It took us close to two hours to trudge up the mountain, a trek that the villagers accomplish in less than quarter of an hour, we were told by an amused lot of local know-alls. But for city-bred slouches like us, it took some serious heaving and climbing to make it to the top where the syahi devi temple sat resplendent in a pool of sunlight.
In Sitlakhet in Uttarakhand, this temple is a must-see. It was first built by the Katyur kings who ruled over the Kumaon region (now a part of Uttarakhand) sometime between 800 and 1100 AD and then rebuilt by the Chand kings and further improved upon by subsequent rulers from the Gorkha dynasty.
At the temple, Pandit Kailashnath Goswami, showed us around before telling us the story of the devi of the Katyur kings and hence Katyani devi. She was the goddess of the kings (syahi is how the local people pronounced shahi which in Hindi means royal), he says. My amateur etymological experiments are immediately crushed to dust. I had imagined syahi, the Hindi word for ink, was used as an epithet because the original devi at the temple is a dark goddess. Later another idol was installed, a white marbled goddess. Today the mandir has two goddesses – one white and one black with a Ganesh idol in the middle.
Inside the temple, Goswami tells us, a ‘shuddh’ puja happens and the offerings are all vegetarian. The dark goddess accepts animal sacrifices and until quite recently, goats were sacrificed here. The sacrifice was done at an altar, just a few steps away from the main temple, in the same courtyard, under a tree where there is another idol of the dark Katyani devi. This is the original idol that the Katyur kings are said to have installed.
The story goes that the Katyurs moved in large groups, never less than 9 lakh people at a time, Goswami says. The walked all day and set up camps at night and the local people say that all the work they did, building temples, digging wells and such other things was during the night. And the Syahi Devi temple, it was built in one night, they say.
After the Katyur dynasty had been replaced by the Chand dynasty the temple fell into disuse and people soon forgot about the devi. One day, one of the Chand kings came to the hill where the temple stands today. He liked the place and set up camp with his family and attendants.
As the evening light began to dim and the people were about to retire for the night, they saw a large eagle-like bird swoop down into the camp. It seemed to appear out of nowhere, as if the skies had shaped it out of itself. They watched in amazement but before they could even move, the bird had dived in and plucked the eyes off one of the children. Aghast the people ran helter-skelter and hid, but the next evening, the story repeated itself. And when the bird did this evening after evening, they begged their king for help. The king was miserable but he did not know what to do.
One night, as the king drifted into a disturbed sleep, the bird came to him in a dream. “I am none other than the goddess who lives in the hills,” she said. “I want food, your people are not giving me any food and so I have had to do this. Give me a place to stay and make sure that the people offer me their respect and ensure that I have enough to eat always,” she added. She also pointed the king towards a hillock in the distance where she said, he would find her idol.
The next morning, the king wasted no time in gathering his people and walking up the hill, right to the top where he found the idol, just as the bird had said he would. And his men built the temple where the devi lives till this day. Interestingly Katyani devi idol inside the temple has its eyes painted in gold.