Dates: Jun 15-17, 2018
Route: Drove from Rishikesh.
Sometime in the early 2000s on a long-forgotten flight in India, I happened to read an article on a mysterious temple in India called Kedarnath. Located at a height of 11,755ft (3,583m) in the Garhwal Himalayan range in the state of Uttarakhand, the temple is only accessible for 8 months of the year given the harsh winter months. Further, it is only (until recently) accessible by a small road that is ~10mi (16km) long and half of it going straight up into the mountains. This temple is one of the holiest shrines in Hinduism and dedicated to the God Shiva. Scientists have found proof that the temple was buried in snow for almost 400 years. It is also believed the temple is always protected by Lord Shiva and was proven during a devastating earthquake in 2013 that flooded the entire area and washed away the old road. A massive boulder perfectly wedged itself above the temple and protected it from the force of the gushing waters. Thousands of devotees make the pilgrimage on foot and, for many, it is a once-in-a-lifetime journey. I am not sure what it was about this temple or the small picture in the article, but some elemental calling arose in me that I had to go see it once in my life. Almost 15yrs later, I got the chance to do it with Rupa as we had to go to India in the summer for a wedding. We normally avoid India in the summer as the heat is unbearable in many places.
To go see the shrine and deity is supposed to be a very holy journey and one that most people treat with reverence and faith. We did our research and decided that our faith would have to be tempered with some modern advantages and booked a helicopter service that reduced the journey to some 15 minutes. The plan was simple.. fly upto the shrine in the morning and be back in our hotel by early afternoon. But, the best laid plans of men sometimes go awry, especially when the Gods are involved. Our flight was at 9am so we arrived at the site around 830 excited and all devices charged. Given the altitude, we had a jacket and a backpack with some snacks and cameras. It was a misty morning with some light drizzle that came and went. We arrived at the counter to find a few other passengers who did not look happy. The reason became obvious when the polite man at the counter nonchalantly informed us that flights were delayed due to fog at higher altitudes. He recommended we wait and things may clear up in a bit and to go have some chai at a nearby stall. To make a long story short, we spent the next two hours with the same man giving us hope in 30 min increments. With things looking bleak, our driver recommended we take the road and that we should be able to find horses that can take us up into the mountains. We went back to the room, packed clothes and items so we could stay near the temple overnight. The driver took us to Sonprayag, a small town that was the limit for where taxis and buses could go. As another annoyance, we only had ₹10,000 (~$120) in cash and none of the ATMs on the way here were working. Our driver assured us we could get cash at an ATM at the start of the road to Kedarnath so we let it go. We paid ₹100 for a shared taxi to take us to the small village called Gaurikund at the start of the road. Upon arrival, we went to the lone ATM only to find out that it had run out of cash earlier. We figured we would manage with what we had and set off through the myriad of huts and temporary buildings to the start of the road. We asked people along the way to rent horses but were told to ask ahead. After reaching the edge of the village, we learned that all horses were gone and none would be available. Given all that had happened, we stopped and considered turning back to try again the next day but decided since we were already here, to carry on. We did find a Pittu (porter) who agreed to carry our bags for ₹2,500, payable once we got to the temple. Given our bags already felt heavy, we agreed to let him use the basket hanging on his back to carry our stuff. We held on to our phones and left our jackets with him as it had warmed up to around 75o F (~24o C). With the sun shining and excitement building, we set off on our adventure to the shrine. And oh what an adventure it was to be.
We set off at a leisurely pace as the sun came out and felt happy we were finally on our way. We met people who had left at 4am and were just returning. A friendly young girl chatted with us about the hike and gave us her camphor which was used to combat altitude sickness. We wondered why that was needed and didn’t think much of it and carried on. There are many small shops and stalls along the way selling food, souvenirs or gifts to offer at the temple. We stopped to have some chai and it was after this we noticed we lost our porter. We had not taken his badge id or knew anything else about him. Figuring we’d catch up with him somewhere on the trail, we kept going. We were still looking to hire horses but all had gone up and most would not return till the evening. The first 3.7 miles (6km) is relatively flat with a lot to see along the way including small temples. We were wondering what all the fuss was about as it was an easy walk. We also
noticed the amount of older people (60s and 70s) who were walking slowly wearing sandals and some bare feet. We were really surprised but one look at the reverence and faith etched on their faces told us why. They were here to see their God and while faith may move mountains it also apparently allows one to climb them as well. We felt humbled as here we were irritated that our helicopter was not flying and we had to walk. And the fact that we had a (missing) porter who was carrying our bags.
The first major intersection is the Rambara Bridge which was build it 2013 after a massive flood washed away the old path. It was here that we first got a clue about what we had signed up for. Across the bridge, the road became a paved trail that cris-crossed up into the mountains and disappeared into clouds. It was here we again considered turning back but decided to keep going as we had already come this far. What had been a leisurely walk now became an actual hike and the temperature slowly began to drop. After about an hour of this, it started to lightly rain and we had no jacket or poncho. We ducked into this small café and this was when Rupa slightly panicked as we had no clothes with us, assumed we’d never see our bags with camera and passports again and finally realized it was going to be much colder at higher elevations. As we sipped the hot chai, a lady sitting next to us noticed Rupa and asked what was wrong. We told her and her 3 friends our story and received a smile that warmed the soul along with “Don’t worry, Lord Shiva will take care of everything. Have faith in him.” It was at this moment that we again realized the power of faith and how humans can far exceed our internal constraints.
Warmed physically and mentally, we set off with renewed energy along with 2 ponchos (plastic bags really) we had purchased at the shop. The trail continued to climb into the mountains as the valley below fell farther away. We found energy in the countless other people walking their path, most far older than us. There was always a ready smile or a warm look which always reminds me why I love India so much. During the next 4.3 miles (7 km), we stopped at the ramshackle villages of Jungle Chatti and then Bheembali for chai and conversations. Permanent structures are not allowed anywhere in the area since it is inside the Kedarnath wildlife sanctuary so all buildings are tents on platforms. In Bheembali, we were told there was accommodation at the next village of Linchauli which was another 2.4 miles (4 km) away. We set off again through a fine mist and plodded on, climbing ever higher, and getting tired with each step. Finally, around 6pm, we reached the outskirts of Linchauli just as the sun broke through the clouds for sunset. It was here we met two of the nicest policemen who we spoke to about our lost porter. They reassured us he would be there in Kedarnath and they would radio to the police outpost there to inform him we would not be there till the next morning. And seeing how cold Rupa was, one of the men took off his wool-lined coat and gave it to her. Words cannot describe the gratitude or the feeling of positivity that such an act of selfless generosity brings. We also went to a nearby shop and bought 2 shirts as we were soaked. We were directed to the far end of town where there were cottages. We got to the restaurant that also served as the cottage owner’s office and requested a room. He had no single rooms and only a shared room with 6 beds. He said it was empty but we would have to pay for all 6 beds. Tired, hungry and exhausted, we paid his price and took it. The cottage was a platform with canvas walls and a small bathroom with a mini water heater in it. The temperature had dropped to around 50o F (~10o C) and a light breeze made it feel even colder through our wet clothes. We tried our new shirts on but they were very thing and useless other than for sleeping. Once again pulling our wet tops on, we went and had a basic but hot meal which made us feel a bit better.
We went back to the room which somehow felt even colder than before. Thankfully the hot water heater worked and while it heated up, we decided to build our “tent” for the night. We took all the bedsheets from the 4 other beds and made a sort of igloo on the two beds we would sleep on. One thing that never escapes us for long is humor and we were soon joking and laughing about the situation we were in. I even made some soldier poses in the army coat and the power of the husband who is captain. The shower provided about 4 mugs each of warm water which felt heavenly in the cold. We hung our clothes to dry and crawled into the igloo to sleep. Shivering a bit in the flimsy shirt I had on, it was a this moment I realized that no wealth or material object that we had at home mattered a bit. There is no ATM or credit-card reader and all transactions were on a cash-only basis. And in a mini fit of lucidity, I also realized that maybe Lord Shiva had decided we were not to come by helicopter but to walk the route of the pious and those of faith. Saying a sincere and soul-felt prayer to the universe for taking care of us, I drifted off to a shallow sleep in the cold.
We woke up at 5am to a rooster crowing loudly outside and the sounds of horses and people. We decided there was no point in trying to sleep and that we should get going. After getting back into our still damp clothes in the morning cold, we began the last 3.1 miles (5 km) with some hot coffee inside us and exciting about finally reaching the temple. After about a km, there was a person with a single horse who offered to take one of us to the temple. Rupa was still tired from the day before and I told her to take it and I would walk. After about an hour, I crested a hill and saw a sight that will stay with me for the rest of my life; the road flattened for the final half km and was framed by green, misty peaks on either side and the magnificent snow-covered Himalayas directly ahead. The remainder of the walk was flat and I completed it in a spiritual trance enhanced by the morning prayers that were being broadcast from speakers along the path. I reached the entry way to the city where I also found Rupa. We went to the police booth to inquire about our porter and stunningly he was waiting for us. I really could have hugged him and cried out for joy but sincerely thanked him, brushed aside his apologies and gave him all the money I had left. Mentally fully charged, we entered the main path to Kedarnath with no money but with endless faith and gratefulness.
We went to a storage room to change into dry clothes and leave our shoes before going to the main temple. I cannot describe the sheer elemental joy of putting on fresh, dry clothes and washing our face in hot water. Shoes are not allowed anywhere near or in the main temple and we strode across the cold stone excited to finally be here. There was only a small queue given the early hour and we made it inside the small temple in 10 minutes. I have been to countless temples in my life and have never ever seen one like this. The statues of the deities and human-like figures on the walls of the antechamber and hallway leading into the main chamber resembled being from the movies Predator and Prometheus than any Indian figures I have ever seen. One even had the same type of mask as the warrior from Predator with oxygen tubes attached to a device on his back. In the main chamber, the Shiv ling (idol) is depicted in a one-of-a-king amorphous form vs. the standard rounded-cylinder one that is common through the world. Finally, during the winter months when the temple is closed, it is said to be lit continuously by the Akhand Jyoti (Eternal Fire) even though no human can get inside. For me, it was a beautiful experience to finally be inside this temple I had so long wanted to see and feel a deep sense of peace and contentment when I grudgingly left. This visit was, for me, something that I will carry and deeply cherish for all my life.
As a parting gift, the weather began to clear and we heard the roar of helicopter engines as we got to the outskirts of the village. We enquired about our tickets and after waiting for an hour, were allowed to board. The flight was an unbelievably beautiful experience for both of us since it was our first time in a helicopter and the valley below was stunning in the morning light. We saw the miles of zig-zag road we had traveled and marveled at the fact we had made it on foot. For that experience, I am grateful for whatever higher power that caused it to happen.
On the drive from Rishikesh to Phata, there is an interesting town where there is a confluence (merging) of two rivers that form the Ganges. The Alakananda river flows in from the east and has its origins in the Satopanth and Bhagirath Kharak glaciers. Bhagirathi comes from Gangotri and is one of the main tributaries to the Ganges. intricate design. We did not have time to stay in Devprayag but were able to see the merging of the rivers and the many Hindu devotees bathing at a temple in the valley below. You can get some great views and photographs from the main road without having to go into town.