Peace and belonging in an ancient land
Finding treasure in the Neelkanth temple in Bundelkhand
One whose Throat is Blue
I bow to Nilakantha [who has] ten arms, three eyes,
is sky-clad [and] lord of the directions,
dark-eyed and adorned by/with poison.
— Translated by Rohini Bakshi
One of the most famous legends, which has been described in the Bhagavata Purana, the Mahabharata, and the Vishnu Purana, is that of samudra manthan, or churning of the ocean. It is about the time when the gods and demons fought and the demons often got the upper hand. On being appealed to, Lord Vishnu advised the gods to solve the problem diplomatically, which resulted in an alliance between the gods and demons to churn the sea of milk for the nectar of immortality, which they would divide equally between them. Lord Vishnu assured the gods that he would ensure that they alone got the nectar of immortality. During the churning, many objects came up. One was the halahala, a pot of potent poison which could destroy everyone. Again, on Lord Vishnu’s advice, the gods approached Lord Shiva, who was the only one capable of swallowing it without being affected.
Lord Shiva swallowed the poison while his consort Goddess Parvati, it is said, held his neck to prevent it from going into his stomach. The poison turned his throat blue, which is why he’s called Neelkanth, or the one with a blue throat. Though the poison didn’t harm him, Lord Shiva’s throat was burning and he came to earth to rest. According to legend, that place was Kalinjar where the Chandela rulers, who were Shiva bhakts, built in the 10th century a magnificent Neelkanth temple. The Chandela rulers of Bundelkhand also built the Kalinjar fort, which lives up to its name, ‘The destroyer of time’, between the 9th and 13th centuries. It is one of the few forts that stood against the invasions of Mahmud of Ghazni. It lies on a hilly plateau, 1,203 ft above the plains in the Vindhya range.
The breathtaking temple
The entrance to the fort and the palaces inside are impressive, but it was Neelkanth temple that took my breath away. It was the best part of my trip to Bundelkhand. From the top, the 165 steps that lead down to it in a long and winding route look daunting, but don’t let that deter you. It’s worth every bit of the effort.
Though the scenery accompanying the journey down the steps is enough to refresh tired feet, it was the first sight of the Grecian altar-looking 16-pillared yagna mandap from the top that was enough to give us a sense of purpose. We continued with renewed vigour. The mandap, which is said to have once been covered, now stands under the open sky as a testimony to time.
There are carvings and statues on the rocks all along the route. At the museum of Kalinjar fort, the Archaeological Survey of India officer said that out of the 874 specimens of sculpture they had there, most were found during excavations of the temple. I can well believe him after seeing the riches there.
A door leads to the village. On the way, an adorable Ganesha statue keeps guard. On the rock, just a little way above the mandap, are spectacular statues of Chamundi Devi.
Behind the mandap is a small shrine cut into the rock itself, with a tall Shivling installed in it. The unique feature of the Shivling is that it is always wet near the throat portion, even if there is a drought or famine in this area.
The door of the cave is a massive stone shutter-like thing, which the pujari told me used to move, but they no longer know the secret lever.
To the right of the temple, a few steps down, is the most amazing statue of Kal Bhairav (incarnation of Lord Shiva) carved in the rocks. This is easy to miss as most people return from the mandap area. It is 24 ft high, 17 ft wide, has 18 arms, and is garlanded by skulls. The statue is majestic and stunning, and gave us the feel of the power of destiny, for which it is worshipped.
Just above the temple is a natural water source that never dries up. Water continually drips onto the Shivling, keeping the neck moist. Thirty-five steps lead up to the sarovar cut in the mountains behind the temple. It is said that this contains treasure, and there are some indications written on its walls. I don’t know how true this is, for surely someone must have found it if it was material treasure. To my mind, it’s treasure of the spiritual kind, for I felt a great sense of peace here.