Around deodars


Around deodars

As the car wound its way around the hills taking one bend after the other, I felt excitement course through my veins. Jageshwar again, after 18 years! The excitement was tempered with trepidation. Eighteen years is a long time. Perhaps I should hold on to my memories of an ethereally beautiful place, for surely things would have changed by now?

We reached Almora and I found myself awash in a flood of memories: the heavenly taste of bal mithai and Almora chocolate, the bazaar, the view of Trishul... oh, happy times. But even my rose-tinted nostalgia couldn’t ignore the open sewers, the ubiquitous dust and the chaotic traffic. Urbanisation had definitely taken a wrong turn in this little hill town. It didn’t bode well for what I would see in Jageshwar.

A little over half an hour later, we reached the tiny village of Artola, where we got off the main highway and onto the road leading to Jageshwar. It was then we saw our first deodar (Himalayan cedar) trees. The road and a small stream beside it together snaked through a forest filled with these grand and stately trees, interspersed with pines. We crossed a few tiny, ancient stone shrines on the roadside, and then the large Dandeshwar Temple. And then, just a few minutes later, we were finally at Jageshwar. There was the main road, all of about half a kilometre, lined with tiny shops, houses and tea stalls on one side, and a dark forest on the other. And at the other end, there was Jageshwar’s raison d’etre, the Jageshwar Temple complex. It was all exactly as I remembered. It was as if the intervening years had never been.

Natural edge

It was late afternoon when we reached,  and we lost no time in heading off to see the temple complex. Many Hindus believe Jageshwar to be one among the 12 holy jyotirling sites, places that are especially sacred to Shiva. The Shiva Purana has a shloka that outlines these 12 holy of the holies. But in the true argumentative Indian fashion, not everyone agrees on the exact identity of these sites. In fact, there are three contenders for the eighth spot, including Dwarka, Pune and Jageshwar. Proponents of Jageshwar declare that the relevant line in the shloka — Nagesham daruka-vaney — means Nageshwar in the deodar forest.

I was not really concerned about theological details, but I could fully understand why Jageshwar might be considered especially holy: even in a land known as the ‘Abode of the Gods’, a land full of places famed for their natural beauty and sights that could move one to tears, Jageshwar stands out. Nestled in the folds of steep mountains, and surrounded by dense forests all around, Jageshwar is a place where the inanities and artificialities of life fall away; a place where even the most jaded souls can establish a connection with something more transcendental.

The deodar forests around Jageshwar are considered sacred and so are left largely untouched. For me, they will always be the most beautiful thing about Jageshwar. Walking through these groves, it is difficult not to fall under their spell. The majestic, old trees seem to carry secrets within them from the very beginnings of time. Listening to their silences, to the soft crunch of dry leaves under your feet, the clear call of a thrush singing nearby, all thoughts of deadlines, projects, TV shows and smartphones melt away. What matters is only the here and now: these trees, this quiet, these smiling children who skip past you on their way back from school.

The temple complex built near this forest preserves this atmosphere of stillness and serenity. Historians believe Jageshwar was once a thriving Buddhist site. Later, even as the Buddhist influence waned, the southern reformer saint Shankaracharya visited Jageshwar and helped revive and restore the temples here. The 120-temple complex is one of the largest temple clusters in India. The earliest temples date back to the 8th century, and were built during the reign of the Katyuri dynasty. Building continued here till the 1700s, as more shrines were added, all of stone but of varying sizes and orientations. It is a tribute to the many builders that despite the additions spanning several centuries, the complex looks an integrated, harmonious whole.

My favourite temple in the complex is the Nagnath Temple, the one containing the purported jyortiling. Its doorway is flanked by two larger-than-life dvarapalaks — door guardians — wielding decidedly frightening clubs, but standing with bent hips, looking rather rakish and insouciant. The dark hall inside, with its large squat stone pillars

and low beams, is in complete contrast to the sanctum sanctorum, where all is light and colour. Step in there and you are immediately enveloped by its cheerful, warm-yet-intimate atmosphere. The jyotirling is lavishly festooned with bright flowers and golden-bordered red strips of cloth in the typical fashion of the hills. Here and there are vases filled with stalks of fresh green grass. A sprightly young priest told me that he gets the grass from the forest every two weeks.

Behind the lingam is a statue of a Chand dynasty king bearing a ghee lamp. The lamp has apparently been kept burning continuously for the last several hundred years, thanks to donations from devotees. According to the priest, legend says the statue originally held the lamp above his head. Over the years, his arms have moved lower. When the lamp finally touches the ground, it will signal the end of Kalyug. Given that the lamp is currently at chest height, that seems a very long time away.

What’s that sound?

After chatting a while with the priests, who are said to be descendents of the priests who came here with Shankaracharya, we decided to stay for the aarti that takes place every evening. At 7 pm sharp, one of the priests began the ritual with a series of shlokas. Two other young priests kept him company, one of them providing the tempo for the chanting with a bell. About 10 minutes into the puja, a new and foreign musical element was added to the chanting of the ancient shlokas — a cellphone began ringing. I watched, amused, as one of the younger priests whipped out his phone, cut the call, and began texting, all while ringing the bell and chanting the shlokas. Clearly, some things had indeed changed since my last visit to Jageshwar! Luckily, the cellphone was brought out of the garba gruha and the puja proceeded with no further earthly interruptions.

There are many other shrines here that are considered almost as important as the main Jageshwar Temple. The Mrityunjaya Temple is the largest and one of the oldest in the complex. There are also shrines dedicated to Kedar, Nanda Devi and Surya, among others. Besides these, there are several small, single-cell shrines all over the complex, all of which add to the overall charm of the place.

And of course, there are the deodars. You are never far from these gentle giants anywhere in Jageshwar, and one of the largest of these graces the temple complex, towering above everyone, dwarfing all the temples. It is probably due to these trees that Jageshwar has remained almost unchanged in the last 18 years. It is certainly because of these that this temple town can give even the weariest and most hardened amongst us a glimpse of the sublime.

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