Madhyamaheshwar – In the temple of the Drunken Lord

Life is so quiet and still in Madhyamaheshwar that it’s easy to imagine why local people believe that the deity is drunk

A wayside shrine en route to Madhyamaheshwar
A moss-encrusted tree on the trail

“I found myself moved by the simplicity of this shrine. It was a place where nothing stood between me and the spiritual elements of nature… Nothing was hidden from view — no lamps, no smoke and mirrors, no priests performing a sleight of hand. I noticed the lichen on the rocks, the irregular colors in the stone lingam, the bruised petals on the primulas. Garlands of mist trailed across the meadows.”

Stephen Alter – Sacred Waters

We emerged from the mossy, rain-soaked forest after almost ten hours of walking (the rain had continuously threatened us along the way but we just couldn’t hurry, the trail was difficult and the forest dark, damp and bird-rich – all of those factors had successfully conspired to delay us). It took a while to spot the Madhyamaheshwar shine. It was unassuming, at the end of a small settlement consisting of a few chai shops (and inns), a few shepherds’ shelters, a dharmashala. The name Madhyamaheshwar means the “middle-lord” a reference to the emergence of Shiva’s navel at the spot but the locals refer to it as Maddamaheshwar, literally the Drunken Lord.

A peaceful calm pervaded the settlement, interrupted by the occasional slow soft murmur of the cold rain. Dusk was well on its way, the light fading gradually with the occasional fog bank cloaking the settlement and giving the false impression of light in the brief white-out. The stream running down from the ridge from Buddha Madhyamaheshwar and flowing along the temple perimeter gave the only indication of motion where everything else seemed to be at a standstill. It wasn’t difficult to imagine why the Middle Lord might be a tad drunk.

The shrine is situated at 10,400 feet (3,289 meters) from sea level on the slope of a ridge 25 kilometers northeast of Guptkashi. The ridge (in this season full of flowers) runs along the west and north of the temple (the trek to Kanchani Tal is along this ridge). To the east is a valley that falls away quite steeply. A steeply ascending trail emerges at the temple from the south through a patch of forest. Pilgrim traffic is barely a trickle (there are no busloads of pilgrims here since the 2-day trail is only for the hardy) and except for locals the only other travelers are an occasional trekking party.

The temple is a simple structure in the middle of a small, squarish courtyard cut from the ridge. It sits in the middle of a depression. A stream descending from the grassy ridges is diverted to enter the temple from the west, running along the inner perimeter and exiting into the valley through the northeastern corner. Along the entire length of the inner perimeter are embedded moss-speckled lingams of various sizes, and near the stream are copper images of Shiva and Shakti. While the work on the copper plates lack the finesse of a master craftsman they represent a more immediate and accessible form, that of Shiva who resides in the ridges, the forest and the mountains. This is not an imported, transplanted deity. 

Copper images of Shiva and Shakti
Stone lingams line the perimeter of the inner path around the temple

The Brahma Kamal (Saussurea obvallata), which is used to adorn the lingams (and offered to the pilgrims as prasad), is collected from the meadows in the vicinity of Kanchani Tal by a barefoot priest – the flowers have large translucent white petals with a hint of green and a papery texture.
The rain ensures that there are not too many birds, but there are still a few. A flock of Pink-browed Rosefinches (Carpodacus rodochroa) feed in the shrubs beyond the temple’s perimeter and a pair of Red-headed Bullfinches (Pyrrhula erythrocephala) court along the blue walls of a nearby house. Oriental Turtle Doves feed in the temple courtyard and a Besra dismembers its prey on the canopy of a nearby oak. We briefly glimpse a Himalayan Monal (Lophophorus impejanus) dart out of dwarf rhododendron bushes from the ridge above and Mistle Thrushes go about their business in the soaked meadows, exceedingly difficult to spot in the mist…

The Chaukhamba range dazzles
A Chestnut-bellied Nuthatch is at home in the mossy bark
A Pink-browed Rosefinch reveals the rationale behind its name
A Chestnut-tailed Minla in the forest
An offering of freshly picked mountain wildflowers
A Kashmir Rock Agama enjoys a brief spell of sunshine
Buddha Madhyamaheshwar – the old temple
A walk on the ridge offers a view of the Madhyamaheshwar Ganga
Chaukhamba – an awe-inspiring massif in any season
One of the less conspicuous denizens of the Himalayas
The great old temple at Madhyamaheshwar
Something to brighten up rain-dampened spirits

At the temple the rituals are slow and lack commercial gloss. As we join the evening arti, our feet numb against the wind-chilled granite slabs, I realize that despite my discomfort I am not impatiently waiting for its end, and the shiver that runs down the spine is actually due to the nearness to Shiva who, here at Madhyamaheshwar, is just once removed from the raw elements that he is.
Text by Sahastrarashmi 
Photographs by Sandeep Somasekharan and Sahastrarashmi 
Photo of Buddha Madhyamaheshwar by Rohit Tewari

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