Tunganath Part 3


There’s a certain charm in passing the night at a temple town. Outside, the great silence of the Himalayas. The night has still not passed. Suddenly, a sound of drums. The priest is opening the doors of the temple. At dawn, the deity is woken up with a morning arati. From deep inside the blanket I hear the sweet sound of the temple bells. Its not quite like an earthquake, but it seems like the mountain booms with the deep sound of those bells, and my heart is filled with a sudden joy. I listen intently. A sense of contentment comes over me.

The puja ends. Silence returns.

Lying there, I suddenly remember Ben Jonson’s words- “Bells are profane, a tune may be religious.” But is that really true? I wonder. In those bells I hear the voice of divinity.

Again, bells ring outside, this time from the street. A flock of sheep and goats make their way down the road, carrying loads on their back. Little bells tied to their necks ring out as they move. In the still night, this is another beautiful Himalayan tune- the merry melody of the open road, like sudden birdsong in a still forest. Just as a single stringed instrument will play different tunes, or as different ragas compete for the mind with diverse emotions, the suggestive sounds of bells evoke different feelings.

I lay there and reminisce.

Childhood. Calcutta. The three-storied building of the Bhawanipur police station just opposite my house. On its terrace a large wooden shamiyana. A massive bell hangs there. Through the day, a red-turbaned policeman would be posted there, to ring it on the hour. I remember waking up suddenly in the middle of the night. My room is vaguely lit by the streetlamps outside. Everyone in the house is fast asleep. Suddenly the bell rings twice. Its 2 a.m.! The two gongs light up in the darkness like the twin eyes of a tiger. I turn to one side and try to sleep. In the day, the sound of the bell is subsumed by the roar of the city. In the morning, I hear the bells of a passing horse-drawn carriage. I can always pinpoint those distinct chimes despite the surfeit of sounds surrounding me. It’s the sound of my father returning from a round of the maidan at dawn. The carriage turns off the main road. The sound of bells cease. Now I hear my father’s footsteps. In a little while he will enter his massive book-lined study and work through the day. I sit in my little study with a small book. The blinding light of his intellect lights up the tiny toy lamp of my mind.

Pic: Old Calcutta

The ringing bell at school. The bell that signals the beginning of a class sounds so different from the one signalling its end. If it’s a class that I’ve enjoyed, I feel a sense of loss. The bell at the end of a class that doesn’t interest me brings relief. As I lie in my blanket, the sound of the school bell slowly fades from memory. I remember a class of my college professor. Animatedly reading Shakespeare. I listen to him with rapt attention. My imagination flies to the Bard’s world. The characters and events bloom vividly in my mind. The bell rings, but nobody seems to hear it. Another professor waits outside for the next class. Our reverie breaks. The chime of the bell fades away.

I remember various different bells at the Railway station or at the port. The bells ring and travellers hurry busily. People run to and fro, worried about missing their train. The chaos of the station bell enters language as a metaphor.

The sweetest bells are heard along the track-filled expanse of the Himalayas. A silent path. A still forest. Suddenly I hear bells, like a swelling invisible music. Far away I see a flock of approaching sheep. I stand to one side. Hundreds of furry bodies pass- some tripping on my feet- a massive flock crowding a narrow mountain path, trailing the sound of hundreds of tinkling bells.

I remember another set of bells on my way to Kailash-Mansarovar. A postman goes on his way, a sack of mails on his back. He holds a long stick, crowned with a bunch of tiny bells. He walks with long strides, and the bells keep up a steady rhythm. I stare at his burden of letters. He runs on from one village to the next. His sack reminds me of home, and I miss it so very much.

The chimes of the morning arati at Ukhimath remind me of bells at the banks of the Ganges in Haridwar or Benaras.

Pic: Evening arati at Benaras (courtesy Shonedeep)

Evening shadows lie on the great river. All around me, near and far swells the sound of a million bells. Thousands of temples all ring their bells together. The river is suddenly filled with hundreds of floating flowers. Little earthen lamps glitter amidst the blooms as they float gently on the river. It seems to me as if the night comes to honour the river bearing thousands of lamps to a symphony of bells.

to be continued…

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Tunganath Part 2

Ukhimath Temple (courtesy Trek Earth- http://www.trekearth.com)

Ukhimath is to Kedarnath what Joshimath is to Badri. Both these towns, founded by the Hindu seer Shankaracharya, serve the same purpose. When Kedar and Badri hibernate under the winter snows, the deities are worshipped at Ukhimath and Joshimath respectively.

Ukhimath is the local name for Ushamath. Legend has it that Usha, the daughter of King Bana- a political adversary of Krishna- fell in love with Krishna’s son, Aniruddha. This led to war between the king and Krishna, apparently near the town of Shonitpur in this region which was the capital city of King Bana. Local people can still point out the remnants of a fortress attributed to the legendary monarch.

The temple at Ukhimath looks like a fortress itself. You enter through a massive gate into an open court lined on all sides by houses. The temple lies at the centre- the classic layout of an ancient temple town. The deity is a silver-moulded idol of Shiva. Other gods and goddesses too are worshipped here. The ceremonial seat of Kedarnath resides here and

Ukhimath is where the head priests of Kedarnath- the Rawals- live and work. I used to know a previous Rawal here extremely well, and had spent many days at Ukhimath on my various trips to this region. In fact, he was the one who took me to Madhmaheshwar for the first time.

Another time I trekked to Deoria-tal from here. This beautiful lake lies atop a mountain North-East of Ukhimath, a leisurely day’s walk away. To get there, you proceed a little way along the road to Tunganath, and then leave it to climb the mountain on your left. You need a guide to navigate up this thin track through some dense forests. The priest had got one of his own men to accompany me. It is difficult to gauge the distance. Some say it is a mere 5 km from Ukhimath, others contend that its 10 km. It is a steady climb through the forest, with occasional stretches of level ground. Its very peaceful here. After a while, suddenly you hear the animated chatter of countless birds, and soon after you walk around a bend and the forest ends. In front lies the massive lake, at a height of 8,000 feet. I’m told the lake is about a kilometre in length and half a km across. In the distance you see the peaks of the Chaukhamba, Kedarnath and Badrinath (Neelkanth). The reflection of the peaks sways gently on the surface of the lake, as if the king of the mountains is admiring his own image.

Deoria Tal (courtesy Trek Earth- http://www.trekearth.com)

A hermit used to live by the banks of this lake in his little hut. A Bengali, he used to meditate here in peace, living on water-chestnuts. I never got to meet him as he had passed away a few years before I went there. I saw his deserted hut in ruins. There’s a lovely description of this man in the book Letter from the Himalayas by Ghantakarna.

I spent so many peaceful nights at Ukhimath. But once, I remember being woken up in the middle of the night by a strong quake. Everything was shaking. I could hear a distant ominous rumble, as if the mountain itself was moving. In the dark room I could feel my bed shaking. The wooden furniture started vibrating, the window was shaking. The tin roof over my head was rattling and I could hear the nasty, grinding sound of large rocks rolling down the slope somewhere close.

This was my first brush with an earthquake in the Himalayas. I remember I refused to move to safety. In the plains, during an earthquake you leave the building to gain the relative security of open ground. There’s no such security in the mountains where the ground itself might shift from under your feet. Then there’s the fear of avalanches. I lay there and gave myself over to fate.

There were other, smaller tremors during the night. Periodically I would hear the rattling tin roof mixed with that strange rumble from the bowels of the mountain.

The next morning everyone was talking about it. Fortunately, the town’s buildings had escaped with minor losses.

Over the next few days, the mild tremors persisted.

to be continued…

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Tunganath Part 1

A very favourite travel writer of mine is the late Umaprasad Mukherjee. An avid traveller, he probably popularised the Garhwals to a good three generations of Bengalis. Its criminal that his beautiful travel pieces are available just in Bengali, his native language. So I’ve decided to (unofficially) translate some pieces by him and publish them here. Its impossible to do justice to the man’s way with language, his deep humanism and spiritual attachment to the Himalayas. Hope you like it. It was written sometime in the early Sixties.

Umaprasad Mukherjee- Himalaya Chronicles.

Tunganath Temple



On the way to Kedarnath, soon after leaving the town of Guptakashi, you can often see, in the distance, a massive blue mountain. Sometimes, towards the end of winter, its peak is covered with a light dusting of snow. Sometimes there’s snow even after the rains. The mountain then looks like a frail old man swathed in a white blanket to shut out the cold. At other times, it is hidden by clouds and mist. Then the mists part and it appears again- a monarch among mountains.

This is the third of the five kedars- Tunganath.

At some 12,072 feet, Tunganath is the highest temple in the entire Kedar-Badri circuit, making the name a highly appropriate one. The peak itself looms like a massive hooded cobra another thousand feet above the temple- it is called Chandrashila.

Chandrashila Peak

At approximately 13,000 feet this is higher than both Kedarnath (11,750 feet) and Badrinath (10,244 feet). Not many pilgrims who come to these parts have heard of Madmaheshwar, Rudranath and Kalpeshwar. However, many do know of Tunganath. In fact, it used to be quite popular once upon a time.

On the way to Kedarnath lies Guptakashi. Just outside Guptakashi is the village of Nala. This is where a side-track leaves the main road, and branches down to the Mandakini river valley below. You cross the river on a pretty iron bridge, and then climb up to Ukhimath.

That was many years ago. Now, a motorable highway has swallowed the track whole, like a big snake swallows a smaller one. This highway bypasses Nala, effectively shutting off the old approach to Ukhimath. Nowadays, you head off to Ukhimath directly from Guptkashi.

Before the road came, pilgrims descending from Kedarnath would take the Nala route to Ukhimath. From there they would go further up to Tunganath, cross the mountain and head off towards Gopeshwar. From there, some more hiking would bring them to Chamoli on the Alaknanda river valley. This is where they would find the road to Badrinath. Back then there was no need to come all the way down to the confluence of the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers at Rudraprayag to get on the road to Badrinath. The Ukhimath-Tunganath-Chamoli route was a much shorter one. And that way, pilgrims would get to pay their respects at the temples of Ukhimath and Tunganath.

But this is the era of buses. So most pilgrims nowadays descend to Guptkashi from Kedarnath and get on a bus, which takes them all the way to Badrinath. You get off the bus, pay your respects at Badri, and get back on the bus. Travellers sigh with relief at being spared a long hike up and down mountains.

It is less tiring for sure. After all, the ascent to Tunganath is nothing to sneer at!

However, I feel that to come to the Himalayas and then to trade in this 3 day trek for the convenience of a bus is to deprive yourself of an unique experience. After all, the view of the Greater Himalayan peaks that you get from Tunganath is unmatched.

The track down from Tunganath affords other pleasures.

Pilgrim Road to Tunganath

It passes through a thick forest, another thing you don’t find often on the bus route. There’s nothing to fear here, as there are hardly any wild animals, and a clear track ensures that you don’t lose your way. It winds down gently under the cool shade of the trees past many waterfalls of various sizes. This ancient forest has its own charms.

And yet, nobody comes to Tunganath anymore. Even the famed pilgrim town of Ukhimath wears a deserted look.

Recently though, a motorable road has made its way to this area. This one comes down from across the village of Kunda, and makes its way under Ukhimath and Tunganath and meets the road to Badrinath at Chamoli. Perhaps in a few years buses will ply this route too. But will that be enough to lure the convenience hungry traveller from the comforts of the bus to make the difficult trek up Chandrashila to see the Himalaya in all its glory?

to be continued…