Tungnath, at 12,073 above mean sea level, is the world's highest built temple dedicated to Shiva, discounting perhaps the Amarnath Cave shrine near Srinagar, Kashmir, which is situated at an altitude of 12,756 feet. Tungnath is second in importance among the five mountain shrines collectively known as the Panch Kedar (the other Kedars are the most famous one at Kedarnath, Rudranath, Madhyamaheshwar and Kalpeshwar). The temple opens for worship after winter snows melt in June and remains open until late October when snowfall cuts off access to the temple. At this time the deity is moved ceremoniously to the Ukhimath, thousands of feet below.
Besides its majestic location against a backdrop of cliffs, peaks and snow-clad mountains, Tungnath is also popular with trekkers, who make it a point to witness the sunrise from Chandrashila, a nearby peak at 13,123 feet. To reach Tungnath from Delhi, drive or take an overnight train/ bus to Rishikesh (236 km) and drive/ take a bus to Ukhimath (170 km/ 6 hours). Halt overnight and catch the morning bus for Chopta (17 km/ 1 hour), a roadhead at 9,500 feet. Tungnath is a 4-km trek from here. The nearest airport is Jolly Grant, Dehradun (258 km).
Tungnath Temple Uttarakhand
Tungnath, a stately and serene temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, is the second of the five Kedars, the others being Kedarnath, Madhyamaheshwar, Kalpeshwar and Rudranath. The legend behind the temples is rooted in the Mahabharata. It is said that the Pandavas, after the Great War at Kurukshetra, wished to atone for the sins of fratricide and the killing of Brahmins. They were directed to seek the blessings of Lord Shiva. The Lord, however, was in no mood to pardon them as he was angry at the magnitude of their sins. Taking the form of a bull, the Lord hid from the Pandavas at Guptkashi in the Garhwal Himalaya.
The Pandavas caught up with Shiva. Bhima, the second of the brothers, spied a large bull grazing and recognized it as Shiva. He grabbed the bull by its tail and hind legs, but it disappeared into the ground. Later, various parts of the bull reappeared at different locations in the Himalaya.
The sacred bull’s hump appeared in Kedarnath, the arms at Tungnath, the navel and stomach at Madhyamaheshwar, the face at Rudranath and the hair and head at Kalpeshwar. In gratitude, the Pandavas, who were then in the Himalayas en route to their passage to heaven, built temples at each of these locations. It is also believed that some of the bull’s fore portions materialized at the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Terraced fields overlook the valley at Ukhimath. The seat of the Omkareshwara Temple, this town is where the idol of Tungnath is worshipped after winter snowfall renders the mountains inaccessible. On clear days the town offers a breathtaking view of the snowcapped Kedarnath peak. The Mandakini River, a tributary of the Ganga, roars in the valley below. Eventually, it joins the Alakananda at Rudraprayag.
A short drive from Ukhimath is Deoriya Tal, a picturesque mountain lake surrounded by forests of oak and chir pine. A heart-stopping view of the four-pronged peak, Chaukhamba, is reflected in the placid waters of the lake. To get to the lake, which occupies a small plateau at about 8,000 feet, trekkers must walk a 2-km uphill trail from Sari.
The major rivers rising in the Himalaya are snow-fed, but heavy monsoon rain from June to early September leads to a large number of modest springs and cascades on the hillsides.
The road to Gopeshwar
Before motorable roads made these hill shrines accessible within a day from Haridwar, pilgrims traveled on foot from the roadhead at Rudraprayag. Tired of many years of the government turning a deaf ear to their demands for a motorable road, the people of the region went on a hunger strike. The move paid off. Buses were introduced to connect Rudraprayag with the district headquarters at Gopeshwar through Chopta, a picturesque route that skirts the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary where the five temples are located. As a reminder of the protest, these buses are inscribed with the legend “Bhookh Hartal”, Hindi for Hunger Strike.
Shack in Chopta
After visiting Deoriya Tal the previous day, we reached Chopta by the “Bhook Hartal” bus from Ukhimath. The tiny hillside village was cloaked in mist and we were hungry. Unable to see much further we followed our noses to a shack where parathas and instant noodles were cooking. The sign on the modest little eatery promised lots more, but we made do with warmth and passable food.
Bhotia dog in Chopta
It looks quiet and peaceful in Chopta but one look at this sleeping Bhotia dog told us another story. Notice the spiked metal collar around its neck – this is intended to prevent leopards from killing it. Leopards are opportunistic hunters and frequently prey on dogs with a bite to the throat. The tough metal collars may be uncomfortable for the dogs but its spiky edges have protected them from many a marauding leopard.
The trail to Tungnath
Misty mountains tower over Chopta. After breakfast, we begin the 4 km-climb to Tungnath. The paved trail winds through a tract of dense forest interspersed with alpine meadows, known as bugyals in the Garhwali dialect. Ahead of us, walking in leather slippers and a thin saffron robe was a sadhu. How he defended himself against the punishing elements we do not know. But then again, centuries ago a young saint from Kerala, Adi Sankara, walked these very paths.
Pathway on the mountain
Through veils of mist we looked back at the road we had travelled. The oak trees wore shaggy coats of moss and fern. In the peak of winter, the trees will be bare.
Only the hardy, fragrant deodar trees will resist the snow. Their leaves are modified into hard, tough needles and their barks secrete resin that prevents the snow from freezing the sap.
Temple bells, Tungnath
Finally, we hear bells peal in the distance. And we see the spire of the temple poke out over a sea of mist.
Tea shop on the trail
It is the end of the season and most of the shops are deserted, but one teashop offers piping hot ginger chai. It is still early in the morning. As we stood there catching our breath and sipping tea, a red fox appeared out of the hillside and slunk away into the forest before we could bring out our cameras.
A milestone informs us that we have reached our destination.
Never run out of gas
Most tourists choose to ride mules to the top but a few nature buffs, like us, prefer to walk the entire distance. However, people like this porter transporting a gas cylinder on his back have no choice.
Main street, Tungnath
These are literally the foggy ruins of time. The stone structures here, weathered by the elements, appear much older than they are.
Ruined huts, Tungnath
Here in the main street leading up to the temple, time takes a backseat. It’s like being back in the Stone Age. The huts have roofs of solid slate, weighed down with rocks. Only the waterproof plastic sheets are a reminder of modern times.
Shops near Tungnath
Shops selling materials for puja do brisk business. The flowers, coconuts and incense are brought on muleback from Chopta, where they have arrived after a long journey from the plains.
Tungnath - Priest's chair
The priest’s chair is placed invitingly outside the temple but we choose to sit on the cool stones in the small courtyard. The priests of the Tungnath temple are local Brahmins from the village of Maku, a few thousand feet below. In all the other Kedar temples, including Kedarnath, the priests are from Udupi or Kerala, a tradition dating back to Adi Sankara’s reforms.
View Part 2 of this slideshow: Chandrashila - in the arms of Shiva