Thursday, 9 February 2012

The Pañc-Kedār Yātrā: An introduction

Please welcome guest writer Nardeep Singh Dahiya, whose passion for the mountains of Garhwal demonstrates that 'secular' and 'sacred' are not necessarily contesting categories. Over the coming weeks, Nardeep will share his personal experiences with us on the Pañc-Kedār trail. Difficult to access, and nestled amongst majestic and incredibly beautiful Himalayan ranges, these temples are holy to the Hindus, and a challenge to the amateur hill enthusiast. This first post orients readers geographically and acquaints them with legends surrounding the trail. Subsequent posts in the series relate to individual temples on the trail. 

Chaukhambā, the mighty four cornered peak 

History and legend: Having killed thousands of human beings and wiped out their cousins and teachers in the Indian godmother of all ancient wars, the Pānavās were understandably contrite1. Who better than the great god Śiva to give them absolution? So, after Lord Śiva they went, tracking him down in what is now Garhwal, the better half of the new state of Uttarākhan*, and the real Devabhūmi, no matter what they say about Himachal or Kumaon! Garhwal was known as Kedār-Khana in historical times: the abode of Śiva. And it certainly is - only this is best understood with cold Himalayan air  pumping into your lungs and look-up views of the Kedārnāth dome, Chaukhambā, and Nandā Devi peaks stunning your visual cortex into instant piety. 

Kedārnāth range from the Manākini valley
Lord Śiva wasn't interested in meeting these killers of brothers and brāhmis, and kept himself away, till he was finally spotted by one of the brothers (Bhīma) at the place we now call Guptkāśi. According to tradition, the Lord sought to make a dramatic exit, changing into a bull and melting into the ground. Bhīma caught his tail, and as the Lord re-emerged across a wide swathe of Himalayan territory, the Pañc-Kedār came into being. There were six appearances of svayambhū, or self-manifested lingas (symbols of Śiva): the hump at Kedārnāth, the shoulder and upper arm at Tungnāth, the face at Rudranāth, the belly at Madhyamaheśvar, the locks at Kalpeśvar, and the head at Paśūpatināth in Kāhmandu, Nepal. The first five are called Pañc-Kedār.

The Pañc-Kedār are supposed to be visited from West to East, starting with Kedārnāth followed by Tungnāth, Madhyamaheśvar Rudranāth, and, finally, Kalpeśvar. Incidentally, apart from being the greatest of the 12 Jyotirlingās3  Kedārnāth is one of the Chhota Chār Dhām destinations after Yamunotri and Gangotri and before Badrināth. The traditional time taken for the Pañc-Kedār Yātrā is 21 days but I think a seasoned walker could do it in 10 – and is a personal ambition. Close to Kedārnāth is the remarkable Triyugi Nārāyaa temple. While the Pañc-Kedār are believed to have been rediscovered, renovated and re-consecrated by the 8th century Hindu revivalist Ādi Śankara, the Triyugi Nārāyaa is believed to be three yugas4 old. Legend has it that Śiva and Pārvati were wed here and the holy fire of that ceremony has been kept alive ever since. It is an Akhan Dhuni (perpetual flame). 

The Geography: The best way to understand the lay of the land in Garhwal through its rivers. They also offer the best access into the Great Himalayas, that innermost sanctum of the world's greatest mountain range, to adventurers and pilgrims, and those who are both. On the Pañc-Kedār Yātrā, one enters Garhwal by way of Haridvār, where the holy Ganges5 pours into the great northern plains of India. From Haridvār, one moves upstream to Ṛṣikeśa, the world's yoga capital, and then on along the right bank of the Ganges to Devaprayāg6, where the frothy green Bhāgirathi coming down from a little above Gangotri and runs into the placid and relatively muddied Alaknandā, coming down from above Badrināth. 

The roads beyond Ṛṣikeśa were built in the later half of the 20th century. The old pilgrim trail is along the left bank and can be seen clearly from the other side of the river. It is at Devaprayāg that the Ganges as we know it is fully formed, from here all the way into the Bay of Bengal. Cross the Bhāgirathi at this temple town and go upstream along the Alaknandā. All religious settlements and towns in Garhwal are no-meat and no-alcohol zones by force of tradition, though cannabis is indulgently tolerated and mostly celebrated.

Rudraprayāg7, the sole standout against the no-alcohol, no-meat rule, is where the Pañc-Kedār Yātrā begins. This is where the sparkling Manākini, coming down from a little above Kedārnāth, meets our companion thus far, the Alaknandā. The road splits, one goes up the Alaknandā to Badrināth, and the other to Kedarnāth. It is the latter we take, driving along the left bank of the Manākini to its origin. The Pañc-Kedār are situated in the high mountains of the territory between the Manākini in the West and the Alaknandā in the East8. On the watershed between two rivers lies Tungnāth.

Rainbow over the Kedarnath Musk Deer Sanctuary
Compared to the short scenic valley of the  Manākini,   the relatively longer one carved out by the Alaknandā has ferocious gorges. On a high ridge between the two is the Tungnāth ridge. This ridge is also part of the Kedarnāth Musk Deer Sanctuary, a vast protected mountain forest that seeks to save the Himalayan Musk Deer, a small, timid animal hunted to near-extinction for its musk glands that produce an aphrodisiac of fanciful repute. It is also home to the Himalayan Black Bear, easily one of the most dangerous animals in the world because of its unpredictable disposition and tendency to maul humans, and leopards, as well as snow leopards in the higher reaches.

Our road leads to another fork, a place called Kun, where one must cross the narrow Manākini to resume the upstream journey to Kedarnāth along its right bank. But we push on straight, up a steep road that winds higher and higher into the pine and fir slopes till the Manākini looks like a thin silver ribbon before the valley passes out of view completely. We are in high country now, and the road still climbs, passing a three-building settlement called Dugalbiṭṭa, and reaching the high point of Chopṭa, really a pass into the Alaknandā valley further ahead and below.

View from Chopa

Chopa has breathtaking views of Chaukhambā; the horizon is the Himalaya. From Chopa, the road snakes down through the sanctuary forest—so thick that it impedes sunlight at places—to emerge at the picture-postcard village of Manal. But we're not going to Manal. We must take the steep steps that lead off the road at Chopa, passing through a gate and on to a cheh-footiya (six-footer) bridle path that rises and rises into a thick pine forest. Tungnāth is about two endless hours of uphill walking from Chopa. 

View from the Tungnāth trail

End of Part 1. Part 2 will focus on the climb to Tungnāth, and the temple itself.


All pictures in this series are from Nardeep Dahiya's personal collection. The view from Chopta is from  Google images.

*Note on diacritics: I have added diacritic marks where I felt they were necessary to explain the pronunciation to my readers not familiar with Garhwal, yet left out the word final ‘a’ so that names remain familiar to those who are. I have left untouched those words which would be rendered unrecognisable to readers who have grown up with Hindi names e.g. Chamoli. 

1Mahābhārata, the very short version:
Cast of 100s; Verses in unabridged epic 24,000. Warring paternal cousins – 100 Kauravās (baddies) 5 Pānavās (goodies - including Bhima). Rival claims to kingship. Famous fratricidal battle at Kuruketra. General annihilation, including their teacher, great-uncle, sons, relatives, friends. Goodies win. Famous baddie supporters: maternal uncle Śakuni and Kara, (unsuspecting brother of goodies)  Über-famous goodie supporter: Kṛṣṇa

2 The Pañc-Kedār Yātrā is probably the modern remnant of the Gorakhnāthi six-temple circuit of yore, a part of the Kānphaā (split-eared) tradition. The Kānphaā yogis wear large wooden rings in a slit made in their ears by their gurus at the time of  initiation; they are followers of Gorakhnāth, the ninth master in the Śaiva Nāth tradition

3 The lingas that those in union with the One see as a pillar of light

4 A yuga is one of four 'ages' within a Hindu 'era'; it is the largest unit of time in the common vocabulary of any language or culture

5 Such is the reverence for this river that the inhabitants of the towns and cities on its banks call her Gangāji, and not just Gangā

6 Prayāg means confluence. There are five such confluences in Garhwal, where tributaries of the Ganga meet and finally become the great river at Devaprayāg.

7It was at Rudraprayāg, in 1926, where Jim Corbett shot the infamous man-eating leopard that had imposed a curfew on this oldest of Indian pilgrim trails for almost a decade. This beast, mentioned in the House of Commons once, was freakishly strong, immune to cyanide and very clever even by leopard standards, and it took all that Corbett had to kill him. I recommend “The Man-eating Leopard of Rudraprayag”,OUP It's one of the greatest adventure books ever written, the best of the hair-raising kind. It can be found on amazon:

 8This region straddles the districts of Rudraprayāg and Chamoli, both home to significant wild populations of the leopard and black bear.

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