Climbing to a Temple in the Clouds

THE mountains and valleys of the Garhwal Himalayas never fail to spring surprises on the traveler. It is impossible to know every corner of this mountain region, which means that there are always new corners to discover: a forest or meadow, a mountain stream or wayside shrine. The lonely temple of Tungnath, at a little over 12,000 feet, is the highest Hindu shrine on the inner Himalayan range. It lies directly below the icy pinnacle of the 22,000-foot-high Chandrashila peak. Off the main pilgrim routes, it is less frequented than other Himalayan shrines. Tungnath's isolation and lonely eminence give it a magic of its own. To get there (and beyond), I passed through some of the most delightful temperate forest in this part of the Himalayas. Pilgrim or trekker, or just plain rambler such as I, one comes away a better person, forest-refreshed, more aware of what the world really looked like before the growth of the cities and the vanishing of the forests.

This feeling of uplift can be experienced almost anywhere along the Chandrashila range. At Chopta there is a rest house, and from here the trek to Tungnath is only about four miles; but in that distance one ascends about 3,000 feet, and the pilgrim may be forgiven for feeling that at places he is on a perpendicular path to heaven! After clawing my way up tufts of alpine grass, and slithering down again, I came to a different conclusion and decided that it was all an elaborate game of snakes and ladders. But I was not really tired. The cold fresh air and the surrounding greenery were intoxicating. Wildflowers grew profusely on the open slopes - buttercups, anemones, wild strawberries, and begonias.

The rhododendrons were the last shrubs I saw on my ascent, for as I approached Tungnath the tree line ended, and there was nothing between earth and sky except grass and rock and flowers. Above, a couple of crows dive-bombed a hawk, which did its best to escape their attentions. Crows are the world's great survivors. They seem capable of living at any height and at any climate.

Another survivor, up here at any rate, is the pika, a sort of mouse-hare, which looks like neither mouse nor hare but more like a tiny guinea pig: small ears, no tail, gray-brown fur, and chubby feet. These little creatures emerge from their holes under the rocks to forage for various seeds and grasses on which they feed. Their simple diet and thick fur enable them to live in extreme cold, and they have been found at 16,000 feet, which is higher than any other mammal lives. The Garhwalis call this little creature the ``runda'' - well, that was what the temple priest called it, adding that it was not averse to entering houses and helping itself to grain and domestic delicacies. So perhaps there is more of mouse than of hare in it.

These little creatures were with me all the way from Chopta to Tungnath, peeping out from behind rocks or scampering about on the mountainside, seemingly unconcerned by my presence. At Tungnath they live beneath the temple flagstones. The priest's grandchildren were having a game looking for their burrows. The ``rundas'' would go in at one hole and pop out at another; they must have had a system of underground passages.

When I reached the summit, clouds had gathered over Tungnath, as they do almost every afternoon. The temple looked austere in the gathering gloom.

The temple, though not very large, is certainly impressive, mainly because of its setting and the solid slabs of gray granite from which it is built. The whole place seems to have something of the atmosphere of Emily Bront"e's ``Wuthering Heights'' - bleak, wind swept, open to the skies. And as one looks down from the temple at the little half-deserted hamlet that serves it in summer, the eye is met by gray slate roofs and piles of stones, with just a few hardy souls in residence - for the majority of pilgrims now prefer to spend the night down at the Chopta rest house.

Even the temple priest, attended by his sons and grandsons, complained of the cold. To spend every day barefoot on those cold flagstones must be hardship indeed. I winced after five minutes of it. The experience was made worse by my stepping into a puddle of icy water; it had me dancing around like Dan Dailey. I shall never make a good pilgrim: no rewards for me, in this world or the next! But the priest's feet are literally thick-skinned, and the children seemed oblivious to the cold. All the same, when the snow covers Tungnath at the end of October, they must be happy to descend to their home village on the lower slopes.

It began to rain quite heavily as I left the temple. I passed herds of sheep huddled in a ruined house. The crows were still rushing about the gray weeping sky, although the hawk had very sensibly gone away. A ``runda'' stuck its nose out of its hole, probably to take a look at the weather. There was a clap of thunder, and he disappeared, like the White Rabbit in ``Alice.'' I was halfway down the Tungnath ``ladder'' when I passed a group of pilgrims who were heading straight into the storm. They were without umbrellas or raincoats, and wore the light clothing of the plains people, but were not deterred.

Rhododendrons flashed past as I hurried down the steep, winding path. As Granny used to say, one rode a horse and the other rhododendron! A shortcut, and I took a tumble, only to be cushioned by moss and buttercups. My wristwatch stuck a rock and the glass was broken. So much for my ``shockproof'' watch from Hong Kong! It didn't matter. On the heights of Tungnath, time seems of no significance.

The tea shop at Chopta beckoned. How would pilgrims manage in the hills without these wayside tea shops? Miniature inns, they provide food, shelter, and even lodging for dozens at a time. I sat on a bench with a pilgrim who wasn't well enough to make the climb to the temple. I tackled a bun - rock-hard, to match the environment - and swallowed bits of it with hot, sweet tea. There was a small shrine in front of the tea shop. It was a slab of rock, daubed with vermilion and strewn with offerings of wildflowers. The mica in the rock gave it a beautiful sheen.

Rivers, rocks, trees, plants, animals, and birds all play their part, both in mythology and in everyday worship in the Himalayas. Tungnath, as yet unspoiled by a materialistic society, exerts its magic on all who go there with open minds and hearts.

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