ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY trek to the highest Shiva temple in the country and encounter mystics, legends and amazing Himalayan views
Baba Kidik Bam proudly showed us a faded copy of High Times; his yogic pose captured decades ago by a foreign correspondent. The irony wasn’t lost on us. We were at Tungnath, the highest Shiva temple in India. ‘Tung matlab uncha, nath maney Shiv. Amarnath is higher, but it’s a cave, not a temple’, explained Baba. His actual name was Mahant Naga Baba Mukesh Giri, but at Tungnath, he was simply Kidik Bam. “Be it India or abroad, all the guides know me. Babas, bhakts (followers), travellers, whoever comes here, I tell them stories of Tungnath, its natural wonders, and look after them… Din paraya hai, par raat apni hai” (The day belongs to others, but the night is mine), he laughed. Just below us, temple bells rang out under the serpent-shaped cliff as baba sounded his damru (rattle drum) signaling the closure of the Tungnath shrine after the 8pm aarti.
We sat on a rocky ledge outside baba’s little kutiya (hut) while he shared his spiritual experiences. His raspy coughs crackled the air as we listened to his stories in this inhospitable yet stunningly beautiful terrain. Tungnath was no ordinary place. Located in the shadow of Chandrashila peak high above the tree line in Uttarakhand’s Rudraprayag district, this was where the stars prayed to Shiva and achieved their exalted position in the sky. Lord Vishnu received the celestial Sudarshan Chakra at this spot. It was here Lord Rama came to atone for the sin of killing Ravana… And it was in Ravana gufa that the demon-king had performed a rigorous penance and severed his heads as an offering to Lord Shiva. “The large cave is unusual – in the morning only a beam of light enters it, in the afternoon it’s completely dark, but at sunset a golden light emerges from it. It’s something to behold,” baba informed sagely.
Yet another fascinating tale about Tungnath was linked to the Mahabharata. Legend has it, after the Kurukshetra war, Sage Vyasa advised the Pandavas to seek forgiveness of Lord Shiva in order to absolve the sins of killing their kith and kin. When the five brothers came to the Himalayas in search of Shiva, the Lord chose to avoid pardoning those guilty of fratricide. He took the form of a bull and camouflaged himself in a field of countless bulls. At Guptkashi, Bhima saw one creature sinking in the mud and knew their divine search was over. He grappled with the bull but it disappeared and only parts of it surfaced at five places. The hump was found at Kedarnath, at Madhyamaheshwar the navel, at Tungnath the Lord’s forelimbs and heart, the face appeared at Rudranath while the hair and head surfaced at Kalpeshwar. At 12,070 ft, Tungnath was the loftiest of the Panch Kedars.
Like the Pandavas, we had been panting up the same mountain a few hours earlier on our 4km hike from Chopta to Tungnath. Luckily, the carefree songs of a kinnar (transgender person) trekking uphill with a massive wooden trunk filled with provisions on her back provided a lilting background score. Envying her strength and cheeriness, we stopped briefly to catch our breath. Below, rocky outcrops plummeted down to the valley and a tumble of boulders in the grassy meadows. On the other side wide-open bugyals (high-altitude grasslands) lured us to roll in the grass. Fragmented rows of visitors on foot or riding on mules led by porters wended their way along the cemented pathway. At a wayside shack we sipped delicious buraansh (rhododendron) juice in cold steel tumblers before plodding onward to reach Tungnath by late morning.
The ancient temple stood like an old mountain man, its rugged face wrinkled, but posture still erect. We took up lodging at a small shack below the temple and after endless rounds of chai and a late lunch, headed off for Chandrashila. The 1½ km hike was short but steep. A storm was brewing by the time we reached the small shrine of Gangadevi at its peak (13,500 ft). As we walked past the cluster of rock-cairns that held the vows, dreams and desires of hundreds of pilgrims in a wobbly balance, thunder rumbled like the faraway sounds of Shiva’s rattle drum. A lone red flag fluttered in the gusty wind as we absorbed nature in her raw, overpowering glory.
The prospect of five people squeezing into a 4 sq ft cell to brave a storm that could probably rage all night seemed unappealing. Yet the hypnotic sight of lightning flashes in the dark clouds, the last rays of the evening sun, the soft tinkling of tiny temple bells in the wind and the white silhouette of the Himalayas made us dally till twilight. The trek back was faster as we practically ran to avoid getting caught in the rain. A Himalayan pika or mousehare made a furtive scuttle for cover under slabs of rock as wildflowers bobbed their head in the drizzle. It was thus we landed at the doorstep of Baba Kidik Bam, who offered us chai and shelter.
While the Chopta to Chandrashila trek is relatively easy and open all year round, it is trickier in winter. As snow sets in, the symbolic image of Shiva is taken from Tungnath to Makkumath 19km away. Similarly, the Kedarnath idol is brought to Ukhimath, Rudranath to Gopeshwar and Madhyamaheshwar to Ukhimath. Unlike many who shift to the lower valleys in the icy winter, baba continues to stay in his hut all year round. Hours slipped by as we listened to his tales, before reluctantly climbing down to our humble tenement below.
Despite our evening adventure, we woke at the break of dawn and discovered a black partridge cooing on the path. A short walk led us to a cliff and we spotted a pair of Himalayan monal rifling the grass. The male hopped to a rock and caught the first rays of the sun…and for a fleeting moment we saw its iridescent plumage and the proud toss of its crest that could have put a peacock to shame. A little later, we came across a Himalayan fox loping across the bugyal and a herd of grazing Himalayan tahr. The descent to Chopta was leisurely and the next morning, after hot parathas, noodles and tea, we set off for Dogalbitta at the bottom of the valley. We spent the day birdwatching and hiking around the ravines. As a full moon rose against the shadowy pine trees on the hill, Baba Kidik Bam’s words rang out. “If you wish to see something spectacular, go to Chandrashila on a full moon night to catch the sunrise”.
On a mad impulse, two of us set off at midnight for Chandrashila. With just moonbeams to guide us, we climbed 7km to Chopta and were greeted by nervous ponies snorting and neighing at our intrusion. The hike to Tungnath was surreal as it was pitch dark and we paused momentarily outside baba’s hut. By the time we reached the summit, it was 4.30am. A group of Bengali trekkers waiting to catch the sunrise were stunned by our mad tale.
As the night slipped off its dark cloak, the colours of dawn exploded before our eyes over mighty Himalayan peaks – Bandarpoonch (20,722 ft), Kedar (22,769 ft), Trishul (23,360 ft), Chaukhamba (23,419 ft) and Nanda Devi (25,646 ft). Like the natural representation of Lord Shiva’s mystical image the craggy mountains resembled his matted locks with the crowning crescent and fount of Ganga trapped in a topknot.
We watched the sun break out of the sky and embarked on our 12.5km descent to Dogalbitta when a series of loud claps caught our attention. We looked up to see Baba Kidik Bam waving his hands from the Tungnath temple. There was a wide grin on his beaming face. We didn’t need to exchange any words, no signaling of the full moon or us walking. He knew, he just knew…
Perched at 3680m, Tungnath (third among the Panch Kedars) is a 4km trek from Chopta, located on the Gopeshwar-Ukhimath road in Rudraprayag district of Uttarakhand. Chandrashila peak is 1½ km from Tungnath.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 20 April 2014 in Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald.