Amita Sinha

Associate Professor

Department of Landscape Architecture

University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, USA




The paper examines the sacred landscapes of Ayodhya, Chitrakuta, and Kiskindha. The sites were over time imprinted with Ramayana’s characters and events. The transformation of natural landscapes in accordance with textual tradition took place over two thousand years. Certain landscape features described in the epic--ecologically diverse niches of river valleys, changing course of rivere, hills aligned with cardinal directions and marking solistices--formed the ideal context for Ramayana legen d to grow. The landscapes had been home to earlier gods--yakshas and nagas, and Shiva. Their drawing power over the ages make them place archetypes in Hindu sacred geography. Celebrated in oral traditions and mahatmyas, they attracte d sadhus, pandits and their royal patrons whose building activties facilitated large scale pilgrimage over time.



Sacred landscapes sustain and authenticate myths and legends far beyond their oral and textual traditions. The pilgrim experiences the power of place and encounters the living presence of gods. His belief in religious texts is strengthened and his faith made stronger in the encounter with the reality of landscape, temples, rituals and fellow pilgrims. This is undoubtedly true with Ramayana legend as well. Ayodhya, Chitrakut, Panchvati, Kiskindha, Ramesvaram and numerous other places celebrate ev ents in the life of Rama, enabling the devotee to get a first hand experience of the environs where once upon a time Vishnu’s avatara (his re-incarnation in human form) lived. In absence of archaeological data establishing histoical existence of places discussed in the epic tale, it appears probable that these landscapes were in course of time imprinted with Ramayana’s characters and events as the epic gathered force in its popularity and bhakti took a strong hold over the India n religious imagination by sixteenth century.

The paper discusses the reification of Ramayana legend in Ayodhya, Chitrakuta and Kiskindha, based upon the premise that the three landscapes possessed characteristics

that made them inherently sacred to the folk and Brahmanical system of beliefs. Valmiki’s Ramayana names these places and describes them in a manner much embellished by the poet’s vivid imagination and style. The river valleys of Man dakini in Chitrakuta and Tungabhadra in Kiskindha are painted in words as edenic settings. In comparing the text and actual sites as they exist today, we encounter landscape archetypes that constitute sacred ksetra and tirtha. The sites’ ; historic veracity with respect to Ramayana remains to be proven. What becomes clear upon examination of shrines on the sites is their receptiveness to gods older than Rama. I argue that their landscapes constitute place archetypes, which, wherever they appear in the Indian subcontinent, often become objects of veneration. The sanctity attributed to them is inherent in their physical configuration and in natural attributes that evoke a strong charge in the believer as well as the non-believer. Their rel igious affiliations change over time depending upon ascendency and decline of gods but their symbolic meanings as sites of hierophany and means of crossing over to the godly realm, remain.



Ayodhya, capital of the kingdom of Kosala, was the birthplace of Rama and the city from where he ruled as king-avatar. As such it is the most sacred site of Rama legend. Valmiki’s Ramayana describes it as a fortified city, situated on the banks of the river Saryu, 12 yojanas (42 km) in length and 3 yojanas (10.5 km) in breadth. It had handsome palaces (with seven courtyards) for members of royal family, wide streets for chariots, and parks and gardens. According to Kalika Purana, it was laid out in the auspicious shape of a bow (as in karmuka mandala) along Saryu (Bose, 1942).

I have drawn upon Bakker’s (1986) exhaustive study of Ayodhya and Van der Veer’s (1988) introductory chapter for the following description. Presently Saryu encircles the city on three sides. Rama’s fort on elevated ground is situated no rth of the river. About eight km to the west, the river fords and forms the old tirtha Gopratara (oxen ford) where Rama is believed to have ended his earthly life along with citizens of Ayodhya. There is now another claimant--Svargadhara consisti ng of a stretch of ghats--believed to be the spot where Rama’s body was cremated. The ghats lie between the Shaivite temple of Nageshvarnath (associated with Rama’s son Kush) and Sahastradhara, a naga sanctuary on Lakshmana ghat (Laksmana is said to be an incarnation of sesh-naga, king of serpents). The banks themselves are named after Rama and Lakshmana--Ramakunda or Ramapauri, and Sahasradhara or Lakshmana ghat where Lakshmana left his mortal body, reuniting with t he cosmic serpent--shesh naga. The ghats are used for cremation rituals by the locals.There are two ghats named Rinamochan and Papamochan where the bather is said to be freed from debts to his ancestors and gurus and sheds his sins. Other ghats include Kaikeyi and Kaushalya ghats.

The excavations carried out in the fort area by B.B. Lal in 1975 and 1976 show the earliest habitation on the site dating back to seventh century BCE but the rise of Ayodhya as a major pilgrim center occured fifteen hundred years later. This parallel ed the rise in worship of Rama as the principal incarnation of Vishnu. According to Bakker (1986):

"The tendency to reify the realm of saga occasioned a remarkable new development. It contributed to the new conception of the avatara of God on earth as a historical event which eventually resulted in the transformation of the site Ayodhya into a holy place" (p.11).

"The deification of Rama runs parallel with the reification of the city of Ayodhya" (p.61).

He traces the beginning of this process to the reign of Kumaragupta I or Skandagupta in the mid-fifth century CE when the royal court of Patliputra moved to Ayodhya and a Vishnu temple was built at Ramjanambhumi (birthplace of Rama). This temple was e ither rebuilt or renovated during the Gahadavala period in eleventh-twelfth cenuries (Dubey, 1995). The Gahadvala kings of Kannauj, Chandradeva and Jayachandra built Vishnu temples--Chandrahari and Dharmahari on the bathing ghat, Svargadvara. A sky line of temple spires along the river bank began to emerge. In the twelfth century there were at least five Vishnu temples in Ayodhya--on Janambhumi, on east and west sides of Svargadvara ghats, at Chakratirtha ghat and Gopratara ghat .

The oldest version of Ayodhyamahatmya belonging to the Vaishnavakhanda of Skandapurana was compiled in the thirteenth century. The Ramayana legend was now grounded at specific locales--Dantadhavan-kunda where Rama would brush his teeth, Manipar vata where he created a pleasure grove for Sita, Yajnavedi where he performed sacrifices, Kanakamandapa as the site of Rama and Sita’s palace, Ashokavatika with Sita kunda on the northern bank of the river Tilodaki near its confluence with Saryu, and Bharatkunda where Bharata stayed in Nandigrama during Rama’s exile.

The legend of Vishnu’s incarnation began to grow into a religious cult in the period of Islamic depradations. For a period of five centuries Islamic rule precluded the buildings of Hindu temple of any repute in Ayodhya, now the capital of Avadh pr ovince ruled by Muslim governors. The Ramjanambhumi temple was destroyed on Moghul prince Babur’s orders in 1528 CE and a mosque (Babri masjid) was built. That this mosque was itself destroyed on December 6, 1992 by Hindu kar-sevaks, reveals in part the deep significance of the very exact location of Rama’s arrival on earth. The twin temples on Svargadvara ghats were replaced by mosques in Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb’s reign (1658-1707 CE). This however did not stop the ‘redisco very’ of legendary sites--on the contrary, the process gathered force in sixteenth century with the rise of bhakti movement.

The temples in Ayodhya date from eighteenth century during the liberal rule of Shia Nawabs. Their Hindu ministers constructed shrines--Naval Ray, Safdar Jung’s (1739-1754 CE) minister built temples along Svargadvara ghat and Tikayat Ray , Asaf-ud- daulah’s (1775-1797 CE) minister constructed Hanumangarhi, temple to Hanuman, on the eastern gate of the ancient fort of Ramkot.

Bakker (1990) has traced the transformation of yaksha/Bhairava shrine guarding the eastern gateway of the ancient fort, into a Hanuman temple. By sixteenth century Hanuman was being worshipped at Ramchaura under a tamarind tree on the top of a mound Ha numantila. This mound formed the remains of the old guarded entry to the fort. The earlier place deities (yakshas--Ajita, Mattajajendra and Bhairava) had given way to Hanuman, Ramayana’s celebrated monkey-warrior. The significance of Ramkot as ancient Ayodhya’s royal fortress was by now well established. The mounds on the southwest and southeast are called Kubertila and Sugrivatila with Nal and Nila (who had built the bridge to Lanka) tilas between them. Kanankbhavana, a small temple a t the site of the golden palace of Rama and Sita, was enlarged and embellished by Rani Krishnabhanu Kunwari of Orchcha in 1891 CE. The new Janmasthana temple founded by sadhu Ramdas, shortly after destruction of the old by Babur, includes Sita rasoi(kitchen). Sumitrabhavan (birthplace of Lakshmana and Shatrughana) and Kaikeyibhavan (birthplace of Bharata) are shrines as well. Ghats were built by Raja Darshan Singh (1827-51 CE) and new ones were built after 1964 when Saryu had to b e diverted for building a new bridge.

Ayodhya is now a city of temples--reputedly 5,000 and is believed to draw as many as 400, 000 pilgrims for its main festival, Ramnaomi, birthday of Rama (Dewan, 1990). The major pilgrimage circuit, Chaurasi kos parikrama (84 kos) lasts for twen ty five days, taking the pilgrim to the major shrines along Saryu’s banks and concluding on Janakinaomi, birthday of Sita. Shorter circumambulatory routes are chaudah kos (14 kos) and panch kos parikramas (5 kos). In the month of Shravan, Rama and Sita idols are brought out of the temples and placed in swings for the celerbration of jhula festival. Other festivals are celebrated at their respective sites--Ramnaomi in Rampauri and Ramjanabhumi, Janakinaomi in Kanak Bhav an and Sitakund, Nagapanchami and Maha Shivaratri at Nageshwarnath temple, and Saryu jayanti, celebrating the descent of the river from the heavens, with a dip in the waters.

Ayodhya shares certain topographic features with Varanasi and Mathura. The three are part of ‘seven cities’ (saptapuri) which includes Ujjain, Dvarka, Kanchi, and Hardvar, and where death brings moksha. The gods have made these cities their homes. Their landscape plays no small part in establishing them as sacred ksetras . Mathura is said to be laid out in a crescent shape along the banks of Yamuna by Rama’s brother Shatrughna after slaying the demon Lavana. The two kilometers stretch of ghats along the riverfront bring a large number of pilgrims for the numerous fairs, festivals and parikramas. The ghats of Vrindavan curve convexly towards the river (Ray, 1989). Karmuka mandala is evident in Varan asi as well--the city rises from the western bank of the river Ganges flowing northwards in a broad crescent sweep (Eck, 1982). There are seventy bathing ghats on the stretch of land bordered by Ganges between the rivers Asi amd Varana. The templ es extending along the ghats, fifty to seventy feet above the river, make a magnificent skyline. The oldest part of the city was on Rajghat plateau at Varana-Ganges confluence with the rivers on its east, west and northern sides.

What these cities have in common is a location in a peninsular region, surrounded by water on three sides. Marcus (1993) in discussing an alternative community similarly located in Findhorn, Scotland, traces its power of place to negative ions prolife rating because of the presence of water. The ancients in India chose these locations perhaps for the same reasons--presence of water in swift currents of river, lowland basins, and river confluences which afforded a ‘ford’. Coupled with plateau or hilly terrain, these sites provided a combination of natural features favored by gods of epic and puranic mythology. That these sites also formed strategic locations for forts and defensible settlements, added to their attraction. It is probable tha t in Ayodhya as in Braj ksetra, local gods and goddesses were overtaken by supreme gods of Hindu religion. Mt. Govardhan and Manasi Ganga in Vrindavan were earlier worshipped as nature deities of hills and water, later incorporated into Krishna bhakti. Could Ayodhya ‘s deities have suffered the same fate, like that of Nageshvarnath temple and Hanumangarhi which represented earlier shrines and were later co-opted into Ramayana legend?


Chitrakuta was their first sojourn in Rama, Sita and Lakshmana’s wanderings in the wilderness during their fourteen year exile. The kshetra is named after Chitrakuta hill, part of the Vindhyan spur. The hill forms the center of the holy region. The rivers Mandakini and Payasvini carve a valley in this hilly landscape, meeting near the town Sitapur. The two landscape elements considered most sacred in Hindu tradition--river confluence and hills, are present in the region. Their signif icance to the pilgrim undoubtedly derives from events narrated in Ramayana--from Rama, Sita and Lakshmana’s stay in a thatched cottage on Chitrakuta hill, their meetings with sages Atri and Valmiki at their respective ashrams, Bharata’s arrival with news of their father Dashratha’s death and his coronation of Rama. Chitrakuta had attracted ascetics before Rama’s arrival. Lalapur hill, 25 km east of Chitrakut is considered to the site of Valmiki’s ashram and Atri’s ashram is 8 km south of the hill. Atri’s wife Anusuya is believed to have brought the river Ganges, known as Mandakini here, by force of her tapas. Bharatkupa, 7.7 km west of Chitrakut, reputedly contains the waters of all holy rivers brought by Bhar ata for Rama’s consecration. Ramghat marks the place of Rama’s bathing, Raghava Prayaga--the confluence of rivers Mandakini and Payasvini--is where Rama performed the rites of his father’s death; Sphatikashila is the stone platform on the r iver bank where Rama and Sita sat, adminring the landscape; Ramashaiyya where the couple had slept one night; Sita kunda where the couple sported, and Sitarasoi was Sita’s kitchen. Other significant places include Kotitirtha, hallowed by penance of sages; Siddhashram, a natural cave with a spring; Gupta Godavari, a number of limestone caves, one with a stream; and Hanumandhara, shrine of Hanuman bathed by a stream, on a hill.

Though Kalidasa describes Chitrakuta in Rahguvamsa, but as was the case with other Rama sites, it attained populairty only in the sixteenth century (Dubey and Singh, 1994). Tulsidas (1540-1623 CE) extolled its virtues in his Ramacharitmana s. With the compilation of Chitrakuta Mahatmya in the eighteenth century, more sites were added to the list of sacred places. The temples of Chitrakuta were mostly constructed in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Sites on the edge of kse tra such as Gupta Godavari and Bharatakupa are sacred to Shiva. Raja Aman Singh of Panna established a linga at Gupta Godavari in 1754 CE. Before sixteenth century, Bharatkupa was referred to as Jyesthanstana, sacred to Shiva in Mahabharat a, Padmapurana and Bhushundi Ramayana. Worship at the shrine of Mattagajendranth, which is Shiva as the kshetrapala or ‘territorial guardian" at Rama ghat initiates the pilgrimage of Chitrakuta (Eck, 1991). Shiva guar ds the sacred kshetra on its margins at Siddhashrama, Kotitirtha, Bharatkupa and Gupta Godavari. He could rightfully be called the ancient deity of Chitrakuta. There is yet another and older tradition of worshipping Chitrakuta as Kamnath or Kamatn ath who is not identified with Rama, Shiva or the Goddess. Eck (1991) suggests that this represents an ancient yaksha cult incorportated into Vishnu bhakti similar to worship of Mt. Govardhan in Braj.

Dubey and Singh (1994) and Singh and Malville (1997) have studied the spatial alignments in the landscape and have called ‘the intersection of mytho-historic traditions with the natural landscape to be of great interest and continuing puzzle" . The sacred sites of Chitrakuta fall into a pattern of three interlocking isosceles triangles. Their alignments mark the sunrise and sunset on solistice. Singh (1994; 1997) calls them "cosmic geometries" since they connect different levels of the cosmos--macrocosm of stars, planets, moon and sun; mesocosm of the natural landscape; and microcosm of city, temple, home, and body. The largest triangle is formed by Valmiki ashram, Atri-Anusuya ashram, and Bharatkupa. Bharatkupa, Sphatikshila and Balaji constitute another triangle in turn containing the innermost triangle formed by Kamadgiri (Chitrakuta mountain), Balaji, and Sphatikshila. The arms of the largest triangle are roughly equal--the distances between Valmiki ashram to Atri-Anusuya ash ram and Bharatkup are 29.4 km and 32.15 km respectively. The second isosceles triangle has sides of 9.3 km and 9.6 km while the third isosceles triangle has sides of 2.4 km and 2.7 km. Nine sites lie on the bisector of the largest triangle, stretching f or 30 kms between Valmiki ashram and Gupta Godavari. It aligns with the direction of sunrise on summer solistice. The bisector of the second triangle, extending from Bharatkupa to Hanumandhara aligns with the sunset on summer solistice.

Are the triangles, constituted by visual axes, yantras inscribed on the landscape to gather sacred spots in a meaningful pattern? Chitrakut mahatmya describes the triangles as Rama’s bow and arrow. Singh (1997), in another context, that of Vindhyachal hilly range, shows the yantra embeddded in three goddess shrines of Lakshmi, Kali, and Ashtabhuja (Saraswati). Here the triangle is the Goddess’s aniconic form, her yantra a mystical diagram used for concentration. It is l ikely that the’discovery’ of these sacred sites was aided by a pre-existing, extraordinary configuration of natural features established by sight-lines and equivalent distances.

At Chitrakuta, the pilgrim’s belief that he is indeed at the center, is strengthened by his experience of sunrise and sunset on hills. On Kamadgiri hill, center of the kshetra, he would see the summer solistice sun rise near Balaji and the winter solstice sun rise near Hanumandhara. On the summit of the hill at Sita rasoi, near Hanumandhara, he would see the summer solstice sun rise near Valmiki ashram hill and set above Kamadgiri hill. Indeed the hill summits appear to graze the sk ies and bring about the birth and death of the sun. Of these, Kamadagiri--‘hill which grants desires’--derives its power from being the location of Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana’s huts and is therefore, the axis mundi. The stone-paved ci rcumambulatory pathway around the hill (4.5 km long and constructed by queen of Bundela chief, Chhatrasal in 1725 CE) takes the pilgrim to 56 temples, four of which called mukharvind, are located in cardinal directions. In doing so, he retraces the steps of Bharata. In five days he completes the pilgrimage circuit by visiting all the sites in Chitrakuta which Bharata had visited before leaving for Ayodhya (Tripathi, 1990). While it may never be proven beyond doubt that Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana, did ever stay here or that they were historical personages, the spirit of the site is undeniable.



The ruins of Vijayanagara in central Karnataka are spread over landscape of the famed monkey-kingdom, Kiskindha of Ramayana legend. Like Chitrakuta this is a hilly area with the river Tungabhadra making a northward turn. Here Rama and Lakshmana a rrived searching for Sita; here they met Sugriva, Hanuman and other monkeys; here Rama killed Vali; and here the brothers waited out the monsoons before embarking upon the journey southwards to rescue Sita with the army of monkeys and bears. The landscap e is read as the site of these events and is a ever-present, physical reminder of the narrative. Yet there are other and older narratives associated with the site which appear to make its particular geography myth-prone. The river valley of Tungabhadra, like that of Godavari and Mandakini, possesses the combination of hill crests and meandering river that make it a sacred place archetype in folk and Brahmanical traditions. Here myths of succeeding epochs are validated by power of the place.

Wagoner (1985) points out that the Sanskrit text Hemakutakhanda and the Kannada Pampamahatmya describe the site as Hemkuta kshetra named after the sacred hill Hemakuta. The hill was the home of Virupaksha (one of Shiva’s form s) who married Pampa, the daughter of sage Matanga. The sage’s hermitage was located on another hill named after him and it was on this Matanga hill ‘where hares chased hounds’ that Sugriva found protection from his brother Vali in Treta yu ga. According to Rayavacakamu, a Telugu historical text dating from the sixteenth century, sage Vidyaranya founds a city on this hill and installs a king named Harihara on its throne in Kaliyuga (Wagoner, 1993). The city is named Vijayanagara and becomes the capital of a medieval Hindu empire which collapsed in 1565 CE with the sacking of the city by armies of adjoining Muslim kingdoms. The power and authority of its kings derived from the city’s site as much as its structure of temples and palaces. Shiva’s fierce warrior form, Virabhadra, protected the city from his temple on the summit of Matanga hill.

Malville and Singh (1997) and Malville (1994) have studied spatial alignments of the site’s landscape features using data from GPS (Global Positioning System). While there are no triangular yantras formed by visual axes as at Chitrakuta, natural features and their architectural embodiment (temples) are consistently aligned with each other, establishing strong visual axes that provide for a spectacular experience. The building activities of Vijayanagara kings sought to accentuate the sacre d features of the landscape and refied the Ramayana saga as Gahadvala kings did in Ayodhya on a smaller scale. The temples strengthened the impact made by the already existing unusual visual coincidence of hilly crests.

Matanga hill lies at the intersection of at least three visual axes--between Ramachandra temple (royal shrine of Vijayanagara kings), Kodandrama temple (where Lakshmana crowned Sugriva king of Kishkindha) and Hanuman temple on the summit of Anjenadri h ill (where Hanuman was born); between Ragunatha temple on Malyavanta hill and Virupaksha temple on Hemkuta hill; and between Prasanna Virupkasha, Sugriva’s cave (where jewels dropped by Sita were hidden) and Pampa Sarovar (by Shabari’s ashram). It is also the center of other radial lines that extends outwards to other natural and built features.

The north south axis links the royal center, Matanga hill and the lake at its base, Kodandarama temple, Chakratirtha on the northward turn of Tungabhadra river, and Anjenadri hill with a Hanuman shrine at its summit. The shikhara of Virbhadra temple on Matanga hill is only 0.8 arc minuted from true north when viewed from the center of gateway to the royal enclosure. Matanga hill is framed in the doorway of Ramachandra temple. From the entry avenue of Ramachandra temple, the devotee sees its shikhara and that of Anjenadri temple separated by only seven minutes of an arc. Kodandarama temple also faces Anjenadri hill. The shikharas of Virupaksha and Raghunatha temple lie on a straight line, differing by only a minute of an arc from 180 degrees. The visual superimposition of temple spires has a powerful effect. The natural landscape is enhanced by architecture and its most prominent hill framed in openings--its sacred energies, its munificence, and its powers of protection--are fore ver kept in view.

Fritz and Mitchell (1987) describe the three phases in the sacred site’s transformation into a royal capital and the assimilation of local deities into the Ramayana tradition. Temples were built in the tenth and eleventh centuries CE in Hemakuta t irtha famous for its legend of Virupaksha and Pampa, whose symbols were Hemakuta hill and Pampa lake.

The boundaries of the tirtha are ritually enacted by taking the god and goddess in a circumambulataory tour (giri-pradakshina) twice a year even today (Wagoner, 1985). The Vijayanagara kings built the huge Virupaksha temple complex and Manmatha tank, down the hill and on its north, making it the sacred center of the city. In the final phase around the beginning of fifteenth century, Rama gains ascendancy and the Vijayanagara kings began to identify themselves with the king-avatar. Rama yana themes began to be depicted in sculpture and Ramachandra temple was built in the center of royal enclosure (Dallapiccola, 1993). It was visually aligned with Rishamukha hill (an island in Tungabhadra) on the north and Malyavanta hill on the north ea st, points of Rama’s arrival into Kiskindha and departure to Lanka (Fritz, 1986).

As in Chitrakuta and Ayodhya, a process of transformation in site and temple worship can be discerned. The sacred site’s god and goddess were local and assimilated into Shiva mythology. According to legend, as in Chitrakuta, Shiva was worshipped by Rama at Kiskindha. He continues to preside as svvayambhu (self-manifested) linga in Virupaksha temple and at Raghunatha temple (Eck, 1991). The pilgrims worship him in visiting the landscape sanctified by Rama and Lakshmana’s stay . When Vijayanagara kings styled themselves in the image of divine king of Ayodhya, the sacred center of the city shifted from Virupaksha temple complex to their royal chapel and pilgrimage to Kiskindha sites became popular.


Clearly all three sites are not sanctified exclusively by Rama legend. In fact Rama appears to be a late arrival in terms of temple building and worship. In the beginning of second millennium, the dormant Ramayana tradition was revived and it gath ered force with royal patronage and as bhakti gained ground as the predominant religious sensibility of the masses. Accordingly landscapes discussed in the epic were ‘re-discovered’--their mythic existence now became a physical reality. In the absence of material evidence going back to sixth century BCE when events in Ramayana would have taken place, this is a plausible conclusion. The controversy surrounding Ramayana sites lends support. Some scholars argue, as Singh (1991) points ou t, that Panchvati, Kiskindha and Lanka were within the Vindhyan range, in close proximity to Chitrakut. The existence of numerous Sita kunds, Sita rasois and Hanumandharas in north and central India shows that claimants to sites of Ramayana& #146;s unique events are more than one, lending credence to the notion that landscapes imbibed Ramayana tradition over time and were accordingly remade in the shape of myth. Eck (1981) calls the incorporation of a local tirtha to an all-India trad ition as the geographical equivalent of Sanskritization.

What do Ayodhya, Chitrakuta, and Kiskindha have in common that attracted the goddess, Shiva and Rama worshippers over time? Was and is there something inherent in their landscapes that invites myths that bring in their wake sadhus, preachers, devout fo llowers, royal patronage, and pilgrims? For the Rama bhakta, of course, this is hallowed ground where once upon a time Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana walked and where Rama-rajya-- utopia on earth--flourished. The faithful is nourished in his belief by the physical environment as much as he vows he makes, rituals he participates in and presence of fellow devotees. This physical environment is the holy mountain and confluence of holy rivers; it is temple spires describing a skyline on ghats, acce ntuating hill summits and coinciding with the appearance and disappearance of the sun; it is numerous kunds (water reservoirs), bathing ghats, and circumambulatory paths that take one on a journey to spots already made familiar with the daily readi ng of Ramayana.

Underlying the complex, self-sustaining institutional systems that the pilgrimage complexes are today, are certain topographic features that have lend themselves continually over millenia to sacred meanings. They are place archetypes in the sense that their physical configuration has been associated consistently with encounter with numinous and transcendence in Hindu thought. Eck (1981) and Bharadwaj (1973) have drawn attention to natural features that have become symbols for the Hindu to climb and cro ss the mundane world of existence to moksha and liberation from the cycle of birth and death. To the believer the river ford is a physical image for the spiritual journey of the atman (individual soul) to the brahman. (universal spi rit). A dip in the flowing waters is a metaphor for moral cleansing and shedding of papa (sins). The rivers, believed to have fallen from heaven to the earth, are flowing axis mundi, in the same way that mountains thrust themselves from the earth’s bowels into the rarefied realm of the gods and are perceived as centers of the universe and its borders. In Puranic cosmology, Mt. Meru is conceived as the center of the universe surrounded by four island-continents. The river Ganges falls from the heavens directly above Mt. Meru. In Valmiki’s Ramayana, mountains rim the known world.

It is not surprising that river confluences are tirthas and mountains are home of ascetics. The combination of hilly terrain and river(s), in a valley landscape, would therefore be of added significance. The mountain-river dyad constitute a plac e archetype that form the structure of sacred sites in Indian geography. Are they natural symbols of masculine and feminine archetypes and therefore represent a complementary totality, a wholeness found in the natural landscape? Mt. Kailasha and Lake Man sarovar are home of Shiva and Parvati respectively and are prototypes of similar configurations revered beyond Himalayas. Numerous holy sites display this complementarity in the naming and worship of natural features--Mt. Govardhan and Manasi Ganga in Bra j, Kamadagiri and Mandakini in Chitrakuta and Mt.Hemkuta and Pampa sarovar in Kiskindha. Chitrakuta, Panchvati and Kiskindha have Mandakini, Godavari, and Tungabahadra rivers coursing through a hilly terrain. In Ayodhya, there is Maniparvata and Sitakund and the fort itself on a plateau with Saryu flowing below it.

According to Eck (1981), India’s tirthas are grounded in the folk tradition of genius loci of groves, pools and hillocks. The yakshas and nagas as spirits of the place were, and still are, worshipped for guarding off evil and as benefactors. Epic mythology with its cosmography, its notions of duality of prakriti (nature) and purusha (divine essence), of atman and brahman, treated the natural world as a vehicle for transcending sansara. The a ncient sacred sites were perfect locales for practicing the evolving metaphysics in rituals that included the worship of more powerful gods who descend to earth periodically for setting the moral order right. The choice of sites in folk and later Brahman ical traditions is not an accident--their selection is an example of geomancy. It can be compared with feng-shui stemming from Taoist tradition in East Asia which favors sites with a balance of ch’i. At these sites, mountains and river are interdependent and complementary landscape features, expressive of passive and active energies, whose balance is a key to Tao-like harmony. I believe Hindus sought harmony in the landscape too and found it conducive to thoughts of liberation from the cycle of birth and death. They duplicated this harmony in architecture of temple shikharas (spires) and stepped tanks, creating tirthas out of built form. There are perhaps psychological and physiological explanations behind what causes s uch places to be ‘charged’’--presence of negative ions, prospect and refuge views, ecologically diverse niches, and visual coincidence of natural and heavenly phenomena. Science holds clues to their discoveries but it is mythology that prov ides us with symbols upon which the pilgrim’s faith rests.





Bakker, Hans (1986) Ayodhya. Egbert Forsten.

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