Saturday, August 18, 2001

Arki: A town of cave-temples
Usha Bande

ARKI, a tiny town in Solan district, can well be described as neat, clean and tranquil. If its unapproachable caves and cave-temples inspire awe and its floral bounty makes one ecstatic, its palace commands attention for the sheer beauty of its simple architecture. It has been a witness to history. Arki was once the capital of Baghal kingdom and the town itself suggests that it has been well looked after by its various rulers.

Approachable by road from both Solan and Shimla, Arki-nestles in the lap of the middle-ranges of the Himalayas. The rocky mountains, with deep valleys and scanty vegetation, that surround it, can be a mystery for geologists. Caves abound in the area and so do cave-temples. Looking up at the inhospitable crags, one wonders how man and material reached the top for the construction work.


Arki Palace
Arki Palace

One of the famous temples is the Lutru Mahadev, situated high up on the mountain. Devotees, not only from Himachal Pradesh but also from Punjab and Haryana, frequent it. The climb is steep, but spiritual fervour makes you unmindful of the difficult terrain. Lutru Mahadev cave can be spotted from various angles as you travel in and around the town. Interestingly, a Durga temple midway between Batal Ghati and Arki, on the Kunihar-Solan road, is so situated that it is almost parallel to the Lutru temple. Nearby is Gangeshwar Mahadev temple which has a water spring. It is a perennial sources of water for Arki. The town is indeed lucky to have round-the-clock water supply, when most of the towns in the state are facing water scarcity.

If Lutru Mahadev has chosen to stay at that unapproachable height, Mutru Mahadev loves his cool, shaded cave in a thickly wooded valley just across the bazaar. The cave is small and has water constantly dripping in it. The rock-formations inside present the replica of the legendary abode of Shiva at Kailash. The place is serene and a walk downhill is worth the labour of climbing uphill.

In the town one comes across several old temples, some are in a dilapidated condition, while a few are well maintained. On the hilltops around Arki there are still more temples dedicated to Goddess Durga and local devtas. A walk to these in winters is enchanting as the mellow golden rays of the sun flood the valleys; in summers, the hilltops are pleasantly breezy.

Although a casual visitor may find the hillsides a little unwelcoming because of an abundance of brooding cacti, a nature lover may still discover the floral bounty of Arki despite scanty vegetation. Spring season comes with its treasure and every bush and tree blooms. The first to smile is the kachnar tree with light pinkish flowers. The silk cotton is dressed in bright red while the primrose spreads its pure white beauty. The deep mauve of the Persian lilac triumphs over the spotless blue of the sky, and to contrast it, the Silver Oak glows with orange flowers. The fragrance of the mango-flora pervades the air.

The palace towering over the town is another glorious spot of which Arki is rightly proud. It is situated on the western side of Lutru Mahadev hill. From the windows and the terrace, the then kings could watch the activities going on in the town. The chaugan, the two temples and the bazaar in the town are all visible from the palace.

The palace looks small from the outside but it is spacious from within. Its Divan Khana has beautiful paintings in Kangra style. Incidents from mythology, religion, history and culture are immaculately executed. Kamdevís arrows on Shiva, Kalia-Mardan and others represent our mythology while the portrayal of Sikh-Mughal battles depicts historical facts. Compelling is a painting of ships at Tellicherry Harbour. The painter, it is obvious, has been to the South. The dominating colours in these works are maroon, yellow and saffron. These paintings were executed around 200 years back during the reign of King Kishan Singh, but the colours have not faded although they have lost their original sheen and glow. However, the paintings are getting chipped. Immediate attention is required to preserve this unique heritage for posterity. Private efforts by the surviving member of the dynasty need to be supplemented by government aid. The architecture of the palace is elegant in its simplicity. Its stillness is appealing, so is its unheard music as one walks from room to room.

A couple of interesting legends are associated with the origin of the name of the town. According to one, Arki is one of Lord Shanidevís (Saturnís) names. Since he is supposed to have showered his blessings on the town, it came to be called Arki. Another story has it that since there are a large number of Shiva temples in the area, the town came to be called Harki Nagari (Har is one of many names of Shiva). From thence, it was shortened to Har Ki, Nagri having been dropped. Later, it was further shortened to Arki.

Whatever the historical authenticity of these legends, it cannot be denied that this pleasant little town needs to be safeguarded from deterioration. I was pained to see people ruthlessly chopping and burning cacti to allow the grass for their cattle to grow. Their need and urgency can be understood but they must be told that cactus checks soil erosion and landslides.