Article Published in THE TIMES OF INDIA

A Legend At Twilight

Navtej Sarna

THE waters of Lake Renuka were a dark, deep green a few moments ago. Now, the descending twilight has charged them with a steely grey. As we row across the lake, the submerged, ghostly forms of the fallen palms near the shores are no longer visible. The moonlight is yet to gather strength.

Sleeping Woman

We manage to guide the boat between two clumps of reeds, pull it in, tie it up. The darkness is now tugging at the shores of the lake, gingerly at first, then more confidently.

Sleeping they lie in a narrow, heavily wooded valley of Himachal Pradesh. A few kilometers away flows the Giri river, but it is the lake, which attracts tourist and pilgrim alike. The tourist comes to see the lake-, which according to the brochures, is shaped like a sleeping woman-the wildlife sanctuary, the zoo, the temples.

The pilgrim comes to worship at the shrines of Renuka and Parasu Ram, and for a dip in the holy waters at the bathing ghat where the well fed fish swivel and swirl. And the legend throbbing all along the valley is old, much older than the surrounding hills.

Twilight is the time for the legend to come alive. It is heralded by the sound of drums, the beat rising rhythmically over the silent waters and spreading like a conquering army over the valley. Drawn and fascinated, we watch an old man bent over the drums.

Ageless Grace

Inside the temple, a pujari performs the aarti in the incense-laden, candle-lit atmosphere. The birds, the cheetal, the pair of lions and their three cubs in the zoo are silent in respect. A sadhu leans with ageless grace against a wooden post, one hand raised to a bell, chiming it in time with the drums. The moment is magical, filled with deep sounds and deeper silences.

The silences give way to the recounting of the legend. As many versions as there are raconteurs the pujari, the itinerant sadhu, a young master of the shastras. But something common emerges.

Cheetal’s call

The tale is of the goddess Renuka, wife of the sage, jamadagni and mother of Parasu Ram. She is killed by the latter under orders from his father, and later restored to life as a reward for the son’s unflinching obedience. Her body is said to have finally taken the shape of the lake.

Every November, the crowds gather at the annual mela when the palki of Parasu Ram is brought for a meeting with his mother.

The moonlight is shimmering over the waters now. A shadowy luminescence is touching up the palm fringes. The cheetal begins to call.