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. Tungnaths 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 Garhwals 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 couldnt 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
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.
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 worlds 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,
thats 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 theres 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 priests 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
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 Brontes
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
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 priests 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.