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 Sagara 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.