Once in a while, something comes along to lift the veil of moffusil mediocrity from our once great pious cities to redeem their timeless allure in the minds of their devotees. In the case of Kurukshetra, the site of the epic war of Mahabharata, which today is little more than a district headquarter, a new book peels the layers off its grimy urbanity to show that it has been a confluence of divergent faiths like Buddhism, Sufism and Hinduism.  

Kurukshetra is actually an area spread over 48 Kos Bhumi or 378 sq km perimeter in the districts of Karnal, Kaithal, Panipat, Jind and Kurukshetra where there is ample evidence even today of at least 150 of the 360 spiritual treasures that have drawn pilgrims through the millennia to its borders.

Part history, part mythology and legend, Kurukshetra — Timeless Sanctity , in the words of its author Vijai Vardhan, dips into “the terrestrial and the celestial” to reconstruct its fabled past. We learn, for instance, about the small town of Jyotisar, in Kurukshetra district, that owes its immortality to the sermon of Bhagvat Gita, delivered here by Lord Krishna on the eve of the battle. People flock to its sacred tank to take a dip.

What exactly are the legends and their significance, that draw pilgrims to Brahmsarovar and Sannihit Sarovar, two other water bodies in Kurukshetra, where lakhs congregate during solar eclipses to have a bath? This is where facts and legends merge to tell us that Kurukshetra, that took its name from the Kuru tribe to which the Kauravas and Pandavas belonged, became a ‘dharamkshetra’ whose standards of piety and conduct came to be emulated by entire humanity. Lord Vishnu decided to reside here, and Shiva became sthanu or stationary here, giving the city its other name, Thanesar. Of the nine avatars of Vishnu, eight are linked to Kurukshetra. And Krishna himself bathed in the Sannihit Sarovar after the battle of Mahabharata.

The ancient Sthaneshwar Mahadev temple (for Shiva is Kurukshetra’s presiding deity) is, according to the Vamana Purana, the place where Lord Brahma installed the first linga of Shiva. So this, says Mr. Vardhan, is where linga worship had first begun. 

This is also the place through which the legendary Saraswati river flowed. Tracing the historicity of this lost river from ancient Vedic texts and modern research, the book informs that recent sub-surface burst of water from a pond of the Kapilmuni ashram near Kurukshetra, has been identified as being from the Vedic Saraswati. An ancient river bed was subsequently discovered 13 km north of Kurukshetra to substantiate the claim.

A separate chapter on Yakshas or guardian deities — their cult being prevalent in the region — has four pictures of stout Yakshas identified by Alexander Cunningham, the British Surveyor General, at four corners of the 48 Kos Bhumi. Called Ratna, Arantuka, Kapila and Machakruka, statues of these Yakshas (unfortunately vandalised) had been installed in the identified villages by the Haryana government in 2001.

But moving away from the prevaricating Arjun, few know that Kurukshetra has had its brushes with Buddhism and Sufism. It was the Buddha himself who brought the faith to Kurukshetra, where he delivered his discourses at Thullakotthita and Kamasadamma, identified by historians as Thanesar and Kaithal. The remains of Buddhist stupas at Chaneti and Adi Badri near the town and one near the Brahma Sarovar have been written about by Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese traveller.

Thanesar also has the imposing seventeenth century Sufi shrine — the mausoleum of Sheikh Chaheli or Abd-ur Rahim, the spiritual teacher of Dara Shikoh. In the post 1857 AD period, Thanesar emerged as the centre of anti-British Wahhabi activities in the region that had branches in towns like Karnal, Panipat, Jhajjar and Ambala.

To tell the story of a place through the lives of the people, the kings, poets and prophets who shaped it, is easily the most comprehensible way to do it. If the cataclysmic battle of Mahabharata and the divine sermon of Gita are responsible for eclipsing later layers of this great city from popular Indian consciousness, Mr. Vardhan’s book steps in to fill the gaps. But, as he says, “Here truth is often as important as myth... It is enough for its admirers that it existed.”

Much of Mr. Vardhan’s narrative comes to life in the spectacular photographs by Atul Sharma. The author, who is a civil servant of the Haryana cadre, is a history buff with a spiritual side that drew him to this land of the Gita, which according to him is “where for millennia fears, doubts and dilemmas are settled”.

The backdrop of mythology, legends and history, Haryana’s Kurukshetra and its many fabled places of interest are being revisited in a new book