Stepping stones to spritual sentinels - Trekking Panch Kedar

Stepping stones to spritual sentinels - Trekking Panch Kedar

Weary of the body, we collapsed in individual bundles on to the cool floor of the small cave. We had reached Panargufa after a 17 km walk, most of it up a steep slope.

We were greeted by a sadhu. A person just as concerned by itinerant pilgrims’ physical needs as their spiritual. He offered us tea ​just as he does throughout the year. Sipping the refreshing brew, I stepped out to check the surrounding countryside.

And I was rewar­ded by a breath­tak­ing view of pristine mead­ows off­set by snow-​capped peaks in the back­ground. But I had no time to tarry. For, we still had another 7 km climb ahead of us over higher ridges, in order to reach Rudranath before night­fall. We were on, what many con­sider the toughest trek among the Panch Kedars. Hav­ing suc­cess­fully covered three of the shrines, we were determ­ined not to miss out on the other two. And in ignor­ing the sim­ul­tan­eous entreat­ies and warn­ings of our guide (the route was steep, and amen­it­ies en route min­imal), we set forth from Sagar​a dis­tance of 5 km from Gopeshwar ​in the early hours of the morn­ing. Rudranath, along with the other Kedar shrines, is in the middle Him­alayan range of the Gar­hwal region, known as the Rudra Him­alaya. This range stretches from Kedarnath in the west to Bad­rinath in Rudranath Trek in the east. The temples extend from Gup­takashi to Gopesh­war, at heights vary­ing from 5,000 feet to 12,000 feet. Since we planned to com­plete the 24 km trek the same day, we set off at a brisk pace. For­tu­nately the first three kms rose gradu­ally, and we reached a small cattle shed on a meadow in no time. Here, a shep­herd served us tea, and before long were off again. The next 14 kms through dense oak and rhodo­den­dron forests was gruel­ing. This was the most treach­er­ous part of the trek as the path was stony and often slip­pery. Few of the sun’s rays pen­et­rated the dense foliage. At places, the grass was as tall as a human being, ​a per­fect hid­ing place for the leo­pards that were said to inhabit the region. Luck­ily, they gave us a wide berth. The going was slow. Under­stand­ably so, as there were no well-​beaten trails in sev­eral places. The danger of land’ slides, due to the heavy rains a fort­night before-​was real. But that wasn’t the end of our woes. As our guide patiently explained, the climb down was worse. Still, we man­aged to nego­ti­ate that stretch pretty well, and after our short halt at Panar­g­ufa, we made for the upper reaches. An exhaust­ing 7 km later, we found ourselves facing the grey stone front of the Rudranath temple, huddled under a pro­ject­ing rock at an elev­a­tion of 10,000 feet. The view from here was stu­pendous. Below us a num­ber of small lakes were scattered in a vast expanse of green. Musk deer and Him­alayan bears were a com­mon sight. The river Bait­ar­ini (also called the Rudraganga) flowed behind the temple. And from the top of the shrine we could make out the glisten­ing peaks of Nandadevi, Nand­a­gunti, Tri­sul and Hathi Parbat.

We spent the night in a cattle shed. But des­pite sev­eral blankets, I didn’t get much sleep. Still, I suffered chat­ter­ing teeth in the hope of catch­ing a glimpse of what I had been told ​was a mag­ni­fi­cent sun­rise. But the gods were not on my side. We awoke to an over­cast sky and thick mist, so I crept back under the blankets and settled from some strong black tea.

Our sojourn to Rudranath over, we walked the 40 km back to Gopesh­war and reached Helang, from where we were to con­tinue to Kalpnath. After cross­ing the sus­pen­sion bridge over the Alaknanda, we made our way through forests and apple orch­ards. Later we found ourselves trekking through the Urgam valley-​one of the most fertile in the Gar­hwal region. Ter­raced fields of paddy, wheat and veget­ables sur­roun­ded the val­ley for miles around us.

Situ­ated at 7,000 feet, Kalpnath temple sits atop the Urgam val­ley like a spir­itual sen­tinel. The entrance to it is through a cave. And unlike the other Kedar shrines, Kalpnath is open through­out the year.

Reach­ing it marked the com­ple­tion of the 170 km Panch Kedar trek. Begin­ning at Rishikesh, we had now covered all the five shrines –Madhma­hesh­war, Tun­g­nath, Rudranath, Kalpnath and, of course, Kedarnath-​all in 14 days. And the memor­ies of the jour­ney all came back to me in a kal­eido­scope of images.

After pay­ing obeis­ance at the Kedarnath shrine, we had taken off for Gaurikund. On the way, we took a break at Son­prayag for a five km trek to the temple of Triju­gin­arayan where Vishnu is Said to have solmnised the wed­ding of Shiva and Par­vati. From there, we wound our way to Ukhi­math, the winter seat of Kedarnath and Madhma­hesh­war. The 26 km trek to Madhma­hesh­war star­ted at vil­lage Man­suna, an 8 km drive from Ukhi­math. The first 3 km were a steady des­cent through paddy fields. After cross­ing the sus­pen­sion bridge over the Madhma­hesh­war Ganga, a gradual climb took us through dense forests to Ransi vil­lage, where we hal­ted for the night.

The fol­low­ing day we made a gradual ascent all along the Madhma­hesh­war Ganga river which flows through the Madhma­hesh­war val­ley. The glen was deep and stretched into the hori­zon. While the west­ern side of the river had grassy moun­tains, the east­ern side was full of dense forests harbouring-​ as we were told –Him­alayan bear and leo­pards. In fact, this area is a part of the Kedarnath wild­life sanc­tu­ary. We espied a wide vari­ety of col­our­ful birds fly­ing towards the val­ley. A sharp ascent and we were at Madhma­hesh­war temple. At a height of 10,000 feet, the grey-​stoned temple was set amidst a huge meadow. The gurg­ling waters of the three streams around the temple were the only sound break­ing the serenity of the place. A short walk and we got a clear view of the majestic Chaukhambha peak.


From there, we headed for Tun­g­nath. At 12,000 feet, it is the highest in alti­tude amongest the Kedar shrines. Tun­g­nath is 4 km from Choptachatti, a 30 km drive from Ukhi­math. Although the climb is pre­cip­it­ous, it is a rather pop­u­lar trek. A well laid out path, more of a rocky stair­case actu­ally, led us to our des­tin­a­tion. As we reached the temple, the tem­per­at­ure dropped rap­idly. Tun­g­nath had a dis­tinct­ive charm of its own, sur­roun­ded by a cluster of snow covered peaks.

As we pre­pared for the jour­ney to Gopesh­war, we learnt that no buses would run that day on account of a flash strike by bus drivers. We had almost resigned ourselves to being stran­ded in Chopta when we heard the roar of a bus in the dis­tance. Wheez­ing and splut­ter­ing, burst­ing with pas­sen­gers, the "Bhookh Hartal" arrived. The bus was so named because it was intro­duced on the Gaurikund-​Badrinath route fol­low­ing a hun­ger strike by loc­als.
That was just one of the many vign­ettes that inspired and cap­tiv­ated us in the Gar­hwal hills. Truly, it was an exper­i­ence that put us on top of the world.

 

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