A Journey to Mahendragiri - The Second Highest Mountain Peak of Odisha

This is an experiential narrative of my journey to Mahendragiri, the Mount Kailash of Odisha.

Why Mahendragiri?

My childhood was full of reminiscences about Mahendragiri yatra on Shivaratri and about spending the night on the top of the hill to witness the scenic sunrise in the morning with Mahendratanaya and other rivers joining the Bay of Bengal at the horizon. It has always been a magnificent sight, the descriptions of which we used to hear from our friends and relatives. Besides, the hills and their rugged beauty have always fascinated me so much that whenever I meet with my close friends, we either reminisce about our experiences of being on the hills or plan a visit to the place again. As such, when we got together this time, we planned a visit to the majestic mountain. In preparation for our journey to Mahendragiri, I talked over the phone with Swami Bhaskara Teerth (also called pedda swami) to help us visit the place and the ashram. He sent us Krishna, the driver along with the vehicle to help us in the journey.

Sunrise from Mahendragiri

Its Legend and Background

Mahendragiri has got great spiritual and mythological significance. It was described in the epic the Mahabharata, and in the puranas. It also finds reference in the works of poets Sarala Dasa, the author of Oriya Mahabharata, and Radhanath Ray, the initiator of modernity in Odiya literature. Most importantly, it is a place of worship during Mahashivratri and attracts thousands of pilgrims every year. Traditionally the priests in these temples belong to the savara tribe. According to Mahabharata and Brahmanda purana, Sage Parasurama, the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, spent his life here in meditation to atone for his sin of killing the kshatriyas in 21 rounds. It is also believed that he is currently spending his life on this mountain as he is a chiranjeevi and is blessed to live up to pralaya kala, the end of the world. There are ample references to Mahendragiri in Kalidasa's poem, Raghuvamsam.

The legend is that Pandavas visited Mahendragiri during their one-year period of living underground (ajnatavasam) and constructed the Shiva temples for worship at different places on the mountain. These temple structures come under the status of protected monuments under Antiquate Monument Archaeological Remains and Sites Act 1958.
Mahendragiri, a part of the Eastern Ghats, is the second-highest point with 4925 ft (1501 mts) above the sea level. About 30 km from Mandasa, Srikakulam (Dist), A.P., it is located in Parlakhemundi subdivision of Gajapati district, Odisha. The river Mahendratanaya flows down the mountain to the East through Mandasa and joins the Bay of Bengal at Barua which was once an important port. Similarly, the western counterpart of Mahendratanaya flows across the hills to meet Vamsadhara, as its main tributary, near Parlakhemundi. Another small tributary that emanates from the mountain is called Sunamudi gedda passes through Mandasa and G.R.Puram to join the sea. Mahendragiri is the foremost of the seven kulagiris, the other being -Malaya, Sahya, Shuktiman, Riksha, Vindhya, and Pariyatra.

The Journey to Mahendragiri

On 17th November 2019, four of us - Bhavani, Ramanandam, Sambamurty and I - started by car from Mandasa around 2 p.m. We reached Barakhat pass at 4 pm. As we reached the pass, the swami i.e the one in charge of the Hanuman Temple at the foot of the hill welcomed and offered us some simple food. We parked our car there and left the Pass around 6 pm in a Bolero driven by Krishna.

Barakat pass near Hanuman temple

It was an approximately 6 km drive on a badly damaged road with very steep curves. The road was under repair due to the damage caused by heavy landslides occurred during Cyclone Titli that hit the place on 8 October 2018. It was rather a very scary journey to the top of the hill with every turn bringing me the dim view of the deep valley out there. The darkness made the view much more frightening. We reached the ashram around 7.00 pm. On our arrival, we were welcomed by the swami, who is in charge of the ashram. It was a warm welcome.

Single room accomodation in mahendragiri

Later, we were given a modest accommodation, a small one-room concrete building located just on the top of the hill, facing a valley. The building has an open space in front of it and nothing else - no toilet or bathroom.

Night stay - Orion in the Sky

Around 8.30 pm, we got call for dinner. We had a nice meal and spent around an hour chatting. The conversation revolved around the question of what happened to the flora and fauna of Mahendragiri, about the activities of the Ashram such as the annadaanam performed on the hill during Mahashivaratri day for the devotees. As we returned to our quarters, the moon came up almost to the middle of the sky making the foreground with rocks and trees look dreamy with their shadows huddled around them. We went to sleep.

I got up around 3 am, went out and sat on the veranda. It was very cold outside. From where I was sitting, I could see the beaming moonlight spread all over the valley and beyond. Our building threw a long shadow in front of me. The moonlight cast eerie shadows of the trees and stones on the ground giving an unearthly feeling. It was a quiet night. No calls of animals or birds. The Orion was in the middle of the sky, bright and clear. I sat there for a long time, maybe an hour, and then went inside to sleep again.

Golden Rays of the Morning Sun

The next day, everyone woke up at 5.30 am. We wanted to see the sunrise and then go to visit the Bhima temple and other places. I could see that as the sun appeared on the horizon, a streak of golden light spread across the dividing line above the valley - which gradually became a bright silver line shining through the branches of the trees. As there was thick fog, we could not see the river courses joining the sea.

Sunrise from Mahendragiri

By the time we completed our morning ablutions, it was around 7 am. We hurriedly descended the hill to reach the ashram. As we walked down, we witnessed a wonderful sight. There, the whole ground, branches of trees, animals, Kunti temple, ashram building, and other structures - all were covered with the morning golden light! It was as if all these objects were dipped once in molten gold and put up for display! It was an extraordinarily beautiful morning!

The Ashram and its surroundings

The Ascent of the Mountain

We started walking toward Yudhishthira (also called Dharma Raju) temple as we were told that from that point the path toward Bhima's temple would begin. First, we went to see Yudhishthira temple. I noticed that the sculpture of this temple was much better and refined compared to Kunti temple which we shall discuss later.

The full view of Yudhishthira temple

Its structure resembled the design of Siddheswar and Mukteswar temples in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. There were similarities with the Sri Jagannath temple of Puri as well. On the whole, it represents the 'triratha' style of Kalinga architecture with some sculptural decoration. Inside, it is a very simple structure, with one lingam in the middle of the sanctum sanctorum (garbha gudi). The temple has an inscription which is believed to be that of King Rajendra Chola II (11th century).
We began our ascent of the mountain. From this point, you can have a glimpse of the capstone (the amalasaraka or amalakam) of Bhima temple. The climb was a little difficult as there was no particular path. However, as we were nearing Bhima temple, steps made of stone became visible though for a short distance only - say about 3 hundred meters till the temple. As we reached the Bhima temple, we were all excited to see the structure and forgot our tiredness.

The Bhima Temple, East face

The temple is made up of 18 crudely cut stone blocks of approximately 10ft*4ft*5ft dimensions. They are arranged as the base (peetham)+middle (the portion that contains the garbha gruha)+top (sikharam) comprising of two tiers with a beautifully fluted amalakam on the top but with no kalasham situated on it. Of all, the one below the amalakam is a single stone - the biggest and the heaviest. Two blocks of the stones in the top tiers showed deep cracks. The structure otherwise was very strong. It was said that the cracks were caused when thunder struck the temple many years ago, though we do not have a record of when it had happened. The temple has the main entrance and another narrow way probably an exit on its opposite side. In the inner sanctum (garbha gudi), the shiva lingam is located with signs of some puja having been performed. It is also known as Gokarneswara temple and is believed to have been built just after the Gupta period (600 A.D). Compared to Yudhishthira temple, the makeup of Bhima temple is less refined and is rather crude architecturally. However, exposed to the elements through centuries, it has got a rugged beauty and dignity of its own. One question that came to my mind was about how these blocks could be set up on the top of one another? They might have employed elephants to arrange the blocks, as it was a known habitat for pachyderms. It must, however, be a huge effort.

The view from Bhima temple

The west view from this point comprised of the panoramic Eastern ghats with white clouds sitting lightly on them. There was a vastness and a sense of permanency in those mountains. Of particular interest was the fact that the mountain range was marked with visible deep furrows on the hills. We came to know that these furrows were formed by huge landslides that happened during the Titli cyclone. The landslides reached the bottom of the hills bringing down along with the water flow - huge boulders, trees, and the earth sweeping whatever that came in their path. Across our journey on the Mahendragiri roads, we could see the devastation caused by the cyclone - whole crusts of earth, big boulders, and fallen trees still lying on the side of the road.

Devastation caused by Titli

Our next destination was Arjun gumpa. There was a beaten path. The ascent, though less steep, was not easy. We had to climb and scramble over some of the big boulders to reach the location.
There is an interesting story about this place. Arjuna, like his brother Bhima, thought of constructing a temple for Shiva and started working on it. He prepared nearly 2-3 polished blocks of sizes similar to the ones that comprised of the Bhima temple. However, he abandoned the task in the middle telling himself that this was not his cup of tea. The three large blocks of stones lying around are in fact evidence to the belief that there was an abandoned attempt (by whomever that may be) to construct another temple here. Instead, as the story goes, he settled for a cave nearby and carried out his worship of Shiva in the cave itself. We went a little ahead to see the cave closely.
It was not exactly like a conventional cave that one sees in movies or in Chandamama (A popular magazine for children in the 1960s and 70s) stories. It is a pile of big rocks of different shapes creating a two-tiered space inside them adequate enough for a human to move about and sleep. There are two entrances to the cave - one from above and another from the west side camouflaged by a thick grove of trees.

The space that can be reached from above was the place for the worship of Shiva, though I could not see any object representing a Shiva lingam. The next space below this was the one which could be reached directly from the west side second entrance in between the trees. The rocks of the cave were situated in such a way that neither of the two room-like spaces will become wet during rain but will receive ample light – adequate enough to live.
Now, I wish to add a few details of the rocks that one comes across on Mahendragiri. Here, all most all rocks are boulders in the sense that they are huge, detached round stones with a weather-worn look. Very few rocks are sharp-edged. They might be lime-rich as white spots are amply visible on the rocks. Another interesting feature was that they produce metallic sound when hit by another piece of rock. To show this, Krishna set out to make an interesting demonstration. He took a large piece of stone and hit with it a rock nearby. Clang - it produced a distinct metallic sound! Likewise, he struck three rocks and each produced a different kind of metallic sound. He repeated the exercise a few times so that we could clearly differentiate the different metallic sounds thus produced (See, Musical stones on Mahendragiri https://youtu.be/WtSfehg3U8A). We were all very excited to witness the demonstration as that explained the nature of the rocks in this particular mountain range.
By then, it was around 9.30 am. The sun was hot and we started sweating. Our call was to reach the ashram by 10 am. Krishna identified a route and we began to climb down. The descent was fast though we fumbled here and there while walking down. As we were approaching the ashram, we saw two large groups of pilgrims busying themselves with food preparations.
Descent and Visit to Kunti Temple

After reaching the ashram, we went to see the Kunti Devi temple which is in the same compound where the ashram is located. As mentioned earlier, in terms of sculptural specifications, it resembles the Yudhishthira temple though the sikharam has different surface engravings reflecting 'rekha' style of architecture. It is believed to have been constructed in the 12th century A.D. We went inside to see the garbhagudi and the Shiva lingam. Someone had already lighted lamps and performed puja. There were signs of continuous puja as the interior was clean and organized. There was a Nandi statue facing the entrance.

Kunti temple, Mahedragiri

As we were coming out of the temple, we discussed the seriousness of the plastic waste lying around. I thought I must do something to clear the surroundings made so ugly by the litter of plastic waste. I approached the youth and a few adults among the groups of pilgrims there and suggested to them to help clean up the surroundings. They have agreed to the proposal. Within an hour, all of us worked together to remove the litter. After our effort, the whole place looked absolutely clear and clean. The children of the groups were particularly active in clearing the plastic. Eventually, the waste has to be burnt as there was no other option for its disposal.

We went up to our quarters, quickly packed our things, and came down to the ashram ready to go. Donated a modest amount to the ashram as a token of our gratitude for their warm hospitality and paid our respects to the swami. Also, we left the remaining provisions with them and started. It was around 4 pm when we began our journey to Barakat pass, a 6 km descent from the ashram.
The Silence of the Hills

It was a fulfilling journey for all of us. As for me, it was a spiritual sojourn. I sat quietly with the silence of the hills that engulfed me. One of the team members began talking loudly with someone on his phone. Others were engrossed in their conversations. However, the incessant chatter around did not bother me. Throughout the journey back home I sat with that quiet feeling. We reached Mandasa around 9 pm.

Watch a short video: https://youtu.be/0vDU83hQKJ0


Author: Umesh Chandra Bhatt28 Apr 2020 Member Level: Silver   Points : 0

This is a very interesting travelogue. I did not know that Odisha is having such panoramic places to visit. The natural beauty as depicted in this blog is stunning. The article is well composed and well presented.

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