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PLACES

In a time warp

Kurukshetra is a town dotted with places of both historical and religious importance. M.P. NATHANAEL explores its splendour.

M.P. NATHANEL

The Sthaneswar Mahadev mandir alongside the Patshai Gurudwara ...

ABOUT 160 kilometres from New Delhi towards Ambala lies the city of Kurukshetra — a place of pilgrimage because of its association with the Mahabharata war.

Sometime earlier this year, I boarded the New Delhi-Bhatinda Express one afternoon and reached Kurukshetra after just 2 hours.

A middle-aged Sikh offered to take me into town on a cycle rickshaw. With no autorickshaw or any other transport in sight, I agreed. One does not have to haggle as a rate list to various spots in the town is displayed on a board outside the station.

Having checked in at the Neelkanthi Krishna Dham Yatri Niwas Hotel (Haryana Tourism) in the city, I walked down to the Brahma Sarovar about a kilometre away and sauntered around, returning to the hotel after about an hour.

The next day I hailed a rickshaw for sight-seeing. The rickshaw wallah, Raj Kumar, who was also my guide, was quite knowledgable.

Known as Brahmakshetra, meaning the field of Brahma, the Creator and also as Dharmakshetra, meaning the field of righteousness, Kurukshetra got its name from King Kuru, who sacrificed his life for this land. Legend has it that King Kuru came to the land on the banks of the Saraswati river and started ploughing the area with a plough fashioned out of a golden chariot. When asked by Indra, the king replied that he was preparing the land for eight religious virtues — austerity, truth, forgiveness, kindness, purity, charity, yoga and continuance. Later, on Lord Vishnu asking him to show the seeds that he would sow, King Kuru put forward his hand which was cut into a thousand pieces with Vishnu's chakra and sown in the field. King Kuru then offered his other hand, his legs and head. Indira was so pleased with the King's sacrifice that he blessed him with the two boons he asked — that the land would remain holy and be named after him, and that those dying here would go to heaven.

The place served as the abode of a sage Vyasa, the compiler of the Vedas and the Puranas. And it was here that Lord Krishna came out with his philosophy of the Bhagawad Gita.

The land was witness to wars fought by the Mughal emperors and the British as also by Pathan chieftains and Hindu kings. It is small wonder then that this small town is dotted with places of both historical and religious importance. Within its 92 square kilometre area are about 360 spots of pilgrimage.

The first spot I visit is the Sheikh Chehli mausoleum at Thanesar located on an ancient mound and approached by a ramp. Built by Dara Shikoh in 17th Century A.D., its dome resembles that of the Taj Mahal. "A museum was inaugurated in February 2002 in the madarasa section of the mausoleum which houses a wealth of information," says Piyush Bhatt, Assistant Archaeologist of the museum. The museum is an eye-opener to the work done by the archaeologists in this place by way of excavations carried out in and around Thanesar.

The Sheikh Chehli's mausoleum is encompassed by a fort in ruins. Within the precinct of the fort are three mounds covering an area of about five kilometres. According to traditional belief, the Thanesar fort was constructed by Raja Dilip, a descendant of King Kuru, but other researchers opine that it may have been constructed by Harsha Vardhana.

The pear-shaped white dome surrounded by a marble-paved courtyard is visible from a distance. Built in 1650, it is attributed to a pir named Abdul Karim, who was more popularly known as Sheikh Chehli among the local inhabitants.

Close to the western entrance of the tomb is the Pathari Masjid made of red sandstone. Noteworthy for its minars, this masjid was constructed sometime in the 14th Century by Feroz Shah Tughlaq.

I was told that there is another masjid known as the Chini Masjid, which is also believed to have been constructed during Aurangzeb's rule.

Moving ahead, I visit the Sthaneshwar Mahadev temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. The place Thanesar gets its name from this temple which also has a tank adjacent to it. What is of significance here is the fact that on the other side of the tank is the Navin Patshai Gurudwara so named because it was sanctified by the Ninth Guru Tegh Bahadur. Of the 10 Sikh gurus, nine visited the town, the only exception being Guru Angad Dev.

At one time, the town was ruled by the Sikhs when Mith Singh annexed the reign and subsequently left the territories to his nephews. In 1850, the British established their supremacy over the town.



... and Sheikh Chehli's mausoleum

The Sthaneswara tank was at one time known for the curative power of the water. Legend has it that the ancient king Vena was cured of leprosy with just a few drops of water from this tank.

Riding past the Bhadra Kali temple which has been renovated with red stones, I reach the Sixth Patshai Gurudwara dedicated to the Sixth Guru Hargobind. I take a few photographs and walk down to the nearby Sannehit Sarovar where the temples of Sri Dhruv Narain and Sri Laxmi Narain cast their colourful reflections in the clear water of the tank.

The Sannehit tank, meaning "assembly of entire range of tirthas", usually teems with lakhs of pilgrims during a solar eclipse.

My next destination is the Brahma Sarovar but the rickshaw wallah asks me to visit the Krishna museum and the Panorama Project that are in close proximity to each other, on the way to the Brahma Sarovar.

The Kurukshetra Development Board set up the Krishna Museum in 1991 to display various objects of art that celebrated the theme of Lord Krishna. A new block was added in 1995. Here, the god is presented as the reincarnation of Vishnu, as a philosopher, as an epic hero and as a supreme lover.

The Panorama Project and Science Centre in the neighbourhood of the museum, managed by the National Council of Science Museums, depicts the epic battle of Mahabharata with special acoustic effects. The science section highlights the 4,500-year-old history of science in ancient India.

The Brahma Sarovar is my last spot. The vast tank is a marvel in itself. Teeming with pilgrims (and even beggars), the place is the centre of interest. No tourist can claim to have visited Kurukshetra, if he does not visit this tank — it is believed to have been excavated by King Kuru long before the battle of Mahabharata. Facing the entrance is the Sarveshwar Mahadev temple, while in the islands in the middle of the tank stand other temples and spots of historical import.

On the larger island, it is said that there existed a castle of Emperor Aurangzeb. In 1948, some portions of Mahatma Gandhi's ashes were immersed in this tank.

Having spent sometime at the Brahma Sarovar, I head back for the hotel, when Raj Kumar wants me to visit the nearby Birla Mandir.

Built by Jugal Kishore Birla in 1950, this structure is made of marble inside and is known to be one of the prominent temples in the region. Apart from the life-size marble statue of Krishna, the main attraction here is the marble chariot driven by four horses and depicting Krishna delivering the message of the Geeta to Arjun.

A word about the Kurukshetra University also built on the outskirts of the city. The university was set up in 1956 as the Sanskrit University. With over 50 teaching departments, it has earned an enviable reputation for propagating academic excellence.

The Jawaharlal Nehru library here has a rich collection of 5,074 manuscripts and about 10,000 rare publications. Efforts are under way to digitise these in an attempt at preservation.

I returned to the hotel where after a tete-a-tete with the officials of Haryana Tourism, I learn of plans to develop the area.

An archaeological park, to be known as the Tapovan Park, is to be developed between the Sthaneshwar temple and the Bhadra Kali Temple with the Sheikh Chehli's mausoleum on one side.

I am reminded that a superfast train leaves Kurukshetra a little before noon. I rush to the station just in time to board the Amritsar-New Delhi Express. A brief, hectic, and memorable trip.

* * *

Getting there:

By air: Nearest airport Chandigarh — 90 km, New Delhi — 160 km.

By train: All trains towards Ambala from New Delhi halt at Kurukshetra junction. The Shatabdi Express halts for a minute.

By road: It is 160 km from Delhi and 90 km from Chandigarh. Buses of the Haryana Roadways and the Punjab Roadways pass through Kurukshetra.

Taxies are available.

Accommodation: Neelkanth Krishna Dham Yatri Niwas (Haryana Tourism; Ph: 31615). The Jyotisar Complex (Haryana Tourism). For budget-type accommodation, there are a number of dharmashalas, the Railway Retiring Rooms and the Panchayat Bhawan.

  • Haryana Tourism (P.B.X No. 542955/56/57; Fax: 91-0172-543185) runs weekend tours from New Delhi to Kurukshetra. Rates include breakfast, lunch, tea, monument fees and sight seeing.

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