These forests, ages ago, are supposed
to have sheltered the exiled Pandava brothers, heroes
of the epic Mahabharat. The dense forest and difficult
terrain of Sariska shielded them until they reached
the court at Viratnagar 66 km away and lived there disguised
as servants of the king. Only five boulders now remain
to testify to the presence of the five Pandavas and
their wife, Draupadi.
Tourists rarely return without a visit
to the Hanuman Temple (Monkey God) in which the image
is in a reclining position. Busloads of devotees crowd
the route on Tuesdays, the monkey god's known weekday.
On Wednesdays, the inhabitants of the sanctuary are
allowed a rest from the sight of human invaders and
animals are indeed most visible on these days.
In September each year, however, they
almost disappear off the track as hordes of worshippers
from near and far, descend on the place for the famous
fair which offers the startling spectacle of
persons crawling lengthwise on the road the entire 48
km distance from Alwar city. If one is lucky to be present
at the right time, the ear can be treated to the fascinating
narration of the folk epic, the pandun ka kada, a Mewati
version of the Mahabharata, sung by a Muslim jogi for
hours at a stretch.
At Bhartrihari, it is the group
called Bhartrihari ke Jogi, who dominate with their
powerful music at the fair in August. For hundreds of
years, the place gave solace and shelter to the legendary
sage Bhartrihari, the author of important Sanskrit works
on nitishastra and epics. A millennium later he is still
greatly revered by the local populace. A temple in the
hilly area (35 km) of Sariska is dedicated to this saint.
For every night over a month, a grand musical drama
of seven hours in the style of Parsi theatre is enacted
and draws a massive audience. It narrates the epic story
of king Bhartrihari, renowned for his justices.
At a short distance from Alwar is a
diversion taking one past the small fortress of Kushalgarh
to Talbraksha (36 km). The moist palm grove valley transports
one mentally to India's coastal areas and it is difficult
to believe that one is geographically in a desert state.
Langurs compete in numbers with busloads of constantly
arriving pilgrims. Side by side at Talbraksha are hot
and cold springs with immense healing capacities.
In a clearing is a cluster of temples
of varying ages and one might almost miss the gem of
them all, a 10th century temple relegated to the background.
This temple, in the typical panchayatna (five houses)
pattern, was probably built as a Vaishnava temple, but
was converted for Shiva worship. The Vishnu legend is
represented in the relief of Hiranyakashyap, Vishnu's
great antagonist, being killed by the Narsimhavatar.
Talbraksha is mentioned in the Virata
parva of the Mahabharata. It was here that an arrow
Arjun shot into the ground sprouted the Banaganga and
when his exile ended he was able to purify himself in
this offshoot of the holy river before taking up his
arms and weapons concealed in a tree. Unfortunately,
the archaeological value of this temple, or of Talbraksha,
has been little exploited.
Past tobacco fields and tiny secluded
hamlets, in the hills beyond Tehola is the marvelous
fortified temple town of Neelkanth. Located as it is
in a remote valley, 22 km deep in the interior of Sariska
and surrounded by a jungle well populated by animals,
access to which it difficult even today. But tucked
away in this green belt are shades of antiquity in sandy
brown, stone gray, and marble black, in a plethora of
weathered sculptures and ornately carved temples.
It is particularly fascinating to explore
the widespread area of Neelkanth, preferably over a
day culminating with a visit to the fort, Rajor. Around
the Shiva temple, scattered all over are mounds still
unexplored indicating the multiplicity of temples. One
has only to remove the shrubbery and dig away the earth
to find fragments of an amalak or stambha and sculptures
on religious themes and musicians.