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Chidambaram-The Rising Towers of Faith

Tungnath – The Highest of Them All

Less frequented than Kedarnath and Badrinath, Tungnath is the highest shrine of the inner Himalayan range with a magic of its own.

The mountains and valleys of Garhwal never fail to spring surprises on the traveler in search of the picturesque. It is imposible to know every corner of the Himalayas, which means that there are always new corners to discover; forest or meadow, mountain stream or way-side shrine.

The temple of Tungnath, at a little over 12, 000 feet, is the highest shrine on the inner Himalayan range. It lies just below the Chandrashila peak. Some way off the main pilgrim routes, it is less frequented than Kedarnath or Badrinath, although it forms a part of the Kedar temple establishment. The priest here is a local man, Brahmin from the village of Maku; the other Kedar temples have South Indian priests, a tradition begun by Sankaracharya, the 8th century Hindu reformer and revivalist. Tungnath’s lonely eminence gives it a magic of its own. To get there (or beyond it), one passes through some of the most delightful temperate forest in the Garhwal Himalayas. Pilgrim or trekker, or just plain rambler like myself, one comes away really like before mankind began to strip it bare.

Duiri Tal, small lake lies cradled on the hill above Okhimath at a height of 8,000 feet. It was a favourite spot of one of Garhwal’s earliest British Commissioners, J.H. Batten, whose administration continued for twenty years (1836-56). He wrote: “The day I reached there it was snowing and young trees were laid prostrate under the weight of snow, the lake was frozen over to depth of about two inches. There was no human habitation and the place looked a veritable wilderness. The next morning when the sun appeared, the Chaukhamba and many other peaks extending as far as Kedarnath seemed covered with a new quilt of snow as if close at hand. The whole scene was so exquisite that one could not tire of gazing at it for hours. I think a person who has a subdued settled despair in his mind would all of a sudden feel a kind of bounding and exalting cheerfulness which will be imparted to his frame by the atmosphere of Duiri Tal.”

This feeling of uplift can be experienced almost anywhere along the Tungnath range. Duiri Tal is still some way off the beaten track and anyone wishing to spend the night there should carry a tent. But further along this range, the road ascends to Dugalbeta (at about 9,000 feet) where a PWD rest house. Gaily painted, has come up like some exotic orchid in the midst of a lush meadow topped by excelsia pines and pencil cedars. Many an official who has stayed here has rhapsodized on the charms of Dugalbeta; and if you are unofficial (and therefore not entitled to say in the bungalow), you can move on to Chopta, lusher still, where there is accommodation of a sort for pilgrims and other hardy souls. Two or three little tea-shops provide mattresses and quilts. The Garhwal Mandal is putting up a rest house. These tourist rest houses scattered over the length and breadth of Garhwal, are a great boon to the traveller; but during the pilgrim season (May-June) they are filled to overflowing and if you turn up unexpectedly you might have to take your pick of tea-shop of ‘dharamshala’, of a lucky dip, since they vary a good deal in comfort and cleanliness.

The trek from Chopta to Tungnath is only three and a half miles, but in that distance one ascends about 3,000 feet, and the pilgrim may be forgiven for feeling that at places he is on a perpendicular path. Like a ladder to heaven, I couldn’t help thinking.

In spite of its steepness, my companion, the redoubtable Ganesh Saili, insisted that we take a short cut. After clawing or way up tufts of alpine grass which formed the rungs of our ladder, we were stuck and had to inch our way down again so that the ascent of Tungnath began to resemble a game of Snakes and Ladders.

A tiny guardian-temple dedicated to the god Ganesh spurred us on. Nor was I really fatigued for the cold fresh air and the verdant greenery surrounding us was like an intoxicant. Myriads of wild flowers grew on the hill slopes, buttercups, anemones, wild strawberries, forget-me-nots, rock-cress – enough to rival the Valley of Flowers at this time of the year.

Before reaching these alpine meadows, we climb through rhododendron forest and here one finds at least three species of this flower: the redflowering tree rhododendron (found throughout the Himalayas between 6,000 feet and 10,000 feet); a second variety, the almatta, with flowers that are light red or rosy in colour and the third, chimul or white variety found at heights ranging from between 10,000 feet and 13,000 feet. The chimul is a brush-wood, seldom more than twelve feet high and growing slantingly due to the heavy burden of snow it has to carry for almost six months in the year.

Those brushwood rhododendrons are the last trees we see on our ascent for as we approach Tungnath the tree-line ends and there is nothing between earth and sky except grass and rock and tiny flowers. Above us, a couple of crows dive-bomb a hawk who does his best to escape their attentions. Crows are the world’s great survivors. They are capable of living at any height and in any climate; as much at home in the back streets of Delhi as on the heights of Tungnath.

Another survivor, up here at any rate, is the pika, a sort of mouse-hare, who looks like neither mouse nor hare but rather a tiny guinea-pig; small ears, no tail, grey-brown fur and chubby feet. They emerge from their holes under the rocks to forage for grasses on which to feed. Their simple diet and thick fur enable them to live in extreme cold and they have been found at 16,000 feet, which is higher than any other mammal lives. The Garhwalis call this little creature the Runda at any rate, that’s what the temple priest called it, adding that it was not averse to entering his house and helping itself to grain and other delicacies. So perhaps there’s more in it of mouse than of hare.

Those little Rundas were with us all the way from Chopta to Tungnath, peering out from their rocks and scampering about on the hillside, seemingly unconcerned by our presence. At Tungnath they live beneath the temple flagstones. The priest’s grandchildren were having a game discovering their burrows; the Rundas would go in at one hole and pop out at another – they must have had a system of underground passages.

When we arrived, clouds had gathered over Tungnath, as they do almost every afternoon. The temple looked austere in the gathering gloom.

To some, the name “Tung” indicates ‘lofty,’ from the position of the temple on the highest peak outside the main chain of the Himalayas; others derive it from the word tangna- to be suspended – in allusion to the form under which the deity is worshipped here. The form is the Swayambhu Ling; and on Shivaratri or night of Shiva, the true believer may, ‘with the eye of faith’, see the lingam increase in size; but ‘to the evil-minded no such favour is granted.’

The temple, though not very large, is certainly impressive, mainly because of its setting and the solid slabs of grey granite from which it is built. The whole place somehow puts me in mind of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights – bleak, windswept, open to the skies. And as you look down from the temple at the little half-deserted hamlet that serves it in summer, the eye is met by grey slate roofs and piles of stones, with just a few hardy souls in residence – for the majority of pilgrims now prefer to spend the night down at Chopta.

Even the temple priest, attended by his son and grandsons, complains bitterly of the cold. To spend everyday barefoot on those flagstones must indeed be hardship. I wince after five minutes of it, made worse by stepping into a puddle of icy water. I shall never make a good pilgrim; no rewards for me, in this world or the next. But the priest’s feet are literally thick-skinned; and the children seem oblivious to the cold. Still, in October they must be happy to descend to Maku, their home village on the slopes below Dugalbeta.

It begins to rain as we leave the temple. We pass herds of sheep huddled in a ruined dharamshala. The crows are still rushing about the grey weeping skies, although the hawk has very sensibly gone away. A Runda sticks his nose out from his hole, probably to take a look at the weather. There is a clap of thunder and he disappears, like the white Rabbit in ‘Alice in Wonderland’. We are half way down the Tungnath ‘ladder’ when it begins to rain quite heavily. And now we pass our first genuine pilgrims, a group of intrepid Bengalis who are heading straight into the storm. They are without umbrellas or raincoats, but they are not to be deterred.

Oaks and rhododendrons flash past as we dash down the steep, winding path. Another shortcut and Ganesh Saili takes a tumble, but is cushioned by moss and buttercups. My wrist-watch strikes a rock and the glass is shattered. No matter. Time here is of little or no significance. Away with time! Is this, I wonder, the ‘bounding and exalting cheerfulness’ experienced by Batton and now manifesting in me?

The tea-shop beckons. How would one manage in the hills without these wayside tea-shops? Miniature inns, they provide food, shelter and even lodging to dozens at a time.

We sit on a bench between a Gujar herdsman and a pilgrim who is too feverish to make the climb to the temple. He accepts my offer of an aspirin to go with his tea. We tackle some buns- rock-hard, to match our environment – and wash the pellets down with hot sweet tea.

There is a small shrine here, too, right in front of the tea-shop. It is a slab of rock roughly shaped like a lingam and it is daubed with vermilion and strewn with offerings of wild flowers. The mica in the rock gives it a beautiful sheen.

I suppose Hinduism comes closest to being a nature religion. Rivers, rocks, trees, plants, animals, and birds all play their part, both in mythology and in everyday worship. This harmony is most evident in those remote places where Gods and mountains co-exist. Tungnath, as yet unspoilt by materialistic society, exerts its magic on all who come there with open mind and heart.

¤ Ajmer Sharif ¤ Amarkantak ¤ Amritsar
¤ Bodhgaya ¤ Chidambaram ¤ Chitrakoot
¤ Dargahkaliyarsharif ¤ Dharamsala ¤ Dilwaratemples
¤ Dwarka ¤ Gangasagarmela ¤ Garhwal
¤ Goa ¤ Guruvayur ¤ Hardwar
¤ Jageshwar ¤ Jambukeswaram ¤ Jambukeswaram
¤ Kailashmansarovar ¤ Kamakhya ¤ Maheshwaromkareshwar
¤ Mathura ¤ Parashuramkund ¤ Pilgrimagecenters
¤ Pilgrimagesofsikhs ¤ Rameshwaram ¤ Rishikesh
¤ Sabarimala ¤ Shatrunjayahill ¤ Shivapur
¤ Tawangmonastery ¤ Thirukalikundrum ¤ Tirupati
¤ Travelofgods ¤ Trichur ¤ Tripureshwari
¤ Tungnath ¤ Vaishnodevi ¤ Varanasi
¤ Vrindavan ¤ Yamnotri