|Only the peal of temple bells punctuates the stillness of the mountain air|
This travelogue on my trek to Tungnath, the highest Shiva shrine in the world, has appeared as an India Abroad Magazine cover story with the dateline December 4, 2009.
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In the arms of Shiva
Off National Highway 58 at Rudraprayag, about a mile’s drive from the uproarious junction of two mountain rivers in the Garhwal Himalayas, stands an unimposing walled garden planted with crotons and overgrown with invasive weeds. At its center a white concrete plaque unceremoniously marks the spot where an Indian-born hunter of Irish descent shot a leopard in 1926. Beside it, a signboard in the green-and-red flag colors of the Uttarakhand forest department informs us that this was no ordinary animal: the cat had haunted the valley for eight years and claimed 125 human lives.
A man-eating leopard in these unrepentant urban environs? I imagine a shadowy creature, dappled with rosettes, stalking me. It’s pointless: the growl I hear emanates from multi-utility vehicles zipping on the macadam behind me.
In the 1920s, long before the muddy glare of sodium-vapor lighting and the glowering beacons of wireless towers had confounded Mother Nature’s circadian rhythm, the Himalayan night must have offered more grist for the imagination. Under starlight, fancy eloped with fact and spawned many myths around the beast. But this much we know to be true: villagers refused to step out of their homes after sundown for fear of being the leopard’s next quarry. And that was bad news for Rudraprayag, an important halt on the routes to the sacred Hindu temples of Kedarnath and Badrinath.
When the British government in India announced a reward for killing the man-eater, bounty hunters turned in many leopards claiming each one to be the culprit. Meanwhile, the death toll mounted. In desperation the British Parliament turned to Edward James Corbett, a railway contractor and a crack shot who lived in Nainital in the adjoining Kumaon region. Jim Corbett accepted the offer on two conditions: that all rewards for killing the leopard be withdrawn, and that other hunters trailing the cat be ordered to stop. In his gripping memoir The Man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag, Corbett chronicles his dramatic two-year pursuit of the big cat before he gunned it down at this very spot.
Every year a fair is held to commemorate Corbett’s achievement and some village elders cling to the belief that this specialist hunter of man-eaters and pioneer conservationist (India’s largest national park, the Corbett Tiger Reserve, is named after him) was a holy man sent to rid them of an evil spirit. The younger generation, however, seems to have grown unmindful of this aspect of the town’s history. My friend Sahas had to instruct our driver, a road-raging boor, to slow down lest he missed the memorial.
|A Himalayan Griffon vulture soars above the temple of Tungnath. In his book Sacred Waters: A Pilgrimage to the Many Sources of the Ganga, Stephen Alter invokes a legend that deems the vultures as one of the first beings of the primordial world. The vulture’s egg represents the world – its upper dome the sky and its lower dome the earth; the watery fluid the oceans and the yolk the land.|
Rudraprayag is today the headquarters of an eponymous district in the Tehri-Garhwal region of the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. At 4 pm, it is hot and stuffy in the marketplace and the air is rank with diesel fumes. Flies flirt with my eyelashes and nostrils. At the drugstore where I stop to stock our first-aid kit, the teenage shopkeeper does not lift his eyes up from the playlist he is shuffling on his cell phone. Nearby, overflowing rubbish bins invite dogs and donkeys to rummage for surprises.
My delusion of the Corbettian Himalayan hamlet has evaporated and found a place alongside other disappointments – fetid gutters gurgling beside the highway, deforested landslide-scarred slopes crowned with modern temples the color of unappetizing confectionery, and hummocks of garbage and polythene bags where crows and kites bicker over morsels.
Yet, in other ways, Father Time has not grayed for the last thirty years. Tacked to the pillar of a wayside temple, a Garhwali film poster for Meru Gau [My Village] has artwork redolent of an age bygone when Indian cinema was besotted with nationalism. Vendors hawk vegetables and fruit on wooden carts, shooing away wandering cows that pause to inspect their wares. In a sooty teashop, a hirsute cook in a grimy sleeveless vest rolls parathas while his slick-haired apprentice shapes dough into cones, tucking a dollop of spiced potato into the hollow of each one. Sealing the ends, he drops his finished creations delicately into an enormous wok of sizzling oil that browns them into crisp samosas.
Three ceiling fans spin giddily inside the dormitory of the Rudra Guest House run by the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam, a government-owned tourism agency that offers reliable budget accommodation. From its courtyard I take in an unbroken view of the gorge about a hundred feet below, where the deep-green Mandakini (which rises near Kedarnath) is consumed by the foamy wake of the silt-laden Alakananda, a major headstream of the Ganga that springs near Badrinath.
Washed by the sacred waters of two streams of faith, Rudraprayag is the fourth of the five sacred prayags, or confluences, of the Gangetic riverine system in the Himalayas. Forty-two miles southwest, at the final confluence in Devprayag, the Alakananda joins the clear waters of the Bhagirathi, the source stream of the Ganga which has flowed 435 miles from Gaumukh at the lip of the Gangotri glacier.
From Rudraprayag, our bus crosses the Mandakini and takes us 25 miles to Ukhimath, a village of terraced rice fields 4,500 feet above sea level. In October, before autumnal snowfall makes the trail to Kedarnath unwalkable, the deity is brought down in a ceremonial palanquin to the Omkareshwar Pith temple at Ukhimath and worshipped here till it is returned to the mountain shrine in mid-May. Another Shiva idol, from the shrine at Madhyamaheshwar, is also housed here in winter. Both Kedarnath and Madhyamaheshwar are among the five sacred Shiva shrines known collectively as the Panch Kedar (the Five Kedars – Kedar being a local name for Shiva). The others are Tungnath, Kalpeshwar and Rudranath.
Legend holds that the Pandavas, protagonists of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, having decimated their cousins the Kauravas in the great war at Kurukshetra, wished to atone for the sin of fratricide. They arrived in the Himalayas to seek Shiva’s blessings but the Lord, disgusted with the horror of war, changed form into a bull to avoid them. His pursuers saw through his disguise and gave chase. In the scuffle, the bull was dismembered. Its body parts reappeared in various regions of the Himalayas – the hump at Kedarnath, the arms at Tungnath, the face at Rudranath, the navel at Madhyamaheshwar and the locks at Kalpeshwar. The head, it is believed, emerged at the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, Nepal. Pilgrims consider a circuit of these shrines to be auspicious.
Our destination is Tungnath, the third Kedar, and my purpose is religious only in a pagan sense. To walk the wild Himalayas, breathe their bounteous air, encounter their wildlife, their trees and wildflowers, rivers and springs, and to be at the mercy of their elements is pilgrimage enough for us.
The timing of our trip is significant. In late September, the monsoon gathers its weakening winds to drench the Himalayas in a final burst of rain. Last November, I followed the monsoon on its return journey through the southern hills of Tamil Nadu (Chasing the Other Monsoon, India Abroad Magazine, May 1, 2009) and now, I am here to witness the spectacle of its retreat from the Himalayas.
|A male Himalayan Monal surveys its mountain kingdom. The beauty of this pheasant’s splendid plumage is seldom captured to its fullest by any camera. The iridescent blue and violet feathers shimmer and quiver as they catch the light, making the entire bird look like a tremulous trinket|
The trail from Chopta, the gateway to the pilgrim route at the base of the mountain, to its summit at Chandrashila, skirts the Kedarnath Musk Deer Sanctuary and is a haven for birds, particularly that magnificent pheasant – the Himalayan Monal (Lophophorus impeyanus). The trail also commands spellbinding views of the Greater Himalaya, particularly the snow-crested peaks of Chaukhamba, Trishul, Nilkanth, Kedarnath, and the tallest and most majestic of them all – Nanda Devi.
We check into the GMVN guest house in Ukhimath. The snow-capped crown of Chaukhamba (23,419 feet), gilded by a dying sun, presides over the twilit horizon. An enormous moon climbs to the centre of the sky. In the brief interval between the power outage and the grunt of the generator kicking in, we enjoy an ephemeral glimpse of the untainted Himalayan night. After a simple dinner of rotis and dal at the guest house kitchen, we turn in.
And we wake to a glorious morning. On the horizon Chaukhamba is cruddy with clouds but the sky above us is clear. We hire a jeep for Sari, from where we intend to explore Deoriya Tal, a mountain lake at 8,000 feet.
From the roadhead, the lake is about a mile’s climb through forests of oak and chir pine. Our city-slicker lungs, not yet acclimated to the altitude, protest. We make a labored ascent up the cobbled path, 2,500 feet above Sari, distracted occasionally by tortoiseshell-patterned butterflies, cooing turtledoves, orange mushrooms and a squadron of Himalayan Griffon vultures.
From a glade we glimpse the gigantic massif of Chaukhamba. The path opens into a manicured lawn. We ask the forest guard, who collects our Rs 40 entry fee, if he uses a lawnmower but he assures us that the landscape artist is Nature herself.
|Downhill from Chopta near the village of Dugalbitta, a hovel shows off its kitchen garden|
The lake is jade green, its limpid surface rippled by translucent trout. Skirting it is a walkway shaded by oaks wearing jackets of fern. Ringlets of moss dangle from the boughs like permed tresses while lemon-yellow warblers twitter in the canopy. Purple geraniums, yellow daisies and dead rhododendron leaves carpet the ground.
We leave our backpacks at a shack where a Garhwali boy is stirring a pot of Maggi noodles. His guests – Bengali tourists – are arguing loudly about the conduct of a relative who has slipped into the bushes to relieve himself. The said party emerges presently, looking refreshed. We order parathas and go away to explore the lakeside, careful to avoid the spot from where our friend emerged.
Clouds building up in the sky sully our view of Chaukhamba. After lunch, we retrace our steps toward Sari hoping to walk the five and a half miles back to Ukhimath. The exercise proves more ambitious than imagined and we are grateful to a passing motorist for dropping us back to the guest house.
At the cottage, I peel off my socks to find my left instep caked with blood. The culprit, a leech, must have latched onto me as I crossed a stream on our descent to Mastura, halfway to Ukhimath.
After a muggy night, we wake at 5 AM to the fine patter of rain on the tin roof. At first light the valley is enveloped in mist. The drizzle has delayed our bus to Chopta. When it arrives we are lucky to find seats.
The bus is a cramped little box that barely lets us tuck our knees in. Below its windscreen is emblazoned the curious legend ‘bhook hartal’ (Hindi for ‘hunger strike’). Ruskin Bond, in his travel anthology Delhi Is Not Far (Penguin, 1994), traces the genesis of the inscription to a protest undertaken by the people of the local villages.
Until a few decades ago, buses that passed through Ukhimath en route to the Chamoli district headquarters at Gopeshwar (25 miles away) originated in Srinagar (46 miles away) or Rishikesh (113 miles away) where they filled up with pilgrims and arrived too full to accommodate local passengers. Frustrated, the villagers pressed their demand for a separate bus by threatening to fast unto death. The authorities yielded, the villagers got their bus, and the phrase stuck.
|Cowdust hour at Chopta, announced by a mixed herd of buffaloes and cattle returning home|
The 11-mile bus ride to Chopta, where we will spend the next five days, winds picturesquely past the villages of Makkumath and Duggalbitta. Our ears pop as we gain altitude. The fog parts to reveal dense forests of oak, pine and deodar interspersed with sprawling meadows or bugyals.
At 9,600 feet, Chopta is all of lodges and teashops. Our bus pulls up outside Bugyal Restaurant where a bearded, dour-faced man is frying bread pakoras in a giant karhai. His muscled colleague stirs heaps of noodles in a skillet. Singing lustily, a sharp-featured waiter serves us tea.
The weather calls for three layers of clothing. It was sunny until yesterday, the mustachioed restaurant owner tells us ruefully. Weekends, he says, bring the most tourists. We learn that every smidgen of accommodation is taken. Just as we begin to worry, a wiry chap with a slender moustache and shifty eyes announces himself.
Birbal Singh Chauhan, we soon learn, is a fixer. How exactly he is gainfully employed we never get to know, but he is clearly an important man. His ear glued to his cell phone, he fixes us up at a lodge run by his brother. Then he sends a message with a mule driver to secure a roof over our heads for our last night in Tungnath.
Our lodge, one of the best available in Chopta, has no electricity save a solar-powered lamp. There are thick quilts on our beds but we prefer our sleeping bags. Wood-fired hot water can be had on demand should we muster the guts to bathe. On the wall, hand-sized spiders meditate sullenly.
|A view of Chaukhamba from the pilgrim trail to Tungnath|
On clear days, Chopta offers an amphitheatric view of snow-capped peaks but the rain robs us of that pleasure. In other ways, though, it works its charm. Roaming the forest pathways, we discover how mist makes instantly unfamiliar every trail we have walked. We explore the deserted winter corrals built by shepherds, get on our bellies to photograph wild mushrooms, crawl under crevices to protect our cameras from the rain, and cup icy spring water in our numb hands. And yes, we delight in the occasional spell of sun.
We encounter few trekkers. Most visitors are pilgrims or casual tourists and they bring with them an irksome attitude of apathy. Even as volunteers from a local self-help group patiently collect garbage in large sacks to be carried downhill on mules, the pilgrims continue to trash the place. There is something single-mindedly abject about the way some people travel hundreds of miles in a bus or a car without as much as glancing at the scenery, making a quick dash to a temple on horseback, defiling the serenity of the mountains with noisy conversation, and scattering litter without a care.
We spend four days in Chopta. After a reconnaissance of the route to Tungnath, we decide that the only way to reach Chandrashila by sunrise is to travel the two-and-a-half miles from Chopta on mules.
In circumstances eerily similar to a pre-dawn hostage swap, we leave our room before sunup, hoist ourselves onto mules in pitch darkness, and meekly follow instructions to lean forward in case our mounts decide to shake us off. We see no faces, understand nothing of what is spoken, and identify only vaguely the sleep-roughened voice of Birbal Singh Chauhan as he rasps instructions. Then we see the glow of his cigarette fade into the darkness. Our mules lurch forward with a clack of shod hooves and a jangle of bells. We hold on tight and try not to inhale the equine effluvium rising richly behind us. Only a half hour later when dawn lights up the trail do we see the faces of the mules or their driver.
I wouldn’t trust myself to do this anywhere else in the world but in Garhwal.
|At Tungnath, the highest Shiva shrine in the world|
Tungnath is gray and spare. At 12,073 feet, the highest Shiva shrine in the world is believed to have been built a thousand years ago. Wind and water have nibbled at it. Standing against a backdrop of grassy cliffs with a white flag fluttering above its wooden spire, it appears as aloof and solitary as a fortress.
Flanking the paved street leading up to the temple is a string of stone huts roofed with slabs of slate. Most are abandoned or serve as overnight shelters for mules. Others, used as teashops and restaurants, have beds at the back for travelers.
Mr Fixer has arranged our stay at Devloke Hotel run by Naveen, a bearded Garhwali wearing earmuffs, for the princely tariff of Rs 100 a night. Naveen’s other guest, a red-haired Catalonian woman, is seated beside his smoky woodstove pulling on a brown beedi and trying to learn the recipe for dal. “You must install a chimney,” she tells him, blinking her streaming eyes.
At a teashop nearby, two sadhus exhale blue clouds from a chillum of hashish. One of them is busy with needle and thread, fashioning a cloak out of a woolen blanket. They blink at the mist philosophically and tell us that they intend to walk the rough forest trail to Badrinath, nearly 70 miles away. The middle-aged owner of the teashop also takes a few puffs and, unsurprisingly, his parathas turn out to be the best we have eaten.
|Chandrashila, a peak above Tungnath, offers a grand vista of the surrounding mountains on a clear day|
It is nearly 7 AM. The white peaks are ablaze. The gradual gradient to Chandrashila, 13,386 feet, is well above the tree line. Close-cropped grasses and clumps of juniper are the only vegetation. With few natural barriers to tame it, the wind chafes at us.
A Monal pheasant calls. Vultures soar at eye-level. A red fox stops to glare at us and disappears into the hillside. Flocks of small birds rise like dustballs. A stone shrine dedicated to Nanda Devi, goddess of the mountains, peeks out of the fog.
We are at Chandrashila. And we are not alone. A party of Korean-Canadians has arrived well before us. One of them, fiftyish, is seated shirtless on a cliff edge meditating on the rising sun. Another heaps rocks into cairns, placing a marigold at the base of each one. A third goes about picking up trash left by pilgrims. They are here for ten days, one of them tells us, to practice mind control.
But for the wind hissing in the grass, it is overwhelmingly quiet. Something about Chandrashila silences even the crows. Yet, there is a palpable throb in the air. I am not sure if it is the blood singing in my ears or the vibration of a higher energy, but it is innervating.
The warm sun in our faces, our lungs pumped with fresh air, the glorious vista of snowy peaks and rolling green meadows all seem to announce that we are very close to the nirvana we were seeking.
We are in the arms of Shiva.
|Dusk at Tungnath, heralded by a clear moon|
At dusk, a clear moon rises over Tungnath. Sahas and I spend our last night in the mountains, listening restlessly to the rustle of rats on the plastic sheet that serves as the ceiling of Devloke Hotel.
A mule harrumphs outside. Across the wall, the Catalonian woman hums a tune.
Sleepless, I step out at 3 AM wearing Sahas’ headlamp on my forehead. The proud swathe of the Milky Way spangles the sky. Silvery peaks glow ghostly in the distance. The monsoon has retreated.
I am bearded, not having shaved for a week. My hair drops to my shoulders. A scarf, wrapped serpentine around my neck, flaps in the wind.
A mule-driver asleep near the hearth wakes startled. In the blazing white glare of my headlamp, his eyes are saucers and his hands are clasped.
He is forgiven for thinking I am Shiva.