When it’s not crowded with tourists, Ram Ghat is the best place to be in Chitrakoot. The best time is 5-6 pm as you can join the Mandakini River aarti (prayer). Compared to the grandeur of Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi this one is much simpler, but that is its appeal.
When I visit Ram Ghat accompanied by my parents a few locals are singing hymns, clapping hands in unison, as aarti lamps are swung through the air. Mingled with the sounds of conches, bells, and cymbals, the voices offer a harmonious communion with the Maker. The Mandakini River nods approval by gently rocking boats that resemble a newly-wed Indian bride decked with golden lace, artificial flowers, and string lights.
If you go to Ram Ghat looking for the typical image representing India – of a half-naked Sadhu or holy man, ash smeared on his forehead – you might not find many subjects. What you’ll get for sure is an intimate picture of India’s ordinary masses which make travel for religious purposes the biggest subset of domestic travel here.
You’ll see old men using bamboo walking sticks to gingerly navigate steps, women holding on to paloos (end of a saree) that cover their heads, children let loose hopping up and down stairs and all kinds of people worshipping the river and Gods in temples strewn along its banks.
I find the Mandakini River especially endearing. I’m not sure what it looks like with less water in summer, but when I visit in September the river is full and flowing – meaning not dirty with trash. Its silent flow lends a cozy, peaceful air. Perhaps a bit of Sati Anusuya’s aura remains – the river is believed to have been brought down due to the penance of Sati Anusuya, wife of Sage Atri (Athreya), during a drought.
Ram Ghat itself is believed to be the Ghat where Lord Ram, the protagonist of the Indian epic ‘Ramayana’, bathed during his time in Chitrakoot. Remember unlike current times, water didn’t come to you-you had to go to it. So, at bath time people congregated near water sources like rivers and wells.
But why was Lord Ram bathing in Chitrakoot when he was Prince of Ayodhya? It’s a town 250-330 km away on modern roads and would translate into a journey of several days on foot. As the story goes, Lord Ram was sent by his father, King Dashrath, to 14 years of exile on the insistence of Queen Kaikeyi. Lord Ram’s wife, Sita Devi and his brother Lord Lakshman accompanied him to various places in India including Chitrakoot during this time.
It’s said that they spent around 11 years here which is why there are lots of spots in Chitrakoot associated with them like Bharat Milap, Sphatik Shila, Hanuman Dhara and more.
This apart, saint-poet Goswami Tulsidas, author of ‘Ram Charit Manas’, is believed to have lived for a few years in a cave at Ram Ghat and seen Lord Ram in person. One day Tulsidas was making sandalwood paste when a child came and asked for a tilak (religious mark on the forehead).
After recognizing the child as Lord Ram Tulsidas was so mesmerized that he just continued making the paste, completely forgetting to apply the tilak. Lord Ram then anointed himself and Tulsidas with the sandalwood paste before disappearing. There’s even a verse to describe the event –
Chitrakoot Ke Ghat Par Bhayi Santan Ki Bheed
Tulsi Das Chandan Ghise Tilak Karein Raghuveer
The meaning is: A crowd of the pious gathered on the ghat of Chitrakoot. Tulsidas makes a sandalwood paste and Lord Ram anoints him with a tilak.
I’m not looking for a tilak but for interesting stories instead. I visit Ram Ghat a couple of times and find not one but two stories to take home. The first is about a group of people who come together in the name of God and the second about a group doing God’s work.
Day one of my visit, the road leading to Ram Ghat is pretty crowded. Music blares from speakers and crackers are set off as a throng of devotees accompanies two gleaming, steel-clad chariots moving down the road. I join others in peering inside one to figure out what’s going on.
Two children, one dressed as Lord Krishna and the other as his brother Balarama sit, looking a little embarrassed by all the attention they’re getting. In the other chariot, idols of Bal (child) Krishna and other Gods are accompanied by priests as well as devotees.
On inquiry, I’m told that it’s time for the ‘Jal Vihar’ festival in these parts and today Lord Krishna’s idol from one of the temples in Karwi district has come for the ‘Jal Vihar’ (excursion on water). The idol, the two children, priests, and a few others make their way to a boat.
A singer belts out bhajans (religious songs) from another boat. ‘Dhol’ (drums) in the background and bhajans in the foreground, the boat begins its journey to loud cheers of ‘Radhe, Radhe’ and ‘Jai Shri Krishna’ from devotees who line Ram Ghat now. It’s electrifying.
Having observed the proceedings for a while, my parents and I move on to watch the Mandakini Aarti described earlier on. We then make our way to the hotel and return to the Ghat the next evening.
We are yet to see an idol of Lord Hanuman on the other side of the Ghat, so we take a boat to cross the rather narrow Mandakini river and are there in a trice. As we make our way to the idol, a group of children doing yoga catches my attention.
I stop to look for their teacher or guru. There he is, looking more like a Gym Instructor than a Yoga Practitioner. Turns out Janaki Sharan (the guru) and a few others, led by founder Garjan Singh Thakur, come together every evening to teach local children yoga and other physical exercises. Named ‘Ghat ki Pathshala’ or school of the Ghat, it provides free classes for three hours every evening.
“It’s good for the children in every way – it increases their stamina and flexibility and also their concentration. We tried teaching kids who sell pooja items on the Ghat too, but they run away the minute they see us. What to do? They don’t understand the importance of this,” says Janaki Sharan.
My mother and I are impressed with the selflessness of the group’s work. I think to myself God lives with us in many forms – sometimes we see him and sometimes we don’t.