UpperCrust Soul Destination
AND TO LORD SHIVA'S AT KEDARNATH
Being in the Himalayas is such an invigorating feeling and when that emotion synergizes with a sense of spirituality, the outcome is beyond expression. Kedarnath, situated as remotely as it is, has that effect on the body, mind and soul, says Farzana Behram Contractor.
At the last official census count the population of Kedarnath was 479. I'd be very happy to round off that figure to 480 - if I could. If only I could...
Being in the Himalayas, anywhere in the Himalayas, is such an invigorating feeling and when that emotion synergizes with a sense of spirituality, the outcome is beyond expression. Kedarnath, situated as remotely as it is, has that effect on the body, mind and soul.
Kedarnath is a secluded town in the Rudraprayag district. Perched at an altitude of 11,657 feet, it hosts one of the holiest of Hindu temples, the Kedarnath Temple, which forms part of the Char Dham pilgrimage. It is the dream of every devout follower of the Hindu religion to undertake this journey at least once in his or her lifetime. The other three temples which form part of this four site pilgrimage are Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamnotri.
After paying my respects at Badrinath, I reached Gaurikund, the base of Kedarnath, late at night. Normally no vehicle is allowed to drive at night in this region but we had special permission. As it happened, in the dead of the night driving through the forest, we experienced a mesmerising sight: a leopard leisurely walking alongside the road! It's one of those moments of life that you never forget.
Well, after sleeping for just a few hours, I was up early the next morning in excited anticipation. A quick breakfast of aloo paratha washed down by sticky, sweet tea and I was on my way up the mountain to catch my first glimpse of the temple in the early morning sun. I was on horse back, riding up the 14 kilometres stretch, sometimes at a trot.
It was exhilarating. Such experiences happen to the very fortunate and I know for sure I am one of them. As I rode up the paved pathway, I couldn't help but compare this day with the ones I had left behind in Mumbai. How far removed was life here, how unhurried the pace, how peaceful the people. A constant thought that remained stuck in my mind was: oh, how we complicate our lives in the city back home.
Soon enough, I reached the top. I had expected to see the Kedarnath Temple right there in front of me at the end of the 1 km. milestone, but I didn't. I was surprised and disappointed. My husband, Behram, better known to the world as Busybee, who had trekked to Kedarnath decades ago, had described this moment to me in minute detail. The temple should have been there as I turned the last corner... but alas, worldly progress has seen the temple town grow. Now a thatched shanty stood blocking the temple view, robbing me of what must have been a singularly stunning vision of the beautiful stone temple nestling at the foot of the snow-capped mountain, its bells resonating in the clean, cool, fragrant air.
But I wasn't complaining. I got off my horse and made my way through the narrow lanes of this haphazard town, past many tiny shops selling prasad'- flowers and coconuts, fruits and sweets, dodging playing children and barking dogs and sauntering sadhus alike. My first sight of Kedarnath Temple was good enough for me. It suddenly loomed upon me even as I raced towards it through the chaos, the hustle and bustle - the activity surrounding it was astonishing and even included a walking band beating on drums!
It is an impressive stone edifice built in the 8th century by Adi Shankaracharya adjacent to the site of an earlier temple built by the Pandavas at an unknown date. According to the Puranas, the Pandava brothers performed a major penance in Kedarnath to please Lord Shiva. As a matter of fact, as one enters the main temple, the first hall contains statues of the five Pandava brothers, Lord Krishna, Nandi, the vehicle of Shiva and Virabhadra, one of the greatest guards of Shiva. An unusual feature of the temple is the head of a man carved in the triangular stone facia of the temple. Such a head is also seen carved in another temple nearby, constructed at the site of the marriage of Shiva and Parvati. No specific family of pujaris supervises rituals at Kedarnath, which focus around veneration of the stone lingam that rests in the inner sanctum of the temple.
The Kedarnath Temple is a majestic sight indeed, standing dramatically amidst lofty snow-capped mountains. This shrine, situated at the head of River Mandakini, is one of the twelve jyotirlingas of Kedar or Lord Shiva. A conical rock formation inside the temple is worshipped as this god in his Sadashiva form. The inner walls of the main hall are lined with figures of many deities and scenes from mythology. It has a Garbha Griha for worship and a Mandapa for assemblies of pilgrims and visitors. More than one thousand years old, this temple dedicated to Lord Shiva is an architectural marvel. Built of extremely large, heavy and evenly cut grey stone slabs, it evokes wonder as to how these heavy slabs were handled in the earlier days, at that altitude, in such a challenging location, in such extreme temperatures.
When you consider how cold it is over here in winter, you marvel at the feat even more. Incidentally, the temple is closed for six months when it remains buried under snow. It opens on Akshaya Tritiya, at the end of April or early May and closes on Bhai Doos, at the end of October or early November, which is when it starts to snow heavily. So in effect, no one stays in Kedarnath between November and April; the local people shift their settlement temporarily to nearby villages and the Palki of Lord Kedarnath is transferred to a place near Guptakashi called Ukhimath.
Legend About Lord Shiva
Kedar is another name of Lord Shiva, the protector and the destroyer. Shiva is considered the embodiment of all passions - love, hatred, fear, death and mysticism which are expressed through his various forms. There are more than 200 shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva in Chamoli district itself and the most important one is Kedarnath. According to legend, after having won the Kurukshetra war over the Kauravas, the Pandavas felt guilty, having killed their own brothers, and sought the blessings of Lord Shiva for redemption. He eluded them repeatedly and while fleeing, took refuge at Kedarnath in the form of a bull. On being followed, he dived into the ground, leaving his hump on the surface. The remaining portions of Lord Shiva appeared at four other places and are worshipped there as his manifestations. The arms appeared at Tungnath, the face at Rudranath, the belly at Madmaheshwar and his locks of hair at Kalpeshwar. The four (Four or five? - Panch?) above mentioned shrines are treated as Panch Kedar. Three of these (barring Kalpeshwar) are in mountain meadows at higher altitudes than Kedarnath. The climb to Rudranath is the most strenuous though worth the trouble, as this meadow is one of the finest in Garhwal.
Other Pilgrimage Attractions and Excursions Around Kedarnath
- Shankaracharya Samadhi:
Behind the Kedarnath Temple lies the samadhi or the final resting place of Adi Guru Shankaracharya. It is believed that after establishing the four dhams in India, he took samadhi at an early age of 32 years.
- Chorabari (Gandhi Sarovar) (2 kms.):
A small lake from where Yudhishthir, the eldest of the Pandavas, is believed to have departed to heaven. The floating ice on the sparkling waters of the lake is a fascinating sight.
- Vasuki Tal (6 kms.):
A picturesque lake, 4,135 mts. above sea level, which is encircled by lofty mountains and offers a commanding view of the Chaukhamba peaks.
- Gaurikund (14 kms.):
The trekking base to Kedarnath. A temple dedicated to Gauri and the thermal springs of medicinal value are noteworthy.
- Sonprayag (20 kms.):
The confluence of Son Ganga and Mandakini rivers. The road to Triyuginarayan diverts from here.
- Triyuginarayan (25 kms.):
A 5 kms. trek from Sonprayag, it is the mythological venue of the marriage of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati. An eternal flame, which is said to have been a witness to the marriage, burns in front of the temple even today.
- Guptkashi (49 kms.): The temples of Ardhnarishwar and Vishwanath are noteworthy.
- Ukshimath (60 kms.): Winter home of the deity of the Kedarnath Temple and the seat of the Rawal of Kedarnath.
- Agastyamuni (73 kms.): Famous for the temple dedicated to sage Agastya.
- Chandrashila (93 kms.): The Chandrashila peak provides a rare view of snow-clad peaks. The rhododendron forests and alpine meadows dominate the trek from Tungnath to Chandrashila.
- Deoria Tal (68 kms.): Sari village is the last bus terminus on Chopta-Ukhimath road from where a 2 kilometre trek leads to Deoria Tal. This beautiful lake, at an altitude of 2,438 metres, gives the spectacular reflection of snow capped peaks in the lake water. An ideal spot for angling and bird watching.