The place isn’t the same anymore. The humans went overboard with interfering into Lord Shiva’s serene territory. He doesn’t demand extraordinary devotion and prefers to live and let live in peace. But humans misjudged his silence as his acceptance. Of what? Well, anything they could think of. Be it denuding entire valleys of trees, relentless construction of structures literally in every corner or constraining the freedom of rivers flowing down the valleys to satisfy their own luxury (read electricity). It was all piling up and finally patience ran out and then came down his wrath. Within minutes, millions of gallons of water roared down from the slopes of mountains of Kedarnath and swept everything that came on its way. The sweet and beautiful Mandakini turned into a demon and devastated lives and properties of millions of families. Parents saw their children getting swept away and vice versa. Houses that took years of humongous effort to build, got swallowed by ever rising tides within minutes. Entire villages got erased from the map. The lord came to act true to the meaning of his existence, which is to destroy everything that is garbage to clean up the way for new. What emanated in Garhwal could only be related to Tandava, the famous dance of the lord to destroy everything. Kedarnath was never going to be the same again. Ramwara, the favorite resting place halfway up the erstwhile route to Kedarnath vanished in no time. So did Garurchatti, the last place of halt where pilgrims took a deep breath before embarking on the last hike to the Kedarnath shrine. Today, one cannot find any of the innumerable dharamshalas or hotels that were built over the years in and around the temple. All that remains is the shrine surrounded the snow-clad mountain slopes and nothing else. Today, one has to stay the upper Lincholi, visit the shrine and come back to spend the night at Lincholi. Probably, the lord wanted his disciples to stay at some distance to allow some space for his loneliness. The route which was 14 km from Gaurikund earlier, now turns out to be approximately 20 km going via Sonprayag-Gaurikund-Bhimbali-Lower Lincholi-Upper Lincholi-Kedarnath.
The place that turned into shambles on that fateful day, once was the epicenter of pilgrimage from across the country and I was no exception in succumbing to its appeal. Kedarnath had beckoned millions through the ages.
Back in those days when there were no trace of any automobile in the entire route from Haridwar to the shrine, people spent months on the trail to the twin shrines of Kedar and Badri. They often started their journeys from their homes with a possibility that they might never return and very often that materialized too. It is the trail that has witnessed the sigh, toil, often deaths and triumphs of innumerable pilgrims.
Mythology says that the Pandavas seeked the blessings of Lord Shiva, who, for some reason was trying to hide from them. He took the guise of a bull. Bhima, the second Pandava recognized him and tried to cath hold of him. In the hide and seek game that ensued, the Lord tried to evade but Bhima tried to pull the buffalo by its tail. In this tug of war, the lord split himself up and the parts of his divine guise landed in five different spots in the Himalayas. The places where the parts landed, collectively came to be known as Panch Kedar – Kedarnath, Mad Maheshwar, Tunganath, Rudranath and Kalpeshwar.
Then came a time when the route turned out to be a nightmare for thousands of pilgrims (in those days, it wasn’t in millions) thronging to the shrines annually. It was during the years of 1918 – 1925. That was when the notorious man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag tormented the pilgrims in a large section of the route in and around Rudraprayag. Ones who have read “The man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag” from Corbett know that the animal appeared out of nowhere and started to kill humans (local villagers as well as pilgrims) and very soon turned into a demon. The thrilling and humane description of the plights of the people by Corbett captured hearts of many like me across generations and proved to be one of the reasons of my interest in this voyage. Though, in today’s world, one cannot even gauge the situation that people went through when the animal ended up with 125 documented kills (and many undocumented) till it met its fate at the hands of Corbett. Nevertheless, it thrilled me that this was the same stage where such incidents were enacted almost 100 years ago.
The first opportunity came in the year 1999. My mother wished to visit the shrines and I started to gather information from my uncle. It was the first time I was going on such a tour with my parents. We had no experience of travelling in The Himalayas, especially when it involved a trek of 14 km from the nearest motor head Gaurikunda. Though I call it a trek, but it’s not the only option nowadays. Like many others, we were to travel by ponies. Excitements started with planning and preparations. I had endless discussions with my uncle and other relatives who’ve been there. Then came the time for railway reservations, bookings at holiday homes in Haridwar and Mussourie. Finally, the plan started to take shape.
About a month before we were to depart, a severe earthquake struck the Chamoli district of the Garhwal Himalayas. Loss of lives and devastation followed. The places where it struck were right at the heart of route. Most of our relatives suggested to drop the plan except my uncle. His justification was that we still had a month to go. Majority of the damage was done to the route to Badrinath from Rudraprayag. It was expected that the army will rectify it as soon as possible since it’s a road that leads to the Sino-Indian border. On the day of our departure, I had a fever which gathered intensity by the day. Out train was at 7.30 PM and I was running temperatures in the range of 102-104 (F) in the morning. It appeared to be a lost case and I almost gave up hopes. My doctor sprang a surprise. Instead of preventing me, he encouraged to continue with the tour. He prescribed the medicines and gave his suggestions for taking care. When I slept in the train that night, I still had fever. It disappeared the next morning and I breathed easy. We reached Delhi by 8 PM and boarded the train for Haridwar at 10 PM. We reached Haridwar the next morning at 6 AM.
Haridwar railway station was small and calm by the magnitudes of Howrah (Kolkata) or Delhi. There were a few sages roaming around on the platform and auto and taxi owners started to approach us with proposals for a tour in and around Haridwar or Rishikesh. Ignoring all of them, we boarded a three-wheeler from outside the station and landed at our holiday home. While my parents relaxed at the holiday home, I had the bus tickets booked for Gaurikund for the day after.
Our evenings were spent at the banks of The Ganges at Har ki pauri watching the splendid Aarti. The flowing river was illuminated with countless lamps lit and floated by the devotees with the hopes of blessings from the river which is the lifeline of entire Northern India. Our bus for Gaurikund started from Haridwar at 5 AM. After exiting the city, it crossed bridge over the Ganga to reach the other bank and we entered the Chilla range of the Rajaji National Park. The road lay ahead like a black serpent swirling through the dense forests on both sides. Then came Rishikesh – a place dotted with numerous temples on both sides of the Ganga. The road gradually started to move higher as plains started to give way to the mountains. The picturesque Laxman Jhula foot bridge spanned across the river with the green waters of the Ganga flowing beneath it. The place bathed in bright sunshine. The first stop of the bus was at Vyasi for breakfast. When it resumed it’s journey, the road scaling more heights up the slopes of the hills. We reached DevPrayag., the first of the many Prayags (confluence of rivers) on this route. While we were approaching the main town of DevPrayag, we could clearly see the confluence of The Ganges that was coming down from the snout of the Gangotri glacier at Gaumukh and Alaknanda, which came all the way down from the distant town of Badrinath. The colors of the two streams were distinctly different. The waters of Alaknanda were muddy, whereas that of The Ganges was crystal clear and green.
We left The Ganges at DevPrayag and the road now was along the banks of Alaknanda and we crossed Srinagar and then came Rudraprayag, the confluence of Alaknanda and Mandakini. RudraPrayag today is a busy town and an important junction in this route. This is where the road gets divided. One goes up the slopes along the banks of the Alaknanda all the way to Badrinath. But our bus crossed the bridge over Alaknanda and entered a tunnel. After exiting from the tunnel, we suddenly found ourselves on the banks of the river Mandakini, which was to be our companion all the way up to Gaurikund. In fact, even beyond that till the Kedarnath shrine. The road moved along the banks of Mandakini. The rays of afternoon sun showered its golden colors on the terraced fields along the mountain slopes. We gradually crossed the towns of Kund, GuptKashi and Sonprayag and finally reached Gaurikund bus stand. It about 3 PM in the afternoon. After collecting our lodge, we went towards Bharat Sevashram Sangh, the Dharamshala where we were to stay for the night. Gaurikund was a congested place surrounded by hills on all sides. We showed a copy of the letter and receipt of the payment made at their Kolkata office at the main entrance and were alloted a room. One had to bend his back in order to enter the room which was very dark with only a candle to light it up. Luxury is not something one expects in these areas and no body complains. Our room extended like a balcony above the river Mandakini which was roaring down the rocky terrain. One could hear nothing but the roaring river right beside our room.
I went to the room of the Maharaj to inquire about the rate and options for pony for our journey to Kedarnath the next day. Our initial plan was to walk the entire route but break our journey at Ramwara and then continue to Kedarnath the next day. But after taking stock of reality, I dropped the plan considering my parents’ health. The dinner of hot khichdi, pickle and papad was sumptuous in this biting cold. As we went to bed, I had a mixed feeling of excitement and tension. While the former was about my long cherished dream coming true while the latter was being able to take along my parents with safety. Jai Kedar.