India is called Bharat or Bharatvarsha. It is named after King Bharat, but not many people would be able to name his birthplace, leave alone locate it. I happened to visit Kanvashram – the heritage of Rishi Kanva on the banks of River Malini in Uttarakhand. That is when a lot of stories from the scriptures and ancient Indian literature came alive. Be it the story of Shakuntala or the story of her parents Vishwamitra and Menaka or the story of Kuru King Dushyant.
The Story of the Birth of Emperor Bharat
Once upon a time, in the foothills of the Himalayas was the Ashram of Rishi Vishwamitra. His intense meditation worried Indra – the king of heaven. To distract him, he sent his most beautiful Apsara Menaka to earth. She managed to distract him and from their union was born a girl named Shakuntala.
Shakuntala was left at Rishi Kanva’s ashram, which was not far from Rishi Viswamitra’s ashram that is identified at the nearby hill where there is a famous Siddha Bali Hanuman temple. Shakuntala grew up in the forests among the animals and birds. Dushyant – the king of Hastinapur, which is around present-day Meerut city visited the forest around the place for deer hunting. He met Shakuntala there and married her. A son was born to them – he was named Bharat.
Did you know Bharat was also known as Sarvadaman as he dominated everyone at Rishi Kanva’s ashram?
Bharat grew up here on the banks of the Malini River. The country he ruled would be named after him forever. Every history book on India starts with a hymn that says – South of Himalayas, North of Sea, is Bharatvarsha where live the descendants of Bharat.
The story of Shakuntala and Dushyant appears in Mahabharat. It has been epitomized by Kalidasa in his Sanskrit play Abhigyan Shakuntalam.
One would assume that the birthplace of the King whose name the country takes would be a place of national importance and celebration. But you would have trouble locating this place. Thankfully, the locals have identified a place and built a small ashram with idols of all the characters in the story of Shakuntala & Bharat.
History of Kanvashram
Kanvashram was located on the banks of River Malini, a river that still flows gently through the Shivalik ranges of Himalayas and merges with Ganga at Ravali. We really do not know its exact location. But we know it was located on a high plateau next to Malini River where lots of deer used to come. Malini River it is believed has not changed its course over time like other major rivers. It still nourishes the villages and fields on its banks. River Malini probably gets its name from a creeper called Malu or Malan that bears white flowers in summers and is found in abundance along the river.
It is also mentioned that it was once a major university where thousands of students came to learn under Kanva Rishi or the Rishis in his lineage.
Kanvashram was on the old pilgrim route to Kedarnath and Badrinath. In the old texts, it is mentioned as a mandatory stop on the way to these two important shrines. The route was to be done completely on foot passing by forests and crossing rivers. In the process, it became a pilgrim spot from being a thriving gurukul.
The development of motorable roads made this old route redundant. Probably that is why it too fell out of public memory and was left to itself. The place though remained active as a trade route between the plains and villages in the hills till about 20 years ago. A mule track ran parallel to the river and eventually reached Badrinath.
Mention in Mahabharat & Skanda Puran
Kanvashram finds a mention in the Mahabharat & Skanda Puran. Earlier, it comes as the venue of the birth of Bharat. And in the latter as a pilgrimage that must be visited by the seekers. Megasthenes – the Mauryan era Greek traveler talks about it on the banks of Eeriness River which has been identified as Malini. However, the biggest credit for keeping the memory of Kanvashram alive must go to Kalidasa for his work Abhigyan Shakuntalam.
A ridge close to the ashram is known as Shantalya Dhar. That is probably a distortion of Shakuntala Dhar. A Dhar in the local language means ridge.
Buddhism has its remains at Mordhwaj close to Kotdwar indicating that like the rest of India this place also saw a wave of Buddhism. In the late 12th CE, when Gauri attacked North India, this place was also destroyed along with Haridwar.
In 1955, a photographer’s journey along the whole stretch of Malini River helped re-discover the Kanvashram. Literary sources corroborate that it was located at the place where Malini entered the plains from Hills. This place has been identified as Chawkighat.
In 1991 and in 2011, both years after heavy rainfall, some ancient sculptures were revealed. Archaeologists believe that they are remains of temples from 9-12th CE. No one knows if we lost temples to nature or human invasion.
The ashram that you see today to commemorate the memory of the flourishing gurukul that it was once is small. The new ashram has five statues dedicated to Kanva Rishi, Kashyap Rishi, Shakuntala, Dushyant, and Bharat – who are shown counting the teeth of a lion.
The area around is full of fruit trees, birds all around, and plenty of deer. It is not difficult to imagine that this place was perfect for a hermitage given the ample food and water for survival just in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Jungles of Uttarakhand are full of medicinal plants that were used for preparing medicines. It is a perfect place to go for walks, enjoy nature and probably sit back and write. Who knows Kalidas may have lived here to write his magnum opus.
Read More – Safari through Rajaji National Park
Deers, Chitals, Monkeys, and Langurs roam around freely here. Leopards are also frequently sighted by the local residents. Elephants can be seen close to river beds. Even in the peak summers, I could see so many birds flying around. When I woke up in the morning and sat outside with a book, it was like being in the playground of birds. No wonder Kanva Rishi named Shakuntala after birds, for she grew among them.
Local sources say that the population of animals including reptiles has grown rapidly in the past few years as the walking trails and old routes have been closed allowing the forest to grow. Attacks on villagers are not unheard of.
Vasantotsav is celebrated every year in the form of a fair on Basant Panchami day which typically falls in early February.
Kanvashram is in the list of top ten heritage places for Swachh Iconic Places selected by the Government of India for 2018.
Places to see around
Some of the places along the Malini River can be reached only by trekking. I did not attempt trekking. But here is the list of places and the legend associated with them:
Jagdav Temple – not a very old temple but potentially built on top of an old one as the stones indicate.
Sahastradhara – the word means a thousand streams, usually used for places where many small streams merge into a larger one. 4 km upstream, this place has droplets falling from tall rocks into the Malini River.
Shauntlya Dhar – This is a ridge where it is believed Shakuntala had spent 6 years after Dushyant rejected her. It is 18 km upstream, closer to the source of River Malini.
Chandakhal – Source of River Malini.
Siddhbali Temple, Gular Jhala – you have to ask the forest guards to reach this isolated temple which I visited and liked for its serene surroundings. The kind of place where you would love to sit and meditate. There are platforms and benches for you to sit.
Meet the Van Gujars of Garhwal – While moving around in the forest, we came across these lovely powder blue-colored big and open huts. It was like an open-air house that is surrounded by forests. One of the huts was full of cattle. We spoke to the family and learned that they are of the Gujar community who make their living by selling milk and milk products.
Siddhabali Temple, Kotdwar – this is an ancient temple that was probably the site of Vishwamitra Ashram. But is now a very popular temple dedicated to Hanuman. You need to climb a lot of stairs to reach the temple though.
- It is about 14 km from Kotdwar – the gateway to Garhwal hills, and 48 km from Haridwar.
- Public transportation is limited, it would be better to take a cab to visit the place.
- You can stay at GMVN Tourist Bungalow, which is bang opposite the newly built Ashram. The facility is basic but the view is simply stunning.
- When you venture into the wild, make sure you go with a local guide.
- It is a place to relax and enjoy nature in the foothills of the Himalayas. Do not expect too many activities there. It is a great place for birding.
For more information check this website by Lt.Cdr Virender Rawat who has written a book on the subject. We are thankful to him for allowing us to use some images for this blog.