Traveling Through Sacred Geographies

Veteran Col JP Santhanam takes us across the country through the different stories, myths and facts that make our land ‘sacred’

The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and he has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end. 
Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali

As we rode out of Bengaluru on a rainy day in the month of August, along National Highway 48 for about 70 odd kilometres, past the 1479-metre-high Nandi Hills, we rode past the small grey rocks that  glistened darkly in the rain. They were no ordinary rocks; they belonged to a family of rocks called the ‘Dharwar Craton’ formed about 3.5 billion years ago. These are the oldest rocks in India and a part of the very bedrock on which the country stands. The age of Dharwar Craton makes India one of the oldest land masses in the world. Only Australia, Greenland and South Africa have rocks that are older than those found here. So, is that old rock lying on the roadside, ‘sacred’? [1]

Are ‘sacred spaces’ a human construct? Or is it an ‘ephemeral, subjective, and hard to define’ idea that shares the ‘ultimate impenetrability of all spiritual experience’?[2] Does travel to such a space become more meaningful through remembrance, after we have had a chance to paint it all up a little in our minds? All remembered landscapes are effected by the chemistry of time and  distance, and perhaps it is our experience and memory that invest a place with its perceived powers?

A biker inadvertently seeks out  naturescapes with shared meanings and oral histories, which are embodied in human architectures, too.[3] After riding through Belgavi, Navi Mumbai, Vadodra, Udaipur, Jaipur, Chandigarh, Udhampur we reach Awantipura. Far ahead on our road, we shall ride along the valley of Kashmir where apparently the fourth Buddhist council, attended by the great Ashvagosha, was held. Some claim that Youza Asouph – Jesus Christ – was buried there. The Prophet’s (PBUH) hair lies enshrined at Hazratbal, where Adi Shankaracharya is said to have built a temple. It is the valley that gave birth to Abhinavagupta and Vigyana Bhairava tantra. The land where Lhachan Gualbu Rinchana, the Ladakhi prince became Sadruddin Shah thanks to the Sufi master Hazrat Bulbul Shah, and paved the way for Kashmir to embrace Islam. Revered by many generations of Muslims and Hindus alike, Lalleshwari aka Lal Ded, as well as Nund Rishi aka Sheikh Noor ud-Din Wali, lived and preached here. Here did Paul Reps, the American artist, stumble upon the best-known modern exponent of Kashmiri Saivism, Lakshman Joo, and went on to publish the 112 practices of transcendence in his book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.  One had to ride through such ‘sacred’ places, come what may!

We stay at an army camp in Awantipura for the night. “Tackling and confronting insurgents armed with a rifle is one thing, tackling a crowd armed with stones is another thing,” says an officer while discussing the tense situation in the valley and the difficult and thankless job of countering terrorism and insurgency. “But sir, rest assured, we will leave no stone unturned to ensure the unity and integrity of the country’’ he concludes, perhaps not quite realising the turn of phrase and the metaphor that he has inadvertently brought into play.

From the times of a David throwing a stone (slingshot) at Goliath, to the sophisticated insurgency tactics of the Palestinians during the Intifada, there is a symbolism attached to stone throwing. Resisting temptations to resort to small-arms warfare in the face of the vast military resources of the Israeli armed forces, Palestinians took to throwing stones, an improvised weapon which had deep symbolic resonances of a cultural, historical and religious kind. As a popular song at the time put it, the stone became their Kalashnikov-

mā fī khawf mā fī khawf

al-ḥajar ṣār klashnikūf,

(‘There is no fear, there is no fear

For the stone has become the Kalashnikov.’)

I have heard similar stories full of political and religious symbolism in Kashmir: “Stone throwing is part of jihad and will give us azadi; one day every child of Kashmir will pick up a stone and will throw so many stones that the sky of Kashmir will turn black”; “Stone throwing is not a mechanical thing, but a prayer we aim at an enemy, taking the name of Allah”; “The stone from our hand picks up its strength from the earth and is equal to hundred bullets. The stone is also symbolic that says that this is our sacred land.”

Next morning, we start after breakfast, leaving behind the famous Dal lake without even a thought of visiting it. One of the road signs says ‘To Hazratbal’. We give it a cursory glance and ride on, and miss the Roza Bal Shrine sign post due to its decrepit and almost unmarked location, which was about a 100 m from where we rode, in the Khanyaar quarter in Downtown area of Srinagar in Kashmir. Rauza means tomb, bal means place. Locals believe a sage Yuzasaf or Yuz Asaf (or Youza Asouph), alongside another Muslim holy man, Mir Sayyid Naseeruddin, was buried here.[4]

Up and across the legendary Zoji La, even today a challenging and tough ride, we climb down towards Dras and the Kargil war memorial. Spectacularly located, overlooking the 1999 Kargil conflict battle ground(s), this memorial features a gallery named after Captain Manoj Kumar Pandey, an officer of the Indian Army of the regiment 1/11 Gorkha Rifles who was posthumously awarded India’s highest military honour, the Param Vir Chakra, for his courage and leadership during adverse times. The gallery also has a picture of a dead Pakistani officer, Captain Karnal Sher Khan from the Northern Light Infantry, whose valour impressed the Indian Army so much so that it asked its Pakistani counterpart to honour him with Nishan-e-Haider, the highest military award in Pakistan. Khan was later felicitated with that award posthumously. I guess the brave and the dead are happy to share a ‘sacred space’ in peace, irrespective of the religion or country to which they may belong.

On the way back to Leh from End Point, where the Shyok river enters into territory controlled by Pakistan

After riding across western Ladakh, we start towards the eastern part of Ladakh, to Nyoma where we intent to stay for the next three four days and visit Pangang Tso, Tso Moriri and Tso Kar, but most importantly the ‘sacred’ war memorials of Chushul and Rezang La. Before reaching Nyoma we stop at the famous Hemis monastery. It is said that a Russian Traveller Nicolas Notovich stumbled on a Tibetan Scroll in the Hemis Monastery of Ladakh in 1887, based on which he wrote his interesting but controversial book The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ. Nyoma was our base from where we went to Pangong Tso and the Rizangla memorial. Before we left Nyoma, we visited the unit’s religious place called the Sarva Dharm Sthal, a long hut that served at once as a Temple, Church and Mosque.

Guwahati was the start point of the second part of our bike ride in Sep-Oct of 2018. Guwahati’s old temples go back at least to the 12th century AD, if not earlier. They belong to three major groups, Saiva, Sakti and Vaisnava. Of them, the Saiva temples seem dominant. The Ugratara, Dirghesvari, Mangalachandi etc. are Sakti temples and they lie scattered in the heart of the city. The highest concentration of Sakti temples is at Kamakhya, considered one of the greatest Saktipithas of India, is on Nilachal Hill where ten forms of the Devi, known as Kali, Tara, Matangi, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Bhubaneswari, Bhairabi, Sorashi, Chhinnamasta and Kamala exist. 

The innumerable sacred places of the Hindus can be conceived as a system of nodes having varying degrees of religious import. Within this system, some places may be the focal points for different pilgrims from India’s variegated cultural mosaic. Other more modest places may serve as centres of congregation for local devotees. Between these two extremes there are sacred places of several intermediate levels. Sacred centres of each ‘level’ have their corresponding pilgrim fields. The holy places thus generate a gigantic network of religious circulation encompassing the entire Hindu population. Pilgrim flows are the connecting links between the Hindu population and its numerous sacred centres.[5]

We stayed at a small non descript army transit camp on the banks of Brahmaputra as we awaited the trucks carrying our bikes to reach. They reached one by one, having been separated into different trucks during transshipment, and delayed our start by couple days.  This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as heavy rains had made the road to Tawang impassable for two wheelers and smaller vehicles. So we decided to do a short trip to Sohra, and instead of going to Tawang axis on the first leg, we decided to start the bike trip on the Ziro – Daporijo – Along – Mechuka axis and do the Tawang axis on the last leg after completing the Yinkiong – Tuting and thereafter the Hayuliang – Walong – Kibuthoo axes – nearly 4500 kms spread over 45 days.

At Sohra , we had a remarkable person as our guide. His name was Bhandup , ” call me Paradise” he insisted. Lean wiry with long hair he looked like a red indian out of an american wild west movie. He knew Sohra like the back of his hand and he took us to places where no tourist could have gone. Water falls, Caves, hanging bridges,  local houses, local beer et al. 

And among the many stories that he told me , the most interesting was that of  Hajom Kissor Singh (June 15, 1865-November 13, 1923) who was born and lived all his life in the Khasi Hills of the state of Meghalaya in northeastern India. With no knowledge of the faith in other lands, he became a unitarian through his own studies. After communication with American and other Unitarians, he founded a Unitarian church in the town of Jowai, now the headquarters of the Indian Council of Unitarian Churches (ICUC). Singh led a growing Unitarian movement in his state where there are now more than 30 churches having some 10,000 members

At Along, we stopped at a bike wash place. A small hut with a pressure pump inside, that would spew out high-pressure water. As the youngster worked on our mud splattered and caked bikes, a crowd gathered around us. One man very proudly told us about his religion, Donyi Polo, and how the locals were trying to combat the proselytising encroachment of other religions and culture into Arunachal Pradesh.  

In the Donyi-Polo belief, the fountain god that begets the universe (God or the Godhead) is referred to as Sedi by the Minyong and Padam, Jimi by the Galo. All things and beings are parts of the body of Sedi: in creation, the hair of Sedi becomes the plants of the earth, his tears become rain and water, his bones become rocks and stones, and his two eyes become Donyi (the Sun) and Polo (the Moon). Sedi, after creation, is  ‘deus otiosus’ but continues to observe creation through his eyes, his double aspect veiling-unveiling-revealing himself. ‘Donyi-Polo’ is also used in the sense of ‘truth’ in sacral speech. It is an epitome of wisdom, enlightenment, right conscience, truthfulness, and selflessness. Enlightened people are called “Donyi-Polo Ome”, which means ‘children of truth’. Elders are regarded as “Donyi-Polo Abu”, ‘representatives of the truth.’

From Along, we go up the Siyom river, and after about 40 kms of good roads, we experience a slide and slip and splattered ride to Mechuka, a Memba village. Siyom, a major tributary of the Siang which originates in the valley, joins the main river near Along. In the centre of Mechuka is the ancient Samden Yancho monastery, located on a hill. It was founded, as the lama said, ‘eight generations before’ by Taksin Ringzen Dorje and a monument to him stands here.

Guru Nanak supposed to have meditated at the stream

A few kilometres ahead, near a waterfall, is a Sikh Gurudwara where Guru Nanak is said to have stayed and meditated. The surrounding ridges are thickly forested and the pass to the north leads to Chinese territories. After spending three days in the beautiful Mechuka valley we headed for Yinkiong, enroute to Tuting and Geling. Incessant rains had made the road slushy and it took us all our wit and willpower to negotiate these slippery patches. After a night stay at Yinkiong we reached Tuting. Next morning, we would go along the main valley, along the Siang river, to Geling – the point at which Tsangpo[6] enters the Indian territories and is christened the Siang. It flows to Assam and gets rechristened as the Brahmaputra.  

Enroute to Tuting & Geling : The Sacred Pemako Region

Tuting is one of the three main pilgrim centres in Tibetan Buddhism. “According to the ancient prophecies attributed to Padmasambhava (8th century CE), the patron saint of Tibetan Buddhism, somewhere in this untamed wilderness Tibetans believed they would find an earthly paradise; a pure realm abounding in fruits and self sown crops which would provide a sanctuary during the Buddhist dark ages.”[7] Hence, every Buddhist is urged to perform these three pilgrimages at least once: a Kora or circumambulation around Kailash in the western Tibet; a circuit in the Pemako area with many gompas or monasteries (the Tsangpo flows here and extends into the Yang Sang chu valley near Tuting); and a Kora around Takpa Siri peak, north of the Subansiri valley[8]  (Takpa Shiri (6,655 m) is just north of the Indian border, near the Tibetan village of Migyitun.[9])     

Tuting Geling Area where Tsangpo flows into India & becomes Siang

One of the greatest explorations of the past two centuries was to locate the course of the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet, in India named the Siang and later the Brahmaputra. During its course, the river passes between the high mountains of Namcha Barwa and Gyala Peri, where it flows through one of the deepest gorges and drops through as a waterfall and enters India at the village of Geling. In Tibetan Buddhism, the distinction between the physical landscape and the inner landscape of the mind is blurred. Exploring the former can become a journey into the latter, particularly if the landscape is a sanctified ‘power place’. Geography in such places is said to exist on four levels. The physical realm is obvious to all, but the inner, hidden, and paradisiacal secret levels are accessible only to adepts who are spiritually prepared, and only when the time is auspicious. For them, the journey through the physical landscape becomes an allegory for the path to enlightenment itself”[10]

The legendary English plant collector Frank Kingdon-Ward attempted several times to inquire whether waterfall on the Tsangpo existed. Once he turned back barely five miles short of the ‘Great Bend’ of Tsangpo. During these journeys he was introduced to the concept of Pemako. He observed that many Tibetans from Kham were coming in search of the Promised Land.[11]  The Pemako is consecrated as the female divinity of Dorje Phagmo and its sacred geography is mapped as the body of this sleeping Goddess. Her head is the Kangri Kangpo, her breasts are Namcha Barwa and Gyala Peri respectively. The lower part of her body lies in Yang Sang or the innermost Pemako, which is the upper Siang region of Arunachal Pradesh. At the confluence of Siang (Tsangpo) and Yang Sang is the sacred triangle which is now open to the world to discover and marvel.[12]

The concept of Pemako is quite close to that of paradise. It was made popular and acceptable after British writer James Hilton published his book Lost Horizon in 1933. He popularised the word Shangri-la, which is said to be the Tibetan term for ‘sun and moon in the heart’, or an ideal, enchanting wonderland. This novel and the film based on it contributed maximum to the concept as we understand it today. In his introduction to the Ian Baker book The Heart of the World[13], the Dalai Lama writes, ‘From a Buddhist perspective, a sacred environment such as Pemako is not a place to escape the world, but to enter it more deeply.’

After the ride across the Pemako, we cross the mighty Brahmaputra once again (this time on a steamer boat) and ride towards the eastern most part of the North East – Kibithoo village. After a breathtaking three days exploring the Hayuliang – Walong corridor in the Anjaw district , and paying our respects at the famous Walong memorial , we ride back via the Parasuram Kund , and start our last leg of our journey. To the Tawang  sector. 

Riding across the mighty mastif of Se la, on our way to Tawang we stop to visit the war memorials of Jaswant Garh and Nyukmathang, perhaps the most poignant war memorial(s) of the Indian army. It was at Nyukmathang, that the renowned 4 Division suffered the most humiliating defeat in spite of the bravery of the ill clad, poorly equipped and poorly led soldiers of the various battalions. This defeat in 1962, decisively changed the geostrategic standing and equation between China and India.

I stood silently in front of the NYK memorial with tears rolling down. I had read so many books and versions of the 1962 war, they may have differed on many aspects but everybody agreed on one aspect, the fortitude and bravery of the simple Indian jawan.  This homage and paying respect to the soldiers of the 1962 war was for me a closure to my journey across the ‘sacred places’ in India. 

Retired Army Officers Team at Bumla

Dedication: For Koots and Bharat, who shared the complete journey and Chippy and Suri , who shared the second part of the journey


Col Rajiv Mehta and Col Arvind Rajhans, students, colleagues and my regimental officers, in deep appreciation for arranging and coordinating our logistics requirement during the entire trip.

[1] Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent  – by Pranay Lal

[2] Belden C. Lane

[3] Nature as Non-terrestrial: Sacred Natural Landscapes and Place in Indian Vedic and Purāṇic Thought –  Meera Baindur – National Institute of Advanced Studies, IISC campus, Bangalore, 560012

[4] The founder of Ahmadiyyat, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, in his book Jesus in India had elaborately claimed that Roza Bal was the tomb of Jesus (Urdu  Masih Hindustan-mein.

[5] “Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India : A Study in Cultural Geography Geography, Religion, Asian Studies –  Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj,.

[6]  For an exciting visual of the Yarlung Tsangpo you can see –

[7] Hamid Sardar-Afkhami. ‘An Account of Padma-Bkod: A Hidden Land in Southeastern Tibet’. (Harvard University).

[8] For an interesting account of the trek read either , ‘Tsangpo : The Final Exploration – Harish Kapadia or Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent’s Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains.

[9] For a brief account of this trek by Harish Kapadia, Wing Commander P.K. Sashindran, Ms. Sangeeta Sashindran and Prateek Deo, see

[10] The Siege of Shangri-La – Michael McRae.

[11] The Riddle of the Tsangpo Gorges – Frank Kingdom-Ward.

[12] (for a lot of information of these places I am indebted to Harish Kapadia , the famous mountaineer, his articles in the Himalayan journals have been a rich source of information and knowledge , both before and after our ride. Though I have never met him, we have a very poignant emotional connect. Kapadia’s son and my younger brother Kashi have both served in the same unit. (4/3 Gurkha Rifles). Both were decorated soldiers who died very young, killed in counter insurgency operations. )

[13] The Heart of the World: A Journey to Tibet’s Lost Paradise – Ian Baker, Penguin. 

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