I had the amazing good fortune to travel in India with a dozen of my good friends for almost two months in the fall of 2004. We traveled all around Northern India, visiting Delhi, the majestic Taj Mahal at Agra, Shiva’s holy city of Varanasi, Haridwar and Rishikesh, the gateway to the Himalayas, and many other beautiful, holy, and spiritually uplifting sites. This is the story of how perseverance, dedication, and devotion rewarded me with one of the great adventures of my life.
We had been in India for about two weeks, traveling through the beautiful foothills of the Himalayas. We had visited many sacred and holy places, including temples, ashrams, and had visited with various swamis and sadhus. We spent several days at the YSS ashram at Dwarahat, and visited the most holy cave where Babaji Maharaj, my great-great-grand guru, initiated Lahiri Mahasaya into Kriya Yoga. From there we headed north to the high-Himalayan shrine dedicated to Lord Narayana at Badrinath. Badrinath is a magical place, saturated with the blissful love and devotion of the millions of devotees who have made pilgrimage to that place through the centuries. You cannot help but be uplifted, just by breathing that holy air, which has been breathed by saints and yogis for millennia. After the rigors of navigating the narrow mountain roads on a bus that seemed much too wide for them, we got a greatly needed recharge at Badrinath.
Reluctant to leave but eager to continue our journey, we made ready for our next destination: Kedarnath. As we were leaving Badrinath, it was beginning to rain. We knew that did not bode well for the fourteen kilometer hike required to reach Kedarnath, where the altitude was higher, and the rain would surely be snow. The group decided to forgo the trek and instead proceed on to Rudraprayag and then to our campsite on the banks of the Ganga.
A few of us, still floating from our experiences at Badrinath, and eager to visit other high-Himalayan shrines, were disappointed at not being able to visit Kedarnath. It was then that someone suggested we visit the second holiest Shiva shrine in the area, called Tungnath. Tungnath is intimately connected to Kedarnath as one of the five Kedar shrines, called "Panch Kedar."
According to legend, after the war of Kurukshetra, the Pandava brothers wanted to be absolved of the sins they had accumulated during the eighteen days of warfare, including the killing of their cousins, the Kurus, and the much greater sin of killing their own guru, Dronacharya. They sought out Lord Shiva, who was the only one capable of destroying the karma of so grievous a sin. Shiva, however, did not immediately want to forgive their sins. He tried to hide from the Pandavas. He fled first to Kashi (Varanasi), His favorite city, hoping to lose them there, but they pursued Him relentlessly. He decided to try and evade the brothers by fleeing to His home in the North, the mighty Himalayas. He came to the area now known as Kedarnath, where He took the form of a bull and hid among the cattle herds grazing there. The Pandavas came to the place and could not immediately find the Lord. When the Pandavas recognized His disguise, Bhima, the strongest of the brothers, tried to grab Him. Shiva, still in bull form, and sensing His imminent capture, began to sink into the Earth, and Bhima was only able to grab His hump. Bhima’s strength was so great that even the mighty Lord Shiva could not escape his grasp. Shiva was so pleased by their determination that He freed them from their sin. He also asked that they worship His hump there at Kedarnath. His hump took the form of a great lingam which remains in the temple on that spot to this day, and is worshipped by thousands of pilgrims every year. The other parts of the Shiva-Bull’s body appeared in various places in the area. His hair locks manifested as a lingam in Kalpeshwar, His face at Rudranath, His body at Madmaheshwar, and His arms at Tungnath. These five temples are the "Panch Kedar," the five temples dedicated to the Bull-Shiva who forgave the Pandavas sins.
Hearing that we were very near to the shrine at Tungnath, and having recently heard the story of the Panch Kedar, four of us decided to leave the group and take a day trip to the temple. It was arranged that we would hire a jeep to take us to Tungnath, while the rest of the group traveled on to Rudraprayag. The jeep came to our hotel early the next morning, and we began our amazing adventure.
We took our jeep to the small village of Chopta, elevation 9500 feet, the starting point of the pilgrimage trail to the temple. When we arrived in Chopta, it was pouring rain, and doubts were starting to creep into our minds. At the same time, however, we were all determined to make it up that mountain. So, we waited for a break in the rain. Several minutes went by, and if anything, the rain only got heavier. Sitting in the jeep, listening to the rain falling, we began to sing a Shiva bhajan to focus our thoughts on the Lord, and remind ourselves of the purpose of our journey. As soon as we started singing, the rain lessened, and by the time we finished the song, there was not a drop falling, and it seemed that the sun was peering through the clouds. We seized the moment, bundled ourselves against the cold, and headed for the trail. Our driver would wait for us in the village while we made the trek up the mountainside to the temple of Tungnath. We began our hike on that ancient path made of thousands of flat stones placed up on their sides and packed together with mud, grass, and moss. The path wends up and up through the most beautiful, dense, old-growth forest, through picturesque alpine meadows (picture the opening from The Sound of Music) and astonishing views of the Himalayan peaks. The area around Tungnath is the most densely forested part of the Garhwal region of the Himalayas, and it is absolutely breathtaking.
The hike itself is breathtaking as well, quite literally. The trail from the village up to the temple is about four kilometers long (2.5 miles), and it is quite steep. We were coming from sea level in Southern California, so hiking at that altitude on a steep slope and slippery rocks was tougher than we had thought it would be. But we kept trudging along, pausing occasionally to catch our breath, only to have it taken again by the majestic beauty of our surroundings.
After about an hour and a half, we could see fog gathering on the hill above us. The clouds were getting thicker and the air was getting colder. We came to the top of a ridge, and the first few little flakes of snow began to appear. We kept on, and the snow got heavier, and thicker. A short while later, we came upon two young men on their way down from the temple. Exhausted and eager, we asked them how much farther to the temple, but neither of them spoke English. So we pointed up the hill and said "Tungnath! How much further?" Eventually, one of them got what we were asking, and he pointed up the hill and just said "Half, half." Our hearts sank. Only halfway? We didn’t think we could make it to the top if this was only halfway. But we decided to press on, just to see how far we could get. The snow was quite heavy now, and we were wet and getting very cold.
We came upon a small hut, which was really nothing but four poles with plastic tarps for walls and roof. We asked the occupant if we could come in, and warm by his fire. We were delighted to discover that the hut was actually a little chai shop so we were able to warm ourselves with hot tea as well. The shop owner spoke no English at all, but somehow we all had a good laugh with each other. By this time, the snow and fog were so thick that all we saw outside the shack was a solid wall of white. As I was drying my socks on the clay stove (I was completely soaked, seeing as I had cleverly worn sweat pants and sandals that day!), I looked up at the wall and saw a photo of the temple that we were trying to reach. Pointing to the picture, I said "Tungnath!" The shop keeper nodded and repeated "Tungnath!" We asked how much farther it was, but, not understanding our words, he just pointed up the hill in the direction of the temple. Again we asked how far, but it was in vain. Slowly it dawned on us that he was not pointing a long ways away. He was telling us that we had arrived. He was actually pointing at the temple itself! The relief we felt was glorious. The young men who told us "Half, half," did not mean we were half way there. They meant we were half a kilometer away. We were so close and couldn’t even see the huge temple through the icy fog! Hurriedly, we paid for our tea, thanked the shopkeeper thoroughly, and made our way up the last couple hundred feet to the temple.
The temple is beyond description. I don’t mean the way it looks. It looks like a million other temples in India. But the feeling that is there cannot be put into words. I could feel the peaceful joy of the saints who have been visiting this remote shrine for thousands of years. I could feel the presence of the Pandava brothers who built the temple with their own hands. Best of all, I could feel the living presence of the Lord permeating the very stone from which the temple is built.
The elevation at Tungnath is about 12,000 feet, making it one of the highest temples in the Himalayas, and the highest Shiva temple in all of India. We could not enter the temple with our shoes on, so we had to leave them in a room across the courtyard and walk barefoot to the entrance. We entered the temple, and stepped into another world, another time. The vibration in the inner sanctum felt as though it had remained unchanged for thousands of years. Standing there, it could have been 1000 years ago, or 1000 years from now, and it would have been the same. That small room housing the ancient lingam is a pocket removed from the flow of time.
The local pandit chanted the appropriate mantras, and gave us a blessing and some prasad, and we began our slippery hike back down the hill. We visited our dear friend in the small chai hut again to warm our feet and hands before braving the steep, snowy trail back down the mountain. We took our time going down the hill, and we all slipped once or twice, but our spirits were soaring. Eventually, we reached our waiting taxi, and we all piled in shivering. We were cold, we were soaked, and we were happy.