Saturday, 24 March 2012

The shoulder of Shiva: Tungnath Temple, Garhwal

Continuing the Pañc-Kedār Yātrā Nardeep Dahiya walks us to Tungnath, which at 12,073 feet above mean sea-level, is the highest Hindu temple in the world. Far from the madding crowd of the Char-Dham*, you'll find a bracing trek (a picture of the writer gives a good idea of the gradient!); and an enduring if not very elaborate example of a 'Nagara' style of temple architecture, with its characteristic curvilinear shikhara (tower). 
Readers may recall the legend of Pañc-KedārSeeking absolution for fratricidal genocide, the Pānavās come looking for Shiva. He, keen to avoid them, disguises himself as a bull and melts into the mountain, whereupon Bhima grabs his tail to stop him. Shiva subsequently re-emerges in five different spots across Garhwal. Tungnath is where his shoulder is said to have appeared. 

My very first trip to Garhwal got me to Tungnath at noon, after a nonstop drive from Delhi. Chopta, the base of the walk, was no more than a bus stop on a very pretty mountain road, with a couple of rough eateries and their attached shacks. Starting early was important - to get to the summit before the weather packed up. Fortified by a breakfast of hot parathas and tangy pickle washed down with a tall steel tumbler of sweet, steaming tea, one began the ascent to the Shoulder of Lord Shiva. 

Then as now, a cobblestone path leads off the road, a decaying concrete arch announcing guardianship of the way to Tungnath. The cheh-footiya, (6-footer bridle path), rises gently at first, deceptively dealing optimism by the lung-full to those taking their first steps on it. This is quite all right, one thinks, secretly relieved by the easiness of the grade.

Some 100 m. into the path, at a point where it enters thick alpine forest sweetly redolent with the smell of living pine and fir, one literally staggers upon the truth. The gradient of the path becomes punishing, rising to eye level only a few steps away at times. You're in a world of green now, an impenetrable canopy above, the ground a springy pine needle mattress bursting with tiny flowers all around. 

The silence is eerie, the bustle of the big city not 18 hours behind you, and the last sound you heard was a solitary bus groaning its way in first gear up the mountain road. It stuns you at first, then distances itself as your city-calibrated ears sing an electronic whine in numbed protest. Finally it leaves you to your great peace at these great heights, as you adjust to the crunch of your footsteps on the pine needles, the buzz of crickets, the odd trill of a birdsong.  And the cleansing mountain air you are gulping in.

Before you know it, the trees have yielded to rhododendron shrubs carpeting the mountainside in shades of crimson and violet. It's like God splashed the mountain with a divine tsunami of flowers. On your left the mountain rolls away into a patchwork of meadows (bugyals) dotted with the semi-permanent camps of seasonal shepherds. Beyond the mountain, the mighty four-cornered massif of Chaukhamba looms large in magnificent permanence. The air is crystal clear; every ridge, every cornice visible. Don’t be too harsh on yourself if you go camera-mad from this point on, just short of halfway to the top.

Soon, even the shrubs and bushes are gone. You have climbed above the Himalayan tree-line, 3000-odd metres here. A teashop provides a welcome break. Reckoned the halfway point, a couple with leathery faces and cheery smiles sell biscuits and tea. It's a great place to just stand and drink Chaukhamba in with your mind, as well as the more distant Kedarnath range. But don't waste too much time, for the afternoon cloudiness will wreck the Great Himalayan views you duly earned with the climb thus far. You must get to the top well before noon.

Now the track stops weaving, there are no more switchbacks as it goes straight across the face of the mountain. There's one long final stretch, a stony gash leading relentlessly higher to what appears to be a little cluster of huts, undefinable yet from this distance. Closer still, and the grey stone cone of the temple is discernable. An old man dressed in ochre overtakes you, mumbling under his breath about being late. He is the priest of the Tungnath temple, a local Rawal Brahmin in contrast to the South Indian Namboodri Brahmins appointed by Adi Shankaracharya as caretakers in perpetuity of all the other Kedar temples in Garhwal. 

At 3,800 m Tungnath is the highest temple in the world. It's above and beyond a straggly line of shops; there's even a 'hotel'. Among the handful of establishments is the residence of a famous sadhu (holy man), who's also the cover model for a popular tourist guidebook. With his matted dreadlocks, piercing eyes, and strong limbs, the Baba is an intimidating personality. But he's pretty cool too; sit with him, be courteous, and soon you'll be sharing his chillum (clay pipe). He lives here, wintering and practicing his austerities in a cave somewhere below in the valley below that he points to vaguely. 

The temple looks very old. Legend says the Pandavas built it, and that makes perfect sense because no-one but Bhima could have moved the stones used in its construction! A more considered view is that it was built by the great Shankara, which would still make it nearly 1,300 years old. The temple is built over a rock that is believed to be the petrified form of the shoulder and upper forelimb of the Lord Shiva's bull form that Bhima had caught by the tail in the days of the Mahabharat.

Behind the temple is a huge rock the size of an apartment block, with long icicles in the shade. A path goes by the rock to the top of the mountain, starting bravely as a cheh-footiya and devolving into a single-file trail and finally vanishing all together. Then there's just the incline, carpeted thickly with grass and the deep blue above. Lammergiers float in the sky, frost crunches underfoot, and within an hour of starting from Tungnath one is at the top of Chandrashila Peak, an even 4,000m ASL.

A small temple honouring the Goddess Ganga sits right in the centre of the small summit area. Everything on the other side of the summit is at a lower elevation except the horizon which is an unbroken Himalayan line, from one end of your field of vision to the other, Nanda Devi and Trisul standing out for their great heights. It's a sight fit for the gods. And that's probably why the two Indian epics intersect here, for this is where Rama, Prince of Ayodhya, is believed to have done his penance for killing Raavan, a Brahmin, in the great war described in the Ramayana.  

A small section of the summit area is reserved for ashes of the departed from nearby villages, which are kept in miniature earthen pots on a stone platform. This highland is the Alaknanda-Mandakini watershed, and is smack in the middle of the Kedarnath Musk Deer Sanctuary. It's a great campsite too, except that there's no fresh water at the top. Watching sunrise from Chandrashila Top is a soul-satisfying experience. 

From Tungnath, a decently paced downhill trot gets you back to Chopta within an hour. In other words, one can climb to 4000m after breakfast and be back for lunch at Chopta after one of greatest Himalayan experiences that can be had in the world. The only thing that compares is the drive to Kibber in Himachal's Spiti district, at 5000m ASL the highest permanently inhabited village in the world. 

To the southwest is an eminently motorable road that leads up from the Kund bifurcation, winding its way through forested hills and sunny villages as it leaves the Mandakini a little behind and far below. On this smooth and winding road, set on the lip of a well-watered bowl some 5 km before Chopta, is the state government guesthouse of Dugalbitta where the adventurous Indira Gandhi once enjoyed a vacation.

To the general northeast of Chopta, the road dips—locals call a descending road "down" road, pronounced 'dawn';— into the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, immersing itself immediately into that vast protected forestland. I am told Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam has made tourist huts at Chopta now; that would be a welcome development, because this area is crying to be explored.

* Badrinath-Kedarnath-Gangotri-Yamunotri

Some of the pictures are Nardeep's, the others are taken from google images.


Sharad said...

Thanks Rohini for making Tungnath temple alive to us, feel like visiting there now..this piece of your writing also reminded me to read again some of the great hindu epics again...may be i get fresh perspective of life once more..

Rohini Bakshi said...

Thank you! That's very encouraging. It is the precise objective of the blog: To get readers to go back to the Scriptures, and discover the gems within, themselves.

Rohini Bakshi said...

From my friend Surekha: posting on her behalf:

Hi Rohini,
> Thanks for the Yatra. Nardeep Dahiya totally transports you to the
> site and you feel immersed into the flora and the fauna. It has given
> me an appetite to read more on the Hindu epics. I would love to visit
> the temple.
> Regards, Surekha.

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