizations and forms the standard by which all the other human civilizations, past, present, and future, must be tested. Such was the poet’s lofty conception of patriotism.”

Among the remaining Pancha-mahakavyas of Sanskrit, is the “Kiratarjuniyam” by Mahakavi Bharavi. Like Kumarasambhava, this too is set almost entirely in the Himalayas. The first few Sargas (Chapters) describe the Pandavas in  exile, when Maharshi Vyasa visits them and tells Arjuna to go the Himalayas and undertake austerities to please Indra, and acquire divine weapons. The sage summons a Yaksha to guide Arjuna to the suitable spot for penance. They set off and the autumnal landscapes of the  villages en route are described in detail in the fourth Sarga.

The entire fifth Sarga of Kiratarjuniyam is a magnificent description of the Himalayas, in around 50 verses. Most of them are given as the poet’s observations, the rest being the words of the Yaksha talking to Arjuna. This Sarga gives us a good insight into Bharavi’s keen understanding of the Himalayan geography, his reverence for its sanctity, his love for the natural beauty found there and his deep devotion to Shiva, whose connection to the Himalayas comes up with unfailing regularity. To emphasize the stunning nature of the Himalayas, Bharavi has used quite a bit of “Shabdalankaras”, figures of speech that involve alliteration, word-play, pun etc. Several verses contain “Yamakas”, which have the same set of syllables repeated, but to be split and interpreted differently. These help in gently accentuating the sense of wonder , “Adbhuta Rasa” that permeates this Sarga.

Let us see some of these descriptions under some broad categories.

The play of light in the mountains

The Himalayas, as we know, are set to the North of the Tropic of Cancer, Hence the sunlight always falls only on one side of the mountains. This fact has been stated with a beautiful simile:

तपनमण्डल-दीपितमेकतः    सततनैश-तमोवृतमन्यतः ।

हसितभिन्न-तमिस्रचयं पुरः    शिवमिवानुगतं गजचर्मणा ॥ ५. २ ॥

(Illumined by the Sun on one side, with the other side always in the darkness, the Himalaya was like Shiva whose radiant smile dispels darkness in front, while the black elephant hide spread behind him (when he is Gajasamharamurty))

It is well-known that Himalayas are, or at least were, very rich in gold and silver and precious gems. Along the ranges, there are tribes who traditionally have gold-prospecting as their professions. This richness is borne out in some verses.

सक्तिं जवादपनयत्यनिले लतानां  वैरोचनैर्द्विगुणिताः सहसा मयूखैः ।

रोधोभुवां मुहुरमुत्र हिरण्मयीनां  भासस्तडिद्विलसितानि विडम्बयन्ति ॥ ५. ४६ ॥

(The riverbanks are strewn with gold. When strong winds prise apart intertwined climbers, the sunlight suddenly catches and doubles the brightness of these banks, creating lightning-like flashes.)

The circular appearance of light when caught suddenly at a new angle, is a breathtaking sight we all would have experienced. This is described as :

सम्मूर्छतां रजतभित्ति-मयूखजालै: आलोलपादप-लतान्तरनिर्गतानाम् ।

घर्मद्युतेरिह मुहुः पटलानि धाम्नाम्  आदर्शमण्डलनिभानि समुल्लसन्ति ॥ ५. ४१ ॥

(Whenever the trees and climbers sway in the breeze, sunlight streams through the gaps, is intensified due to the shining silver sides of the mountains, and gleams like round mirrors.)

Apart from gold and silver, Bharavi also revels in describing the many gems found here. The rubies are the colour of hibiscus, and create an impression of the evening sky. The dark blue sapphires flank the silver walls making their shine seem like moonlight in the night.

The emeralds emit a soft green light, like the body of a young parakeet and deer come to lick this light thinking it is fresh grass.

The  sun is generally known as “Sahasra-kirana” (the thousand-rayed), but the crystals (Sphatika) found in the mountains enhance this.

क्रामद्भिर्घन-पदवीमनेकसङ्ख्यै  स्तेजोभिः शुचिमणिजन्मभिर्विभिन्नः ।

उस्राणां व्यभिचरतीव सप्तसप्तेः  पर्यस्यन्निह निचयः सहस्रसङ्ख्याम् ॥ ५. ३४ ॥

(The rays of the Sun, who has seven horses, mingle with the rays emanating from the crystals and spread everywhere, and surpass the count of thousand)

Collectively these jewels create a mixture of colours, capable of completing the rainbow which is seen in pieces in the autumn season (since the clouds are white and scattered)

A place for all the Purusharthas

Parameshvara’s bull, the very embodiment of Dharma, roams around in the mountains, playfully butting the riverbanks. The wealth here is magnificent too.

सुलभैः सदा नयवतायवता निधिगुह्यकाधिपरमैः परमैः ।

अमुना धनैः क्षितिभृतातिभृता समतीत्य भाति जगती जगती ॥ ५. २० ॥

(The vast riches there are available to the righteous who are fortunate, and these riches delight Kubera, the lord of the Yakshas. Because of the Himalayas, among the three worlds, this earth is superior to the other two worlds in glory.)

This verse contains Yamakas, where the repeated phrases are to be split to mean different things.

The Himalayas are not inhospitable to worldly pleasures too.

रुचिरपल्लव-पुष्पलतागृहैः   उपलसज्जलजैर्जलराशिभिः ।

नयति सन्ततमुत्सुकतामयं   धृतिमतीरुपकान्तमपि स्त्रियः ॥ ५. १९ ॥

(With its creeper-bowers replete with flowers and shoots, lakes filled with splendid lotuses, the lake arouses yearning in even those who are happily united with their loved ones.)

Of course, the sublimity of Himavan’s mountains is best known to those who seek salvation. The great mountains attract spiritual seekers and Sadhus (ascetics) in large numbers even today.

वीतजन्मजरसं परं शुचि  ब्रह्मणः पदमुपैतुमिच्छताम् ।

आगमादिव तमोपहादितः सम्भवन्ति मतयो भवच्छिदः ॥ ५. २२ ॥

(Men who want to reach the abode of Brahman, that is pure and devoid of rebirth and old age, obtain insights here, just as they do from darkness-dispelling scriptures.)

Thus Himavan provides support to the four-fold purposes of life : Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha.

The sanctity

Many holy rivers originate in the glaciers of the Himalayas, the Ganga being the most sacred.

विततशीकर-राशिभिरुच्छ्रितैः  उपलरोधविवर्तिभिरम्बुभिः ।

दधतमुन्नतसानुसमुद्धतां धृतसितव्यजनामिव जाह्नवीम् ॥ ५. १५ ॥

(Ganga, the daughter of Jahnu, flows here, with her waters swishing around rocks and creating a mist,  seems to hold a white Chamara (flywhisk) to the Himalayas)

The regal status of Himavan, as the “Shaila-raja” (King of mountains) and his exalted position as the father of Parvati is hinted by the reference to Chamaras, the privilege of kings.

The Manasa Sarovara lake is another sacred jewel in the lap of the Himalayas.

विकचवारिरुहं दधतं सरः सकलहंसगणं शुचि मानसम् ।

(The Manasa lake, with its blooming lotuses and cooing Hamsas is found here)

“The very sight of these mountains, which seems to tear up the sky into a thousand parts, with its snowy peaks, is enough to instantly destroy the multitude of sins of people”, says the Yaksha.

अलमेष विलोकितः प्रजानां  सहसा संहतिमंहसां विहन्तुम् ।

घनवर्त्म सहस्रधेव कुर्वन्  हिमगौरैरचलाधिपः शिरोभिः ॥ ५. १७ ॥

Shiva’s abiding presence

We already saw how the Himalayas were compared to Shiva wrapping an elephant hide and his Rishabha playing around there. It is also the blessed location where Parvati  Kalyanam took place.

ईशार्थमम्भसि चिराय तपश्चरन्त्या यादोविलङ्घन-विलोलविलोचनायाः ।

आलम्बताग्रकरमत्र भवो भवान्याः  श्च्योतन्निदाघसलिलाङ्गुलिना करेण ॥ ५. २९ ॥

(This is where Bhavani performed lengthy Tapasya for attaining Ishvara, standing in water, her eyes tremulous when the water creatures struck her legs, and he clasped her hand (in marriage).

This is indeed like a one-verse summary of the Kumarasambhava, which describes the penance of Parvati and her wedding with Shiva in great detail.

Here in the mountains, on the banks of Ganga, the blessed vision of Shiva’s footsteps are seen.

इह सनियमयोः सुरापगायाम् उषसि सयावकसव्यपादरेखा ।

कथयति शिवयोः शरीरयोगं विषमपदा पदवी विवर्तनेषु ॥ ५. ४० ॥

(On the banks of the divine river (Ganga), at dawn, the trail of Shiva and Parvati are seen, where circumambulations have been done as part of the morning rites. The footprints are uneven in size, the left foot (Parvati’s) being smaller and it is also embellished with red lac-dye , and these tell us that their bodies are conjoined (as Ardhanarishvara.))

The poet hints that Maheshvara himself, being an exemplary householder, undertakes the morning rites, the Sandhyavandanam etc.

Unlike the rest of the world, the moon is ever visible due to Shiva’s abiding presence in the Himalayas.

सततमसितयामिनीषु शम्भोः अमलयतीह वनान्तमिन्दुलेखा ॥ ५. ४४ ॥

(Even during the dark fortnight, the Himalayan forests are brightened by the ambrosial rays of the moon on Shambhu’s head.)

To conclude, in the words of the Yaksha:

अखिलमिदममुष्य गौरीगुरोः त्रिभुवनमपि नैति मन्ये तुलाम् ।

अधिवसति सदा यदेनं जनैः  अविदितविभवो भवानीपतिः ॥ ५. २१ ॥

The Himalaya is the father of Gauri, and the abode of her lord Shiva whose glory is beyond the comprehension of mortals. Indeed, even the three worlds cannot equal these glorious mountains!