NEW DELHI: What makes the Kailash Parbat, the Ram Setu and the Kedarnath temple such hallowed places? Scientists, believe it is the unique geological locations where they are situated that makes them stunning and worthy of veneration.
Kailash Parbat made of shale rocks resembles a Shiva Lingam; Ram Setu connects India to Sri Lanka and visible from space is a unique set of coral islands; while Kedarnath temple that withstood the 2013 flash floods sits on an unstable glacial moraine, where usually nothing would survive.
Interestingly scientists now also believe that pilgrimages to such diverse regions are a way of unification of the highly diverse cultures of India, which they think has 'brought about a cross-fertilisation of thoughts'.
Writing about these unique sites, Kharag Singh Valdiya, a highly-regarded geologist and former vice chancellor of Kumoun University, Nanital, says, "Wandering sages and saints in ancient India (who) were unable to unravel the mystery of their origin and regarding them to be nature's singular rather fantastic handiwork, imparted to them an altogether new meaning by investing them with the aura of divinity."
When it is difficult to explain certain natural phenomenon with the existing knowledge humans often try to associate with divinity.
The much-venerated Om Parbat situated on the tri-junction of India-Tibet and Nepal when viewed from a distance gives the perfect impression of the letter 'OM' including the rightly placed dot.
Valdiya explains the Om Parbat is made up of "rocks folded twice in manner that the depressions within the arms of the overturned folds are filled round the year with ice and snow", giving rise to geological calligraphy depicting the venerated Hindu word 'OM'.
Incidentally, the 6,191-m-high peak, on whose face the letter 'OM' is etched, is made of rocks that bear lots of fossils, scientifically that means that millions of years ago the rocks were submerged under the sea, like most of the Himalayas were when the Indian plate was still drifting northwards.
The Amarnath cave in Jammu Kashmir, another big pilgrimage spot, houses a Shiva lingam made of ice, Valdiya says it is nothing but a "spectacular ice stalagmite". This is very rare formation since water has to drip down from the roof and then freeze and the temperature has to be just right for a 'lingam' like structure to be formed. For most part of the year, the cave entrance is covered with snow.
Valdiya says "how can one not be impressed, if not awed by this geological marvel". About 600,000 people visit this sacred site for the Hindus situated at an altitude of 3888 m even though the trek is arduous. It mesmerises the young and the old.
In southern India, the Ram Setu and the associated Rameshwaram Temple both are scared sites. The presence of a 'Ram Setu' which suggests a unified geology of India and the island of Sri Lanka. It is nothing but a unique set of coral islands that connect the two neighbours.
Legend has it that Lord Rama used this coral formation to cross over with his army when he invaded Lanka in search of his wife Sita who was abducted by Ravana.
Valdiya says this region is geologically singular, as "it is well known that corals grow in warm waters, shallow enough to be illuminated by sunlight. The sea-level rise brought submergence of the coral islands that once were close to the surface of sea and exposed to atmosphere".
The Mount Kailash an imposing dome considered to be the abode of Lord Shiva is situated just north of the point where the massive Indian continental plate collides into the Eurasian plate.
The home of Lord Shiva has been formed it seems because the Indian plate has buckled up says Valdiya who adds that the lingam in the centre surrounded by the circular depression with a ring of hills resembling a 'yoni'.
This constant pulling and tugging through plate tectonics or the movement of continents over geological times give this region a unique geological past and may be that is why sages of ancient times gave it a venerated status. The scenic beauty here is also stunning especially on a full moon night.
Writing in the latest issue of the best known Indian science journal Current Science Valdiya says "perusing through the map showing the locations of the 12 jyotirlings established in the 'Purana' times, two facts emerge, they are located in all parts of the Indian sub-continent, reaching out to all ethnic groups living in the country 'Bharatvarsh'. Their situations happen to be of great geodynamic significance, particularly related to the Indian landmass".
Valdiya summarises that the "leading lights of the society must have realised that only spectacular features, particularly located in in picturesque places can attract people, even those who are non-believers and agnostics. The geological marvels or wonders were thus chosen as seats (dham) of Lord Shiva, the most loved god of those times and even now". From Somnath in the west to Badrinath in the north to Rameshwaram in the south, all are located at unique geological locations.
Unique flood plain geology is home to the Kumbh mela that takes place in Allahabad at the Sangam. It is believed the Kumbh mela is the single largest congregation of human beings on earth to take place at a single location.
In 2013 it was estimated that 120 million people gathered on the sandy banks where two mighty rivers Ganga and Yamuna meet, while legend has it that the mythical river Saraswati also mingles here making the waters highly venerated.
The Kumbh mela in times gone by offered people a specific venue at a time pre-decided 12 years ahead to plan their travel congregate, network and learn from each other. A modern day conference one could say.
Valdiya who now works at the top scientific institution the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru, says "one may dismiss the 'Puranas' and the epics such as Mahabharat as works of fiction. But one cannot deny that geological marvels regarded or designated as shrines are indeed located precisely where these ancient texts describe, the narratives perfectly matching with the reality".
The role of undertaking pilgrimages has also been given a modern scientific rational by Valdiya in his analysis he says, "The idea behind the practice of visiting shrines was to persuade and spur pilgrims and travellers to know people who live in different terrains, have different lifestyles... who observed different socio-cultural practices. The pilgrims as they criss-crossed the country... presumably may have been a movement to promote the idea of one nation-one India."
Indeed this mapping of spectacular geology with locations of scared Hindu sites offers a new understanding of what makes India so very accommodative and inclusive.