I came to Mumbai about 20 years ago, and shortly after settling down here, I unexpectedly found a new best friend, Lord Ganesha, who also happens to be the favourite personal God of most people I know. In the last two decades Ganesha has been my constant companion and support and I have experienced his miraculous intervention many times in my life. He is the god of beginnings, the remover of obstacles, the bestower of knowledge, prosperity and much more. For me, he is also the best friend and big brother, who always watches out for me.
Since the last two months of 2019, I had been feeling this strong need to visit the renowned eight sacred temples associated with Lord Ganesha, known as the Ashtvinayak. This yearning in fact started with an unusual experience one dawn sometime in October last. As I got up from sleep I could see a small yellowish orange coloured Ganesha, it was as if he was sitting on my eyelids. He was the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes, and sent me into a frenzy to find and buy an orange Ganesha, as I thought this is what he wanted me to bring home. I couldn’t find the statue, but a couple of months later I felt driven to join a group tour with Kesari Tours and set off on this amazing journey of three days across the hinterlands of Maharashtra, covering three districts, namely Pune, Raigarh and Ahmednagar, to visit his sacred shrines.
The temples are in Morgaon, Siddhatek, Pali, Mahad, Thevur, Lenyandri, Ozar, Ranjangaon, little towns and villages that have interesting legends and lores associated with Lord Ganesha and the existence of the shrines.
All the idols of Lord Ganesha in these eight temples are Swayambhu, i.e. they are not crafted by the hands of man, but had emerged on their own. They were sculpted by nature.
We started from Mumbai early in the morning and passing the picturesque Malshej Ghat reached the caves of Lenyadri before noon. The spectacular rock cut Buddhist caves offer an imposing site from a distance, and as you approach the cave temple, the awe increases. The 283 steps to the temple are not an easy climb. It is in cave number 7 that the Lenyadri Ganesha resides, and as you walk through the rock cut entrance and have a darshan of the deity, the tough climb is forgotten. The naturally formed stone icon, is covered with orange vermilion and is in sharp contrast to the black stone walls. Here Ganesha appears in the form of Girijatmaja, the son of Parvati. The orange coloured Ganpati here is indicative of how goddess Parvati had crafted him with turmeric. He was born in Lenyadri and lived here for 12 years, it is believed.
The 1st century AD temple is simple yet majestic in the aura it creates, perched on a hill, with the landscape sprawled around it. For the aged, there are comfortable palkis available for as little as INR 1000 for a return trip to the caves. Pilgrims need to be careful of the simian friends, a group of mischievous monkeys who will keep eyeing your belongings, looking for food.
Three hours away from the wine country of Nasik is the town of Ozar and its famous Vigneshwara Temple. Enroute there are little villages with houses lined with hibiscus plants, sugarcane fields and a few vineyards also. Being a Bengali, I am aware that hibiscus is the favourite flower of Goddess Kali, it was a revelation for me that these red flowers are also Ganesha’s favourite and are always offered to him.
The beautiful little temple at Ozar, next to a river, has an interesting legend of Lord Ganesha defeating Vignasura (the demon of obstacles), and it is believed that obstacles cannot trouble the true devotees of the Lord.
Located about 50 kms from Pune, in Ranjangaon, is the magnificent Mahaganpati, who is known to have helped his father Lord Shiva in wreaking havoc on the demon named Tripurasura. I stood enthralled before the gigantic statue which has a beautiful crown adorning his head. It is said that the idol here has 10 hands and 10 trunks. He is flanked by his two wives Riddhi (prosperity) and Siddhi (spiritual attainment). The temple gets crowded in the evenings so it is advisable to buy a VIP pass for INR 50, to skip the long queues. Photography is not allowed inside any of the temples.
The next morning we headed to Morgaon, to pay our obedience at the Mayureshwar temple. Traditionally, most people going for Ashtvinayak start their journey from Morgaon and after visiting the other seven temples, once again come here and end the pilgrim trail. So this temple has a special importance in Ashtvinayak Yatra. Popular lore states that Ganesha took the incarnation of Mayureshwar (riding a peacock) to defeat the demon Sindhu and his army.
The next stop was Siddhatek temple in Ahmednagar district. Bhima river flows through the area. It is the only temple in the Ashtvinayak circuit where the idol has its trunk turned in the right direction. In all the other temples it is turned towards the left. It is said that Ganesha with the trunk turned right side is the giver of supernatural powers (siddhis), but not too easy to please. Lord Vishnu is supposed to have performed penance here to please Ganesha and acquire special powers.
Ganesha at the Chintamani temple in Theur in known to be an eradicator of worries. It is a large temple complex located about 25 kms from Pune. Another story says that when the arrogant prince Guna took the wish-fulfilling jewel Chintamani from Kapila sage, the latter asked for Ganesha’s help, who defeated the prince’s army and killed him. At his devotee’s behest Ganesha agreed to stay in Theur, where he is known as Chintamani.
The last two Ashtvinayak shrines are enroute from Pune to Mumbai, in Raigarh district, so were closer home. At Mahad, the idol of the Varadvinayak temple was found in the pond about 350 years ago. This is the only temple in the circuit where devotees are allowed to step inside the sanctum sanctorum and touch the idol, which was a deeply emotional experience for me.
At Ballaleshwar temple in Pali, Lord Ganesha’s shrine gets its name from his devotee, a young boy named Ballal, who defied strong parental opposition to worship Ganesha. The stone icon here is known as Ballaleshwar (Lord of Ballal). The eyes and navel of the icon are encrusted with diamonds.
By the end of the journey, I found that all the Ashtvinayak idols were orange in colour, they were smeared with vermilion at each temple. And I realised that it was not that he wanted me to bring an orange idol home, but make me visit his sacred shrines and seek his blessings.
How to reach: From Mumbai by bus or car, the total journey covers approximately 1200 kms. The distance is less if travelling from Pune.
Accommodation: Many of the little towns have budget hotels where you can halt for the night. The best option is staying at Pune and doing the whole circuit from there. We were put up at Lemon Tree Hotel, Hinjawadi, in Pune.
Best time to visit: September to April. Monsoon and summer months are best avoided.
We think we own the earth … this is mankind’s greatest folly. We often forget that we share this land, the seas and oceans with millions of other species for whom this earth is as much their home as ours. This mistake of ours is not just born of ignorance, but arrogance.
As millions of people across the world are caged in their own homes, if the animal world had the ability to understand, I wonder how they would feel. We have after all caged them for thousands of years, restricted their movements and destroyed their habitats.
Our ancient scriptures say that human birth is very rare, after 84 lakh (8.4 million) cycles of births and deaths through various life forms, we evolve and get this human body. We are spiritual beings, gifted with a human form.
God puts a piece of his own heart into each one of us as we are born in his image. While there is so much beauty, such great capacity to experience and share love in this human heart … but our sense of superiority never goes.
It is to destroy this arrogance comes Kali. For she is the supreme slayer of the ego. And in this case, the global pandemic under which the world is reeling today, which has brought down a helpless mankind to its knees, resonates with the transformative energy of Kali.
Kali is the ferocious goddess of change … whether it is in our personal life or for the humankind at large. She steps in only after she realizes that we are not about to bring about the transformation ourselves. The tumultuous times we pass through while she shorns us of everything false, destroys every pretence, drags us through the torturous fire of change … so that the only thing that comes forth is a simple, humble heart that is receptive to a new awakening.
And new awakening there will be, for there is always a balance in Nature, not just from a physical perspective, but energetically as well. Whether we like it or not, Mother Nature will claim her suzerainty.
I first noticed the strange happening when I went through the 1800 odd photographs that I had clicked at the recent Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj, but could not find even a single photo of hers. I was absolutely sure that I had clicked at least 25 to 30 photographs of the young ascetic and was baffled how she managed to escape the lens.
As a photojournalist based in New Delhi, working with a foreign news agency, I knew that the unusual photographs of the beautiful young woman with her group of woman ascetics was sure to be featured in at least a few European publications. I had photographed them sitting in meditation, walking together towards the river bank for bathing, chanting mantras and performing sacred rituals. The spectacular sights and sounds of Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest spiritual congregation that attracts millions, are a photographer’s delight and always has been my favourite assignment. I have covered it for more than 25 years, but this kind of a thing has never happened before.
I don’t know why I could not shake off her image from my mind. The young Sanyasin (ascetic) with her long flowing hair that almost touched her knees, the half smile on her lips, high arched eyebrows, the calm countenance. I realised that she was everything that I wasn’t. Including the fact that I was an agnostic.
I so wanted to know her story – who was she ? Why did such a beautiful young woman become an ascetic ? What did she want from life ? And most importantly, how did she manage to elude my camera ? I had to find all the answers. I did some digging around and found out that this particular group of woman ascetics lived all by themselves in a cave in the Himalayas. They also had a spiritual hermitage in Uttarkashi where they resided in the winter months.
So I sent a request that I wanted to do a photo feature on them for an international publication. My request was turned down, but I was told that if I wanted I was welcome to just meet them as long as I didn’t publish anything. A bit disappointed that I won’t be able to bring their unusual life before the world, nevertheless I agreed to meet them at their mountain habitat.
Asked to keep my camera and cell phone in Uttarkashi, I trekked for almost nine hours with the caretaker of the Ashram. We only halted once at a village to have food. By that time I had lost all sense of direction.
When we reached their mountain habitat, I was surprised to see how the narrow entrance led to the large cave. There were 12 Sanyasins there, who seemed happy to see me. I am sure if I was a man, I would have never been allowed to come here. The woman whose search had brought me here was nowhere around.
After I had had a simple meal of fruits and rested for a while, the eldest of them, who everyone addressed as Maa Tara spoke to me, “We will take you to our temple now where you can take the blessings of our goddess. This is the most sacred place for our order and rarely has an outsider been allowed inside.”
I had little interest in seeking blessings from their goddess, but I silently nodded my head. A narrow passage led to a large cavern dominated by their stone goddess, from ceiling to the floor. “She is Devi, the Divine Feminine,” whispered Tara, pointing out that the image in stone was not crafted by man, but had emerged on its own.
I stared dumbfounded at the beautiful face, the same half smile, the long hair, the arched eyebrow …. It seemed the young woman who almost had a hypnotic spell on me now stood as a gigantic image in stone.
“Where is the woman who looked like her ?” I almost shouted, my mind was whirring, I couldn’t make out any sense from all this. I did not know what was happening to me as tears flowed down my eyes, as I kept asking, “Where is she, who is she?”
My hosts were clearly stunned, at what I was saying and maybe by my reaction also. “What are you talking about ? Which woman? Whom did you see?” asked Tara.
“There was a beautiful woman who looked like the statue, she was constantly with you in the Kumbh Mela. I clicked so many photographs of your group, but she was not there even in one. It was my curiosity about her that made me search for you and brought me here,” I blurted out.
“So she brought you here. You are very fortunate to follow the call.” Tara continued,
“She appears as you want to see her, that is why we only call her Devi (the Goddess), the manifestation of the Divine Feminine. You may call her by any name, but her essence remains the same. She is also in you.”
Tara continued, “She has manifested as you want to see her … in essence as you want to see yourself. The young woman whose beauty and peaceful face mesmerized you so much is your inner goddess. She wants you to find her – not in a mountain cave or photograph, but in your heart.”
The skeptic in me had taken a beating … no reasoning or logic could explain what had happened. I returned to Delhi but whenever possibly made a short trip to their Uttarkashi Ashram.
Gradually, meditation, mantra recitation, chanting, became an everyday practice for me. It took me many more years to understand what Tara had meant that Autumn afternoon in the cave temple.
My restless heart had by then found its anchor.
It is believed that since time immemorial Lord Vishnu sits in perpetual meditation in Badrinath, a holy town in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. Spiritual seekers have down the ages come to seek his blessings at the beautiful temple in the Himalayas, located at a height 10,279 ft, nestled amidst picturesque mountains, on the banks of the sacred Alaknanda river.
It is not an easy journey, never was 1000 years ago, and still continues to test the courage, patience and resilience of those who make the arduous trip. It requires a bit of madness, a whole lot of love and unexplained devotion. But for those who do, a glimpse of the black stone statue of Badrinarayan (the name by which Lord Vishnu is worshipped here) and the spiritually charged atmosphere, makes this pilgrimage to Badrinath temple, a life changing experience.
Landslides are common here, particularly during the monsoon months and after, and considering the fact that the area is snowbound during the winter months, it leaves very little time for the pilgrims to make the journey, but they are ready to face any risk for their favourite God. Badrinath is one of the most visited temples in India, and has been attracting more than one million pilgrims every year.
The black stone statue of Badrinarayan is said to be self manifested and sits in a meditative posture. The story goes that while Lord Vishnu was meditating, his consort, Goddess Lakshmi, protected him from the extreme cold weather in the form of a Badri (jujube or Indian date ) tree. This is how the place got its name. These berry trees were common here once, but are no longer found in the area.
My journey to Badrinath also proved to be quite adventurous. When our tour group reached the outskirts of the town, landslides were happening and the local authorities had stopped all vehicles. Our booking was already done at the Sarovar Portico hotel in Badrinath, but as we couldn’t reach the town, we had to search for alternate accommodation. Because a few thousand passengers were stranded, all the lodges and hotels in the vicinity were full that night. I really thought we would all have to spend the night in our cars, when our excellent tour manager Rupesh Jha, found a homestay after a lot of effort. At the Ganga Resort Homestay we got nice rooms, warm food and wonderful hospitality. It was nothing short of a miracle that we got the exact number of rooms as the families in our tour group.
The next morning, the roads were still not cleared, so we had to trek for 30 minutes through boulders, rocks and mountain streams. At the other side, jeep taxis took us to the temple. One look at the beautiful sight of the temple, and all the challenges enroute, were forgotten.
Inside the sanctum sanctorum, no words can express what I felt as I gazed at the black stone idol. It is believed that Lord Vishnu is doing penance here for the welfare of all living beings. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for being able to make the journey.
During winters, when the Badrinath temple is shut for six months, the Utsav Murti (idol used for public functions) is brought to the Narsimha Temple in Joshimath. It is worshipped along with Narsimha avatar, the presiding deity in this temple and the fourth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, depicted as half lion and half man.
The spectacular temple is a must visit in Joshimath, which has many other attractions like Bhavishya Kedar (which will be the future Kedarnath temple, when according to prophecy Kedarnath temple will disappear). There is also the Adi Shankaracharya monastery, which has many shrines. It was fascinating to see the statues of nine planets, the 64 statues of Yoginis (various aspects of the divine feminine), and the cave where the highly revered monk had done meditation.
Another interesting attraction at Joshimath is the more than 2500 years old Kalpavriksha tree, which is worshipped here. Popular lore states Adi Shankaracharya had got enlightenment under this tree. There is a tiny Shiva temple at the tree trunk, and I had to really bend low to enter it. According the mythology, Kalpavriksha is known as the wish fulfilling tree. I am sure that for thousands of years people had stood below the branches and have prayed for their heart’s desire to come true.
I did not make a wish. The fact that I was able to visit the land of the meditative God, was much more than a dream come true.
How to reach: You can take a taxi from Dehradun’s Jolly Grant airport to Badrinath. The distance is about 311 kms. Chartered choppers are also available from Dehradun to Badrinath.
Accommodation: Sarovar Portico, Badrinath is the best hotel and a short walk from the temple. Those taking helicopter services can also stay at the Reliance Guest House.
Best time to visit: Badrinath is open from May to October, Joshimath can be visited all around the year. Joshimath is in fact the start point of many Himalayan trekking routes and expeditions.
The sun had just set a little while ago and darkness had descended. The place was in the outskirts of the village so a few sheep could still be found lazing on the ground, yet to return home and join the flock who had already been herded back to the village. They were the stragglers, the obstinate ones who never liked to keep pace with the rest.
Joining them that night were a group of hares, curious to find the sheep at the place which was generally theirs every night, to play, prance, run around and sleep. They liked this little stretch and had their warren here, near the hill, at a little distance from the flowing waters of the river.
Then suddenly a golden light seemed to cover the ground. The animals whose body and mind were so tuned in to the elements of nature, were startled and looked up to see the source. Shimmering in a golden light she was standing in a hollow at the side of the hill.As the soft golden glow covered them, it lulled them into peaceful slumber. Just like a mother’s love and caress lulls her child into deep sleep.
She watched them for a very long time, smiling at the beautiful, innocent creatures of God, whose hearts reflected the purity of the Maker.
After that night she appeared many more times, at the exact spot. By now all big and small creatures in the surrounding area had become aware of her special presence. Her blessings and her love was as much for them as the human beings who revered her.
It was a few days later that she appeared to a young shepherdess, and in time the hallowed ground became a place of pilgrimage drawing seekers from faraway places. They came for love, for solace, for miracles and to connect with her divine energy.
She herself awaits for mankind to understand that the greatest miracle is within their own heart as children of God, and as healers and protectors of the earth and all its sacred life forms.
Note: This little post is dedicated to all those animals, plants and unique life forms who have died or suffered, due to mankind’s greed and folly.
High up in the Greater Himalayas, at a height of 10,200 ft is the temple of the river goddess Ganga. This temple marks the source of the sacred river, which originates nearby at Gaumukh, the snout of Gangotri glacier. For a river which is known to have many mysterious powers, a journey to its source is an experience of a lifetime.
According to legends, it is here that millennia ago King Bhagirath did penance to please Ganga and bring the celestial river down from the heavens to earth, so that her waters could grant nirvana to his ancestors who were burnt to ashes due to a curse. It is also here that Shiva caught her descent in his locks to break her mighty fall which would have otherwise swept away the earth. Since time immemorial, saints and spiritual seekers have lived by Ganga’s banks and important pilgrimage centres have come up at these places where her waters have flowed and blessed the land.
The journey from Rishikesh to Gangotri takes about 11 hours, and the best option for most travellers is to take a night halt at Harsil. The route to Harsil takes you through misty mountains, pine forests and apple orchards. The whole journey is like a misty dream. You do not know if it is real till you reach your destination – the Nelangana Resorts located next to Ganga, surrounded by pristine mountains. At the nature resort you can walk down from your wooden cottage to the roaring Ganga – there is no manmade object, just nature in its rugged beauty and the river in her purest form, till it descends to civilisation.
In the winter months when Gangotri gets snowbound, a small idol of the river goddess is brought down and kept at Mukhba village, near Harsil. It is also an important Army area on account of its proximity to the China border, and a base for Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the Garhwal Scouts. Not surprisingly, Army vehicles are a common sight enroute to Gangotri.
The driving time from Harsil to Gangotri is about one and a half hours, covering approximately 23 km. On the way, most people take a stop at densely forested Bhairon Ghati (valley), where at a height of 2850 mt is the ancient temple of Bhairon. There are also a few tea shops near the temple, which are popular halts for travellers going to or returning from Gangotri.
At Gangotri, vehicles are stopped much before the temple precincts. Those who have problem taking the 15 minutes of walk to the temple can take a wheelchair. For as little as INR 300 (USD 4) these wheelchair bearers will take you to the temple and bring you back to your car.
There are many shops here selling special bottles for taking Ganga water home. Like most Hindus, I have always kept Ganga water at home, for purification and other sacred rituals. So I thanked God for giving me the opportunity to come to the source of the river and take her waters back to Mumbai, almost 2000 kms away. Due to its unique qualities, the water of Ganga does not decay and remains free from slime and sedimentation even after years.
The main temple of Ganga is a simple but beautiful structure, reflecting the essence of purity, which the river symbolises. The idol of the river goddess is the main deity worshipped in the inner sanctum, along with the idols of other river goddesses (Yamuna, Saraswati), Annapurna and Mahalakshmi – all various aspects of the divine feminine. The temple complex also has many smaller temples dedicated to Shiva, Ganesha and his two wives, Hanuman, the temple of eternal fire and Bhagirathi Shilla (the stone where the great king had performed his penance).
Along with my fellow travellers, we performed a puja sitting on the rocks at the banks of Ganga, which was flowing with all intensity at its source. It was a surreal experience to hear the chants of the priest almost synchronise with the sound of her roaring waters. The family members and ancestors of every pilgrim (including mine) were remembered, and blessings of the sacred river were sought for all.
All my life I have been sceptical when I heard people say that the sacred waters of Ganga washes away bad karmas of many lifetimes. But that morning, sitting next to the river, feeling her powerful energy, I could experience the essence of divinity, which words cannot express. It might take another level of spiritual maturity for ordinary people like me to understand, but for thousands of years the sages and enlightened beings have always understood this, and have built spiritual hermitages along her banks.
At Gangotri, the headstream of Ganga is called Bhagirathi, and she flows down the mountains merging with the second headstream, Alaknanda at Devprayag, to finally emerge as Ganga – the most sacred river of India. The lifeline of millions of people, Ganga flows for more than 2,510 kms through mountains, valleys and the plains of north India to finally merge with the sea at the Bay of Bengal.
You might also like to read a short mystical story I had written connected with the sacred river, called A Ganga River Tale.
How to reach: Dehradun’s Jolly Grant is the nearest airport and Rishikesh the nearest railhead. Taxis and buses are available easily from both these places to Gangotri.
Accommodation: There are limited good accommodation options at Harsil. I recommend Nelangana Resorts, a nature resort at an astoundingly beautiful location overlooking the river.
Best time to visit: May to mid October. The temple is inaccessible during the winter months.
He was sitting near the rocky outcrop watching the flock of sheep around him. If only his flock could understand he loved them so much that his heart shown with a golden light that was brighter than a thousand suns.
The glow radiated it’s brilliant energy across the arid landscape and the white houses at a distance. He could see much further than what his eyes showed him across the horizon. Beyond time and space, he could feel the rhythm of every heart. Tears flowed from his eyes as he felt the surge of one great love in countless hearts, one soul in many bodies.
He cried and laughed in this state of bliss.
The solitude was not for long. As the seven men and three women found the Master, they thought he was only watching them approach. They did not know that he could see countless more – those who believed in his word and those who didn’t, even those who were ignorant that he once walked the earth.
Soon he got up to start his journey, but his feet left no footprint on the sand, nor did his body cast a shadow.
His journey continues across worlds and dimensions, through time and space.
They call him by many names, but his true essence is only love.
The spectacular chariot raced through the path scattered with metal cores and blocks. In the realm of the Blue Shadows within the inner recesses of the earth, sunlight never reached, and the world looked very different from what it appeared above the earth.
The shadow beings who lived here were the hoarders of the earth, living deep down in its trenches. The beings of Blue Shadows knew about the lifeforms that lived above, including humans, but never sought to connect with them. The only thing that reached the surface from their realm, was the wealth of their world, the minerals they so ferociously guarded and hoarded. They never wanted to share, but knew that the supreme power that created the universe allowed the humans to take what was rightfully only theirs. It was the immutable law.
Greed, guilt, grief were the only overwhelming emotions they felt, that was turning their heart into the same dark shadows that covered their world.
“There is still hope,” whispered the princess as she raced her chariot, in search of ‘The Hermit’.
In the dark world of Blue Shadows, they had seen a streak of light flitting across the firmament. The princess had been searching for it since then, to find out in which deep dark cave or crevice, the hermit had chosen to appear.
As the princess raced the chariot in the direction of a cave where they had located the light, she fervently hoped it wouldn’t disappear again.
After reaching the small cave as she stepped inside, she could see the flickering light, but could not find the hermit whose powers had brought her so much hope. Thousands of kilometres above in a Himalayan cave, the hermit in his deep meditation had discovered the world of Blue Shadows and the beings who lived there. His heart could feel their pain and wished he could do something for them. Every thought is a strong energy. His great empathy and kindness created this light in the world of Blue Shadows.
The princess could almost feel what the hermit felt, his one thought of kindness, stirred her heart, and before she knew her dark shadow now shone with a little shimmering light. She was transforming….
She was aware she had to protect and nurture this light, and make it shine in the hearts of the denizens in her world. A tough task that might take eons, but was possible.
The hermit smiled. He had started his journey a long time ago, to deal with the shadows of his own heart, he had never thought that the light of his path would ignite so many hearts, in the seen and unseen worlds.
Since time immemorial, Uttarkashi in the higher Himalayas, has been known as the home of celestial beings. This is what has drawn sages and spiritual aspirants who have continued to live here in the many Ashrams (spiritual hermitages) down the ages. Located on the banks of Bhagirathi river, a tributary of Ganga, Uttarkashi is considered an abode of Shiva, like the city of Varanasi (Kashi) in the Gangetic plains. And just like Varanasi, the Kashi Vishwanath temple here is the main attraction for visitors.
An interesting feature of the massive Shivlinga being worshipped here is that it leans towards one side. Recounting the genesis of the temple, the priest here said that the stone Shivlinga was not sculpted by man, it had emerged from the ground on its own. I had visited Varanasi earlier this year and had gone to Kashi Vishwanath temple there. The striking difference between both places was very apparent.
The complex also houses the famous Shakti Temple. A few months ago I had seen in a television serial, a revered saint Baba Loknath’s journey to Uttarkashi more than 200 years ago, which showed a gigantic trident that many people were trying to move but were unable to do so. I was truly intrigued, did such a trident really exist, even today ?
Never in my wildest imagination I would have thought that just about four months after that I would stand almost transfixed before the same massive trident, called Shakti Stambh in the Shakti Temple. For my readers outside India, I would like to clarify that the word Shakti means “power”, and is another name of Goddess Durga (the Mother Goddess).
Goddess Durga, the warrior goddess, and the supreme primordial feminine energy, is worshipped here as the trident. It is believed that after defeating the demon Mahishasur, in the epic battle between demons and gods, she threw her trident at this very spot.
There are of course many diverse and fascinating stories about the origin of the metallic trident, which is almost 20 feet high. Some believe the metallic composition of the trident is not of this earth, while others claim that it is more than 1500 years old. The mystery of its origin is yet to be solved. It is said that you will not be able to move the massive trident after applying all your strength, however if you touch it with a finger it will start vibrating.
As soon as I stepped inside the Shakti Temple, I could feel a very strong energy. Being an empath, I have always been highly sensitive to energy, but was a bit surprised that how overpowering it was. The temple was almost empty, apart from two people from the Praxis Holidays tour group. My fellow travellers were meditating.
I stood there staring at the trident wrapped in red and gold cloth, which is generally offered to Goddess Durga. Suddenly, I could hear a voice say loud and clear “Sit”. It was authoritative and distinctive. Was it a communication or did it come from somewhere inside me, honestly I do not know. And I heard it again, “Sit”.
I sat down on the floor and the moment I closed my eyes, I got into a deep state of meditation. I have been meditating almost everyday since more than 20 years, but such deep meditation, almost instantly, has been rare.
After I opened my eyes I could not see anyone from my group, so I thought maybe it was time for me to go, even though I didn’t want to leave the temple. When I went outside, our tour manager Rupesh told me that there was still some time for our departure. Happily I entered the Shakti Temple again and sat down, to meditate and soak in the environment.
After some time as I was about to step out of the sanctum santorum, an old woman came to me and stretched out her hand. She had come from inside the temple though I had not noticed her earlier. I was a bit taken aback, the woman did not look like a beggar to me. Standing on a holy ground, right before the trident, I could not say no, I quietly took out a Rs 20 note from my purse and gave it to her. Silently, she took the money and gave me a berry. I was a bit hesitant to accept it, but again could not refuse.
I washed the berry at the water tap outside and had it like a prasad. It was an unusual exchange of which I think about often, even after a month of returning back to my busy Mumbai life. I believe, there is a message in it for me to understand about giving and receiving – I have always thought that I give a lot more than I receive, this incident has somehow made me realise that there is always receiving, even though I am not aware of it. The exchange happens simultaneously.
Every time I think about the Shakti Temple and my experience there, I am filled with a wonderful feeling of joy and excitement, as if I was connecting with a secret and sacred space within the inner recesses of my being. I know now why for thousands of years spiritual aspirants have travelled thousands of kilometres to come here – for the next big step in their journey within.
How to reach: Uttarkashi is at a distance of 160 kms from Dehradun’s Jolly Grant airport. A cab is the best option, there are also buses plying regularly.
Accommodation: There are many budget hotels in Uttarkashi, mostly on the Gangotri road.
Best time to visit: Whole year round, except for the monsoon months (July – August).
Originating from Yamunotri Glacier at a height of 20,955 ft, the temple of river Yamuna is at the foot of the inaccessible Kalind Mountain in the Garhwal Himalayas. It is the belief in the river goddess and her powers that has drawn people here down the ages through treacherous mountain paths to her shrine at a height of 10,797 ft. The journey to Yamunotri temple, the first stop of the pilgrim trail Chota Char Dham Yatra in Uttarakhand, India, is tough but the natural beauty of the environs is so captivating that it makes every traveller forget the challenges.
According to popular lore, river Yamuna is the twin sister of Yama, the God of Death, and it is believed that bathing in her sacred waters will free one from the sufferings of death. Both are children of the Sun God, Surya. Significantly, the river goddess is also one of the consorts of Krishna, and the devotees of the Blue God know her by another name, Kalindi. A river that has inspired many immortal tales of love, it is believed that she carries the colour of Krishna in her dark waters.
My journey from Haridwar to Barkot, which is the stop for most pilgrims heading towards Yamunotri, almost took the whole day, via Mussoorie. It was almost evening when we reached the Nivarana Yamunotri Cottages at Barkot, which is one of the best accommodation options in the area, and offers both cottages and camps, which are basic but comfortable.
Located next to the river, I could hear the roaring sound of the mighty Yamuna, even though I could not see the waters in the dark. The next morning, at almost 5 am, we started off for Janki Chatti, the last point where cars are allowed. It is advisable to start the climb to Yamunotri early and come down by mid afternoon, as the weather in the mountains starts changing after 3 pm, and rains are common.
From Janki Chatti, pilgrims can either take a palki (carried by four bearers) or a pony. But for those who are confident of walking the steep climb, the best option is to trek. The distance from here to the temple is just a little over five kilometres, but it takes almost three hours. Enroute, the scenic vista of the river roaring down the mountain will keep you enthralled. As you soak in the beauty of the surroundings, you can see the countless streams and rivulets joining Yamuna.
For a river goddess who is regarded as the daughter of the Sun God, it is not surprising to see so many thermal springs in the temple precincts, where the pilgrims take bath. Then there are those who put rice in cloth bags and dip it in the sacred hot spring called Surya (Sun) Kund, the rice and potatoes get cooked in the water and is taken by them to share as sacred prasad, with their family and friends. A rock pillar called Divya Shila is another key attraction.
After performing pooja, we entered the small temple to see the beautiful dark visage of the river goddess. I had never seen an idol of Goddess Yamuna before and was mesmerized by its beauty. Known as the river which inspires love and beauty, the dark idol is a perfect manifestation of Goddess Yamuna. Photography is not allowed inside the temple.
Covered by snow during the winter months, the temple is almost inaccessible and closed for six months. This is when a small silver idol of the river goddess is taken down to Kharsil, her winter seat. The idol is kept in the famous Shani Dev Temple in Kharsil. According to Hindu mythology, Shani Dev (represented by planet Saturn in the solar system), regarded as the God of Justice and Karma, is a brother of Yamuna.
For me, another highlight of the journey was conversations with the locals, the hardy mountain people who find work only for six months in a year, helping pilgrims reach the Yamunotri temple. Their life is intertwined with the temple, and most of them do not seek any other way of sustenance.
How to reach: Dehradun’s Jolly Grant is the nearest airport. You can stay for a night in Haridwar before heading to Barkot.
Accommodation: There are several accommodation options at Barkot. One of the best is Camp Nivarana Yamunotri Cottages.
When to go: The temple opens every year from the last week of April or the first week of May. It closes in mid-October.