MANIMAHESH YATRABy Ahtushi Deshpande
Lord Krishna said in the Bhagvad Gita, “Of the mountains, I am the Himalaya.” Swami Vivekananda remarked that India has so many gods and goddesses because it is so close to their home, the Himalaya, the Dev Bhoomi.
Tirths are often located at picturesque places that bring their own joy to the pilgrim — beside rivers, on top of mountains, on islands. The Brihat Samhita describes a tirth in these lyrical words, “The gods always play where the lakes are, where the sun’s rays are warded off by umbrellas of lotus leaf clusters, and where clear water paths are made by swans, whose breasts toss the white lotuses hither and thither.” The Himalaya finds extensive mention in Hindu mythology, including in the different Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The five icy summits of the Panchchuli Range belong to the five Pandava brothers. Uttarakhand’s legendary Gandhamadan, from where Hanuman collected the Sanjeevani herb to revive Lakshman, is believed to be a reference to the ethereal Valley of Flowers, now a notified National Park. Many holy rivers, including the divine Ganga, are born here. The Kullu Valley of Himachal Pradesh, the ‘valley of gods’, alone has over 350 temples. The sleepy little village of Naggar in Himachal is home to four temples — taking the circuitous path to all of them is considered equivalent to doing the Char Dham Yatra! Almost every mountain lake is a revered site, and most passes, windy ridges and icy summits have not only Hindu lore associated with them, but also Buddhist and Sikh legends. In fact, as adventurers will testify, many a trekking trail merely follows an old pilgrimage route.
Covering a total area of about 600,000 sq km, the youngest mountain range in the world is still rising at the rate of about 6mm a year. This aalaya (home) of him (snow) has the earth’s largest snowfields (more than 45,000 sq km) outside of the polar region. Whether adventurer, philosopher, artist, ecologist, thinker or tourist, anyone who sets foot here makes a pilgrimage. Even the intrepid mountain hiker will tell you that a journey to the Himalaya always involves a certain uplifting of the soul. The pilgrims’ perception of this sacred landscape, which Hindu scriptures call the Kedarkhand, is somewhat different. Their goal is single-minded: that of darshan of their beloved deity. The actual trek is then necessary penance, a sublime worship undertaken within what is possibly the most beautiful temple in the world.
The land of the Gaddi shepherds, Bharmour is rarely visited by tourists. During July-August, however, this small, misty, rain-drenched town bustles with divine purpose as nearly a hundred thousand pilgrims undertake the pilgrimage to the sacred Manimahesh Lake. At the end of the seven-day fair, which follows Janmashtami, the high priests of Bharmour lead pilgrims to the Manimahesh Dal. The holy Kailash Peak (18,556 ft) is mirrored to perfection in the placid waters of the lake. The glaciers below the peak are the origin of the Manimahesh Ganga, which partly drains the lake and exits via a lovely waterfall. Pilgrims take a dip in the lake, then pray to Chaumukha, a marble Shivaling, before proceeding on three parikramas of the lake. A rock in the shape of a Shivaling, located on the Kailash Mountain, is worshipped as the manifestation of Shiva, the presiding deity of this yatra. Pilgrims feel blessed if clear weather permits a darshan.
All attempts to scale Kailash have been thwarted so far and locals attribute this to the powers of the holy mountain. In local lore a Gaddi shepherd once tried to climb the peak along with his sheep, and he and his herd were instantly turned to stone. Numerous small rocks around the Kailash Peak are said to bear testimony to this legend. Beneath the peak lies a vast snowfield called Shiva’s Chaugan, the fabled playground for Shiva and Parvati. A little before the lake are the twin water bodies of Shiva Krotri and Gauri Kund.
Chaurasia Temple complex, Bharmour
Life in Bharmour, or Brahmpura as the ancient capital was known, centres around the Chaurasia Temple square, which owes its name to the 84 shrines built within its periphery. The beautiful shikhara of the Manimahesh Temple dominates the square while a life-size image of Nandi in polished brass stands before it.
According to one legend, 84 yogis visited Brahmpura during the reign of Raja Sahil Verman. Pleased with his hospitality, they blessed the raja with 10 sons who in turn erected the temple complex. Another story goes that Shiva, accompanied by 84 yogis, stopped at Brahmani Devi’s vatika (garden) on his way to Manimahesh. The devi, displeased by the trespassing, ordered them out of the place. However, at Shiva’s request, the devi consented to let them stay and the yogis turned themselves into lingas. According to another version, the 84 yogis paid no heed to the goddess, who turned them into stones in a fit of rage.
Although each temple in the complex enjoys its own history and sanctity, some of the more important temples in the complex are those of Sri Manimahesh/ Harihar, Nar Singh, Lakshna Devi, Ganesh, Shiva Davala, Nandigran, Mahadev, Shivalaya, Sitla Devi, Ardh Gaya and Dharamraj/ Yamraj. Built in shikhara style, the predominant temple is that of Manimahesh. While the woodwork in the Lakshna Devi Temple to Durga is superb, the Dharamraj/ Yamraj Temple at the northern corner of the complex is made of stone and wood and has a pendant roof. It is believed that souls of the departed pass through this temple on their way to Shivaloka, ie, Kailash. The court of Chandragupt is located right in front of this temple. He is believed to keep records of each individual’s good and bad deeds.
The three-day yatra involves trekking from Bharmour to Hadsar (17 km/ 1/2 hr by road; shared taxis approx Rs 250 per person) on Day 1. At the confluence of the Budhil and Dhanchoo nallahs lies the hamlet of Hadsar (had = bones, sar = pond), where bones of the dead were immersed in days gone by. The camping ground is on the left bank of the river. On Day 2, yatris begin the climb up stone steps to the local Shiva temple. The trail ascends and then descends through thick forests to reach Dhanchho (4 km/ 1 hr), a lush pasture with a beautiful waterfall. On Day 3, yatris trek 6 km to Manimahesh Lake, and return the same day (8 hrs, return journey inclusive). The path is hewn off the slope and meanders above the glacier for an hour, before returning to the glacier. After an hour’s trek across scree slopes (watch out for falling rocks on this stretch), yatris come upon the twin ponds of Shiva Krotri (men take a dip here) and Gauri Kund (women do so). During the monsoon yatra season, the glacier is transformed into a river and temporary bridges are put up wherever necessary. Tented accommodation and dhabas spring up along the route during the yatra season. There is no ban on non-vegtarian food on this pilgrimage. The semi-nomadic, pastoral Gaddi tribespeople traditionally offer goat sacrifices to Shiva. Locals take newborn sons for tonsuring ceremonies at the lake.
Facilities provided by the Himachal Government during the Jul-Aug yatra season make it possible to travel light. However, the crowds and litter can prove to be rather overwhelming. It is also possible to undertake this journey in May-Jun or Sep-Oct but prepare well for a walk over snowfields