About 140 km south-west of Kathmandu, the tumultuous Kali Gandaki and emerald Trisuli Riv-ers merge to form the broad, shimmering Narayani River - and the ground for a sacred, astonishingly peaceful human settlement: Devghat. This small hamlet straddles the rivers and the border of Tanahun and Chitwan districts, just a stone’s throw from Nayarangarh. (Ironically, the massive entrance gate over the road to Devghat is directly across from the Nayarangarh security checkpoint on the Trivedi highway, a place of some tension these days.) Devghat also lies across the seam where Nepal’s verdant hills meet the steamy, fertile plains of the Terai. Here at this cosmic juncture are many ashrams, temples, and a remarkable community of Hindu scholars, devotees, and elders.
Leaving the main highway, the atmosphere immediately becomes one of tranquility and grace, reflected in the sun-dappled forest of tall, lithe trees and gently winding, smooth road. One passes through a second gate adorned with peacocks and both Buddhist and Hindu symbols, and then spots the domed roofs of ashrams on the Chitwan side of the Nayarani. I first visited the Tanahun side (last spring), by way of the Trisuli suspension bridge. Besides its striking design, this must be one of the most stable walking bridges in Nepal. People even ride bicycles over it with nary a wobble. Meandering over the bridge and into the leafy courtyards on the other side, I felt warmed by the kind, beaming smiles on calm faces fringed with white hair, wrapped in saffron, sherbet, or cream-colored shawls. These were the of faces sadhus, pujaris (priests) and sunyasen, high-caste elders who have renounced the world and come to this auspicious place to live out their days in prayer, study and cooperative community.
Many Hindu deities are celebrated here. The goddess Nayarani, an avatar of Devi, mother goddess of the world, is honored not only by several shrines and the name of the river that is tributary to the sacred Ganges, but also in the traditional greeting of the village, where “Narayani” replaces “Namaste”, and in the names of many of children born there. The first time I came to Devghat, a Mr. Nayarani Giri, a local teacher, graciously served as my guide.
Sita, heroine of the Hindu classic, the Ramayana, is said to have used Devghat as her refuge when she was on the outs with Ram (apparently even the most perfect marriages had their conflicts). When Ram came searching for her, Sita bolted from her underground hiding place, splitting the rock above in her powerful determination to escape him. Legend has it that her flight created the several caves and a ledge in the cliff facing the Kali Gandaki. The area is treated like a temple; after a steep descent (my friend with bad knees did not dare risk it) on concrete and earthen steps, you remove your shoes and walk barefoot on the natural stone and clay ‘floor’. In the spring I met two women who had made their home and prayer hall under the narrow ledge, spending their days in meditation and prayer on Sita’s sacred ground. I was awed by their devotion and the simple elegance of their living. I gave them an offering, hoping only for the honor of taking a photo. To my surprise, the older of the two women looked into my eyes and spontaneously told me (in Nepali) “You will live in Nepal always and you will have every success.” I couldn’t tell if this was intended as a blessing or a prediction (perhaps both), but I felt immensely grateful.
Shiva’s presence is also strong here. Not only does the name of the Trisuli River reflect the trident symbol of Shiva, but the confluence itself is seen as forming a similar triveni. The Kali Gandaki and Trisuli are believed to be joined by a third, spiritual river, and the three combine to make the Nayarani, the handle of a the trident. An arrangement of large natural stone shiva lingam overlooks the confluence itself, there are many Shiva temples scattered throughout the village and along the river bank, a community of Shaivas (followers of Shiva) are settled on the western edge of the village, and Shiva Raatri, the celebration of the birthday of Shiva, brings thousands of pilgrims from Nepal and India.
Vishnu is honored by the largest temple in Devghat, the modern Harihar Mandir, and many Devghat residents identify strongly with this sustaining god. There is a fantastic statue of Hanuman near the west bank of the river, and there are many spiritual practitioners who work with other deities. At a small Shiva temple near the river, we came upon a bearded Mahakala (a devotee of the wrathful goddess Kali) swathed in black and smoking a hookah. He invited us to sit with him and explained that he was learning how to pull shakti (spiritual power) from the trees, from all nature. The resonance of his voice and his eyes that seemed to hold the wisdom of centuries in their depths gave us the feeling that he might succeed.
The waters of the confluence are considered to have much blessing power, so pilgrims – up to hundreds at a time on ordinary days and thousands at Magh Sankrati and Shiva Raatri - come to bathe and drink. The confluence is also seen as an auspicious spot for cremation. On my second visit (this fall), at a distance I saw a crowd gathered on the broad pebbled beach of the western shore of the Nayarani. In the center I dimly perceived the outlines of the spindle sticks and tongues of flame that indicate a funeral pyre, and figures in white blended with the plumes of white smoke. Unlike some other experiences witnessing cremation, here I felt an immense sense of spaciousness and purity. On his visits to Devghat, King Mahendra may have felt this energy; although he was not cremated here, his wish to have his ashes spread at the confluence was fulfilled, and there is a memorial to him on the east bank of the Trisuli.
Like Mount Kailash, Muktinath, the Cathedral of Chartes in France, and the north shore of Lake Superior in the U.S., Devghat’s sense of sacredness is natural, ancient and underlies and transcends any human construction or settlement. The magnificent beauty in the dance of water and rock and the natural magnetism of the place cannot help but be felt by seekers over the centuries. Along the eastern shore of the Trisuli, the water has carved amazing curving sculptures into the cliff. My friend and I joined a local sadhu in contemplating this remarkable beauty; we could have happily stayed for many hours.
Whatever your spiritual beliefs, Devghat is a place to come as a pilgrim, not a tourist. The people of Devghat seem primarily focused on spiritual and scholarly quests, and not particularly interested in westerners. With all the concerns about the loss of Nepali culture, it was encouraging to see both elders and young people (some of the ashrams primarily train boys to become priests) focused on the traditions for their own sake. I felt warmly if somewhat cautiously welcomed as a guest (the caution probably partly due to orthodox Hindu concerns about purity), not viewed as a source for money or other assistance as is so often the case around sacred sites in Kathmandu. There was no particular sign of appealing to western tourists - no postcards for example - though there were a few shops that catered to Hindu pilgrims. I didn’t see any guesthouses in Devghat, and only a few teashops on the outskirts. On both my visits I came from Sauraha, about forty-five minutes by taxi one time and motorcycle the other.
Both times I came away from Devghat refreshed and at peace, feeling that I had come into contact with true sacredness and devotion, and marveling that such a place continues to exist amidst the turmoil of national conflict and westernization. I pray that Devghat – and all the people who come in contact with it - will continue to uphold this spirit far into the future.
Photo: Pramod Neupane-WWF Nepal From red pandas swaying on branches in the eastern Himalayas...