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The temple run: On a bike and a prayer | How to reach Tungnath, the world’s highest Shiva temple

“People often argue that Kailash Parvat in Tibet is higher than Tungnath,” a priest walking alongside told me. “But they forget that Kailash is the home of Shiva, while Tungnath is just a temple.”Claimed to be the world’s highest Shiva temple – at 3,690 metres above sea level – Tungnath is located in Garhwal (Uttarakhand) near a town called Chopta. I just did a gruelling and back-breaking 900-km return journey from Delhi, on a motorcycle.

It is one of the five Shiva temples called Panch Kedar – others are Kedarnath, Madmaheshwar, Rudranath and Kalpeshwar. It’s higher than all temples, but much lower in elevation than Kailash Parvat (6,638 metres).

How to reach?

It’s almost 450 km from Delhi, and roads are pretty good all the way till Chopta. From Delhi, you have to take the Meerut Expressway, cross Rishikesh, take left from Rudraprayag, and then right from a place called Kund (in Ukhimath) – it’s as simple.From Chopta, you have to trek about 4 km (two hours) to the temple. It’s located on the side of the Chandrashila mountain – another two-hour trek to the peak.On a car, it’s likely to be a comfortable journey from Delhi – about 10 hours non-stop, or 12 hours with breaks. On a motorcycle, it depends on your machine, skills and passion.

What bike to choose?

Any 200-plus-cc bike should be good enough for this journey – the bigger, the better. I chose Royal Enfield Scram 411 – the city-bike iteration of the previous generation Himalayan, powered by the 411-cc engine. The new Himalayan gets the 452-cc engine, and we expect the Scram also to come with that engine shortly. One suggestion is to take a bike with a windscreen – as a long ride on the highways with a wind blast can tire and dehydrate you rather quickly.

How does the temple look?

It’s pretty basic – a small gate, followed by a Trishul (trident used by Lord Shiva), and then the main building.Like Kedarnath, Tungnath also stands on a hard rock – possibly to withstand snow, rainfall and earthquakes. It will officially open on May 14 this year, so I couldn’t enter the sanctum, but the accompanying priest told me it’s got a naturally-formed lingam – a rock and a symbolic representation of Lord Shiva.

How old is it?

It was constructed by rulers of the Katyuri dynasty in the 8th CE. Their reign lasted from 700 CE to 1100 CE, and they ruled the region around modern-day Uttarakhand and western Nepal. Although the Katyuris were Buddhists initially, they later converted to Hinduism. It was the time of Adi Shankaracharya (788–820 CE), who is credited with reviving Hinduism.

What else is there?

While most people visit only the temple, in case you are adventurous, climb further to Chandrashila peak (around 300 metres higher than Tungnath, and there’s no path).

Why Chandrashila?

Legend goes that while everyone will visit the temple, only the most devout go to Chandrashila. It’s here that Chandra (God of the Moon, night, plants and vegetation) prayed to Shiva to release him from a curse – for Chandra knew that Shiva won’t appear inside a temple, but only on top of the mountain.There is another legend that Lord Rama sat at the Chandrashila in penance – for he wanted to wash the sin of killing Ravana, a brahmin.

Why Tungnath when there is Kedarnath?

Simply because it’s relatively less crowded. Kedarnath has become too crowded, and is quite a long trek. We aren’t suggesting you don’t go to Kedarnath – you can do all Panch Kedars, if you have the will and the stamina – but if you have to choose one, choose that is empty, quiet, and the highest of all.

Panch Kedars

Tungnath of one of the five Shiva temples in Uttarakhand – called Panch Kedar (panch means five, and kedar means meadow). All are located in Garhwal region. From northwest to southeast, these are Kedarnath (3,583 metres above sea level), Madmaheshwar (3,497 metres), Tungnath (3,690 metres), Rudranath (3,600 metres) and Kalpeshwar (2,200 metres). Of these, only Kalpeshwar remains open throughout the year – others are closed in winters due to heavy snowfall.According to Mahabharata, when the Pandavas were searching for Lord Shiva for penance (as they had committed fratricide by killing the Kauravas), he turned himself into Nandi, the bull, to avoid detection. But when Bheema, a Pandava, tried to capture the bull, it disappeared and then its body parts reappeared at five locations – hump at Kedarnath, arms at Tungnath, belly at Madmaheshwar, face at Rudranath, and jata (hair) at Kalpeshwar. The Pandavs built temples here.

By Vikram Chaudhary

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