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  Lost in Chitrakoot's wonders
  By Meetu Tewari  
  IT was with the usual excitement that my brothers and I packed our bags and got into the car, looking forward to a trip to Chitrakoot. We wanted to go to Nainital and surrounding areas for our vacation, but my mother insisted we visit Chitrakoot.

As we neared the 'hill of many wonders', as its name means, we could see the rocky hills that dotted its landscape. (The town is situated on the northern Vindhya Range.) When we finally entered the town, we were thoroughly disappointed.

It was late evening and after being promised the mountains of Uttarakhand, we were not impressed by the hills we saw. We tried to convince our parents that it was not too late to turn back and that we could reach Kumaon the next day. However, my mother insisted that we stay here, at least for a day. Our guesthouse was a clean place; a strictly vegetarian one. They even had notices stating that cold drinks were not served.

Within an hour, we accompanied our local guide to Rama Ghat. Small shops selling religious goods lined the narrow streets leading to the ghats. Hordes of people were gathered on the banks of the river Mandakini to take part in the evening 'aarti' (a worship ritual). Boats were moored along the ghats and what was really unique was that most of them carried pairs of rabbits!

Madhya Pradesh, which was just a stone's throw from where we were standing, was pointed out to us. Steep stairs led to ancient temples; half built and half carved out from the hills. Soon, a large diya (lamp) stand was lit and the air was reverberating with chanting, while bells sounded nearby and conches were blown. It felt as though the sound could be felt in one's soul. People were moving around, while saffron-clothed priests freely distributing blessings. Little children ran about selling diyas and flowers in bowls made of leaves. People seemed to be taking care of one another, making way for strangers to go ahead of them.

We made our way to one of the temples. Several men in saffron were sitting on the stairs; some asking for money, others lost in their own visions. The warmth inside was solace from the chill wind we left behind. The aarti was just beginning. We quickly offered flowers and money and stepped to the side.

Amidst cymbals clashing, bells ringing and a conch blowing, the priest began the prayers. One of his disciples was swinging a large diya with amazing dexterity and dancing vigorously at the same time. Although lost in his own meditation, he never came dangerously close to any of the devotees. His dancing infused the little area with energy. The deep chanting reverberated inside us and we seemed to enter into a trance. Candles made the room look golden-orange. When the aarti ended, we felt more energetic than ever. We had finally fallen in love with Chitrakoot.

In the morning, I could see langurs outside the guesthouse and not heeding the warnings of the staff, rushed out to give them bread and fruits. I was confident they would not attack, and, true enough, they just came, took the food from my hands and ran off.

We then made our way to Sati Anusuya Ashram, set in a serene spot, where a number of streams converge to make the Mandakini. Here you get to see a lot of monkeys. We bought some chana and carrots from the roadside vendors and began feeding them. We were advised not to hide any food or the monkeys would come after us. My mother had her hands under her shawl to keep warm and a little monkey came up to her and tugged at her hands to see if she had any food hidden. Satisfied that she did not, the monkey scampered off!

The ashram has several beautiful paintings that tell the story of Sati Anusuya, who is said to have lived here with her husband Atri Muni and three sons, said to be the incarnations of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. The area is very peaceful. I could see deer grazing and a pack of langurs swinging from trees on the other side of the river. Outside the ashram is a large rock; very smooth compared to the other ones lying around. It was here that Lord Rama and Sita were said to have sat and the rock is said to bear their footprints. On a smaller rock nearby are said to be the footprints of Lord Lakshman. A priest sits nearby, narrating the story of Rama and Sita.

Gupt Godavari is another spot that attracts tourists. It is a series of caves through which a stream flows incessantly. The stream has a lot of mythological stories associated with it. In order to see where the stream originates from and visit areas where Rama and Lakshman were said to have passed through, one has to wade through the stream and walk over pointed stones that line its bed.

However, the trip is worthwhile. Inside the caves are two large stones that seem to be natural thrones for Lord Rama and Lakshman. It is believed that they held court here. The walls of these caves are unique, chiseled and cracked, as if artisans began making something, but left the work unfinished.

We then visited the Hanuman Dhara. A total of 480 stairs lead to this temple, which is believed to have been built to help Hanuman cool off after setting fire to Lanka. It has a stream, originating somewhere in the mountains, which falls on an idol of Hanuman. The climb is steep, but offers a panoramic view of Chitrakoot. It is said that the stream's water has amazing properties and a priest there brought us some of it to drink. I gave my share of prasad (food offered to the deity) to a langur that held my legs and waited till I gave him the sweet.

A visit to Chitrakoot is never complete without taking a parikrama around Kamadgiri Hill (Old Chitrakoot). Half of this five-km parikrama path is in Uttar Pradesh and the other half in Madhya Pradesh. A number of temples, tea stalls and shops line this path. Sweet sellers here are famous for their gulab jamuns, which are served simmering hot on steel plates.

It is considered auspicious to keep looking at the hill while walking. It is said that priests walk here everyday with their eyes fixed at the hill, because they believe that when they are ready, they will be shown a secret doorway that will lead them to a world where Lord Rama and Sita sit and priests pray at their feet.

The route leads to the Bharat Milap spot where Rama and Bharat are said to have met and so joyous was their meeting that even the earth wept with them. It is said that because the earth wept, their footprints are visible in the otherwise smooth surface. This mountain, the name of which means 'the mountain which fulfills all desires', is said to be the place where Lord Rama and Sita lived. This path was built in 1725 by Kunwari Pratap, the Queen of Bundela King Maharaja Chhatrasal. Another remarkable thing about the hill is that it remains green throughout the year.

By the time we finished the parikrama, it was dark. The sky was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was absolutely clear and dotted with a multitude of stars. It was as though the sky had opened its vault of treasures in worship. Nothing can be more beautiful and more difficult to describe than that magical canopy.

Bharat Koop is another site worth a visit. It is an ancient well and pilgrims come from all across the country to drink of its water. It is believed that Bharat brought water from all the teerthas to anoint Rama as the King during his exile, and to persuade him to return. However, Lord Rama refused and unable to throw away this holy water, Maharishi Atri advised him to pour it into this well. It is believed that a visit to this well and drinking of its water is the same as visiting all the teerthas.

It is widely believed that Lord Rama, Sita and Lakshman spent over 11 years of their 14-year exile here in Chitrakoot. It is always bustling with pilgrims, maintaining an old world charm and despite the inflow of people, never accommodates the modern needs of tourists. You will hardly find any stalls selling cold drinks or chips. It is a place where you can climb a hill and get lost in the sound of faraway bells. It is also a place where the ruthless have begun mining for stones in connivance with corrupt officials.

Chitrakoot is rooted in religion, tradition and simplicity. It is a place that has refused to accept symbols of modernity; a place which calls you to visit, but on its terms. It is an abode of beauty, peace, holiness and piety. Even the most cynical are awed and maintain a reverent silence here. Chitrakoot is truly a place of many wonders. And though we have seen a few of them, there are many more left to be explored.
  Bihar's powerful and powerless
  By Braj Mohan Singh  
  I VISIT my village, a little nondescript village, 30 miles southwest of Bhagalpur town in Bihar, once in a year, preferably during the winters. This is the time of the year when I spend my holidays without worrying about electricity and power failures. I have been following this travel manual for the last 15 years.

This year, I had to visit my village during peak summers for some pressing family reasons. I was happy to visit my birthplace where I was born 35 years ago. This was the place where I grew up and got my primary and secondary education.

I was destined to spend at least 10 days in the village, aware of the fact that there would be no fans, coolers, AC or fridge. Perhaps that was not an issue for me as a child. But after spending 15 years in Gujarat, Punjab and Delhi, it was discomforting to live in the dark.

Fifty years ago, there was electricity supply in the adjoining villages. A 1,000 KV power cable used to pass just half a kilometre away from my ancestral home.

Dedicated power supply came to our village in 1987 when the Congress ruled Bihar. There was a Diwali-like scene in my village and it could have been spotted from 10 kilometres away. But those 'powerful' days did not last long. There were major electricity cable thefts across the neighbouring villages and my village again slumped into darkness.

Electricity did not return to many parts of Bihar and no attempts were made to stop cable theft across the state. Selling of electricity cable became rampant. After all, it was a quick way to earn a few hundreds, little realizing that this greed would push the state into an age of darkness.

My village's sleep habits are not a secret. My two-year-old daughter Palki refuses to stay awake after sunset and my 70 year-old-father sleeps at 7 pm. The entire village becomes silent at around 8 pm.

I literally spent my nights viewing stars from the rooftop. I don't mind watching stars, but my little daughter fears the darkness, as most children of her age do. She never lived in darkness in Chandigarh where she was born. Power supply in Chandigarh is better than any other Indian city.

During former chief minister Laloo Yadav's Raj in Bihar, nobody thought about power and roads. Those 15 years were miserable. No development work took place.

After the Nitish Kumar government assumed power, roads got a facelift in the state on a big scale. But electricity remained a far cry for many villages.

Summer was at its peak, heat was taking its toll on human life and animals. The only solace was a mango orchard around our house, which was planted by my grandfather in 1950. But the cool breeze was missing. Hand fans brought respite from the scorching heat. This is the story of half of my village, the 'Rajput' tola (part of the village where only 'Rajputs' live).

The other half of my village does not live in darkness. CFL bulbs dot the village. After 6 pm, gates, treetops and the chaupals are well-lit. The other part of the village belongs to 'kumhars' (potters) and 'beldars' (who dig soil). They have been declared as the most backward caste by the Bihar government.

The most backward part of my village is surprisingly not that backward. As they didn't have proper electricity supply, the people there developed their own power station. The pumping set used for irrigating water is now being used as a power generator. A 10 horsepower machine supplies electricity to 90 households.

Sixty-year-old Prahlad Pandit says, "The project began on May 8, 2009. It was a great success. The tariff is affordable. For one CFL bulb, we charge 1.5 litres of kerosene oil, for two CFLs two litres and for three CFLs three litres of kerosene oil. If a person doesn't have kerosene oil, we charge Rs 45 for one bulb and Rs 60 for two bulbs per month."

Kerosene oil is supplied to BPL families in Bihar on a subsidised rate of Rs 10/litre. But everybody prefers to work under the CFL's milky lights.

All praise for this innovation goes to two young boys -- Gajanan and Pankaj Kumar -- who work as part-time mechanics. "We saw pumping sets doubling up as generators in many villages like Manihari, Runji and Laldih in Jharkhand's Godda district. We tried the same here by attaching a cable from the pumping set and connecting it to around 100 households. It worked perfectly," the duo says proudly.

"We tried our best earlier to get electricity but were unsuccessful. Now, we have power without fail," says panchayat member Kishan Pandit.

The CFL bulbs have given a major fillip to the way children study around here. Power supply between 6 pm to 10 pm is mostly availed of by the children. These same children earlier preferred to sleep rather than study under the lantern's light. The lantern is called laltain in Bihar. This omnipresent laltain is the election symbol of the Rashtriya Janta Dal, which ruled Bihar for 15 years and led the state into an era of darkness.

About 10-20 students can study well under the light of a 10 watt CFL bulb. In several village corners, you see such groups engrossed in their books. Village elders watch them studying and state with pride that these children will one day improve the village's situation.

If electricity fails in Delhi, citizens and the leaders make a hue and cry. But no one bothers about Bihar. Bihar practically produces no electricity, except for 60-80 MW from the Baruani Thermal Power Plant. Against a need of 1500-1800 MW of power, Bihar gets only 600 MW from different grids. The electricity requirement for the capital Patna is about 300 MW. The NTPC plant in Kahalgaon produces around 70 MW of electricity, but is costly (Rs 10/unit at peak hours).

The rural electrification scenario is dismal in Bihar. Only 50 per cent villages have power connections against the national average of 84. Of the total 38,475 villages, only 19,281 are electrified and some of them only partially. Surprisingly, more than 13,000 villages were de-electrified again because of theft of electric cables.

"When development projects are initiated, the energy needs are difficult to meet," says Patna-based economist Saibal Gupta. Going by the pace of rural electrification work in Bihar, it's very unlikely that villages here will see light for the next 5-10 years.

Puncturing the development agenda of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who is lauded as a vikas purush, former central minister and Member of Parliament from Banka Digvijay Singh said not a single MW of power had been added to the state's kitty.

Under the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Scheme, the Centre has awarded Rs 2,324 crore to Bihar, which will bring alive 43 small projects in the state, disclosed minister of state for power Bharat Singh Solanki.

There are at least 14 power plants lined up in Bihar. Once they are set up, the state will have surplus power, with an additional capacity of 12,130 MW.
Photo caption: Many study under a CFL bulb
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