UTTARAKHAND : AN ODE TO THE HIMALAYA AND SPIRITUALITY

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I have made a list of places that I wish to visit, its an amateur list and keeps on changing. After my visit to Ladakh last year I was thinking of a trip to South India   and then maybe later someday in the coming years I would visit Uttarakhand. But as the saying goes “Man proposes God disposes” and I guess that is what happened and I found myself on the road towards Uttarakhand.

indomitable towards ndr 4

Uttarakhand , the moment this name figures in conversations  the primary thought that run through the mind are two : Himalaya and Spiritual Belief.  This state has been the focal point for the above two factors right from the ancient times . It has been the gateway to spiritual belief and becoming one with nature right from the times of Sri Adi Shankar Acharya himself . Thousands have come here in search for peace; many have found their true inner calling among the dense forests and virgin rivers that flow through the lower Himalaya. Home to the greatest of all ancient rivers, the Ganges herself; on her banks  many a great spiritual soul has contemplated life and its essence. Boasting of some great trekking options the region is a must on the Bucket list of any traveler.

 So join me as we chart our course on the National Highway 58 as its winds its path through the mountains and valleys past cascading rivers spilling onto the multitude of state highways that reveal delightful scenic beauty at every twist and turn compelling  us to think about the spiritual belief that one is drawn into amongst untouched pristine  nature that many have journeyed before to find…

 Delhi to Haridwar

 Delhi marks the transition point for all those who travel to Northern India from the south or the west of the country. From here onward the direction of travel was North, “up & up Northwards” was the mantra to follow, Delhi to Haridwar is a fairly well defined route and urban chaos at its best. There is nothing remotely interesting or exciting. The route takes one through a kladiescope of humanity and its existence. From the urban chaos of Ghaziabad to the seriousness of Muzzafarnagar to the pride of Roorkee, it’s all about living mass of humanity their hopes and aspirations; their sorrows and joys.

The journey time was 08 hours and by 1500 hrs we were in Haridwar. Oh yea tutorial on aggressiveness of Delhi traffic goers (if ever there is such a word) was imparted without fail and we had a nasty brush with a school bus driven by a ox head of a man.

On a hot summer evening in the temple town of Haridwar we found ourselves soaking in the feeling of a pilgrim town. The stay was at GMVN operated rest house which was decent and in a central location. The uppermost thought in the mind was to see the Ganges , I personally never had seen or touched the Ganges and this was definitely one of the defining moments in my life and that too of all the places it was going to be Haridwar.

So accordingly we set out of the hotel and decided to use the local transport for the purpose because Haridwar is also plagued by the same problem seen all over the towns/cities that have become tourist hubs , excessive crowding and infrastructure of the city groaning to sustain it . Hence using the personal car was definitely not an option as I did not know where the Ganga Ghat was, there are many ghats all along the Ganges but everyone goes to the most famous of them all: Har Ki Pauri which translated into Hindi means “The Lord’s Feet “.

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This ghat on the banks of the Ganges is the most sought after place in the entire town and it is taken for granted that anyone who is walking on the road leading to the ghat is going towards it. All along the road have sprung up hotels, eateries, shops, guides who jostle with each other to entice the traveler. It is an unending cauldron of humanity with everyone trying to fulfill his own desires whether it is spiritual or commercial, it’s a sight to see and to soak in , cannot be described but am sure many of us will be able to relate to this.

The road becomes narrower and narrower as we approached the Ghats sitting in a pedal driven rickshaw, I think I must be sitting on one after a decade, it took me some ungainly movements to in fact climb on to it. The rickshaw soon deposited us at the Ghat entrance and we moved ahead among the teeming mass of people to see the Ganges and then to orient ourselves as to what was the pull that bought teeming millions out here.

Har Ki Pauri, meaning steps of the Lord himself is a highly religious place both historically as well as mythically. The Ghat has come up around Brahma Kund, which is considered auspicious since the time of the vedas. There are many other ghats dotted all across the Ganges but this one holds special importance.

My first sight of Maa Ganga and what a feeling it was. I hurriedly walked towards the steps leading to the water and touched the Holiest of all Indian Rivers: Ganges. It was the month of May and the Indian plains were in searing heat waves but the water; ahhh the water was cold and inviting. There was absolutely no trace of summer heat in the water of the Ganges as she flowed. The Ghat has numerous temples which have been built over the years and the Ganga flows through the channels that have been constructed.

The main event was the evening aarti known as “Ganga Aarti”, performed by 11 priests . Each evening, at sunset priests perform the Ganga Aarti , where in lamps are set in the water to drift downstream The aarti is witnessed by huge crowds and the religious fervor is something worth experiencing. The priests hold large fire bowls which they rotate in a right handed circular direction, gongs in the temples start ringing and chants flow in the air creating a sublime atmosphere. There is a rush to have the best possible seating in order to view the aarti. We opted to take the seating opposite to the ghat where the aarti was happening in order to see the aarti from the frontal point of view. The aarti is performed to worship Maa Ganga to seek her blessings and invoke her presence in this auspicious place.

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By the time the aarti was completed it was close to eight in the evening and people started slowly leaving the ghat. We hung around for some time more, the place and the feeling is so intoxicating. Almost everyone floats a lighted lamp and some flowers after conducting prayers in to the waters of the Ganga which signify hope and wishes.

.It was five thirty in the morning when I got up and hurriedly picked up my gear to go to the ghats. The town was all hustle and bustle at this hour and by the time I reached the ghat, there were quite a number of pilgrims and visitors .The pilgrims were all assembled in order to take a holy dip in the Ganges during sunrise.

However try as I might somehow I was unable to understand from within what I was looking to click , my thoughts rather went on reflecting on the way how I had landed up here , for till some months back there was no thought in my mind that I needed to visit Haridwar but then that’s how wheel of life turns . The early morning sunrise surrounded by humanity yet finding space amongst all in order to connect with the vibes of earthly elements, the flow of the Ganges, the warmth of the rising sun, the feel of the earth out there, if I close my eyes I can still feel those vibes come up to my inner heart making their presence felt as they did that morning. They made me feel different in a way that I cannot describe but they did … Rousing myself from my thoughts i did try to click a few pics and then wandered the Ghats just observing the atmosphere surrounding me. By around eight I was back to the hotel.

The schedule for the day included a visit to Kankhal as well as the RK mission out there followed by a visit to Maa Mansa Devi temple atop the nearby hills and then the evening aarti. So accordingly we set out and decided to hire the services of the tam tam for a visit to nearby temples .These are battery operated scooters which are similar to the auto rickshaws but have less power, more speed, agility and definitely less pollution. It makes more sense to hire them for a pre negotiated amount and fixed places that one wants to visit.

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We visited many temples in the morning on the way to Kankhal , the entire region has so many temples with each having its own story. Thereafter reaching Kankhal, we visited the Daksheswara Mahadev Mandir. Also we visited the Shree Yantra Mandir and the RK mission out there. The summer heat was at its peak and it was scorching in the afternoon. In the afternoon we visited the Maa Mansa Devi shrine which is reached by taking a sky lift cable car till the top of the hill. The temple had a very strong positive vibe and one could feel the aura of Devi Maa out there. By the time we were done with the visit it was evening and we decided to have a look at few of the ashrams that are spread out to the north of the city. It was very calm atmosphere away from the hustle and bustle when we visited these places.

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As dusk was approaching we retraced our steps and reached the ghat to take part in the aarti which definitely has a very strong pull and after an exhilarating experience our day drew to a close.

Haridwar-Rudraparayag.

Effectively speaking today would be the day when we would be leaving the Gangetic plains (I am not sure if this terminology is correct) and moving into the Shivalik Mountain ranges. These mountain ranges known as the tresses of Lord Shiva are the outermost as well as youngest range of the Himalaya.

The route consisted of the National Highway 58 which would first take us to Rishikesh. We were told that Rishikesh offered greater tranquility and serene surroundings as compared to Haridwar. However in my understanding both at Haridwar as well as Rishikesh if one wanted to imbibe the teachings of spirituality and immerse into the lap of nature, one needed to give time period of say 6-7 months to come to terms with the real nature of the place beyond the touristic appeal which so overpowering and omnipresent on the surface.

Rishikesh was reached soon and the main path leading to the famed Laxman Jhula was crowded with travelers and guides. I pitied myself that I did not have the opportunity to soak in the beauty of the place in the off tourist season, sometime maybe around the frigid winters. I was told that the original Jhula had since been demolished and now what we were seeing was the modern version of it. I was not particularly impressed by it even though it was my first visual of a hanging bridge of this magnitude, maybe it might be because of the number of people jostling around. Anyhow we quickly moved from Rishikesh towards Shivpuri.

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The entire stretch from Rishikesh to Shivpuri and beyond that for few km ahead has the Ganges flowing next to the road and on her white sandy banks have sprung up multitude of tents. The stretch is famous for water sports especially white water rafting .

Devprayag; the most holy of all the prayags being the confluence of the Alaknanda originating from the Satopanth glacier with the Baghirathi originating from the Gomukh glacier has its importance equal in significance to the Triveni Sangam at Allahabad. It is a sight to see the green icy waters of the Baghirathi meeting the deep muddy brown waters of the Alaknanda. Devprayag mesmerizes the traveler who comes wandering here.One pays respect at the temple of Lord Rudranath which is out here.

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Rudraprayag the next way point for the day was reached by 1700 hrs and is the second Sangam/Prayag in sequential order. It is the confluence of the Alaknanada and the Mandikini. One can walk down right till the confluence. There is the temple of Chamunda devi and Narad muni at the confluence. A bit higher up is the temple dedicated to Lord Shiva.

Here we visited the sangam as well as the temples of Lord Shiva , Chamunda Devi and Narad Muni. What a contrast these prayags were from the hustle and bustle of Haridwar and Rishikesh. The traveler is actually able to appreciate the significance of the natural beauty as well as the historical significance because there is calmness and peace all around allowing one to appreciate the scenario spread out.

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It was evening when we had reached Rudraparayg and from here we then decided to visit the legend of Koteswar Mahadev.The route to reach this temple clearly defined and is around three kms from the bridge on the Alakhnanda . After reaching a small hamlet, one needs to walk down a set of stairs for around one km in order to reach the temple, the cave where the Shiva Linga is instituted further down. I strongly recommend a visit to this temple as it emanates a very positive vibe.

Rudraparayag-Ukimath

The day started with some splendid views of the lavender laden trees that were growing along the main street and I savoured my time capturing their beauty.I can even now feel that feeling so subtly within as I think back on those moments , early in morning a small town waking up to another day in the foothills of great mountains. The destination for the day was Ukimath.

The drive to Ukimath was along the Kedarnath route but bifurcated at the diversion to Guptakashi. One needed to take the right turn towards Ukimath. This route took us via Augustamuni where one could visit the ashram of Sage Augustamuni and there after one crossed settlement of Bhiri ,Kund and finally Ukimath . All the places are small towns nestled in the foothills of mountain ranges but slowly waking up to commercialization and urbanization.

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Omkareshwar temple at Ukimath houses the deities of Kedarnath as well as Madhmaheswar during the winter months. There are five shiva lingas established here which represent the five paanch Kedar. The temple construction and decoration of the Parvati temple is very soothing The temples of goddess parvati are also out here.This temple is a must visit.Thereafter we proceeded towards Chopta in order to visit Tungnath Ji.

Tungnath-Chandrashila-Saari

The night was super cold and we shivered inside the quilts just waiting for the dawn. I remember the cold not allowing us to get comfortable and had experienced similar situation at another place called Pangong too. A dim light proclaimed arrival of the dawn with grey overcast clouds in the sky. The agenda for the day was trek to Tungnath and a stay out there followed by trek to Chandrashila.

By 0800 we were on our way and the trek was fairly well defined, there are rest spots built on the entire route where the hiker can rest for a while and catch his breath. In case one is carrying a back pack then the trek does appear stressful and that was the case with me , as the track climbed continuously uphill.

The total trek distance till the top is 5 km and one passes through thickets of Rhodendrons which by now had already bloomed and were waning , the atmosphere was a combination of heavy grey clouds , white snowed out peaks , bare rock mountains and shafts of sunlight in patches , a totally electic combination if I may say . I met many individuals’ locals from the region who do this trek very frequently every season. I found their company very refreshing indeed.

Tungnath ji , the highest shiva temple in the world and one of the five Panch Kedars. It is believed to be more than 1000 years old and is generally accessible only in the non-winter months.

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It was a joyful moment of doing darshan of the Lord himself . After the darshan myself and Umeid , our guide decided to climb till Chandrashila , it was not a very strenuous trek maybe because I was not carrying the backpack. The 270 deg views of the Himalaya were there but they were hidden because of the cloud cover hence we dropped the idea of staying the night out there and decided to return back to Chopta and then press on to Saari Village itself.

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Chandrashila literally meaning “moon rock “ is situated at a height of 4000 mts above sea level and is the summit of Tungnath. This peak provides a 270 deg view of the Himalayas and is famed for its sunrise with the peaks of Nanda Devi and Trishul clearly visible. It is impressive in its beauty .

The return leg was uneventful and we reached Chopta by around 4 in the evening and by 6 we were at Saari where we checked in to a delightful cottage .

Saari-Kalimath-Phata-Kedarnath

 We started form Saari village and moved ahead towards Guptkashi to Kalimath I found among the most vulnerable to mudslides, rock slides post 2013. The entire route is too narrow and broken at most of the places, vehicles do move up and down but at the cost of personal safety.

Kalimath , one of the 108 Shakti peeths , associate with siddhi learnings is a divine place surrounded by the Kedarnath peaks . It is said that Maa Kali had killed the asura Rakthabeeja out here. Steeped in folklore and mysticism it is revered by all those who visit this place.

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Post Kalimath we retraced back and reached Guptkashi where we undertook the prerequisite biometric scan and prepared to move towards Kedarnath. The plan for the day was to stay at either Phata or Gaurikund and then hike up to Kedarnath the next day. However as we reached Phata by midday we had changed the schedule midway and decided to take a helo service (6000/- per person) for onward journey to Kedarnath and the return was to be a trek.

The touchdown at the helipad of Kedarnath was a surreal experience and I was glad that I was able to manage getting a backpack and my photographic gear in the flight in spite of weight restrictions. The camera gear in addition to the woolen clothing had increased the weight and there is a weight limit per passenger. The climatic change was instantaneous and the wind chill factor at Kedarnath was substantial.

Kedarnath, home of Lord Shiva, of all the places that I have visited till date this is the place that holds very dear to my heart, there is something out there that draws one to oneself within, situated between towering mountain peaks desolate in looks and cold all the time yet the warmth that infuses inside the heart somehow , that is irreplaceable . I felt I could stay here for days to come and could feel the drive that forced many a mendicant to remain at Kedarnath braving the hostile climatic conditions.

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As we were going to stay the night we decided to take part in the evening aarti conducted at 730 in the evening and a sublime experience it was, which normally witnessed less crowds as the weather and the drizzle forced many back into their tents. The cold was substantial and the drizzle made the chill factor increase many fold. Proper clothing is a must i would say.

After the evening aarti , we decided to have simple dinner at the community service which had been organized and thereafter proceeded to our tents which had been allocated by the administration that managed the entire stay of all pilgrims . The temple doors closed by 830 in evening.

Kedarnath , the most remote of the char dhams can be reached by a 16 trek from Gaurikund. The temple opens around April end post Maha shivratri and closes at the onset of winter around Diwali.

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So many pilgrims come to this holy place with age or social standing hardly a deciding factor , aged individuals making the trek over 16-17 hours to reach the place in the darkness and then going straight to the temple to lay eyes on the idol of Lord Shiva. It is very difficult to describe what the eyes see in places like this , it has to be seen and experienced individually . But I would definitely recommend that a night stay option.

Kedarnath – Phata

After a restless night of tossing and turning we were up early in the morning and walked towards the temple again. This time while the morning aarti was in progress I ventured in to the area behind the temple. I could see a trail leading to the temple of Bhairavanath on the right and my eyes could also make out  the trek trail leading to Kedar Taal  on the left high up in the mountains . How I looked with eyes full of longing for both of these but somehow restrained myself and consoled that there will be a time for both ahead in the future. For the moment I said to myself that I was fortunate to have come till this far and done the darshan of Lord himself. After spending close to an hour in solitary company of the mountains including the Kedar peak, I turned back as we needed to get back on the trial leading to Gaurikund which was 16 km away.

The path this time was on the left of the mountain valley as opposed to the original one which was on the right which had been completely destroyed by the 2013 floods , the scale of devastation was so evident even in 2015 and I could imagine what must have happened on that fateful night and the next morning. The devastation was a constant companion till Gaurikund as we trudged through snow and ice on paths that had been roughly cut and cleared by the BRO in order to ensure that the temple opened on time.

It is a trek that is strenuous and long but the pilgrims do the same with belief in their heart. This new trail bypasses many historically significant way points like Garud Chatti and similar ones which now lie on the opposite side. We reached Gaurikund by around three in the afternoon and had a cup of hot streaming Maggie with tea as reward for the successful completion of the trek.

From Gaurikund one can take a sharing taxi till Guptkashi which is five km away. As we took the shared taxi, the weather opened up and torrential rains started. The entire stretch of 05 km road at once became treacherous on account of loose soil n silt that flowed along with the water from the surrounding mountains, definitely not a pleasing place to be in. I have come to the opinion that post 2013, this entire region has not stabilized and is still prone to upheavals and landslides at the slightest change in weather.

From Guptkashi we boarded another share taxi that dropped us at Phata where we collected our car and found a suitable hotel to stay for the night. Tomorrow was a visit to Truyuginarayan and then onwards.

 Phata –Trijunirayan-Nandaprayag

After a night of drizzle we woke up to splendid blue sky and fleeting white clouds. Today we were supposed to visit Triyuginarayan , nestled up above the valley of Guptakashi. The road leading to the village was unmetaled and narrow twisting and turning on the mountain side climbing all the while. I wonder how do people manage to commute to places like these in the rains; there is definitely no bus connectivity to these places , it’s the land of jeeps and max trekkers.For today it was all blue sky glorious sunshine and white peaks in the distance amongst the green mountain side .

Triyuginarayan was reached by around 1130 hrs and quickly had a darshan of the temple, there are many trekking spots in and around the surrounding mountains which I am sure those who stay close by can explore.

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The place is credited as being the location of the marriage of Lord Shiva with Maa Parvati and witnessed by Lord Vishnu. The ancient temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu and the celestial mandap are the highlights.The akhand dhuni (perpetual flame) burns here all the time. A serene place however the priests I found to be over zealous to make you pay monetary offerings whichi somehow did not go well with the entire ambience.

By around 1400 hours we were back at  Phata and decided to reach Karna  prayag itself rather than staying at Rudra prayag that we had originally thought , the road to Karna prayag deviates from Rudra prayag and one has to retrace the path till there . The sector from Rudra prayag till maybe 25 kms is totally deteriorated and pot holed and thereafter the road condition improves substantially.We did not stay at Karnaprayag but rather proceeded ahead  to Nandaprayag.

Nandaprayag – Joshimath

The next morning we visited the Sangam of Alaknanda and Nandakini rivers which did not have many tourists or pilgrims . Maybe it was early in the morning hence there were hardly any visitors. After this on a  warm  sunny morning we proceeded towards Joshimath . The route was along the Chamoli-Gopeswar Highway and we also took a detour from Chamoli to visit the Gopinath temple at Gopeswar. Gopeshwar is nestled on a hill and a narrow winding road leads up to the town itself. The setting was very picturesque with lavender trees in full bloom.

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The Gopinath temple dedicated to Lord Shiva has significant importance in this region and is highlighted with the presence of a 5 mt trident which I think is similar in metallurgy to the trident of Maa Mookambica at Kodachadri Village, Karnataka. Both these weapons are exposed to the nature however remain unaffected by the same.

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Post the visit we proceeded towards Joshimath and we arrived at Joshimath by 1400 hrs.  In the afternoon and evening we visited the famed Narsingh Temple at Joshimath established by Adi Shankaracharya himself and is one among the 108 “Divya Desams” and thereafter proceeded to visit the Shankaracharya Math which if one of the four Maths established and is in-charge of the ‘Atharvaveda’. The Kalpavrikhsa tree is also a major attraction and is said to be as old as Badrinath himself and is worth a visit. Joshimath also has the idol as well as site of the future Kedarnath temple which can be seen quite easily presently.

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Joshimath – Badrinath

The next day morning after visiting the Math again we left for Badrinath..The first stop was Vishnu prayag which is the confluence of Alaknanda and Dhauliganga rivers. After spending some time here we proceeded ahead. The route consisted of Vishnuprayag followed by historical places like Pandukeswara, Hanuman Chatti and then finally Badrinath.

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This entire stretch had also faced the devastation of the 2013 disaster and had not recovered since then. The entire route gives one a feeling of instability and the road has been at various places kept open with the help of JCBs and other heavy earth moving equipment. The scenic beauty is worth describing as one goes right into the heart of the mountains as the road snakes its way deeper and deeper. Hanuman Chatti was reached by 1400 hrs and thereafter we reached Badrinath at 1500 hrs.

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 In the afternoon we went up till Mana Village which is the last village this side of the border and visited the various historical sites out there.There are very worthwhile woollen articles sold at this village which is a must buy in my opinion. In the evening we went to the Badrinath temple and spend some quality time out there.The home of Lord Vishnu , the aura of this place is in itself a different feeling in itself, a must visit indeed.

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Thus concluded my wanderings in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand , where the religious belief and presence is all too evident and should be sampled with an open mind. The traveler will definitely come back enriched in mind and thoughts.

6 comments on “UTTARAKHAND : AN ODE TO THE HIMALAYA AND SPIRITUALITY”

  1. Hey Sumit!

    this was a wonderful and inspiring read and your photos are breathtaking! Thank you for sharing this experience. I’d love to chat with you about doing a similar trek if you are able, I am headed to beautiful Mother India soon for my first time!

    namaskar
    Colin

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks. I see that you had your own car (or maybe a rental?) for this trip, but I will not have that ability on my trip… is it reasonable and/or possible to take buses or taxis to the general base camp areas and towns to make the treks to the 5 Shiva temples that make up the Panch Kedar? I know doing it all on foot would take months so I’m trying to get an idea of how I can make this happen.

        If you’d prefer to email we can do that!

        Liked by 1 person

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