Temples of solitude

Temples of solitude

Hill retreat

Temples of solitude

It is a hot April day, but not too hot. I am gazing at the cluster of stone temples that makes up the ancient Jageshwar complex, 125 temples devoted to Lord Shiva.

In turn, I can feel someone gazing at me; the compelling intensity of the scrutiny is like a scorch mark on my neck. I scan the vicinity in cursory fashion but lock eyes with no one.

Am I being fanciful?

Jageshwar, 36 km to the northeast of Almora in the Kumaon side of Uttarakhand, sits at 1870 metres above sea level, and is a sacred and significant site for Hindus, since the Adi Shankaracharya is believed to have re-established the first of the 12 existing jyotirlingas, the Nageshvara jyotirlinga, at this spot.

And what a beautiful spot it is: hemmed in by a deodar forest with a stream confluence, the Surabhi and the Nandini from the Jataganga river valley, running at the back of the complex, and the jaw-dropping spectacle of the Himalayas if one lifts one’s eyes to the high horizon. Today, however, a haze shrouds the peaks. The air is spiked with coolness, and since it is off-season, the place is not packed with devotees. One can still hear the wind in the treetops; it is a soft, subdued sound.

Temple trivia

I am here to soak in the antiquity of these temples, to closely scrutinise and admire the embellishment done on their surfaces, study the undercut friezes, to stare at the yaalis atop the shikharas, at the fascinating dwarapals, the slate roofs, and of course, to breathe in the sharp fragrance of the deodars.

However, now that I’m here, I ask about the jyotirlingas, and find out that there is a charming story behind that, as there invariably is in Indian religious lore. This story has to do with Brahma and Vishnu locked in battle for supremacy and Shiva intervening, piercing the three worlds as an endless pillar of light, a.k.a the jyotirlinga. The 12 jyotirlingas, therefore, are sacred because they are where The Himalayan Lord appeared as an endless column of light.

There is no definite dating of the Jageshwar group of temples, but according to the ASI, they belong to the post-Gupta and are estimated to be about 2,500 years old. The complex holds some temples that are more important than the others: the Bal Jageshwar Temple, the Mahamritunjaya, (the oldest, this temple dates back to the 8th century), the Dandeshwar (the largest), the Chandi-ka-Mandir, the Surya, Navadurga, Kuber, Lakshmi, as well as other smaller shrines.

The temple architecture, I am told, is that of the Nagara  style, characterised by a tall curved spire surmounted by a capstone and a kalasha crown. Given that these are Shiva temples, most of them enshrine a stone lingam, surrounded by stone sculptures of various deities. These are not lofty soaring-to-the-sky temples. They are modest, blazing with the intensity of devotion, though. This is where Lakulish Shaivism flourished, the worship of Shiva with the mace.

The pilgrimage to Jageshwar was considered part of the chaar dham yatra and before the construction of roads, pilgrims passed through here en route to Kailash and Mansarovar.

Date with deodars

Temple tour done, I walk to the giant deodar at the rear. It is a split tree with a cemented base. The eye travels up its length and stops at the twin apex. This is a tree of immense beauty, strength and grace. I step up closer and then a white tourist does what I am contemplating doing: he goes up to the trunk of the deodar, places his palms on it, and leans in. What he hears is pleasing to him, a beatific smile spreads across his face. Within minutes, I too have joined him, albeit on the other side.

The deodar and I commune. It is a beautiful moment. When I step away, it is like stepping away from a magic circle that affords immeasurable security and succour. There is a momentary feeling of loss and longing.

Back at the entrance, once again I feel eyes on me. This time, I discover who it is: a sadhu sitting in a small cave-like enclosure to one side of the entrance. The man is straight from central casting, scatty, scrawny, with matted gray locks, an ash-smeared body.

The moment I lock eyes with him, his benign expression changes to one of utter malevolence. He raises a hand and violently indicates that I move away and out. All thought of clicking an evocative picture of the ascetic vanishes, and I scoot. The deodar stands where it has always stood, but my Zen moment is gone.

At the approach to the temple complex is the ASI museum and this becomes a real find, packed as it is with stone sculptures dating back to the 8th century, beautiful statues of Uma Maheshwar, of Surya, a couple of unusual ornamental lingams, and the piece de resistance: a bronze statue of the Pona Raja, a local ruler of yore. These are sculptures that sing, no doubt about it.

Driving on from Jageshwar, I head for the ancient Vridh Jageshwar Temple, seated on the higher slopes and surrounded by beautiful rhododendron forests. My companions go inside to offer prayers, I stand at the railing to one side of the temple, staring up, willing the thick, obscure haze shroud to clear.

A toli of the Himalayas stand in a ring there and on good days, the temple offers some awe-inspiring views. Today, I cannot see the snow-clad peaks but I can sense them, crouching like some giant beast just behind the cloud barrier. I can hear them breathing. And yes, I can feel them watching me.