Kedarnath (the town) is named for its presiding deity, who is a form of Shiva. Kedarnath is one of the twelve jyotirlingas, a network of sites deemed especially sacred to Shiva, and at which Shiva is uniquely present. The image of Kedarnath is a natural ridge of stone considered to be a self-manifest (svayambhu) form of Shiva, and for this reason is considered to be unusually powerful. Local priests identify different parts of the stone as three different deities: Shiva, Parvati, and Ganesh.
According to Kedarnath's charter myth, after the Mahabharata war the five Pandava brothers undertook their "Great Journey" (to death) in the Himalayas as penance for having killed their kinsmen during the war. They were seeking a vision of Shiva before they died, but Shiva hid from them, because he did not want to bless men who had killed their relatives (and thus destroyed the family). Shiva concealed himself in the form of a bull, and was grazing with a herd of cows in the Kedarnath valley, but the brothers suspected that he was there. One of the Prandava brothers, Bhima (conceived as enormously large and strong), stood with his legs on either side of the narrow valley, and forced the cows to move between his legs. The bull refused to pass through his legs (since the lower half of the body is considered less pure, this would have demonstrated subordinate status), and started running up the valley, with the Pandavas in hot pursuit. They had almost caught up to him when the bull started sinking into the ground, but they managed to grab the bull's hump before it disappeared, and that hump turned into the the stone outcrop that is now worshipped as Kedarnath. According to tradition, the oldest part of the temple was built by the Pandavas themselves, before they ventured further up into the mountains to their deaths.
There are no good historical records for the age of the temple, but Kedarnath has been an important pilgrimage site for at least 1000 years. Kedarnath has been the least affected by developmental forces, probably due to its inaccessibility.
(Click on the thumbnails for larger images)
|This two-photo shot of Kedarnath village gives a general
sense of the natural forces that have limited the town's growth. The
semicircle in the bottom center is a large retaining wall, and outside it
are a series of large "cubes" made of thick wire mesh filled
with rocks. The pathways at the bottom of the photo are elevated
five or six feet above the surrounding ground level. From these, it
seems clear that the region below the present town gets too much water to
enable building there. Above the town is the Mandakini River gorge,
which rises up steeply on the other side. The most significant
recent construction has been the rows of huts lining the footpath (visible
on the right side in the center). The large building nearest to the retaining wall
is a Government Dispensary--built by the deepest pockets in the nation, the
These natural features have severely limited the size of the town, but they have also helped to retain some of its character. This was the only site among the three in which the primary temple (at the top left, directly underneath the green arrow--it is more visible in the larger photo) was still the focal point of the town. At both Gangotri and Badrinath, the temples were still ritually important, but seemed lost (or less significant) in the larger towns. (Photo courtesy of Nick Barootian)
The Kedarnath temple has changed very little. The left-hand picture was taken in 1986, the right-hand picture in 2002. In both the outside of the temple has some painted decoration, which looks more or less the same. There have been some minor cosmetic changes in the surroundings: in 2002 the central gateway has been repainted, and has more bells hanging from it; the electrical pole on the left has been removed, and the fence has been improved. In the 2002 picture, there also seems to be less open space in the foreground--but this may stem from the differing times in the season (the left side was taken shortly after the temple opened in late April. (Right hand photo courtesy of Nick Barootian)
Economics and Religion
The left-hand picture shows one such sadhu--dressed only in a blanket and a coat of ash--wandering through the bazaar. The right-hand picture shows a group of poor sadhus sitting by the temple steps to wait for alms. As mentioned in the Gangotri section, giving alms is a common pilgrimage practice, and thus the poor (sadhus and beggars alike) at pilgrimage places are virtually assured of a subsistence income.
As at Gangotri, the Kedarnath's pandas (hereditary pilgrimage priests) are struggling economically. Their ritual duties bring obligations to serve their clients, but don't bring a lot of income. To supplement this many of Kedarnath's pandas run various sorts of businesses, such as managing hotels and shops--even the tailor in a little kiosk who put a new zipper on my pants was a panda! Another disadvantage is that the temple is run by the Temple Committee, and thus the local pandas have no access to its resources. Of all three sites, the Kedarnath pandas were the most forthright in approaching us to perform rituals--doubtless recognizing foreigners as an unclaimed and potentially lucrative source of patronage. (Left photo courtesy Sarah Helminski, right courtesy of Nick Barootian)
One of the few significant changes in the intervening years was a line of huts on both sides of the path leading into the town. In 1990 (left) this was almost completely clear, whereas in 2002 it extended for at least half a mile. By and large, the huts are used by the men who manage the horses--they stay in them, and stable their horses outside--but some of the huts serve as "hotels," making tea and food to anyone who comes there. These huts serve the lower-end consumers, and also get the overflow when the town is full. Water pollution must be high, since the huts on the right are built right on the cliff leading down to the river, and since this space is used as a toilet. Surprisingly, water testing did not show nearly as much coliform bacteria as we would have thought, but we later realized that the testing process was probably affected by the air temperatures, which were well below those recommended by the testing kit. (Right photo courtesy of Nick Barootian)
The left-hand photo was taken over a balcony in our hotel, and the right hand photo was taken from the other side of the Mandakini River (looking back towards the edge of the town). In the right hand picture one can also clearly see how the trash collects in the places below openings and alleyways (which provide places to throw it). (Left photo courtesy of Nick Barootian, right hand courtesy of Sarah Helminski)
Construction and Resources
Of all three sites, Kedarnath had the least in terms of visible resources and visible development. Part of this is doubtless because of it remote location--any supplies have to be carried in by a horse or a person--but stresses of the climate itself are severe.. These pictures were taken at the Tourist Bungalow in Kedarnath, which is built alongside the road as one approaches the town. These buildings had clearly been ravaged--perhaps by an avalanche (on the road up, one sees thick, solid metal poles twisted into grotesque shapes), and the one on the right has been more or less destroyed. Perhaps more tellingly, they buildings are not being repaired. The Tourist Bungalow still had a dozen functioning rooms, reserved for people taking the GMVN tours, but the accommodations are rudimentary. In many other places such damage would have more been speedily repaired; the delay here may reflect not only the difficulty in doing anything, but a judgment that such repairs would bring only limited returns, since the traffic here is comparatively less than the other sites. (Photos courtesy of Nick Barootian)
The right hand photo shows an elderly pilgrim being carried in a kandi--a wicker sling carried by a single person. The flood of pilgrims thus brings earning opportunities for the local people, but it is hardly a good living. Not only is one's earning "season" limited to half the year, at best, but for poorer people the only sorts of jobs available are strenuous and difficult.
Click here for more photos of Kedarnath.
These pages are in progress.
Page maintained by James G. Lochtefeld.
Last modified 17 March 2003