To Tungnath, the abode of Shiva
I got off the train at Haridwar during daytime. My plan was to go to Rishikesh first and then from there to Choptha village via Rudraprayag. By the time I reached Rishikesh, it was around eleven. From Rishikesh, the 140 km journey towards Rudraprayag was through narrow mountain passes around steep mountain ranges. The main attraction in this route was Devaprayag, which was around 74 km away from Rishikesh. Ganges originates from Devaprayag. It is here that holy rivers Alakananda and Bhageerathy flow together to become Ganges. While travelling through the ghats, deep down, Alakananda can be seen flowing in great force. It is a breathtaking scene.
There is no transportation facility to go to Choptha after three in the evening. In order to reach Choptha one has to reach Ugimath village first and then take another vehicle from there. After reaching Ugimath, I met two army men who offered me a lift in their vehicle, which would take me to a place called Kundu from where Choptha was not very far. The journey through the mountainsides with the river flowing on one side was beautiful.
After an hour, we reached a main junction where we got down and the vehicle carrying us took the left road and disappeared soon. After waiting for some time, a vehicle that looked like a tipper lorry came. We got into it. It was an adventurous journey with us standing at the back and holding onto the rod on the sides of the vehicle. The village was visible from a distance with light emanating from houses in an array.
After some time, we got down at Sevasram. It was a multistoried building painted in dark red. We entered through the door that is shining in the light from the street lamp and reached a big room that smelled of sandalwood and bhasma (holy ash). Amid the shelves filled with books sat Ramdev, a saffron-attired sanyasi, engrossed in reading something. According to him, there was no fixed amount as room rent. Whatever amount the guests pay will be accepted as donation.
We were given a simple tidy room from the balcony of which we could hear the sound of the flowing river.
Next day, at seven in the morning, we were already in front of the Ashram waiting for the bus. The previous day, Ramdev had told me about its timing. I could see the bus climbing the mountain through the foggy valley. I got a seat at the back of the bus along with Muniswami who joined us from the ashram. At a distance, the Himalayan mountain ranges were seen. Valleys and peaks attired in green encased these mountains. Soon, the bus entered the forest path. Choptha village is surrounded by forest. The bus stopped at a place having eateries. Small houses were seen in the grasslands between the forest and the road. All passengers got off from the bus to have food. I went to a less-crowded hotel. Vikram, the owner of the hotel, approached me with a smile. From cooking to serving and cleaning, he does all the chores at the hotel by himself. His elderly mother helps him in the business. They asked me whether I needed a room. In fact I was also looking for one. I had planned to stay in the village for a day and then go to Tungnath. To reach Tungnath, the highest Shiva temple in the world, one has to trek for about four kilometers from the village.
The room rent was a meager Rs 200 per person. Basic amenities such as electricity lacked in this village. That’s the reason for the low rent. The room was about 100 meters away from the hotel. Vikram said all the small two-bedroom houses in the vicinity were built for tourists. The houses had big solar batteries fixed in their courtyard for the purpose of availing electricity at night. Vikram in an apologetic tone said that we shouldn’t be expecting more facilities here.
As it got colder at night, Vikram and his mother sat by the fireplace in the kitchen to warm themselves. I joined them. Seethamma got a chair for me to sit near the fireplace. Vikram said if I had to witness sunrise from Tungnath, I would have to start at least by three in the morning. But Seethamma didn’t approve of me going alone at such an odd time. In the four-kilometre trekking path, the first one kilometer was through forest. Somehow, I was not at all scared about this. Finally, I succeeded in convincing them about my longing to trek in the early morning. While I was about to go to sleep, Seethamma gave me torchlight to carry while trekking.
I woke up before three in the morning. It was freezing cold outside. In the dull light of the moon and stars, I walked towards the junction. Trekking to Tungnath starts from a place near Vikram’s shop. There was a huge bell hung at the entrance of the path leading to Tungnath, which visitors ring at the starting and finishing of the journey. Since it was at a height, I had to jump to ring the bell, which turned out to be too loud and reverberated in the silent night. Dogs sleeping on the streets suddenly woke up and started barking. A scared me waited there for a while and then started climbing the steps. Since the walkway was laid by concrete throughout, nobody would lose his or her way.
With no sound of cricket or nightingale around, there was pindrop silence in the area. There were huge trees on both sides of the walkway whose shadows fell on the path in the faint moonlight giving a creepy feeling. The left side of the walkway was a little deeper. The torchlight Seethamma gave came handy in the dark. There was smell of decayed leaves around. Barring the occasional chirping of birds and flapping of wings, there was total silence. When I reached the grassland, the star-filled-sky was visible above my head and the force of the wind from the mountaintops increased.
I was searching for a place to sit when I saw a closed small hut made of wood and a shed outside. Inside the shed, there were a few benches and chairs. I got inside the shed to take some rest. Suddenly a strange groaning terrified me. It was then I noticed a big black dog that was sleeping underneath the bench. The dog got up. I was scared and started praying. I tried to be friends with the dog. It walked around me sniffing and with a suspicious look. All this while I was trembling with fear. Perhaps the dog would have understood my plight; it stopped groaning and started wagging its tail. The moon started fading and sunrise seemed near. I had to reach the mountaintop before the sunrise.
I had forgotten tiredness and thirst. By the time I reached Tungnath it was 5.30 am. Besides the few pilgrims around the temple, there were shops selling puja articles, hotels and small guest rooms. To see sunrise clearly, I had to climb another hill named Chandrasila. It was a steep climb for about one kilometer from there. Though there was a dull light around, there was still time for sunrise.
I started climbing Chandrasila Hills. Since there was no proper path to reach there, I had to jump from one rock to another and some times hold onto small hillocks. I followed the marks left by those went before me. The sun started rising. Though there was still to go to reach the mountaintop, I stopped at a place where I could see the sunrise and set my camera to capture it. The glowing sun started emerging through the fog, from between the mountains. The redness of the sun started reflecting on the snow-clad mountain ranges around. The entire valley started glittering in the sunlight. The fog spread over the valley seemed like an ocean. There was a small Shiva idol on top of the mountain.
Those who have been to the mountaintop on full moon days say it is a wonderful experience. That may be the reason why the hill got the name Chandrasila. Lost in the picturesque scene, I lied down on a rock. Clouds moving slowly towards the mountain ranges passed nearby me.
After spending some more time there, I started alighting the hills. The path was hidden in snow. I could see a few people climbing the mountain. Upon reaching Tungnath, as promised to a friend, I had bought some pooja articles and gave to the priest for performing pooja. The shops had pooja articles such as coconut wrapped in silk cloth, oil, incense and flowers together kept in a vessel whose price varies between Rs 100 and 500. Many people started climbing the hills now, including foreigners. Some of them were coming on horseback.
Finally, I reached near the closed hut where I took rest early that morning. The teashop was silent and the huge dog that looked like a hunting dog was still there. I woke the dog up to give biscuits I bought for it and it started wagging its tail and came near me. After eating all the biscuits it licked my feet to express gratitude. I bid goodbye to the dog and thanked him for giving me shelter in the biting cold. It followed me for a while and then sat there looking at me disappearing.
When I reached the hotel Vikram and Seethamma received me with a smile. When I invited Seethamma to Kerala, she asked me with so much curiosity about the places to see in Kerala. When I told her about lakes and sea she asked me what they were. Somehow I felt that even if I try to explain she wouldn’t be able to visualize the sea or lake in her mind. I then waited for the nine o’clock bus to Badrinath. After having breakfast, I paid Vikram the food and boarding charges. Vikram and his mother refused to take the additional amount I paid. Before I got into the bus, Seethamma blessed me by keeping her both hands on my head. After hugging them tight and saying good-bye, I felt tears in my eyes, which I tried to carefully hide from others.
(Translated by Renitha Raveendran)