Sheila Kumar, June 9,
PHOTOS BY SHEILA KUMAR
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
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
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.
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
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
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 a deodar
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.
Labels: ancient Shiva temples, Jageshwar, Travel, Uttarakhand