Scientists believe the unique geological locations where they are situated makes them worthy of veneration, says Pallav Bagla.
What makes the Kailash Parvat, the Ram Setu and the Kedarnath temple such hallowed places?
Scientists believe the unique geological locations where they are situated makes them stunning and worthy of veneration.
Kailash Parvat or Mount Kailash (according to Hindu scriptures, the place where Lord Shiva resides and meditates) is made of shale rocks and resembles a Shiva lingam; the Ram Setu (believed to the bridge built by Lord Ram's monkey army to reach the demon king Ravana's Lanka in the Ramayana), which is also visible from space, is a unique set of coral islands; while the Kedarnath temple (of Lord Shiva in Uttarakhand) that withstood the 2013 flash floods sits on an unstable glacial moraine, where usually nothing would survive.
Interestingly, scientists now also believe that pilgrimages to such diverse regions are a way of unification of the highly diverse cultures of India, which, they think, has 'brought about a cross-fertilisation of thoughts.'
Writing about these sites, Kharag Singh Valdiya, a highly regarded geologist and former vice- chancellor of Kumaun University, Nanital, says, 'Wandering sages and saints in ancient India were unable to unravel the mystery of their origin and, regarding them to be nature's singular rather fantastic handiwork, imparted to them an altogether new meaning by investing them with the aura of divinity.'
When it is difficult to explain certain natural phenomenon with the existing knowledge, humans often try to associate it with divinity.
The much venerated Om Parvat, situated on the tri-junction of India-Tibet and Nepal, when viewed from a distance, gives the perfect impression of the letter 'Om', including the rightly-placed dot.
Valdiya explains the Om Parvat is made up of 'rocks folded twice in manner that the depressions within the arms of the overturned folds are filled round the year with ice and snow,' giving rise to geological calligraphy depicting the venerated Hindu word 'Om.'
Incidentally, the 6,191 metres high peak, on whose face the letter 'Om' is etched, is made of rocks that bear lots of fossils, scientifically that means that millions of years ago the rocks were submerged under the sea, like most of the Himalayas were when the Indian plate was still drifting northwards.
The Amarnath cave in Jammu and Kashmir, another big pilgrimage spot, houses a Shiva lingam made of ice. It is, says Valdiya, a 'spectacular ice stalagmite.'
This is a very rare formation since water has to drip down from the roof and then freeze and the temperature has to be just right for a lingam-like structure to be formed. For most part of the year, the cave entrance is covered with snow.
'How can one not be impressed, if not awed, by this geological marvel?' Valdiya asks.
About 600,000 people visit this sacred site of the Hindus situated at an altitude of 3,888 metres, even though the trek is arduous.
In southern India, the Ram Setu and the associated Rameshwaram Temple, both are sacred sites. The presence of a Ram Setu suggests a unified geology of India and the island of Sri Lanka. It is a unique set of coral islands that connect the two neighbours.
Legend has it that Lord Ram used this coral formation to cross over with his army when he invaded Lanka in search of his wife Sita who was abducted by Ravana.
This region, Valdiya says, is geologically singular, as 'it is well known that corals grow in warm waters, shallow enough to be illuminated by sunlight. The sea level rise brought submergence of the coral islands that were once close to the surface of sea and exposed to the atmosphere.'
Mount Kailash, an imposing dome considered to be the abode of Lord Shiva, is situated just north of the point where the massive Indian continental plate collides into the Eurasian plate.
The home of Lord Shiva has been formed, it seems, because the Indian plate has buckled up, says Valdiya, who adds that the lingam in the centre surrounded by the circular depression with a ring of hills resembling a yoni.
This constant pulling and tugging through plate tectonics or the movement of continents over geological times give this region a unique geological past and may be that is why sages of ancient times gave it a venerated status. The scenic beauty here is also stunning especially on a full moon night.
Writing in the latest issue of the best known Indian science journal Current Science, Valdiya says, 'Perusing through the map showing the locations of the 12 jyotirlings (the radiant signs of Shiva) established in the times of the Puranas, two facts emerge: They are located in all parts of the Indian sub-continent, reaching out to all ethnic groups living in the country Bharatvarsh; and, their situations happen to be of great geodynamic significance, particularly related to the Indian landmass.'
The 'leading lights of society must have realised that only spectacular features, particularly located in picturesque places, can attract people, even those who are non-believers and agnostics,' says Valdiya.
'The geological marvels or wonders were thus chosen as seats (dham) of Lord Shiva, the most loved god of those times and even now.'
From Somnath (in Veeraval, Gujarat) in the west to Badrinath (in Uttarakhand) in the north to Rameshwaram (in Tamil Nadu) in the south, all are located at unique geological locations.
Unique floodplain geology is home to the Kumbh Mela that takes place in Allahabad at the Sangam. It is believed that the Kumbh Mela is the single largest congregation of human beings on earth to take place at a single location.
In 2013, it was estimated that 120 million people gathered on the sandy banks, where two mighty rivers -- the Ganga and Yamuna -- meet, while legend has it that the mythical river Saraswati also mingles here making the waters highly venerated.
The Kumbh Mela in times gone by offered people a specific venue at a time pre-decided 12 years ahead to plan their travel congregate, network and learn from each other. A modern day conference, one could say.
'One may dismiss the Puranas and the epics such as the Mahabharata as works of fiction,' says Valdiya, who now works at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru. 'But one cannot deny that geological marvels regarded or designated as shrines are indeed located precisely where these ancient texts describe, the narratives perfectly matching with the reality.'
The role of undertaking pilgrimages has also been given a modern scientific rational by Valdiya in his analysis.
'The idea behind the practice of visiting shrines was to persuade and spur pilgrims and travellers to know people who live in different terrains, have different lifestyles... who observed different socio-cultural practices. The pilgrims as they crisscrossed the country... presumably may have been a movement to promote the idea of one nation-one India.'