The Frog Temple and Sarus Congregation

 

*BACKGROUND*
It was but the Fifth Day of the Seventh Year of the Third Millennium.
The bright sun on a cold and windy winter morning was divine. The past
fortnight at Dudhwa National Park had been completely packed and hectic.
Dudhwa was bitterly cold, chilly and foggy. And as I drove past the
sunny Lakhimpur town, I felt like a weary war veteran finally returning
home.

The National Environment Science Camp 2006-07 was finally over. Karavan
Heritage and Nature Society had hosted this Camp for several school
students from all over the country. The Camp had been a resounding
success. And now that it was over, I, the Coordinator of the event, was
on my way back trailing the others by more than a day.

I thought that that sunny day was a gift from the heavens for the hard
work that our team had put in. I pondered over the words I had read
somewhere, ‘Quiet moments are life’s rewards.’ The man who paraphrased
these words must have been a prophet, surely!

* SIGHTING OF SARUS AT MOHAMDABAD WETLAND*
Just around twelve kilometers from Lakhimpur, en route to Sitapur, lies
the village of Mohamdabad. It was here at the jheel near this village
that I sighted this huge congregation of Sarus Cranes. I brought the
vehicle to a grinding halt and jumped off the vehicle in excitement and
ecstasy.

The Sarus is one of the most enchanting sights of the countryside. A
fleeting moment of a real life experience of the wild transcends endless
hours of the best wildlife movies or watching animals in captivity. And
if you have ever seen the Sarus dance during their courtship, believe
me; your life has been worth living.

I counted around 9 pairs that day. I was overjoyed. Even though I had
spent quite sometime at Dudhwa, the cold foggy weather had ruined the
chances of either sighting wildlife or watching birds. But today, when
the show was over, I alone was destined to behold this marvelous
spectacle. What a pity that the kids from far and wide, to whom I had
waxed eloquent about the State Bird of UP, had been deprived of this
opportunity!

Perhaps next time, other kids will be luckier. I bid farewell to my
feathered pals and set off with a resolution that I shall be back here
very soon.
*VISITING THE WETLAND ONCE AGAIN*
8:00 AM. 16^th February 2007. The meter gauge passenger train is
chugging past the beautiful railway station of Oel. This place is
unbelievable. The station is scenically located amidst mango orchards
and sugarcane fields. It evokes the romanticism and innocence of a lost
age. The tranquility of the place elevates my spirits. I am glad that I
managed to shrug my lethargy and catch the early morning train at 4 AM.

*NARMADESHWAR SHIV TEMPLE AT OEL*
I begin my brief trek to the Narmadeshwar Mandir, dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is the auspicious occasion of Shivratri today. I am driven
more by curiosity than spirituality. The temple, popularly referred to
the as the Medhak Mandir (Frog Temple), stirred my imagination a few
years ago, when a friend told me about it. He was unaware about the
exact location, though. I surmised it must be either at Gola or Oel.

I catch a glimpse of the huge dome shaped roof of the temple. It seems
quite impressive. I soon reach the gates of the temple. Much of the
building still lies hidden behind four walls. But whatever is in sight
is grand. The beauty of earthy brown color of the brick temple is
unmatched even by marble or red sandstone. A small but devout crowd has
gathered for worship. I, too, collect a pooja ki thali and step in the
temple compound.

This temple is awe-striking. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful and
possibly one of the oldest living extant temples in Uttar Pradesh. I
have seen far more impressive temples than this. But this temple has a
unique identity that distinguishes it from any other temple anywhere.

The garb-griha (the sanctum) of the temple has been constructed over a
frog shaped structure. It seems as though a frog is bearing the weight
of the temple on its back. The sanctum, located at least 20 feet above
the ground level, is accessed by means of steps on all four sides.

Today being Shivratri, the sanctum is buzzing with hymns and prayers.
The waft of the incense sticks accentuates the spiritual mood. I look
around in the dark. Even after many hundred years, the sanctum walls
partially retain the old vibrant colors and floral designs. The devotees
have thronged around the Shiva-Linga. I stand at a distance admiring
their spirit; people from all walks of life; children, youngsters, men,
women and the frail elderly. The place is pulsating with divine energy.
The ambience is both somber and festive. After a while, I offer my
obeisance to the Deity and climb down the steps of the temple.

The main temple along with the four surrounding minor temples presents a
grand sight. The frog structure and bas-relief sculptures upon the walls
appear quite puzzling. The sculptures even though crude make an
interesting study. I try to locate a spot where I can capture the beauty
of the entire structure in totality. It is a futile effort. I end with
many images of the temple. Full of admiration, I am eager to gather more
information about its history and heritage. Luckily, I meet the Rajguru
(the Royal Priest) of the temple.
*HISTORY AND HERITAGE OF THE TEMPLE*
He tells me that this temple has been built by the magnanimous Royal
Family of the Oel Estate. The temple, according to him, is Four Hundred
Years old. An ancestor of the Royal family found the Shiva-Ling in the holy waters of the River Narmada. It was consecrated and the temple was
raised here. This temple is an invaluable possession of the Family; who
refuse to part with it even in the most pressing circumstances.

Another very interesting aspect, the Rajguru tells me, is that this is
originally a Tantric Temple (like the famous Khajuraho temples). The
sculptures on the temple represent the Tantric symbols. In fact the Frog
itself is a Tantric symbol. Vedic practices have long replaced the
Tantric traditions. I find all this fascinating and wonder why this
great heritage is shrouded in oblivion!
*PRESENT STATUS: A LIVING HERITAGE*
The Narmadeshwar Temple of Oel demands the immediate attention of the
conservationists. Its current status is not good. The walls, paintings
and sculptures require proper cleaning and treatment. The conservation
effort must necessarily be supervised by a knowledgeable archaeologist.
Government organizations like the ASI have undertaken excellent
conservation work. However their efforts have been directed to preserve
fossilized heritage. I feel that however significant the conservation of
our ‘dead’ heritage, the living heritage is definitely more important.
This temple is a living heritage and its conservation should be taken up
by the experts with care and concern for public sentiment. It is
absolutely essential that the Royal Family at Oel is assured that their
special relation with the temple will not be encroached upon. Meanwhile
the management committee of the temple should work to educate the
devotees about being more Eco-friendly during the rituals and adhering
to a code of conduct.

I vividly remember my visit to the Elephanta Caves, off Mumbai, in the
Arabian Sea. A UNESCO designated World Heritage Site, Elephanta is
actually a Shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva. Once upon a time pilgrims
gathered here and worshiped Shiva in his manifold forms: human,
super-human, godly and divine. Now alas! It is nothing more than a
picnic cum photography spot for ignorant tourists. It has lost its
spiritual vitality. The Narmadeshwar Temple of Oel may not rival
Elephanta Caves, but it’s spiritual and cultural potency is very much
intact. One hopes that the present generation is able to magnify its glory!

*THE WETLAND OF OEL*


The bricks of the marvelous Narmadeshwar Temple at Oel were designed and
baked near the temple itself. The site of the brick kiln got
water-logged, creating a jheel. This jheel provides the means of
livelihood for many local people of Oel. People raise fish in this
jheel. It is thus not surprising that the water-body is relatively free
of weeds like water-hyacinth. I survey the jheel for water birds. I am
delighted to see the low flight of a flock of cute little cotton teals.
These resident birds are being chased away by two cormorants. I also
sight pond herons, little egrets, purple herons, bronze winged Jacana,
pheasant- tailed jacanas, large cormorants, white-breasted water hens,
open-billed storks, wagtails and red-wattled lapwings. The prize
sighting is the solitary Brahminy Kite perched on a stump; these and
other raptors (birds of prey) are not to be seen even deep in the
countryside. I enquire the villagers about the presence of migratory
birds on this jheel. They are not aware.

I wonder whether this jheel extends to Mohamdabad. I soon realize that
it isn’t so. I decide to make my way to Mohamdabad; the place where my
journey had begun.

*VISITING THE MOHAMDABAD JHEEL AFTER A MONTH*

It takes me around half an hour to reach there to reach the jheel. There
water seems to have receded somewhat. I look for exact spot where I had
sighted the Sarus congregation. But this time not a single Sarus is to
be seen. “Hard luck,” I mumble to myself, “perhaps I should have reached
here earlier.” But I am not disappointed. I decide to wait for some more
time resting underneath the roadside Arjun tree.

A Collared Bush-Chat catches my attention. I like her acrobatic sorties
from one reed to another. I also sight some drongos, lapwings and
kingfishers. Relaxing lazily underneath a tree shade near a placid
lakeside, on a nice sunny day, is a regal pleasure. I partake my share,
but soon realize that I have my royal duties to attend to tomorrow. And
I’d better reach the Oel railway station well in time to board the
return train to Lucknow.

I have hardly walked a 100 meters that I notice four large birds
hovering high up in the sky. Their flight indicates that they are
preparing to land. I focus my binoculars. They appear to be the
open-billed storks. I am eager to see them land. With their wide wings
outstretched and thin long legs pointing towards the earth, they use the
air current to encircle the spot they want to land. Though high above
the ground, their gradual descent has begun. The afternoon sun pinches
my vision, but how can I ever forgo the sheer joy of this sight! The
four paratroopers are now in descent. With every passing moment, they
appear larger and larger. And then the touchdown; that is what is called
perfect landing. They run a distance, strictly observing the laws of
motion. The birds settle on the jheel and immediately get down to
business. Of the four, one bird simply vanishes somewhere. The other
three scamper for food. I shake my head in disbelief. These are not
storks! They are Sarus! How silly of me! Their wing span is much too
larger than that of an open billed stork. Now I am simply thrilled.

While I observe the Sarus, a few lads ferrying sugarcane on a
bullock-cart observe me. They enquire about my pursuit. They tell me
that their village jheel is home to many Sarus Cranes. I ask them if
they can take me to the jheel.

*THE SARUS CONGREGRATION*
Yet again I savor the delights of rural India, as the bullock-cart rocks ahead to Gajnipur. Upon arrival at the village and during the walk to
the jheel, I am joined by many more escorts. My escorts bombard me with
a variety questions. They, finally, conclude that I am a government
official making a count of the State Bird of U.P. They emphasize that I
must mention Gajnipur in my report. They opine that this might help in
the development of their village.

Before long, I reach the edge of the village jheel. I wonder if this is
the Shangri-La that the Tibetan mystics talked about. Before my mortal
eyes, I behold a large congregation of Sarus, lined as though in a
queue. I take a deep breath. This is no dream. A journey that began more
than a month back has been fulfilled.

*I count twenty-eight Sarus in the queue. Another pair is seen on
another side of the jheel; that makes it thirty. Plus the four at the
Mohamdabad jheel, makes it thirty-four in all. Wonderful!** *

The villagers tell me that the Sarus is unmolested in this village.
People respect the Sarus and do not harm the bird. I laud their
attitude. They feel happy. I tell them I’ll be back.

I take a final look. The grace and beauty of the birds leaves me spell
bound. I retrace my steps wondering whether the Sarus can survive the
rapacious encroachment of its habitat by the ever expanding sugarcane
farms and sugar mills in this region.


 

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