Leaving at seven in the morning, we had an easy drive to the Neelkant Mahadev temple. Still, it took us an hour to get there, because though the traffic was thin, and the hotel car was a superior SUV, our driver Kuldeep worked less the pedal and more his tongue.
We didn’t mind it. We rather enjoyed his Hindi, and tried speaking it a bit ourselves. The first part of the drive was down the mountain to Rishikesh town, and then we went up the mountains watching the play of the sun on the speeding Ganges. The sight of the river kept up for quite a while, and then we turned into pure mountain, passing occasional vendors of lichees and tiny dwellings with men and women working public hand-pumps for water.
“How old is the temple?” I asked Kuldeep in halting Hindi, unsure of the gender for the noun.
“Very old, sir,” he said, in lilting Hindi.
That was a good enough answer for me, because Rishikesh is almost as old as the religion that was sired in the mountains round it, and raised in the fertile plains that extend from it. I worked up a hazy vision of a large ancient temple, on the scale of the behemoths in southern India. I was wrong in my imagining. A temple dating to the founding times of the religion cannot be large. Big temples came later, rather like what the Christians have in Jerusalem, which is small, when compared with what they’ve got in the Vatican.
The deity at the Neelkant is the size of what Kuldeep claimed it was: The throat of Shiva in human form. By legend here’s where Shiva drank the poison the oceans threw up when gods and demons churned them to extract from them the death-defying amruta. Shiva did that to save creation from sure extinction, and was himself saved by his wife Parvati, who gripped his throat to prevent the poison from advancing. After he’d consumed the poison, Shiva cut off his throat and left it behind in Rishikesh. Our forefathers built a shelter round it.
This was Kuldeep’s story, told in sweet sing-song. The first part, we’ve always known. The latter was new.
Wikipedia says the deity in the Neelkant temple is a Shivalinga, the phallus of Shiva. The throat, then, must’ve been Kuldeep’s twist. Anyway, the deity as I saw it seemed neither like phallus nor throat; my memory holds out an image of a liver whose colour has turned.
That’s all right, I suppose. What matters really is what Shiva means, and his meaning lies but within us, which we carry inside of us everywhere we go.
The shelter over the deity is a small plain white cuboid building which you reach after an hour in line on a good day. A conventional temple-shell houses the cuboid, and the not-too-large hall round it. In the line, which crawled, the devotees were patient. They were mostly simple country folks, most of them aged. I was expecting a dramatic appearance of the deity, housed in a gilt-trimmed grotto, and so I was surprised by the austere cuboid and, when I entered, the so-small rock jutting out the ground. The priest who slouched on a stool by it was the more domineering presence. By his side lay a large metal basin in which currency notes of every denomination were piling high.
Will he surrender all that money to the temple fund? Or, are they all for him to take? I couldn’t push back the questions that came to mind, on the spot, and my punishment was served on the instant.
By tradition of that temple, I’d to pour a cup of water on the deity, sprinkle bael leaf on it, empty a tiny bottle of honey, and a same-size bottle of rose water. Confused by how the temple had turned out, I poured only half the cup of water, and forgot about the honey and the rose water. Liveried Kuldeep, who was doubling as our guide, asked the priest for a special service for us, and what we got was to linger there a few seconds longer.
Anxious that I hadn’t made a prayer before the deity, hadn’t made a single wish in this very special temple in this most holy place, I went out and walked up and stood in utter disorientation. An aged man, about seventy-plus, walked past me, and knocked my elbow as he went, sending a small, holy Shivalinga that I was holding flying off my hand. My anxiety doubled: Was this an omen?
Good things had been hoped for, such as a flower falling off the deity while we were there, or some such sign saying life would be splendid this day on. Nothing of the sort happened. Instead, I forgot to make a wish; and my Shivalinga went crashing to the floor.
We walked back to the car in the sun, noting how the cool from the cloudburst of two nights ago was still prevailing. Down the mountain, in a bit, the Ganges reappeared, curving outward from a mountain group, rushing down the deep wedge between mountains, showing up her sinews in the sun, a picture of strength and resolve and endless striving. My spirits lifted; they couldn’t have stayed down on a birthday.