Article Published in THE STATESMAN

Footloose in Legend Country

Navtej Sarna

THE bus lurches twistingly downhill from the town of Nahan. I look back a last time at the densely populated township spread leisurely over a mountain ridge. As the bus gains distance, the eye can make out the temple atop the hill to which I had just been, the royal palace, the offices of the district administration: the past and present of Nahan.

This erstwhile capital of Sirmur State was built in early seventeenth Century after the place caught and held the attention of Raja Karam Prakash. The name of the town is said to derive from the original Nahar, meaning lion, after the lion companion of a saint who lived where now stands the royal palace. Nahan also figures prominently in Sikh history as the place where Guru Gobind Singh stayed as a guest of the Raja and hunted a maneating white tiger. He later settled on the banks of the Jamuna where now stands the town of Paonta.

The district offices-I see them now receding as little yellow and grey spots-symbolize the present. Nahan is the headquarters of Sirmur district and that to many would seem to be its sole raison d’etre; the majority of its populace is somehow connected to these offices.

But soon nothing of civilization remains to be seen. The ranges stretch effortlessly into the grey distance. Along the road, I can see the stately and proud pines fallen like so many matchsticks- victims of a hailstorm’s fury, their torn trunks showing tortuous, gaping wounds.

The bus suddenly stops to pick up a hill woman, a bundle of firewood on her head. A wide, open forehead, a sharp nose, thin lips, the skin prematurely wrinkled so that it looks almost prehistoric, a prominent nose ring and a bright pink scarf tied round her head. And tucked away securely in the back fold of the scarf, like a precious wildflower, a packet of bidis. Bidis? Yes, bidis, even if my imagination ultimately ends up colouring them into flowers…

DADAHU is the tehsil headquarters where the bus stops for the Renuka lake. The prospect of the lake is the only thing that makes one tolerate Dadahu, a small, squalid, hot establishment comprising two rows of flea-infested shops. A relatively clean, young, pleasant chaiwallah agrees to make some breakfast. The rhythmic beating of an egg becomes a social event. A couple of schoolboys who no doubt find strangers more interesting than studies serve breakfast as a hot sun glints on locally made soft drinks filled in leftover Coke and Fanta bottles.

The rucksack beginning to bite into the shoulder and the sweat somehow leaving a taste of salt in the mouth, we walk across a river called Giri. The rains are yet to come and there isn’t much water. It forms a pool in the shade of an overhanging rock where naked village boys swim joyously. We begin to hate our city-bred inhibitions which make swimming trunks a necessity.

The Giri divides the district of Sirmur into two- Cisgiri and Transgiri. The division is more than merely geographical. The two areas show shades of difference on social custom and practices too. A legend flows along with the river. The story goes that once a woman was offered half the kingdom by a Raja if she would cross the river on a rope. She did. But then the crafty Raja told her to come back the same way; while she was doing it, he got the rope cut. As she fell into the swirling waters, she uttered a curse that the kingdom would be destroyed. Soon after the capital at Sirmuri Tal was flooded and ravaged.

OUR steps now lead us to the wooded, cooler valley of the lake-and into the timeless arms of another legend. Walking along the narrow leaf-strewn road we turn a corner and stop short. Less than a hundred yards away, in a small lawn, are three young lions playing around eyed menacingly by a sheep dog! Astounded, we watch the dog chase them into a cage where wait their parents-a tawny lioness and a full-maned lion. That’s wild Himachal for you!

The magnificently calm and unfathomed Renuka lake is more than just a place for boating although that itself should be consolation enough. It is Renuka Ji to the people of the region. Legend has it that Renuka was the wife of a Rishi, Jamdagini, and-for sons on which the raconteurs differ-the latter asked his son, did so- but as a reward for obedience he asked for her revival. Ultimately her body is said to have formed the sleeping waters of the lake; a small pool at the foot of the lake is described as the symbol or her son’s devotion. This is the legend venerates in the temples along the lake. At twilight the sound of drums, bells and conch shells hangs low over the dark waters. And as we walk around the lake the moonlight finds a thousand fragmented mirrors and the phantoms of the palms around the lake begin to breathe. From a hut emerges a woman, the restless freedom of the wild in her limbs, and looks at us not with the brazenness of a city streetwalker but the fearlessness of a lioness…. Then vanishes into the shadows….

IT is somehow disturbing to think that every night in this legend-kissed land must be as beautiful.