Kedarnath 

Kedarnath (11,753 ft.) is sacred for a temple to the god Shiva, in his form as Kedarnath (the "Lord of Kedar").  It is at the headwaters of the Mandakini River, one of the Himalayan tributaries of the Ganges.  As with all the other Himalayan pilgrimage sites, Kedarnath is so high in the mountains that it is only open for six months of the year, from April to October. This picture was taken in late April 1986, and the place is still covered with snow (2 feet on the ground); the snow on the peaks behind never melts.

The image of Shiva at  Kedarnath is "self-manifested" (svayambhu), formed from a natural ridge of stone. Since this is considered to be a place at which Shiva has revealed himself out of grace for his devotees, it is believed to be especially holy.    

This picture was taken in May 1986.  For other pictures and thoughts about how Kedarnath is being affected by the development of tourism, see the photo section on Kedarnath at Tourism and Himalayan Pilgrimage.

In June 2013 Kedarnath suffered a devastating flash flood  (apdaa, click here for a link)I have retained these pages for their historical sense. 

 

Here's a shot from June 2005, showing the road leading up to the temple.  When I first came to Kedarnath in 1986 this was the only street, but since then there has been some building on the west side (to the right of the picture), and Kedarnath is a little bit more of a town. 

This picture was taken in the height of the summer pilgrimage season, as is clear from the density of the crowds in the street.  Notice also how much people are bundled up--many Indians are less used to the cold than people who live in colder climates, but the highs were only in the 50s and 60s.

 

 

This picture (taken in November 2005), shows the valley with the town and temple, and the mountains behind.  The locals can tell some story about each of these peaks, and their association with mythic events, so the connection between mythology and geography is still very strong.

Fresh snow had fallen the night before, and the mountains show up even more dazzling the usual.  Of all the places I've been in India, Kedarnath has the most raw energy, and some of it is the starkness of the landscape. 

As at Yamunotri, pilgrims coming to Kedarnath must travel the last 10 miles on a footpath (in this distance the path rises about 5,000 feet, so it's pretty much always uphill).

 

Here's a photo of the steepest part of that path, in the section between Rambara and Garur Chatti (miles 5 and 6).  I'm standing at the beginning of one switchback (which first circles back toward the bottom of the picture, and then heads down, seemingly into infinity. 

When you are down below looking up, it seems even longer!

This picture was taken in November 2005.

The June 2013 flood (apdaa, click here for a link) caused landslides that completely destroyed this path--the whole side of the mountain caved in.  The new path is on the other side of the river. 

 

This sanyasi had built a hut (kuti) on the path leading to Kedarnath.  During the summer pilgrimage season many ascetics set up huts alongside the path, and gain their livelihood by begging from the pilgrims passing by. For the pilgrims, giving money (or supplies) to the sadhus is an act of religious merit, to support men who devote their lives to religious practice. For many sadhus smoking intoxicating drugs (in imitation of Shiva himself) is an integral part of their daily religious practice; this sadhu is holding a chillum, a baked clay cylinder used to smoke a mixture of tobacco and hashish. Ganja grows wild all through the Himalayas, and thus the sadhus can manufacture enough hashish for their own needs.

The markings on his forehead and on his temples identify him as belonging to one of the Sanyasi Naga Akharas, ascetics who in earlier times made their living as traders and mercenary soldiers.  Despite his affiliation, this sadhu was a very gentle and soft-spoken man.   I wonder now whether this was Himalaya Giri, whose samadhi shrine is along the path at Hanuman Chatti

This picture was taken in May 1986.

 

All sorts of other people take advantage of the tourist traffic during the pilgrimage season, since for many pilgrims giving charity while on pilgrimage is a meritorious act, and the constant pilgrim flow ensures a continuing supply of donors.  This blind musician had set up a little hut beside the trail, and was playing his harmonium and singing devotional songs.  During a difficult uphill climb, this served not only to distract the pilgrims for a moment, but to remind them why they were traveling.

This picture was taken in May 1986.  I saw this same man playing during my visit in June 2002.


 
The road to Kedarnath is so strenuous that some people simply cannot do it.   Some poeople hire ponies, some get carried in little boat-shaped things by groups of 4 men, and some (small and light people) get carried in a wicker basket.   For these carriers the pilgrim trade provides seasonal labor, but it is very hard work--especially since they may make two round trips in a day!

Even now a pilgrimage to the Himalayas may be something that can only be done once in one's lifetime (after years of saving), and although traditional pilgrimage manuals give higher marks for walking there under one's own power, these sites are seen as so holy that all visitors gain benefits.  

 

Winter in Kedarnath

 

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Page maintained by James G. Lochtefeld.
Last modified 31 December 2014