Panch Kedar Trek: Act 1 - Kalpeshwar
Joshimath to Helong was a brief 13 km, three quarter of an hour bus ride. On the roadside were a handful of basic shops. I asked the oldest man present if I could leave my rucksack in his shop, and pick it up on my way back from Kalpeshwar. He was every bit as obliging as I had been told he would be. He reassured me that it would be exactly as I had left it. I already knew that. He told me to walk a hundred metres down the road, and pointing to the valley below, he told me to cross the bridge and climb the other hill, looming across the river.
At 2 p.m., with a day sack on my back, I wended my way towards Urgam village, a moderately steep 8 km climb uphill from the bridge, on a well-trod village trail. On the way I passed a couple of villages and terraced landscapes, but mainly climbed along the hillside before walking through light forest covering with pine needles strewn underfoot. The path had a feeling of being peopled, though I probably passed a total of 10 people in the four hours I spent on it. It was a light, easy, friendly path. My gait was unhurried and my mind was delightfully empty. There was nothing to distract me on the way, nothing that required thought. I easily stuck to the 2 kms an hour pace that I naturally walk uphill at.
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Reaching the outskirts of Urgam village, spread wide across a flatland, with farms bordered by cannabis hedges, I asked the way to Rajinder Singh Negi's Lodge. I took the outer path skirting the village. On the way, I came across another village lodge, fairly recently opened, where 4 trekkers from Bengal were sitting on the verandah.
They were staying in the inside room which you had to reach through an impersonal six-bedded dorm, where I was offered accommodation. They told me the lodge owner had gone to the village but requested them to make sure they waylaid any passing trekker and did a good job of selling his place. Their duty done, they admitted I would probably do well to check the lodge I had been recommended, which had small independent rooms. They invited me for a cup of tea, which I readily accepted. Their guide, a cheerful and extremely pleasant man, accompanied them on all their treks. He quickly made tea on a kerosene stove they were carrying, along with full provisions. Over tea, as trekkers are wont to do, we exchanged notes and tips about the Panch Kedar trails. Refreshed, I walked on.
I soon came to Negi's village house, basic, neat and clean, with 3 double-bedded rooms upstairs, which he rented out to the occasional trekker. As I unwound from the day's activities, watching the sunset, I sat drinking tea and chatting with a Hungarian, who was painstakingly cleaning the brush of fine hair from some wild plants. He had gathered them during his day's foray to the nearby forests. They turned out to be a delicious delicacy prepared by Negi's wife - definitely one of the best meals I had during my wanderings. Having visited Urgam eight years earlier, he had recently returned, delighted to find nothing at all had changed. Originally intending to spend a week there, he had decided to spend a few months instead. Later that evening, Negi regaled me with village and district politics, the hope of change with the formation of the new state of Uttaranchal and his entire life history. His children enacted a dance drama, in full costume and make-up, which they had just staged at the village. I retired for the night feeling like I lived in the village.
There was a dry toilet at the far side of the courtyard. For water one had to go to a nearby water source. At 5 a.m., I was already on my way to Kalpeshwar, a couple of kilometres away, across a bridge on a neighbouring hill, beside a sheer waterfall. After returning from Kalpeshwar, I intended to hike back to Helong, make my way by road to Gopeshwar, 50 kms away, hunt out a recommended guide and make the necessary arrangements for the tough 22 km trek to Rudranath, the following day.
Kalpeshwar, or Kalpnath is one of the Panch Kedar. It is believed that Lord Shiva's matted tresses, visible on the rock face that curves overhead to make the cave, were all that were glimpsed of him when he was eluding the Pandavas who sought his darshan to gain forgiveness for killing their kin in the epic battle of the Mahabharat.
It is a favourite location of meditating sages. Legend has it that the sage Arghya had performed austerities here and created the nymph, Urvashi. Rishi Durvasa is also believed to have meditated here under the wish-fulfilling tree, Kalpavriksha. The sage had given Kunti the boon that she could invoke any of the forces of nature and they would appear before her and grant whatever she desired. Known for his quick temper, Rishi Durvasa is often recalled in context of the incident when, along with several disciples, he visited Kunti's sons, while they were in exile. He indicated that he and his disciples expected food. There was not a grain to cook. An anxious Draupadi's prayers were answered by Lord Krishna who appeared and miraculously solved the problem.
Within the small cave, I sat in quiet contemplation in front of Shiva's locks. Outside, a group of sadhus, including a couple of Nath sampradaya ascetics, with their large circular earrings worn through deeply pierced ears, were just waking up. Their early morning conversation of the beauty of Tungnath, where I intended to go, interspersed with the bhajans they were singing, filtered into the small cave. One particular bhajan sung with soulful, contemplative devotion to Jatadhar, one of Shiva's many names, left me wishing I could pick up tunes and words readily. "Viram mein hai lagan" (union is in the pause between) were the words that haunted me as I sat in meditation.
Finally, I stepped outside. I had already learnt that unlike the other Kedars, the temple priest here lived at Urgam village and by rare tradition, was not a Brahmin. I had been told there was an old sadhu who had lived here many years. On my way out, I stopped to greet him. He invited me for tea, and gave me a handful of crisp peanuts and a puri as prasad, while he asked me about my travels. He said, "After you complete the Panch Kedar, you must go to Badrinath."
I said, "I am coming from Badrinath."
He explained, "After you have sought Shiva's darshan by completing the Panch Kedar, you must go to Badrinath and make Vishnu your witness that you have sought Shiva."
I replied, "I have been to Badrinath first. Vishnu is already my witness."
He shook his head, firmly, "You must make him your witness when you have completed the Panch Kedar."
I attempted one last argument, "I will make him my witness in my heart."
"No," said the old sadhu, "you must return to Badrinath."
I smiled in due acknowledgement of what he said, knowing already that I would not go to Vishnu to plead with Shiva.
Editor: Romola Butalia   (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.