People of the mountains in my region haven’t preserved history in the written form the way the modern world does. But somewhere embedded in the cultural beliefs there are things that can open new vistas into our civilisational pedigree and what better than that to identify who we actually are. Clarity about who we are helps us to discern, appreciate and contribute to the world around us.
As children, growing up in the old Jammu city, we could from the terrace watch a far off tree line and whenever there was noise on the border, my mother would point at the tree line and say that’s from where the noise is coming, “in that direction lies Pakistan,” the cause of our mortal sufferings! Many times while traveling to our ancestral village in the mountains, my parents would say how the village is the safest. How during wars it was the safest place to hide and how life continues normally, peacefully irrespective of what happens elsewhere in the world.
Those times of thirty years ago in our village we survived extensive power cuts on oil lamps furnished from empty medicine bottles. Our village and our massive home always brimming with dozens of people was a stuff of fables. Not to forget the forests, the many rivers, the hills, the himalayan mountain ranges and the cloud line that kept changing the backdrop.
And through those winding mountain routes stood people’s beliefs and stories of gods, goddesses, community rituals, festivals and a forgotten history of very ancient pedigree. And it’s on these routes I often heard about a special place downhill—special because it was the confluence of five rivers and “often” because it held our community crematorium.
Panjtherthee or “the pilgrimage where five rivers meet” hosts an ancient temple, built exactly at the confluence, accessible only when the water recedes and unique because it’s believed to be built by Pandavas of the Mahabharata epic. The consecrated god is Shiva with five heads, something uniquely found today in only very few ancient temples. But Panjtherthee is so remote that despite being just downhill from my ancestral home, I never got to visit it until this year. Almost forgotten, completely unknown to even most of the historians in the nearest Jammu city, the site today is where India has planned its $842.411 million Ujh mega hydropower project.
Until last year I never knew that the rivers existing around my ancestral home are a part of the Indus basin system or the Sindhu river system that gave India its name. I never knew my home existed historically linked with rich civilisational treasures, so leave around any intention of preserving something that I wasn’t even aware of.
And now when I do I have started with tracing back my “civilisational pedigree” one story at a time and Panjtherthee is certainly a worthy pursuit.
The Mahabharata says that it’s the rolling on of Karmic action that runs the three worlds and it defines two types of practitioners: the practitioners of pravrittidharma and the practitioners of nivrittidharma. The practitioners of pravrittidharama (sanskrit) recognise the karmic connections and know that they must return to fulfill them while those of nivrittidharma, renounce the world and abandon it to live the life of foresters. Those who practice nivrittidharma take paths leading to gods (devayana) while those practicing pravrittidharma follow the paths leading to the father (Pitrayana). Those who take to pitrayana undergo rebirth.
It’s at places like Panjtherthee that the paths overlapped—it’s at such pilgrimages that the forester and the socialite met, not randomly but because of the journeys of their beliefs. If the Pandavas of Mahabharata built the little temple at Panjtherthee, the belief says they built it after defeating the Kurvas and set on their himalayan trek to absolve their sins. It’s on this trek, that they eventually lost their lives one after the other with only the eldest of them attaining liberation from the cycle of life and death.
There are those who don’t believe in Mahabharata as an historical text! However even if it was just mythological, those who lived by its stories and built the many temples across himalayas and subscribed them to Mahabharata lore knew of the mountain routes.
I just mean to say the mountain routes existed before the stories were born and the stories of the sacredness of rivers existed before a river was discovered and its identity cognised. This software or mental construct that helped people subscribe, sacred meaning to lay objects of physical existence—mountains, rivers, trees, springs is an actual civilisational assertion. It’s a civilization’s inherent genius!
There’s a beautiful sanskrit shloka or verse that makes me more curious about Panjtherthee.
The people who named India’s mighty ancient rivers identified them as sacred and their names celebrated their sacredness. In the most ancient Rig Veda (vii. 6.28), it’s written:
In the valley of hills and on the confluence of rivers,
the wisdom of Brahma was born.
Places like Panjtherthee were considered sacred because of their mythological associations and because their natural settings invoked noble thoughts that aligned with existing civilisational precepts. They thus talk about the thinking, beliefs and values of the aspirants who traveled through them and built them. They carry the invisible footprints of people who aspired for wisdom.
In simple terms it denotes a pilgrimage route.
Caption: A view of the Shiva temple at Panjtherthee captured before monsoons in February 2022. Over time the locals have used cement to repair the temple and the original architectural style of the temple isn’t visible. The five faces on the ancient shivalinga inside are eroded in time but still visible. Illegal sand mining is very visible. Video credit: Venus Upadhayaya.
How the footprints changed!
The Mahabharata is so old that if these routes existed we could even consider them prehistoric. It’s not difficult to accept that the Himalayas and its routes are prehistoric.
We can come closer to the present and look into recorded history–they are the routes through which Central Asian and Middle asian invaders reached the Indian subcontinent. There is a route about 20 miles on the other side of the hill, on the same river system through which an invading platoon of Babur passed while the first Mughal king marched from Kandhar to Delhi.
And the fact that this point is not very far away from Billawar, a town recorded in ancient books–was on an ancient route from Kashmir to Haridwar.
Around Panjtherthee once existed many tiny Rajput kingdoms some of which lend their surnames to many dogra warrior clans–the mankotias, the jasrotias, the billawarias, the bhadwals etc. In fact the ruins of the Mastgarh fort, a bastion of Jasrotias still exist on the hill overlooking Panjtherthee.
The British had a minimum footprint in this region while under the last two dogra rulers the place had come closer to reform & policy experimentation and I have local records of both these.
But after India’s independence the politics was so centered on Kashmir that my region fell into oblivion or I can say it almost remained untouched until the onset of cross-border terrorism.
Over two decades ago a unit of Indian army was twice stationed in my village after a few stray incidents of terrorists movement and activities observed at Panjtherthee. Again the fact is the terrorists followed a mountain route that long existed by virtue of the geography.
Caption: The valley from the top of my ancestral home. The trek from the rear of the village went downhill to the crematorium ground, about half a mile from the confluence at Panjtherthee. Video credit: Venus Upadhayaya.
And it’s the same geography that has now determined that Panjtherthee is an ideal spot for a mega hydro project–a place of the confluence of five rivers.
In the modern world the dams are like forts. The rajput chiefants built forts in the region centuries ago just to overlook the movement of the enemy through these routes. So their remnants exist around Panjtherthee!
A few experts in Jammu have told me that India hasn’t utilized the 18.2 percent of the water it’s entitled to under the Indus water treaty with Pakistan and the Ujh hydro project is going to do justice to India’s energy needs and geopolitical policy. This topic is complex and not for much discussion in this writeup but the situation has pushed me to dig into my history before the rising water washes off the temple and with it the many stories of people I call my own!
Like many civilisational asserts that are today strategic theaters for geopolitical reasons, Panjtherthee may also be one. I just hope that its legacy doesn’t go unsung! I hope the spirit that sought wisdom in its pictureue seclusion doesn’t go unclaimed.
Mukhalinga and History
Since the Shivlinga at Panjtherthee is Mukhalinga with five faces, I have tried to dig into its meaning. I considered a precept to find an answer and I present it here:
Locals told me that it’s a unique Shivlinga and the only other like it is found in Nepal. I can’t verify their claim. The only widely known Panchanana Shiva (shiva with five faces) found elsewhere is at Pashupatinath. Today there are lesser known ones in West Bengal and Orissa. The shiva iconography found across a wider geography from Afghanistan to India to SouthEast Asia and all the way to Champa in Vietnam is extremely rich and there are many different types of Mukhalingas. The five faces of the Panchanana Shiva found in Pashupatinath are Sadyojat, Vamdev, Aghora, Tatpurush and Ishana and each has a symbolism.
I can trace my brahmin lineage to at least five generations in my ancestral region. Surprisingly we had pandas (hereditary religious guides) from Mattan in Anantnag, Kashmir. It’s strange to comprehend today how a family of dogra brahmins residing in this region would have pandas from Mattan. I have met the panda from my father’s generation who would visit our ancestral home as well as our home in the city at least once or twice a year. And generations of the same panda family have served our generations.
Our current panda’s forefathers would travel by the same route by foot or on horses and preside over the affairs and the rituals of our community–often spending half the year in our village and the adjoining villages.
The Mukhalinga at Panjtherthee could be a Panchanana Shiva. However it’s left to archeologist and iconographists to deduce what the Mukhalinga at Panjtherthee means originally. If they take up this pursuit they may not only discover the true significance of Panjtherthee but they may also discover an entire civilisational catchment and perhaps an important bastion of Dogra culture. They may also discover a route from where the Saraswat brahmins traveled to and fro between Kashmir and what would have been their eroding bastions in the Sindhu-Saraswati Civilisation.
Second in a series titled “From Kashmir to Haridwar” based on family history, anecdotes, cultural linkages and ancestry by journalist Venus Upadhayaya