|A view of a stream running through the woods in the Srisailam Forest|
Ishtakameswari Devi - The Goddess who fulfills all our desires! Who does not want their desires fulfilled? However, in order to achieve that, one needs patience, faith and endurance. The Ishtakameswari Devi temple is located underground in the middle of the Srisailam Tiger Reserve - A dense forest with no proper roads, access only through authorized jeeps, and the strength to bear with the one and half hour journey which threatens to juggle your bones and intestines!
During the last two trips to Srisailam, much that we desired, we were not able to visit Ishtakameswari Devi. There are a limited number of jeeps, that are allowed to ply into the forest and the booking must be made in advance (the previous night). This time around, we were very keen that we somehow visit the temple and our prayers paid off. We were able to book two jeeps the previous evening and were all set to go - armed with water, biscuits and pooja items, as nothing is available inside the forest.
|Jeeps all set to go into the forest towards Ishtakameswari Devi temple|
One has to but wonder at the prowess of the young jeep drivers who maneuver the jeeps effortlessly through the dirt tracks inside the forest. Soon, we were moving into the forest, on one hand admiring the glory of nature as it spread before us, untouched and raw, and on the other hand, clinging to the side rods and the holders above, for dear life, making sure we did not fall out, as the jeeps juggled their way into the forest.
It was as if we were all put into a mixer to be churned up. Minutes grew longer as the 11 km stretch from the forest check post took close to an hour to cover. We then reached a landing, beyond which the jeeps could not go. From here, we had to walk through the forest, making our way over slippery rocks, and small pools of water.
|Walking through the jungle towards Ishtakameswari Devi Temple|
|Chenju children practicing their trade inside the Srisailam forest|
Soon we came across a clearing where we could see the inmates of the forest - the Chenjus (hunters). These people stay within the forest and hunt animals. The women sell forest products like honey and fruits near the temple. The children are found practicing with their bows and arrows. Look at the little boy shooting at the target and the even smaller ones, sitting down and waiting for their turn!
A few hundred meters further we could see the first glimpse of the hunters settlement. Right in the middle of it, underground, is the Ishtakameswari Temple. Before visiting her, one has to go down steep rocks to the perennial stream that runs all around her temple, to wash their hands and feet.
|The perennial stream that runs around the Ishtakameswari Temple|
Senior citizens will definitely need help going down and coming up. We were lucky to be in the first few jeeps that went to the forest, so the temple was almost empty. One has to go to the entrance of a small cave like structure and then crawl inside towards the Goddess. Once inside the cave, there is space for the person to sit cross-legged.
The priest sits towards the right of the Goddess and it is amazing how he is able to sit in the restricted space, with very little circulation of air and light, throughout the day. The only light that comes in, is through the opening of the cave and at a time, only three to four people are allowed inside.
|A sneak peek into the Ishtakameswari Devi Temple|
Photography is strictly prohibited inside the cave. Once in, the priest allows the people to sit around the Goddess and meditate for a few minutes. He then asks each one to put Kumkum on the forehead of the Goddess while making their wishes. One can definitely feel a quiver running down the spine while doing this. The skin on the forehead is almost akin to human skin and the pressure of the thumb against it brings an indescribable feeling and you automatically feel tears welling up.
|The picture of Ishtakameswari Devi (Courtesy: Ishtakameswari Devi Devalayam)|
The priest then gives Kumkum and bangles and one has to crawl their way back into the opening of the cave and then carefully step out. By the time we came out, we found a long queue of people waiting for their turn to worship the Goddess. Many of them carry flowers, fruits, and sarees to adorn the Goddess. Once their genuine desire is fulfilled, they always come back to thank their Goddess and demonstrate their gratitude through their offerings.
|A number of people waiting to go into the Ishtakameswari Devi Temple|
Other than the main Goddess, there are a row of very old idols placed inside the thatched roof that constitutes the Artha Mandapa. The temple is estimated to be in existence from the 8th Century and has been popular even in those times.
|Ganesha and other deities placed in the Ishtakameswari Temple|
The Chenju women sell honey and photographs of the Goddess under a huge tree. Each bottle of forest honey is sold at Rs.500 for 500 gms and there are a number of takers. They also use the jeeps coming in and out of the forest for their commute into Srisailam and back for procuring anything that is not available in the forest.
|Buying honey from the Chenju women at Ishtakameswari Devi Temple|
Once darshan is complete, the people are requested to move back, in order to allow for the next set of jeeps to come in. So, soon we were on our way back, jumping up and down in our seats as the vehicle made its way through the rocky terrain. But there were no two thoughts in agreeing that this was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
|One of the smoothest areas during the drive :)|
How to get here:
- The temple is about 21 kms from Srisailam out of which 11 kms are through the forest. It takes about an hour and a half to reach the temple. So one has to plan at least four hours to visit Ishtakameswari Devi Temple.
- The only mode of transport is jeep. Only ten jeeps are allowed per day, so jeeps have to be booked the previous evening itself, if it is in a weekend. On weekdays, it would be wise to book the jeeps as early as possible, to avoid disappointment.
- The jeeps charge Rs.800 per person which includes the fee paid to the forest department at entry point.
- The jeep ride is rough. Although the drivers are extremely skilled, and there are safeguards like holders and crossbars, it is important that children and senior citizens are placed in the middle. To get a better idea about the terrain, you could watch this video by Naveen Konam here: http://youtu.be/wiWDjmo4ft0
- People with back problems are advised to wear appropriate gear during the trip.
- Please do not litter. The forest is extremely clean and free from any garbage which is a remarkable thing. Let us try to preserve the environment too.
The first set of jeeps is allowed inside the forest at 9.30 am and a maximum of ten jeeps are allowed per day. There are times of the year when permission is not granted so it is better to check in advance before planning a trip.
If you happen to be in this part of the world, you must definitely not miss visiting the Ishtakameswari Devi Temple!