Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Bowing at The Top : Trek to Tungnath (The Highest Shiv Temple in the World)


Trek to the beautiful Tungnath Temple has always mesmerized me. I had been longing for my first encounter with the snow and it couldn’t have come better than in the form of the trek to Tungnath Temple and Chandrashila Peak. It didn’t take much time to decide upon the itinerary as I was in Haridwar at the time of scheduling and my friend, Ashish joined me from Mumbai after having an arduous journey in the air and on the rail tracks.

Deoria Taal and Chaukhamba
In the first phase, we explored the enchantingly beautiful Deoria Lake. Words were not sufficient to describe the beauty of this place. The mighty Chaukhamba peak with the fabulous Gangotri Range of the Himalaya reflecting in the calm waters of the Deoria Taal was one surreal experience. After spending a night at the Deoria Taal, we returned to Saari village by noon. A sumptuous Pahadi Lunch of rice, vegetables and special chutney filled our guts for our next project – Tungnath and Chandrashila!

For the uninitiated – Tungnath is the highest Lord Shiva temple in the world situated at an altitude of 12073 feet (3680 m). It is also part of the Panch Kedar group of temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. Chandrashila is the summit situated atop Tungnath at the height of 13000 feet.

As we drove from Saari village to Chopta, the drop in the temperature was obvious. An uphill drive in the dense forestation of the Kedarnath Wildlife Conservaory with the red and pink hues due to rhododendrons was a sight which was unforgettable. Garhwal is more beautiful than Kumaon and how I was experiencing that! Finally, we stopped at Chopta and started our trek for Tungnath and Chandrashila at 2.45 pm. It was late by any standards for the 5 km trek till Chandrashila .

Red hue of Buraansh, Chopta
The trek to Tungnath though is longer than Deoria Taal trek but it is not as arduous as the same. The well constructed pavement makes it little easy in the initial phase as you pass through the thickly forested area dotted with numerous trees of buraansh (Rhododendron). We could see many people coming down as they were about to finish their trek and myself and Ashish were the only souls who were climbing. I didn’t check but many of them must have had a bewildered look in their eyes.
Bugyal on the trek to Tungnath

I got the first glimpse of the snow lying by the pavement. It looked as if a carcass of dolphin has washed ashore. Not very best of the comparison but I was still elated. All around me were snow strands and not exactly the way I had expected. But was a heady combo of rhododendrons and snow that energized us to trek further as new dimensions of nature’s beauty were unveiling in front of us at every turn. The next turn and we were gawking at a beautiful bugyal guarded by barren hills on one side. It had started drizzling at that time and the atmosphere became magical.

The snow started to appear prominently and vegetation was getting less dense. The air temperature shifted from cool to cold. Frankly speaking, we were not so well equipped for the snow trek and the change in the weather was making it worse. The weather in the mountain is unpredictable. The clear weather by noon changed with dark clouds gathering in the sky and we could see that it was raining heavily at a distance on few hills. I was wearing a simple t-shirt, a pair of jeans and sweater as if I was strolling on the Mall Road of Mussoorie. Ashish was wearing his all time favourite UCLA jacket. All I could vouch for were my all weather shoes.

Snowy Trek, Tungnath
The vegetation had now almost vanished and we rested at the last full bloomed buraansh before we proceeded.  The pavement was lined by snow though we were yet to see the glimpse of Tungnath temple. 
All of a sudden a mild hailstorm approached us. The tiny small ice pellets landed on the exposed part of my hand giving me momentary numbness. I quickly wore the sweater I was just tying around my waist.  In the meanwhile, we met a newly married couple who were returning to base and generously offered their stick to navigate through the snow at the top. Other two locals who were coming down warned us of the bad weather (which we could see and experience).
Tungnath, village buried in snow!

As I mentioned that we were getting surprised at almost every turn which was unveiling the newer form of beauty. After braving the hailstorm, we reached the point where we could finally see the glimpse of Tungnath temple and the beautiful paved track with snow on either side. Due to the open space at the top, the wind was now blowing with lot of gust and it was chilling too. Me and Ashish were tired and hence took a 5 minute break and grabbed a chocolate bar. All we were praying for was to have a cup of piping hot tea when we reached the colony at Tungnath.
Not a single soul, Tungnath

Lo and behold…we reached the Tungnath village (actually it’s a small colony) and not a single soul was present there. The whole village was covered in 3-4 feet thick snow. The residents had shifted to the plains after the festival of Diwali and we could see why. All the doors locked. Thankfully, we heard somebody repairing a roof of a house there. We approached him and ask if we could get tea. He seemed least bothered and asked to continue to visit the temple. Disappointment! No tea! It was tricky to make way through the snow and the stick came handy. Thanks to that couple who insisted that we should carry the stick!

Tungnath and Parvati Temple, 12073 feet
Honestly, the only thing which looked divine in the vicinity was the Tungnath Temple otherwise the whole village had an eerie look. We proceeded to the temple. The newly constructed blue frame at the entrance has numerous bells hanging. I rang the biggest and whoa…the echo was in the atmosphere for at least a minute. That was one amazing experience with sound (Generally we attribute it to the BOSE sound systems! J) Ashish braved and removed his shoes to enter the temple which had snow everywhere and I followed the suit.

Tungnath is the most beautiful temple I have ever seen. Probably absence of human beings took this experience to different level. We could feel the cold surface but we were simply admiring the temple and the surrounding beauty. Built in a typical Garhwali style, where the smaller structure provides the entrance to the main sanctum sanctorum has a striking similarity to the Kedarnath Temple, the main temple of the Panch Kedar group. The doors of the temples (known as ‘kapaats’ locally) were closed and are scheduled to open in the second week of May 2013. We said our prayers. We took a while to sink in the peace and tranquility of the surrounding. However, the fading light and the numbing peak started to give us the signal.
Evening glory on return, Tungnath

Chandrashila was another 1 km trek, very steep and arduous. Time was not on our side.  It was 5.30 pm in the evening. The weather had just improved and the distant snow peaks of the Himalayas which were little invisible due to haze appeared clearly. I would love to postulate and time and again it has been proved “There is nothing as beautiful as the Himalayas in this world”. We decided to start our return journey with a promise to ourselves that we will soon be standing at Chandrashila.

Nothing as beautiful as Himalaya!
Luck was on our side. We spotted a movement up in the snow. A slightly bulky silhouette of a bird. It was joined by a similar bird and both hid beyond a rock covered with snow. I was surprised to find such a bird at this altitude. Then one of them took flight right in front of us and went on another side towards valley. From that height we could see the span of the fluorescent blue wings and the brown tail. We were amazed by the beauty of that bird which looked like peacock. We were also taken aback by its ability to fly steadily looking at the bulky size. We had found the state bird of Uttarakhand, The Himalayan Monal. Similar to the peacock family, this pheasant is found only at an altitude above 7000 feet and is endearingly beautiful.
Himalayan Mouse nibbling in the snow!

We were little slow in descending. The tiny and cute, Himalayan mice were braving us, sometimes posing well to click a good shot. In the last phase of our descent, we were in dark, walking through the forest alone. Finally, at 7.30 pm we reached the starting point of the trek and straightway headed to the hotel serving tea. The tea in this situation feels better than the heady mocktail for which you may end up spending 1000 bucks. And once you start wandering in the Himalayas (Upper and Greater) then you don’t need anything to get high. But one should remember that even at the summits you have something to bow to and we bowed at the top!  

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