By Monidipa Dey
The Mahābhārata is one of the two major epics from ancient India that forms to be the lifeline of many Indians who view it as their fifth Veda. Considered to be the longest epic poem ever written, it consists of more than 100,000 śloka (which is a couplet) and long prose passages. Mahabharata has almost 1.8 million words in total, which makes it roughly ten times longer than the Odyssey and Iliad put together, and four times longer than the other Indian epic Rāmāyaṇa. Mahabharata depicts the conflict between two factions of the same family, which culminates in the Kurukshetra War. Besides the main theme of conflict, the epic also gives many discourses on devotion and philosophies that aim at helping the readers acquire a clearer perspective towards dealing with life. Coupled with the Rāmāyaṇa, many consider the two epics as a historical documentation of the kingdoms, dynasties, geography, culture, religious practices, and traditions of ancient India.
The authorship of the Mahābhārata is attributed to rishi Vyāsa, a term which is also considered as a title attributed to the generations of writers and editors in ancient India. Owing to India’s age-old practice of maintaining knowledge through oral traditions, the incidents narrated as tales and stories would often be much older, with the knowledge being passed off orally over many generations. The treatises were compiled much later, which often makes it almost impossible to date the actual events as to when they had happened. This is applicable for most of the old texts, such as Vedas, Manasara (science of architecture), and other ancient treatises.
As regards Mahabharata, the oldest preserved parts of the text are dated around 400 BCE, though the incidents described in the epic were believed to have occurred much earlier, sometime between 800-900 century BCE. However, recently after the discovery of a chariot and other artefacts from the Sanauli excavation site, the senior ASI archaeologist in charge of the excavation feels that the Mahabharata incidents are more likely to have occurred earlier, sometime between 1500-2000 century BCE. The Mahabharata text likely took its final shape during the Gupta period (4th century CE). Interestingly many of the cities mentioned in the Mahabharata still exist and people in large number visit these sites, and here we take a look at few such places.
1. Kedarnath: located in Uttarakhand, this is a jyotirlinga. According to the story, after the great war when the Pandavas went to meet Shiva, he did not wish to appear before them for their sins of killings in the war. So, he hid in the form of a buffalo among the herds grazing there. However, Bhima recognised him just in time, and managed to catch his back as Shiva escaped. Thus, the famous Kedarnath temple holds Shiva in the form of a buffalo’s back. As Shiva escaped, rest of his body appeared in Varanasi/Kashi, and his head appeared in Pashupatinath (Nepal). Adi Guru Shankararchya is believed to have breathed his last here, and his memorial stands right near the temple.
2. Badrinath and Mana village: also in Utttarakhand, the ashram of Ved Vyas who authored Mahabharata is in Badrinath. While the Pandavas were in exile, they had stayed in Badrinath and hid their weapons here, which were later stolen by Jarasura. Bhima who came back to retrieve them, had to fight Jarasura to take back his weapons. Badrinath was a popular place for the munis and rishis during the time of Mahabharata, as the place was associated with Lord Vishnu (Narayana). There is a murti (idol) of Vishnu in dhyan posture in the Badrinath temple sanctum.
Just 3 km away is Mana gram, which is the last village of India before the Tibet border starts. The Pandavas had started on their Mahaprasthan (last journey) from here, and Draupadi was the first among them to fall (die), just after crossing the Saraswati river.
3. Jageswara Dham: It is situated in Uttarakhand, and lies around 34 km from Almora. The temple complex, which is situated in a densely wooded valley lies on the left bank of the river Jatganga. There are three temple clusters here, which were built between 7th -11th century CE by the Katyuri kings. It is at this place that the Pandavas, while starting for their Mahaprasthan towards Swargarohani, had performed their shraddh (last rites) on the banks of the Jatganga, cutting off all ties with the world. The banks of Jatganga are still used as a cremation ground for those living in nearby villages.
4. Gokul and Vrindavan: the two sites of Krishna’s childhood (bal-leela), played out under the loving care of his parents Nanda and Jasodhara. Many temples dot these two places, and are a favourite destination for many Krishna devotees. Vrindavan is also the centre of the Ras-leela, associated with Krishna, Radha, and the gopinis; and every year this event is celebrated with a great deal of devotion and pomp.
5. Indraprastha and Varnavat: situated at the south of the modern New Delhi, Pandavas had made this place their capital and built a grand palace here, after burning down the Khandav Van or forest. Even now there is a small area named Indraprastha, reminding one of the Mahabharatan times. Varnavat, now known as Barnava, is a small village near Meerut. This is is where Duryodhan had built Lakshagriha (a labyrinth-like chamber-house, built of highly flammable lacquer) in order to burn it down and kill his cousins, the Pandavas, living inside it. Recent archaeological digs at one of the biggest mounds in the village, have revealed plates, bowls, large cooking pots and pitchers, arrowheads, spearheads, celt and beads that are likely of the Painted Grey Ware culture.
Besides these, there are many more such places spread across entire India which are associated with Mahabharata in some way or other. Among these are the cities of Avantika (now Ujjain), Naimisharanya, Kuruskshetra and Banganga, Kaushambi, Magadha (south Bihar), Pragjyotishpur (now known as Assam), Manipur, Matysa-desh (now North-East Rajasthan), Dwarka, Chedi (now Bundelkhand) … and the list is endless.
(The author is a well-known travel writer. Views expressed are personal.)