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Shiva worship in Nasik, Ganges of the South

Chillum smoking sadhus and 50 lakh pilgrims all rushing forward at a precise celestial moment for a holy dip. Nothing could be further from these images of the Kumbh Mela when we visit Tryambkeshwar, some 36 km off Nasik on a quiet weekend. The Kumbh has already happened—last year, in July. And will now come back only after 12 long years. Meanwhile, all is at peace, pilgrims queuing up silent and unhurried, unhassled by pandas, touts or hawkers, breathing in the soothing wind that blows over the Sahyadhris carrying with it a whiff of faith at its calmest.

Like the Ganga, the Godavari, the Deccan ‘Ganga’, is one of the holiest rivers of the subcontinent. And like Gangotri, birthplace of Ganga maiyya, Trymbakeshwar, origin of the mighty Godavari in the lap of the Sahyadris, is one of the holiest places of worship. So it is surprising that the Shiva temple, the site for one of the 12 swyambhu jyotilingams (naturally formed shivlings) in the country –the other famous ones being Kashi Vishwanath, Badrinath and Rameshwaram— is relatively quiet. It is Nashik that is really bustling, religious tourists thronging its estimated 2000 temples and ghats, including Ramkund, where the Kumbh takes places. Confused? So were we. All these years we have believed that India’s most holy ‘festival of the pot’ travels to just four of the holiest cities, Prayag, Kashi, Ujjain and Nashik, four places where the nectar of immortality, amrit, spilled on earth in the apocryphal tussle between the devas and the asuras. If you so believe, the nectar did spill, but not at Nashik. It was apparently at the nearby Trymbak village, where the mighty Trymbakeshwar temple now stands. So it was here that the Kumbh Mela used to be held originally, till it got mired in controversy three hundred years ago.

Locals tell us of the animosity between the Vaishnav akharas and the Shaivaites, over who would take the holy dip at the precise, appointed moment first. In the 1770s, the sadhus belonging to Shaivaite and Vaishnavaite akhadas fought against each killing hundreds in the rioting. The Peshawas, who were ruling from Pune, intervened. It was declared that the Shaivaites would get to take the first plunge at Trymbakeshwar, while Vaishnavites were assigned Nasik. So this is the only place then where ‘two’ Kumbhs happen simultaneously.

However, none of this schism is evident on our visit. The temple, built by Shrimant Balaji Bajirao alias Nanasahib Peshawe in 1786 at the cost of Rs 16 lakhs, is clean and well maintained. There’s a small orderly queue moving smoothly into the sanctum sanctorum, where there are three linga, the size of a thumb and called Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh. These are natural formations and we are told that the water of the Godavari always flows over the Shivling. Actually, the origin of the river is on the Brahmagiri mountain, adjacent to this temple, from where the river flows in three directions. In 1908, 500 steps of stone were constructed to reach the shrine on top of the mountain and if you are courageous or religious enough you may try going all the way up. The place is supposed to be the birthplace of Ganesha as well as the former ashram of sage Gautam who brought down the Godavari–supposed to be a stream of the Ganga. A visit to Tryambkeshwar is supposed to expiate all sins and offer salvation. As we offer some needl-y grass to the many somewhat aggro cows that guard the temple gates, we hope we have accumulated enough good karma.

Box The Place: 36 km from Nashik at the foot of the Sahyadhris. The Godavari originates as three streams from a much revered peak called Brahmagiri. The main Trymbakeshwar temple is built on the banks of the river–where the main Godavari supposedly meets ‘Ahilya’, one of the streams.

Getting There: Nearest railway station to Trymbakeshwar city is Nashik Road Railway Station. You can either take a cab or a bus to the shrine. State transport buses are available from all over Maharashtra to Trymbakeshwar. If there is no direct bus available, pilgrims can come to Nashik and change buses at the central bus stand. Nearest international airport is Mumbai, 180 Km from Trymbakeshwar. While the Nashik airport is 39 Km away. If you are driving up from Mumbai, there are plenty of motels and refreshment points on the Mumbai-Agra highway that leads up to Nashik and Trymbakeshwar.

Digs: There are dharamshalas built by charitable Gujaratis available for stay for three days to any individual. The stay can be extended with written permission. There are also big houses of the local priests, where lodging and boarding is made available. But the best option would be to put up at Nashik, which has a host of big and small hotels, including a Taj Residency.

While There: Combine a trip to Trymbakeshwar with a visit to Nashik. There are a number of places of religious interest at Nashik including the Ramkund, where Ram is supposed to have performed the last rites of his father and where the modern day Kumbh Mela is held; the Sita Gupha, where sita is supposed to have stay hidden during the time of the exile even as her ‘shadow’ was abducted by Ravana and Panchvati, the ostensible site for the Dandkarnya forest where Ram spent 12 years of his exile. Religious places apart, you could check out the Sula winery in the area. The Taj Residency, in fact, can organise a tour of the vineyard on request. If you are travelling from Mumbai and religiously inclined, a good idea would be spend a day in Nashik and Trymbakeshwar and then drive down to Shirdi, another four hours drive from Nashik.

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