By PRADEEP SINGH
Even at the height of the Mughal rule, the Doon Valley was considered terra incognita not only by the state but also by the common man. The impenetrable forests, numerous swamps and marshes and the uplands and ravines in which water flowed rapidly were not a prospect that appealed to either the farmer or the pastoralists. The terrain did not encourage the farmer, and the teeming wildlife deterred the cattle raising communities even if fodder was aplenty. But these very challenging circumstances provided another very select group of men with what they thought was a paradise. The very wilderness that daunted even stalwart men became a beacon for solace seekers and those on a quest for spiritual uplift. The site was selected due to the solitude that pervaded the area and provided the deep silence and seclusion necessary for contemplation and the spiritual quest that was difficult in a material world. These men were able to tap into the concentrated energy of the pristine forests. They chose seclusion but did not shun human contact. They were aware of a sort of debt they still owed to others, who sought their blessings and, in return, made offerings as their means allowed. Oil, flour, jaggery, rice and grains were essential even to hermits and anchorites and thus welcomed in moderation. Any surplus of these was shared by the holy men with those who sought refuge with them for want of shelter or food.
Thus the Doon may have been late in being colonised by settlers but, for hermits, sages, fakirs, sadhus, ascetics and the like, the Valley was a familiar and sacred geography for a long long time. By experience and shared knowledge, these men of God had found ways and means to survive the disadvantages of the Valley. On the contrary, they found sylvan and congenial spots scattered around its length and breadth. More particularly these holy men preferred the southern portion of the Valley dominated by the Nagsidh Peak, finding it to be more suitable to their esoteric and sublime pursuits.
Here, at the break away spur of the main Siwalik Range, was available to these ascetics a large area that was at a raised level, above the otherwise marshy area and well wooded, at some distance from nearby villages. On account of advantages perceived by these men, the entire stretch of Nagsidh Range of the Siwaliks was referred to as “Sidh Pahara” (mountain of accomplished saints). Vestiges of hermitages, deras and retreats are often found by those who ramble through the splendour of the wilderness of Nagsidh.
The most celebrated and well known of these spiritual seats is the Laxman Sidh, twelve kilometres south of the city and off the bustling Dehradun-Haridwar Highway.
The antiquity of the place is not in doubt though one may not easily accept the common mythology citing it the place of penance of Ramayan’s Laxman. More plausible is the legend of Swami Laxman Sidh who is stated to have chosen this spot as a place for his meditations.
At the mundane level, Laxman Sidh has for a very long time been the most popular and revered place where traditionally the folk of Eastern Dehradun have flocked on Sundays to seek blessings and boons at the samadhi of the late saint, Swami Laxman Sidh. More than others, villages such as Badripur, Nathanpur, Ajabpur, Harrawala, Miyawala, Ballawala, Kuanwala and Nakraunda have a deeply reverential connection to Laxman Sidh.
Residents of these villages visited Laxman Sidh for reasons that have sublimated over the years into a tradition. Though the shrine was open to one and all at all times, yet, due to its somewhat remote location inside the forest, people chose to go there on Sundays. Thus, for seeking heavenly assistance in some troublesome matter, people sought blessings at the shrine and returned again whenever their prayers had been answered. One of the customary visits by the neighbouring villages was on the occasion of new born calves and the resultant lactation of the mother cow. The milk for a few days after the birth of the calf usually clots and curdles. Hence, the milk on becoming suitable for use after a week or so was eagerly awaited. But, before its use in the household kitchen, milk was first offered at the shrine of Laxman Sidh and this was usually on a Sunday. On the following day, the milk was used first to prepare kheer (sweet rice pudding) and shared by the family. Only after this was the milk used freely in the kitchen for all traditional uses.
Another long standing custom followed by the devotees visiting Laxman Sidh is the practice of offering a jaggery loaf or as the locals called it the ‘gur ki bheli’ to the priests at the shrine. This is not surprising. The region had already taken to sugarcane farming in a big way for over a hundred years and with no sugar mill around, the sugarcane was used for making jaggery and similar products. This ready abundance of jaggery (gur) was the most convenient choice of making an offering at the shrine. In the good old days, the bheli offered was of two and a half kgs in weight. The priest at the shrine had a special ice-pick like needle with which he expertly made two equal halves of the bheli and again split one of the halved portions. Thus the priest kept the smaller quarter and returned the remaining bheli to the devotee, who later shared the same with all and sundry.
But with all the jaggery collected on Sundays what was done by the shrine and the quantity was often sizeable. Till a few decades ago, the priest used to trek the forest paths to nearby settlements in the neighborhood of Dudhli and distribute the gur to the children in the villages. Today, the bheli offered is reduced to a kilo in weight but the number of visitors has increased manifold and the priests are too occupied to tread the uneven forest paths to distribute the simple candy for the children anymore, making one wonder to what spiritual uses is the jaggery being put to now.
The sanctity of Laxman Sidh has retained its place in the hearts of Doon residents despite the rampant materialism and now, every Sunday, there is a jostling crowd at the shrine and, on the last Sunday in the month of April, the cool and refreshing depths of the forest around the shrine become carnivalesque for a day-long annual fair and the temple bells ring loud and far in the surrounding Sal forests, once the exclusive abode of accomplished saints.