Sonia Sumitra Thakar
The north-eastern part of our beautiful country, is a well-known tourist’s paradise with its gorgeous landscapes: lush green mountains, sparkling waters and breathtaking views. It offers the perfect mix of fun, entertainment, sight-seeing, natural beauty, and a rich cultural heritage.
More often than not, the pilgrimage places of the north-east (NE) are not so well known as those of the north and south parts of India despite being no less beautiful, powerful, historic and mythologically significant.
A spiritual trail of the religious places in the NE states would prove to be a truly enriching and exciting experience for the spiritual traveler. Let us explore the most fascinating places of religious interest in the region of the seven sisters.
At a 4-hour drive north from Agartala lies the unique and fascinating pilgrimage site of Unakoti. The rocks and hill cliffs here are carved with exquisite sculptures of Lord Shiva and other Hindu gods and goddesses. Historians date these carvings back to the 8-9 century but mythology speaks of an interesting legend behind them.
Once Lord Shiva was traveling to Kashi (Varanasi) along with the gods and goddesses, making up a party of 1 crore. They stopped at this spot to rest for the night and were to leave before sunrise the next day. However, except for Lord Shiva none of the others in the party got up in time the next morning and in anger, Shiva turned them all to stone.
Another story revolves around a famous sculptor Kalu Kumar who was, in a dream, tasked with carving 1 crore idols of gods overnight. In his pride, leaving the last god uncarved, he made a statue of himself and failed the test. In this way, Unakoti, which means ‘one less than a crore’, got its name.
The most famous of the hundreds of carvings that can be seen here is the magnificent 30-foot-high sculpture of Lord Shiva’s head, Unakotishwara Kal Bhairava. Some other notable carvings are those of Durga atop a lion, three huge Ganesha idols and three half-buried Nandi bull figures.
One of the lesser-known treasures of India, the ‘Lost Faces of the Hills’ at Unakoti, set amidst luscious green mountains and flowing waterfalls, definitely warrants a visit.
Kamakhya Temple, Assam
Nestled in the Nilachal hills of Guwahati, Assam, is the unique temple dedicated to Shakti, the feminine power. This highly revered and powerful temple was built and reconstructed several times between 9-17 centuries and, with its simple yet elegant carvings and massive dome, is an architectural marvel in itself.
The story behind the Kamakhya Temple dates back to the time when Lord Shiva was married to King Daksha’s daughter Sati. Once King Daksha was performing a grand yagna but refused to invite Shiva and Sati, whose marriage he did not approve of. When Sati turned up for the yagna uninvited, her father heaped insults on Shiva. Humiliated, she immolated herself in the sacred fire. In grief and rage, Shiva, picked up the burnt body of his wife and started to perform the Tandav dance. To save the world from complete annihilation, Lord Vishnu cut Sati’s body into pieces with his Sudarshanchakra. The places where the parts of her body fell are worshipped as Shakti Peethas. The Kamakhya Temple is believed to be the oldest and most sacred of the Shakti temples and is revered as the spot where Sati’s reproductive organs fell.
What is unique about this temple is that it does not house an idol of the goddess but a yoni of the goddess is worshipped instead. The annual fertility festival, Ambubachi pooja, in June that celebrates the menstruation of the goddess is a huge crowd puller. It is believed that the Brahmaputra turns red in this area for three days at this time as the goddess bleeds.
The Kamakhya Temple stands out as a unique temple that celebrates women’s fertility and respect for femininity.
Sri Surya Pahad, Assam
Not too far from Guwahati in Assam lies the remote and serene Sri Surya Pahad, close to the small town of Goalpada. This intriguing archeological site has great religious significance as it speaks of a confluence of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain faiths. The steep hilly terrain boasts of hundreds of rock-cut shivalingas, around 25 Buddhist votive stupas and numerous carvings of Hindu and Jain deities scattered over a stretch of about 1 km.
Legend has it that the great Sage Ved Vyasa wanted to create a second Kashi in this region and, therefore, had 99,999 shivalingas carved here, Kashi having 1,00,000 lingas.
The Sri Surya Pahad gets its name from ruins of an ancient Surya temple in which is preserved the carving of a twelve-armed deity, thought to be Vishvarupa Vishnu. A fascinating antiquity discovered here is a circular carved stone slab that is thought to be part of the ceiling of the ancient temple and is now worshipped in a modern Sun Temple on the site. The central figure on the circular carvings on this slab is identified as Prajapati, surrounded by lotus petals encompassing seated figures of the 12 Adityas (sun gods).
This relatively unexplored place is home to remains of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain shrines, relics, and artefacts, many of which have been preserved in a local museum. Though little is known for sure about the actual history of this site, it makes for a fascinating visit for fans of archeology as well as those who are religiously inclined.
Parshuram Kund, Arunachal Pradesh
The Parshuram Kund is a beautiful place of pilgrimage situated on the Brahmaputra plateau along the banks of the river Lohit in Arunachal Pradesh. Though there are several rocks and steps to climb up and then down again to reach the pond, the mesmerizing sight of the sparkling clear churning waters thundering down the rocks is well worth making the effort for.
The place gets its name from the great sage Parshuram (believed to be the sixth avatar of Lord Vishnu). Legend has it that the youngest son of Sage Jamadagni and Renuka was granted an axe (Parshu) by Lord Shiva after deep meditation and hence got the name Parshuram. When Parshuram killed his mother on the behest of his father, the axe got stuck to his hand as reminder of the heinous crime he had committed. He visited scores of holy places trying to atone for the sin of matricide but without any luck. On the advice of some sages, he washed his hands in the pristine waters at the Brahma Kund and the axe finally came away from his hand. Angry at himself, he threw this axe far away. It landed in the mountains and split them asunder making way for the river Lohit. The kund has since been known as the Parshuram Kund.
In the earthquake that shook the entire NE part of the country in 1950, the original kund was lost under the river water. Interestingly, a new kund was formed when large boulders arranged themselves in a circular formation, taking the place of the original pond.
There are several temples around the kund, including one dedicated to Parshuram. And though this wonderful mountainous region remains relatively unexplored, on Makar Sankranti day in mid-January, throngs of people visit the Parshuram Kund to take a dip in the holy waters that are believed to be as pure as the Ganga and can wash away all ones’ sins.
In the very lap of nature surrounded by mountains, dense forests and pristine gurgling waters, who wouldn’t experience a surreal feeling, a rejuvenating energy and truly divine vibrations.
Sidheshwar Nath Mandir, Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh
The remote and gorgeous Ziro valley in Arunachal Pradesh is known for hosting the famous Ziro Music Festival. However, most people do not know that this place is home to the largest naturally formed Shivalingam in the country which can be seen in the Sidheshwar Nath Mandir.
This Shivalingam was only discovered in July 2004, during the Shravana month (in which Lord Shiva is extensively worshipped), quite by accident, by a Nepali man who was cutting a tree down in the Kardo forest. The tree fell away from the lingam and this monolithic wonder came to his attention.
The lingam itself is 25 ft tall and 22 ft wide and, amazingly, a continuous stream of water flows from the base of it. It features images of Lord Shiva’s family–Parvati, Ganesha, and Kartikeya.
Mention of this lingam can be found in the ancient Shivapurana. It says that the tallest Shivalinga will be found at a place called Lingalaya which will later be called Arunachal.
One can stay with local people of the Apatami tribe to experience the beautiful culture and religious traditions of this quaint picturesque valley town. The locals have great faith in the mystical powers of Lord Shiva and this spot is now a revered place pilgrimage for bhaktas of Mahadev.
The NE states, indeed, are a treasure trove of beautiful places that attract not only avid travelers but those who seek spots of religious importance and spiritual succour.
This culturally and historically rich region deserves a visit, at least once in a life time.