Kumaon is famous for its striking natural beauty and spiritual devotion. Called the land of the gods, it is home to famous temples, <g data-gr-id="123">caves</g> and natural scenery. One such example is Patal Bhuvaneswar, nestled between river Sarju and east Ramaganga in Uttarakhand. It is also one of the seven subterranean wonders of the world. Patal Bhuvaneswar is a limestone cave temple 14 km from Gangolihat in the Pithoragarh district, in Bhubneshwar village, which we drove to from Almora. Legend and folklore have it that this underground cave enshrines Lord Shiva and <g data-gr-id="122">thirty three</g> crore Gods. The cave is 160 m long and 90 feet deep from the point of entrance.
Limestone rock formations have created spectacular divine stalactite and stalagmite figures of various hues and shapes. This cave has a narrow tunnel-like opening which leads to a number of caves. The cave is fully electrically illuminated. Built by the flow of water, Patal Bhuvaneswar is not just one cave, rather a series of caves within caves. “He who wants to feel the presence of eternal power should come to the sacred Bhuvneshwar situated near the confluence of Ramganga, <g data-gr-id="134">Sarayu</g> and Gupt-Ganga” – A quote in Manaskhanda, Skandapuran, whose 800 verses refer to Patal Bhuvaneswar. The first human to discover this cave was Raja Ritupurna, who was a king in Surya Dynasty who ruled Ayodhya during the Treta Yuga. The story starts with Ritupurna and King Nala playing <g data-gr-id="147">Chaupad</g>. It is said that once, King Nala was defeated by his wife, Queen Damayanti. In order to escape his wife’s prison Nala requested Ritupurna to hide him. Ritupurna took him to the forests in the Himalayas and asked him to stay there.
While going back home he was fascinated by a deer which ran into the woods and he went after it. He could not find it and took rest under a tree. He had a dream where the deer was asking Ritupurna not to chase him since he was not a deer. He woke up and went to a cave where he encountered several demons. The king started worshipping Kshetrapal for 2 months. Kshetrapal appeared before him and informed him that there lay the idols of all the Gods in the caves. He introduced Rituparna to the Adisesha (Seshnag), the creator of the cave. Seshnag lifted Rituparna on his head and carried him on his hood through the entire cave for 6 months. He saw the marvels of all the 33-crore gods and goddesses, including Lord Shiva himself, inside. But while sending him back Sheshnag warned him that <g data-gr-id="130">revelation</g> of this secret place would result in his death. But unable to suppress the truth from his nagging queen, he revealed the secret and lost his life. After <g data-gr-id="128">sometime</g>, with great difficulty the queen reached this place. She entered the cave with the help of a rope and later she built the 100 stairs. The queen could see only the idols but couldn’t have the Divyadarshan.
On her return, the queen described the region but it remained undiscovered for thousands of years. Later the Kings of Chand and Katyuri dynasties found this place on the basis of verses in the Puranas and built the temple here. Shankaracharya consecrated this cave in Kalyug, and since 1191, this has been a place for both sightseeing and worship. The priestly family, the Bhandaris, have performed religious rites at Patal Bhuvaneswar since Shankaracharya’s time for more than 20 generations. They are a treasure house of legend and anecdotes about this holy place. One sees the big beautiful temple of old <g data-gr-id="160">Bhuvaneswar</g> going down from the rail station in the village. The motorable road ends half a kilometer away from the cave entrance. There are numerous small temples of Nal and Neel and <g data-gr-id="161">Batuk</g> Bahirava in the main temple compound. About a hundred meters ahead of these temples, passing by a natural spring, one reaches a small compound made of rocks where some carvings in <g data-gr-id="162">Parakrit</g> language can be seen on the walls. On the walls of the <g data-gr-id="145">rocks</g> the visitors can put their baggage. From there one has to descend <g data-gr-id="144">eighty two</g> steps to reach the underground tunnels. In the outer room of the main <g data-gr-id="143">temple</g> there are two big statues of Jai and Vijay with broken idols of Shiva and Parvati, and the statue in the main room is a <g data-gr-id="164">shivalinga</g> in a triangle. Outside in the compound there is a large statue of Hanuman. On the right side is a beautiful temple of Chandika Devi, containing idols of metal and stone including one <g data-gr-id="167">eight handed</g> <g data-gr-id="165">devi</g>, <g data-gr-id="141">Sheshavtar</g> and <g data-gr-id="166">sungod</g>. These temples were built by the Chand and Katyuri dynasties during the twelfth century. You squeeze <g data-gr-id="140">in,</g> and worm your way into the tunnel. The journey inside the cave is done in feeble light, holding protective iron chains. Watch your feet or you may stub your toes on the rocks.
You have to <g data-gr-id="156">descends</g> nearly 100 steps into this narrow cave, to reach the sanctum sanctorum, which gives an overwhelming feeling that you’re entering the <g data-gr-id="157">centre</g> of the earth. Each stone, each stalagmite within each cave or doorway, in magnificent shapes reveals the story of Hindu pantheon in the shapes of Gods, Goddesses, saints and known mythological characters. Almost every god you have heard of resides in this mystifying cave. You can see the tongue of Kali Bhairav, <g data-gr-id="168">Aravati</g> of Indra, mane of Lord Shiva and several other wonders inside Patal Bhuvaneswar. The Stone idol of Sheshnag can be seen, holding earth and heaven in his hood. ‘Havan’ (fire sacrifice) is performed in a dimly lit, solemn atmosphere in the <g data-gr-id="170">kund</g>, under the spell of holy chants. King <g data-gr-id="171">Janamejay</g> did <g data-gr-id="172">Nagayaga</g> here, as instructed by Rishi <g data-gr-id="173">Ullanga</g>, to avenge the death of his father King Parikshit.
Above the <g data-gr-id="174">kund</g> is the <g data-gr-id="176">adder</g> Takshaka drooping, which bit <g data-gr-id="175">Janamejay</g>. From thereon, one ambles on to the spine of <g data-gr-id="177">sheshnag</g>, to reach where water trickles from an eight petal lotus onto the head of Ganesha. Purana describes the event when his mother Parvati had gone for her bath and ordered Ganesha not to allow anybody in. When his father Shiva tried to barge into the cave, Ganesha opposed him. As a result, Shiva chopped off his head but on Parvati’s plea, he restored the head by sprinkling water on it with the help of <g data-gr-id="155">a <g data-gr-id="178">eight-petal</g></g> lotus. The cave, it is believed, is connected by an underground route to Mount Kailash and to the four abodes (Char Dham). It is also believed that worshipping at Patal Bhuvaneswar is equivalent to worshipping at Char Dham in Uttarakhand. Between the <g data-gr-id="152">stairways</g> there is a <g data-gr-id="179">footlinga</g> of God Narasimha. From this <g data-gr-id="151">point</g> one can see both ways up to the entrance and down to the main cave. Just ahead, the idols of Badrinath, Kedarnath and Amarnath are there in the form of Lingas.
By the side of it is Kalabhairava with angry open mouth, protruding tongue and saliva dripping from it. From its mouth to tail is the path to Brahmaloka. It is believed that if somebody can pass through this narrow path, they can get moksha. In front of Kalbhairava is the seat of Lord Shiva with Patalchandi, with a garland of human heads enthroned on a lion. One can see the gateway of the great ages in Patal Bhuvaneswar. There are four entrances inside the cave named as ‘Randwar’ ‘Paapdwar’, ‘Dharamdwar’ and ‘Mokshadwar’. The Paapdwar was closed soon after the death of Ravana and the Randwar, literally, the road to war, was closed down after the great Mahabharata war.
At <g data-gr-id="242">present</g> only two gateways are opened, and they will be closed after our era, Kalyug, and the one
to follow, Satyug. Skandapuran says that people with true belief passing through the Mokshadwar will attain nirvana. In front of the door is a rostrum with a facsimile of Parijat tree replete with beautiful flowers and leaves. It is said to have been brought by Lord Krishna from the abode of Devendra. In “Dwaparyuga” this cave was rediscovered by the Pandavas of the Mahabharat, who proceeded on their last journey in the Himalayas after meditating in this temple, in front of Lord Shiva, 1,350mts above sea level. The other end of the ground leads to a place where the battle of Hanuman and Aiyiravan took place. Moving further on, we find a cave where Rishi Markandeya composed Markandeya Puran. Ahead of this is Kamadhenu, who is drenching the head of ‘Brahmakapali’(fifth chopped head of Brahma)with her milk globules. Here the devout conducts ‘Pitrutarpan’. After moving a few yards one can see seven ponds and a swan with his head turned back. It is said that to save the water from snakes Brahma appointed a swan, but the swan itself drank the water. Brahma cursed that its head be turned. Ahead you can see Ganges flowing out of the matted locks of Lord Shiva and all the 33 crore God and Goddesses worshipping him as small rock projections. In the center, is the lingam Narmadeshwar Mahadev, with Nandi the Cow and a pond made by Viswakarma.
The Milky Way and Saptarishi constellation can be seen a few steps ahead. In the main sanctuary or Garbagriha, three diminutive lingams covered with copper plates representing the three natural powers are consecrated. This copper adornment was presented by Adi Sankaracharya. Drops of heavy stalagmite water fall on these lingams alternately. One who worships here on Sani Pradosha attains peace for 21 generations of his ancestors.
Next comes a burrow to Kashi and Puri. It is said that to give the news of the <g data-gr-id="191">yagna</g> of King Yaksha to the King of Kashi, a dog went through this tunnel, chasing a deer. Above this is ‘Koteshwar Mahadev’ with his locks open and snakes around his neck. Proceed further and you see the way to heaven. It is said that Pandavas went to Swarga <g data-gr-id="192">Rahani</g> this way and the idols of Pandavas, and Shiv Parvati playing ‘chaupad’ can be seen. Now it is time to return. You have to take another route to <g data-gr-id="194">join</g> the main path. On the way, a set of four lingams representing four eras can be seen. The linga of Kaliyug is relatively big. It is said that when it meets the icy cone suspended from the top that will be the end of Kaliyug.
Beside this is a cave to Rameshwar. From here you rejoin the original path. On the way upstairs you see the Airawat elephant with a thousand feet and the Kamandal of Lord Shiva on the right. Your journey through Patal cave temple ends here. You feel exhausted and exhilarated, knowing you will get the same rewards as you could by visiting the Char Dhams. The walls of the caves are blotched due to the use of firewood previously to light up the darkness. Today, a generator provided by the temple committee lights up the cave and you can hire a guide.