Garhwal, the eastern half of the young Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, is called Dev Bhumi, the Land of the Gods. Garhwal is home to some of the most sacred sites and structures in the Hindu universe, connected by living but invisible skeins of myth and belief.
Visiting the temples at the four major points of origin of India’s holiest river, the Ganges, is called the Char Dham yatra. The four destinations are Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. Despite roads going to or very close to the temples, the yatra remains an exhausting undertaking. It can also be very dangerous, as the recent disaster has shown.
Badrinath, at about 11,000 feet between the spectacular Nar and Narayana ranges in Chamoli district, is close to where the Alaknanda is born. The temple is practically at the foot of the incredible peak of Nilkantha (6596 m). This is where Lord Shiva used to live till he was persuaded by Lord Vishnu to move permanently to Kedarnath.
Mana, a village near Badrinath, is the last Indian settlement before the Himalayas end and the vast Tibetan plateau begins. The cave where Vyasa wrote the Mahabharata is here; and the Pandavas found the way to heaven from here although only Yudhishtra and a dog made it through.
Kedarnath, at about the same elevation as Badrinath, is at the head of the Mandakini valley. The temple was built by the Pandavas, and rebuilt by Adi Shankaracharya in the ninth century. One of the four Hindu maths, it is also the first of the Panch Kedars of Mahabharata lineage, and one of India’s 12 jyotirlingas— a linga that a spiritually evolved being sees as an endless pillar of fire and light.
The temples at Gangotri and Yamunotri, at about 10,000 feet, mark the start point of the Bhagirathi and Yamuna respectively, and are in hauntingly beautiful high Himalayan settings. Yamnotri has a temple dedicated to the goddess Yamuna, sister of the god of death Yama. Those who make the pilgrimage to Yamnotri are said to be protected against untimely death, akaalmrityu. The Gangotri temple is a few km below Gaumukh, the spot where the Bhagirathi issues from the snout of the massive Gangotri glacier. Gangotri marks the place where the holy Ganga descended to earth, her impact safely contained by Lord Shiva’s locks.
Gangotri and Badrinath are reachable by road; Kedarnath needs a 14- km trek, and Yamunotri an even tougher 5- km effort. Yamunotri, on the west face of the magnificent Banderpoonch peak, gets the most snow, and the temple has to be built every few years.
The Panch Kedar Yatra
The five Kedar temples— Kedarnath, Tungnath, Madhyamaheshwar, Rudranath, and Kalpeshwar— have their origin in the end of the Mahabharata. Seeking to atone for the sin of killing their own kin, the Pandavas came to the Himalayas, where they had passed a considerable part of their earlier exile too, to look for Lord Shiva. They found him at Guptkashi in the Mandakini valley.
The Lord, not inclined to be social and forgiving, assumed the form of a bull whose tail the mighty Bhima promptly took hold of. The bull shook itself into pieces that disappeared, only to resurface at six places in the Himalayas. Kedarnath is where the hump appeared, Tungnath the shoulder, Madhyamaheshwar the belly, Rudranath the face, and Kalpeshwar the locks. The sixth place, where the forehead appeared, is Pashupatinath in Nepal.
The Kedars are visited west to east, starting with Kedar. Rudranath and Madhyamaheshwar are reached by two- day treks through the forested heart of the high Himalayas. Tungnath, the highest major temple of any kind in the whole world, can be climbed to in one day, and Kalpeshwar is one bridge away from a roadhead now.
Panch Prayag Hemkunt Sahib
The five great confluences are sacred spots for Hindus, and are a separate pilgrimage altogether. Devprayag is where the deep green Alaknanda coming down for the glaciers around Badrinath meets the turbulent Bhagirathi coming down from Gangotri, and the spot from where the unified Ganga begins. Rudraprayag, which also the Kedarnath- Badrinath fork the pilgrim trail, is where the emerald Mandakini meets the Alaknanda.
Karnaprayag, where Karna meditated to get his special armour and weapons, is where the Pindar, birthed by the Pindari glacier, falls into the Alaknanda. At Nandprayag, the Nandakini that originates in the Nanda Devi region, meets the Alaknanda, and at Vishnuprayag, the furious Dhauliganga falls into the Alaknanda.
Hemkunt Sahib near Badrinath, is holy to Sikhs as the place where Guru Gobind Singh achieved unity with God in a previous life. It was rediscovered only in the 20th century, and is visited by devout Sikhs throughout the summer months.
The Great Shankara
It was Adi Shankaracharya, the great Hindu revivalist of the ninth century, who established the temples at Badrinath and Kedarnath. The great guru was born in what is now Kerala at a time Hinduism was regenerating itself. Adi Shankaracharya, who had mastered the Vedas by the age eight, reconciled the differences between the sects, resolving all theological issues and melding the Hindu universe into one living, breathing whole. The guru is also the creator of the Dashnami order of renunciates, the ten orders of India’s ubiquitous sadhus.
Progenitor of the Advaita school of Hindu philosophy that sees the individual soul and God as one, Shankaracharya was a great walker. He recovered the Vishnu idol from the Alaknanda where it is said to have been thrown by Buddhists. He is also credited with rebuilding the Kedarnath temple, originally made by the Pandavas, and establishing it as one of the four great Hindu maths: Dwarka in the west, Puri in the east, Sringeri in the south, and Kedarnath in the north. He was 32 when he was last seen on the slopes behind the Kedarnath temple.
little temple with his statue has marked this spot for long; it got washed away in the great 2013 deluge.
The Man- Eater Peril
Uttarakhand is a land plagued by man- eating leopards in the 21st century. Lakhpat Singh Rawat ( in picture), schoolteacher from the postcard town of Garsain, is the state’s Shikari No. 1, called upon to eliminate the man- eaters once the local administration declares them such. Rawat has killed over man- eating leopards in the last decade or so.
The three districts of Uttarakhand most affected by this menace are Chamoli, Rudrarayag and Tehri, areas that were hit the hardest in the recent floods. The most famous man- eater of all time was the man- eating leopard of Rudraprayag, which officially killed well over a hundred people along the Char Dham pilgrim route between 1918 and 1926. This beast, which had the unique distinction of being mentioned in the House of Commons, was killed at Rudraprayag by the famous Jim Corbett. According to Corbett, the leopard turned man- eater because locals started disposing their dead in the rivers in the aftermath of the great influenza epidemic of 1918. The situation is the same now, probably worse, as bodies litter the high Himalayan landscape of the state. Uttarakhand may well have to deal with an even worse man- eating leopard problem now.