Those sparkling snow peaks swirling diamond dust in the bluest of skies, those majestic and divine deodar trees preserving age old silence and those green blue ribbons of water, flowing down the mountain slopes with noise and gust, full of inner joy !
Himalayas, from ancient times have been revered as a sacred land of spirituality. Though it forms the northern boundary with China and central Asia, it was never a route of invasion and assault because of difficulty in access. The traditional protector of Indian landmass stood tall and wide exuding purity and silence.
Himalayas starts from Kashmir valley and ends in the Meghalayan foothills, stopping just short of Bay of Bengal. Spanning 2400 kilometres from North-West to South-East of Indian subcontinent, Himalayas have a very special and unique position both in geography and in people’s mind. Geographically it segregates India from rest of the North Asian landscape, culturally it is the sacred abode of Gods. For millions of Indians, Himalaya is known as Devatatma which literally means someone with a divine soul. True to meaning., there are several places of worship, several gods and goddesses, several forms of worships and not to forget several structures of worship adorning this huge mountain range.
Uttarakhand , the part of middle Himalaya, is nestled between Himachal Pradesh and Nepal with its foot hills touching the north Indian planes in Uttar Pradesh. The western part is Garhwal and eastern part is known as Kumaon. In Uttarakhand, we find several places which have close association to the story of Mahabharata and people in the legend. For example, Lakhamandal is where the infamous sabotage of burning the Pandavas happened. Swargarohini is the peak from where Pandavas embarked on their heavenly journey. Not surprisingly a horizontal section of Himalayan ranges is also known as Mahabharat range
Our tradition tells us that Mahabharat is the fifth Veda and by itself an Itihas; the story as it happened. These villages, temples and rivers all take us to that era, just a little more closer to our ancestors.
The western part of Uttarakhand bordering Himachal is nourished by waters of Tons and Yamuna. Rupin and Supin rivers come together from lofty valleys to form the Tons or Tamsa. The Jaunsar-Bawar region of Uttarakhand and the villages of Netavar, Osla and Jakholi have interesting legends associated. As the people of this region believe, this is the land of Kaurava, the Kuru race from Mahabharat times. Mind you, Pandava brothers although technically Kauravas, are not celebrated here but it is their defeated cousins, the sons of Dhritarashtra who are worshipped in this land. One can find several temples dedicated to Duryodhana and a few to Karna ! The victorious Pandavas being ’other’ party are not treated as Gods, but it is their able opponent, the prince of Kuru kingdom, the eldest of the Kaurava, Duryodhana that is their object of prayers! Duryodhan temples are found at Jakholi, Osla, Gangar and some other places. Devra and Netawar in the same valley has a temple of Karna, Duryodhana’s best friend and eldest son of Kunti, also a celebrated Daan- Veer. There is a Karna temple at Karnaprayag too.
It will be interesting to note that polyandry, famously followed by queen Draupadi in Mahabharat is somewhat common in this region. At times, the locals insist that these temples belong to Someshwar, a form of Shiv. However this is done to shield the real deity as it is against the popular belief.
The beautiful stone and wood Himalayan temples are breathtaking. These temples are generally built in multiple chambers placed in sequence. The temple pinnacles are inverted metallic cones and sloping four sided roofs balanced on top of each other. The beautiful wooden carvings give a very ornate look to the entire structure.
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Many of the villages in the region are away from roadways and can be reached only by foot. This difficulty in approach has worked in their favour as the cultural beliefs and legends have been preserved from strong influences. like, waters of Tons river are thought to be the tears of the residents when they mourned the loss of Kauravas in Mahabharat war. As everywhere in India the legends and traditions have traversed across centuries and even today Tons river water is not used for drinking. Yamuna forms the eastern boundary of this land of Kaurava.
Picture courtesy : here
Central Garhwal is the spiritually important region of Char Dham Yatra. Yamanotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath are the four places of utmost importance in Hindu pilgrimage.
Yamunotri is the temple site marking the origin of Yamuna River higher up in the mountains. This temple has been reconstructed several times because of the geological instability in the region. Gangotri Temple is a 19th century addition by a Nepali commander. Ganga River originates farther up at Gaumukh which is the snout of a mighty glacier. The five holy confluences of Mountain Rivers with Alaknanda are also important landmarks of this divine region. Needless to say there is a temple at each of the confluences either for the river or the divine destroyer Shiva !
Kedareshwar, one of the 12 Jyotirlings is not a shivling but a conical round shaped stone jutting from earth. It is supposed to be the hump of the bull whose body has sunk in the ground. Lord Shankar took the form of a bull to run away from Pandav brothers who were seeking his blessings after the war. The other parts of the body appeared at 4 more places close by, namely Tunganath, Rudranath, Madh-Maheshwar and Kalpanath. These are the famous Panch Kedar in the Himalayas.
The Kedarnath temple has stood the test of time for last 1200 years. Built at the height of 3300 meters, overlooking the lush green Mandakini valley and being guarded by Kedar Mountains, the temple is the rugged example of Nagar style stone temple architecture. With minimalist ornamental carvings, the temple is an impressive ‘tri-rath’ black stone structure. The 2013 deluge of June washed away the entire Kedarnath town but the temple stood still.
Badrinath or Badri Vishal is the supreme place of Vishnu worship. The temple of Badrinath, with a boisterous flow of Alaknanda in the vicinity is a riot of colours. Badrinath is also one of the Sapta Badri, seven places of Vishnu worship in the region, the other being Bhavishya Badri, Yoga Badri, Dhyan Badri, Narsimha Badri, Vriddha Badri and Adi Badri. All 4 major ‘Dhams’ literally close their doors for icy winters in Himalayas after Divali in the month of Kartik. The temples reopen at the start of spring mostly on Akshay Tritiya in the month of Vaishakh , sometime in May. The essence of the deity is carried to the lower hills at designated places during this hibernation. However it is not uncommon to find some holy monks still keeping company to Kedarnath , all surrounded in large mounds of snow during the ‘Shishir’ winter !
Yamuna is closely associated with Krishna’s childhood and Krishna is one of the Vishnu’s Avatar. Ganga is closely linked with Kedar or Shiv as she descends on earth through his knotted hair. And Uttarakhand is blessed to be home to these symbols of traditions carried forward for thousands of years. Hence, fondly also called Devbhoomi.
Moving further to east, Kumaun region of Uttarakhand takes its name from Kurma – an incarnation of Vishnu; the turtle. The green landscape with rolling gentle slopes and sapphire lakes, the pretty valleys of Binsar or Ranmgarh, the chirping jungle lore of Pangot and marvellous locations of some of the most enchanting temples, Kumaun is soothing to eyes and senses.
Jageshwar is a tiny temple town. You travel through lovely green hills and through dense Pine forests, high and mighty, reaching for the sky, just right to form the most naturally majestic courtyard for the supreme deity Shiv, the divine destroyer, the sage of the sages, the creator of letters and god of performing arts.
In ancient times, this was the starting point for pilgrims who would travel to Kailash, the ultimate abode of Shiva. Crossing the high mountain pass, reaching to the land of Tibet and traversing the dry cold valleys of higher Himalaya to attain and see the majestic site of Holy Kailash mountain and touch the heavenly blue waters of Man Sarovar. What a journey!
Dandeshwar temple is akin to the catchy opening chords of an enchanting melody. The temple stands erect without any rath formation on its outer walls. There are small shrines of Kuber and Varun in the same premises. A little ahead is Jageshwar temple complex. Some texts treat it as part of 12 Jyotirlings and some don’t. The crowded campus of Jageshwar have several small and large temples. There are several open Shiv lings and ritualistic tanks within the premise.
Apart from Shiv and Vishnu, Uttarakhand is also home to an exquisite sun temple at Katarmal in Kumaon. The Kosi River flows nearby and this beautiful piece of architecture stands erect on the slope of a high mountain.
The goddesses have also left their mark in this land of pines. Kalimath, an important pilgrimage is home to Kali worship. Nanda Devi, the charming princess of the region has temples at Almora, Koti and many other places. Nanda Devi Jat Raj is an important pilgrimage for whole of Garhwal and Kumaon organized every 12 years. Nanda Devi peak in Kumaon stands tall blessing the valley and beyond. Naina Devi temple at Nainital is a Shakti Peeth, where Sati’s eyes fell down on earth while Shiv fiercely danced to a Tandav, holding a dead Sati in his arms, in eternal agony and grief of losing her.
Apart from these mainstream deities and river goddesses, Uttarakhand has not forgotten its local and native divinities. Travelling though Kumaon , you come across a temple of Golu. The temple structures are simple , sometimes newly constructed and painted ugly cement creations too. But the vibe at these places is nothing short of divine. Garhwal region has a powerful local deity called Mahasu devata. Beautiful three chamber temple with Pagoda style roofs at Hanol signify the importance of Mahasu Devata in local mind.
Himalyan stone temples follow same style of architectural elements almost everywhere. Right from the three faced central carving on shikhar to a line of semi circular carvings on adjoining walls of shikhar, one can find similarities throughout. Almost all have compact niches on the outer walls of temple for sculptures.
Another important aspect of Himalayan temples is the cluster in which they appear. From Laxminarayan Temple complex in Chamba to Jageshwar in Kumaon, from Adibadri in Garhwal to Lakhamandal in Western Uttarakhand, all of them can be classified as temple clusters. There are a few bigger ones and then there are several small temples strewn all around the premises. Several deities give company to each other in these temple clusters. However what we don’t see are imposing enclosures as seen in other temples in India.
Though populated with deities, if you ask me, the green meadows, the land locked sapphire pools of water, the tall peaks turning golden in setting sun, the fresh pine scented air and the silence of the woods giving solace to your mind is the real and ultimate place of worship …. Himalayas itself are a temple!
All the pictures used in the post belong to the author unless stated otherwise
Author – Manisha Chitale
She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org