I call a place magical if its geography creates vibrations that resonate in one’s deepest self. The magic flows not just from natural beauty and pleasantness but something ineffable that recalls imagined places of childhood. One such place is Kashmir, the place of my birth, which is like a diamond surrounded by high mountains. Near the dead center of the valley rises the thousand-foot high Gopadri Hill on which now sits the Shankaracharya Temple. Ancient geographers saw Kashmir as the stamen of the flower at the center of Asia, from the corners of which emanated the four petals of Iran, Turan, Tibet, and the Punjab. Its mountain streams and rivers, side valleys, high plateaus and pastures, lakes (Dal, Manasbal, Nagin, and Wular), and Chinar gardens make it unforgettable.

Kashmir’s geography has the added charm that one can read the unique history of literally each place in the pages of Kalhaṇa’s Rājataraṅginī that was written in 1150. As in Herodotus’s Histories about Greece, it makes ancient towns and villages come to life; lets us follow the paths of military campaigns; and makes us imagine how armies perished in snowstorms in the mountain passes.

The footsteps of time
have become heavy
those who were ours
are now strangers.

Look at this creation–
the more you try to forget
the more you remember!  (“The City and Renunciation,” Sarojini Kak)

My last visit to Kashmir was nearly thirty years ago and during these years I have sought other similar places with unique sacredness. There is great beauty in all corners of the world in the national parks, in tropical islands, in deserts and mountains that are attested by accounts of travelers and photographs in magazines but not all have the elements of history, geography, and myth woven together as well as in Kashmir.

For boldness of geography, there is no place like Machu Picchu of Peru. In the high desert on the roof of the world on the Andes, imagine the abstract geometrical structure of a bowl within a larger bowl together with an axle in the middle. The axle is the mountain called Putucusi that juts up next to the river Urubamba (also called Vilcanota) surrounded by four mountains in a circle on the crest of one of which is the medieval astronomical observatory of Machu Picchu. Around these mountains lies another ring of mountains.

From air to air, like an empty net
I went between the streets and atmosphere
arriving and departing…  (“The Heights of Machu Picchu,” Pablo Neruda)

The Machu Picchu site is at the end of the Sacred Valley of the Incas that was seen as mirroring the Milky Way. The sanctuary of Machu Picchu itself has temples, an upper town and a lower town. It also has a tower that was used as the observatory and a ritual stone that is illuminated directly on the winter solstice. The buildings atop Machu Picchu are arranged in the forms of a flying lizard on one side and a puma on the other.

For those who find mathematical abstractions pointless, the charming village of Aguas Calientes (Hot Springs) at the base of the Central Mountain and wonderful hikes on the Inca Trail and the many archaeological sites such as Pisac and Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley are sufficient diversions. A bit further off is the Inca Imperial Capital of Cusco which the Incans considered the center of the earth.


Two Sacred Circles of Machu Picchu

The two sacred circles of Machu Picchu (P: Putucusi; H: Huayna Picchu; S: Sachapata)


Naumi and I flew into Lima, savored its sights and antiquities, and then took another flight to Cusco which has an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet. The elevation didn’t seem to bother me perhaps because I had spent two years of my childhood in Leh, which has nearly the same elevation. Cusco airport has oxygen booths for those experiencing breathing problems. The Andean people themselves have chewed on coca leaves to alleviate altitude sickness, fatigue, and even hunger. We were served coca tea in the plane and it was freely served in the hotels but I did not like its taste.

There are striking parallels between the cosmologies of the Inca and the Indians. Like Vishnu or Shiva, the Peruvians saw the Great God Viracocha of the Inca pantheon as the creator of all things. In one legend he fathers one son, Inti (Sun), and two daughters, Mama Killa (Moon) and Pachamama (Earth). The Vedas somewhat similarly divide the universe into the three regions of the heavens (symbolized variously by Surya, Shiva, Vishnu together with their mounts horse, eagle, and bull, respectively) the atmosphere (ruled by Vayu or Indra with their mounts of gazelle and elephant, respectively), and the earth (ruled by Agni who rides the ram). The Inca cosmos has three levels of Hanan Pacha, the sky (for the gods and symbolized by the condor), Kay Pacha the earth (for the humans, symbolized by the puma), and Uku Pacha the underground (for the dead and the new stirrings of life, symbolized by the snake). The symbols of condor, puma, and the snake and the Inca cross are pervasive in Inca art and architecture.


Cusco as Puma

Cusco as Puma (1853 map) and the Inca Cross


There is a deeper parallel between the Inca and the Vedic beliefs in the mapping of the outer and the inner. The Indian temple or the city symbolically represents the universe; the city of Cusco is in the shape of a puma. The cathedral where the imperial palace stood was the heart, Qurikancha the temple of the sun was the genitalia of the puma, and Saksaywaman was the head.

According to ancient chronicles Qurikancha featured a large solid golden disc studded with precious stones that represented Inti. Saksaywaman was a walled complex in the north made of immense boulders where the annual Inca festival of the winter solstice and In his trance, the shaman journeyed through the central axis of the chakana (Inca cross) to the three layers. Cusco, the center of the Inca Empire, and the Southern Cross constellation map into the hole of the cross.

Another special magical place that reminds us of Kashmir complements it in unusual ways. This place is the complex of the Yellowstone National Park and south of it the Grand Teton National Park in Jackson Hole. Yellowstone, at the heart of the Rockies, is a volcano with an active magma chamber although it last erupted several hundred thousand years ago. Its huge caldera is now covered with trees; it also has grassy valleys, rivers and lakes including the huge Yellowstone Lake. It has its own Grand Canyon, hot springs, waterfalls, geysers, colored pools, pine-clad mountains, rivers and streams.

O snail
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly! (Issa)

My wife and I recently travelled to Yellowstone in long day’s drive from the Black Hills of South Dakota where we had spent a few days in the city of Deadwood exploring the several national parks in the area of which Devils Tower (Bear’s Lodge) and the eroded granite Needles stand out, and near which are Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorials.

We entered Yellowstone through the east entrance but also explored the other entrances in the Northeast, the North, and the West and each one of them has its own beauty. The West Entrance parallels the winding Madison River. The parks are very well served by the Park Service Lodges with their stunning views and inexpensive dining.

Coming down from the volcanic wonders of Yellowstone, the three peaks of the Tetons suddenly appear at right across the expanse of Jackson Lake. The area (Jackson Hole) is a valley with three lakes: one of them is large and the other two are small and the Snake River flows through the valley. It is just a bit higher than Kashmir but whereas Kashmir is densely populated it has very few people even though its airport is the busiest one in the State of Wyoming.

Now then, let’s go out
to enjoy the snow… until
I slip and fall! (Bashō)

The smaller Jenny Lake has scenic boat rides and approach to the major climbing routes into the tallest peaks of the Teton Range. We took the ferry across the lake to the staging area and hiked to the Hidden Falls and beyond to a vantage point for a wonderful view of the water.

If Jackson Lake is Wular, Jenny Lake is like the Dal of
Srinagar. Kashmir must have looked like Yellowstone and Grand Teton before our forefathers settled there.


The Sacred Valley Quartet


I. Mystical Pyramid

The Sacred Valley
is the Milky Way
it is the highway of the gods
between the darkness of mountains
the Vilcanota River snakes
through its pastures and fields
its constellations are hung
on terraces
up the mountain walls

The mystical pyramid
of nine terraces
lies hidden behind the mountain
its doorway lit up
by the winter sun
when the gods descend
to earthly domain
in processional

The pyramid doorway
is just one of many
that connects the three worlds
there are others scattered around
in the valley
in the huacas
that the pilgrim comes to see

As memorial of his visit
the pilgrim makes images
of the gods
at the salt flats of Maras —
this celebrates his good fortune
his small part
in the cosmic play


II. Mountain Circles of Machu Picchu

Coming down the Inca Trail
the clearing of Machu Picchu
on the inner rim
opens like a lizard in repose
with a puma on the side
and then the two merge
becoming a condor
in flight
to take the measure of
the two mountain circles
around the Putucusi axis

In caves and temples
and the huacas
there are hidden shapes
as fleeting shadows
the cosmic tree and corn
face of Tunupa
signs for the faithful

The ancient pilgrim came
to the old mountains
before he became so wearied
that he could not walk
the steep inclines
of the Inca Trail
to see the house of gods
and arcs of light
bridging mountain tops
to see Viracocha
and hear him
in the waterfall and the
call of birds

The modern tourist
watches the llamas
grazing on the pastures
looks at broken temples
the ruined buildings
of the observatory
finds satisfaction
in seeing the mountain fastness
and smiles at having explored the source
of the coca leaf


III. Korikancha

The abode of Inti
nourishes llamas and herders
in the plaza of Huacaypata

Inti and Mama Killa
gave bounties to Pachamama
and the lands prospered
but the people and kings
got lost in dream time

The temples were smashed
and the head of the Puma
at Sacsayhuaman
became a battlefield

Cities were burnt down
rope bridges on the Inca Road
were destroyed

The prisoner Sapa Inca cried out
see how my enemies shed my blood”

The waking up from the dream sleep
has taken years
it has been a long season of blues
the huacas were defiled
the condor flew alone in the sky

Tupac Amaru was quartered in Huacaypata
but he did not die in vain
his fight was for liberty
and new heroes have taken his cry
across continents of the globe

The sun is shining
in the backdoor
in its warmth old seeds
in the ground
are sprouting new plants
the flying lizard speaks to the condor
and the puma is not hungry


IV. Prayer to Viracocha

Viracocha, do not respond to
my entreaties
my prayers have become mechanical
I am only moving my lips
my heart is stone

My pilgrimage was a false one
I didn’t think of you
as I walked the temple steps

Let my pain get sharper
let my desire to see you
become sincere
so that what I seek
is not merely what I hear
without knowing what the words mean

You are everywhere
you make the sun and the moon rise
make seasons
you hide in the play of light
in the shadow of the mountainside
in the craggy corners of the rocks
in waterfalls

You know what is at the bottom of my heart
buried under the commands and instructions
of daily labors
I am too exhausted
to remember what I knew so clearly
when I was young
and strong of body

If you hear me now
and you grant
what is in the words I have spoken
without knowing what they mean
what would I live for then?


Subhash Kak

Subhash Kak

Subhash Kak is Regents Professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Born in Srinagar and educated in Kashmir and Delhi, he has lived in the United States since 1979. He has has written six volumes of poetry in English and Hindi and another fourteen books on a wide variety of subjects that include history of science and art. He was the anchor in Raga Unveiled, which is a four-hour long documentary on Hindustani classical music.