As news of the Uttarakhand government’s decision to launch a Rs 25-crore expedition in the upper reaches of the Himalayas to find the mythical life-restoring sanjivani herb goes viral, this is a good time to recall that the people of a Himalayan village still haven’t forgiven the monkey god Hanuman for disfiguring the mountain on which this mythical plant grew.

It’s a fascinating mashup of real life and mythology.

Reviving Lakshman

The sanjivani is best known for its appearance in the Valmiki Ramayana. According to this epic, when Ram was battling Ravan in far-off Sri Lanka in order to rescue his wife, Sita, from the Sri Lankan ruler’s clutches, his brother Lakshman was seriously wounded.

Ram then sent for the physician Sushena to help revive his brother, and it is said that Sushena ordered Ram’s main attendant, Hanuman, to fly to the greatest among the mountains, the Himalayas (Nag Sreshta Himavant), and bring him the mrit sanjivani (literally, an infuser of life) plant so that he could revive the comatose young warrior.

Sushena told Hanuman that the plant grows in the Drongiri range of the Himalayas, and gives off a strange light, enabling it to be spotted in the dark. Hanuman left immediately but when he arrived in the mountains, he was confused and did not know where to look.

Finally, the epic says, rather than delay matters any further, this powerful son of Vayu, the wind god, excised an entire hillside that was said to contain the plant, and took off. Lakshman was revived and the rest, as they say, is history.

Other sanjivani expeditions

Today the sanjivani herb remains a mythical plant with little or no scientific proof of its existence. But locals claim that it can still be located if an aggressive search is mounted in the remote region of Uttarakhand bordering Tibet.

This is not the first time the state government has attempted to locate the mythical herb.

In 2009, the Uttarakhand government, then led by the poet Ramesh ‘Nihshank’ Pokhariyal of the Bharatiya Janata Party, had set aside Rs 6 lakh for a similar search and applied to the Congress-led central government for an additional grant. The grant never came, and the plan fizzled out.

This time, the Congress-led Uttarakhand government has asked the BJP-led Centre for a grant, which has, predictably, been turned down.

However, the expedition will go ahead as planned and Surendra Singh Negi, the Uttarakhand minister in charge of alternative medicine, who controls Ayush, the department carrying out the search, is expected to lead it.

In other texts

The magical sanjivani appears not only in the Ramayana but also in the Mahabharata, where the asura guru Shukracharya is said to have used it to resurrect asuras who had been slain by the devas. The herb is also said have helped king Yayati, an ancestor of the Pandavas, to reverse the ageing of his body and regain male vigour.

Ancient dictionaries like the Marathi Sanskrit Geervan Laghu Kosh and the Sanskrit Shabd Kalpdrum, call the herb rudanti or rudantika, meaning a plant that oozes a liquid. Shabd Kalpadrum also calls it romanchika, a nerve stimulator that can arouse a patient from a coma.

Drongiri’s defaced mountain

Beyond the Ramayana, in present-day Drongiri village in the Uttarakhand Himalayas, there is a mountain worshipped by locals that is believed to be the one that Hanuman disfigured during his search for the life-saving herb.

The village, situated at an altitude of 11,800 feet, is hard to access. Travellers have to take a bus ride for 45 km from Joshimath to Jummah followed by a tedious trek for 8 km to reach the village that is home to some 400 Bhotiya families, who migrate during the severe winters to villages in lower altitudes.

The area has several glaciers like the Bagini, Changbang and Neeti, and attracts a host of folk from outside during the summer. These are mostly gatherers of rare herbs and hunters looking (illegally) to hunt the musk deer and Himalayan bear.

Nothing much can be grown at this altitude so the villagers survive by breeding sheep and gathering herbs to sell in the city. The kidi herb, a kind of natural Viagra that locals collect from the grassy areas (bugyal), fetches a handsome price in the plains from where it is smuggled into China and other South East Asian countries and sold for a fortune.

Hanuman not forgiven

In this ecologically-sensitive zone, Hanuman is the bad guy. The villagers of Dronagiri haven’t forgiven him for destroying the right flank of the mountain (Parbat Dev) that they worship.

It is said that during the Treta Yug – the second of the world’s four epochs according to Hinduism – when Hanuman flew in to find the Sanjivani plant to revive his lord’s younger brother, the villagers of Dronagiri did not allow him passage.

Since time was running out and Lakshman was near death, Hanuman disguised himself as a bedraggled sadhu and begged an elderly woman in the village to help him locate the magic mountain where the herb grew.

The woman was sufficiently moved by his plea and pointed out the carefully covered up area to the intruder, who then proceeded to disfigure the mountain and carried away half of it along with the magic plant.

The old woman was subsequently banished from the village and all women were then barred from the ritual worship of the mountain.

Ecological preservation has been a way of life in Himalayan villages ever since humans settled there. Any deliberate degradation of the local topography, flora or fauna evokes extraordinary emotions.

Thus, since Hanuman dared destroy a hillside, temples in the area even today refuse to house an idol of the monkey god. At the formal celebration of Jagar in the village, when the spirit of the Dev Parbat (holy mountain) appears in the body of a medium (known as pashuwa) amid the chanting of prayers, the right arm of the medium, which is symbolic of the right flank of the Drongiri hill, hangs limp and lifeless till the spirit of the Dev Parbat departs.

At the annual staging of a three-day Ramlila in the area too, all references to Hanuman have been expunged for centuries.

Even today, when the state of Uttarakhand is dubbed Dev Bhumi, or the abode of the gods, and is enjoying a period of accelerated growth of temples and attracting vast crowds of the faithful, the Ramlila in this village still begins with Ram’s childhood, moves on to his wedding to Sita following a swayamvar and ends with his coronation.

The monkey god has still not been forgiven by the guardians of the holy mountain and of the life-enhancing herb that glows in the dark.