I started off from Chopta by 10 am and was in Gopeshwar by 1 in spite of the long nature watching breaks. After two days on foot over a tough terrain, the saddle was a welcome relief. So Gopeshwar was reached and the search for a hotel was commenced upon. Soon, I settled into a cosy room at the Jai Guru Guest House (Rs 250, with running hot water, TV and power backup) and enjoyed a rejuvenating shower. After the shower, I turned my attention to food. Ever since I left home four days back, I had been surviving on delicious, but vegetarian fare. So a non-vegetarian restaurant was found and what ensued can be best described as a cull on the local chicken population.
Basic needs taken care of, my attention was turned on Gopeshwar’s prime attraction, the Gopinath Temple. Uttarakhand’s rulers have had a long history of temple building and that tradition reached its peak in the 12-13th century with the construction of the Gopinath Temple, the largest and the most ornate in the state. It is still a living temple and a carnival of sorts is held around the temple on navaratras. There is evidence to suggest that there were other temples in the vicinity but none of them have survived. The temple premises also serve as a repository for loose sculptures excavated from various parts of town. What has survived unscathed however is a massive trident, nearly 5m in height. It bears an inscription by Anekmalla, a Nepali ruler who controlled the town in the 13th century.
What appeals one most about the temple is how it still remains the center of life in this small town. If you are there, take time out and spend an hour or so in the temple premises in the morning. You will see people dropping in for a quick darshan on their way to work. Schoolchildren say a silent prayer, quite possibly to be spared from the cane of the headmaster. Housewives catch up on the gossip of the day on the way to the markets while the elderly huddle in tight groups and talk about what the elderly talk about. The more things change in big cities, the more things remain the same in small towns. Somehow this is strangely comforting.
A temple can only take up that much of your time. So before it was dark I got back to the hotel room, put the cam on charge and spent the rest of the evening watching IPL matches. The next morning I planned to ride to Rudraprayag and possibly beyond. Idea was to avoid the highway that passed through Chamoli and Karnaprayag. Some research had yielded a little used road that connected Gopeshwar to Rudraprayag through Pokhri. Another appeal of the road was that it passed through Kanakchauri, a tiny hamlet that is the trailhead for the trek to Kartik Swamy Temple.
Since this was to be a relaxed ride I did not bother getting up at the crack of dawn like I normally do, but started late at around 7am. For the first 8 kms, I rode on the highway towards Chamoli and then took a left into the single lane road across the river. The surface was mostly nice with some stretches of gravel and it was almost traffic free. In the 70 odd kms to Pokhri, I could not have passed more than 4-5 vehicles. Such was the emptiness of the road that I began to wonder why they built it in the first place. Maybe it is for bikers like us, who would give up anything for a go on roads like this.
But like Francis Bacon once said ‘there is no beauty which hath not some strangeness about its proportions’, the road had its hidden strangeness. First of all there were the sheer drops. The drops were made scarier by the width or the road itself, or the lack thereof. Then there were the fallen pine nettles. As there is very little traffic on this road, the nettles cover up almost all the road and reduce grip on the tires.
There were stretches where the back-end gave away on a regular basis and one needs to be very vigilant as even the slightest lapse of concentration would send you plummeting to a very certain death. This might all seem dramatic but trust me, I have ridden across Spiti but this road is something else. The real peril is not apparent once you look at it. Its only when you ride that you know that it can kill. But every biker worth his salt will tell you that this is where he/ she would rather ride!
Some 20 kms into the ride, I encountered the first village and fortunately it had a tea stall. So I stopped here and had the most amazing tea and chana. It was slightly nippy and the warm tea and the hot chana just hit the spot.
The riding continued and the landscape kept getting prettier and prettier. Turn off the engine and a sudden pall of silence will descend on you. Silence, you will realize, is not the absence of sound, silence is the absence of noise. Look down the edge and you will see a stream, flanked by terraced rice fields. You never see the villages the farmers stay in. This was an amazing road.
The most worrying bit on this road was a stretch, some 400 m long, which had recently suffered a landslide. The side of the mountain was disemboweled and loose rocks the size of tangerines kept falling at regular intervals. I took a deep breath and started to cross the stretch, one eye looking at the road ahead and the other scanning the mountainside for falling rocks. Fortunately, there were no incidents and yours truly escaped unscathed.
By 10:30, i had crossed Pokhri and the road has smoothened out. It was curvy and had on an almost perfect black top. The traffic had also increased a bit but that did not stop me from leaning on the corners. Very soon i was at a curve on the road, flanked by a number of shops – Kanakchauri for you. A nondescript concrete archway marked the beginning of the 2.5 km long trek to Karthik Swamy Temple. On a clear day the temple, on top of a hill provides a 270 degree panorama of the Himalayas. The day was not clear and i was pretty sure that the peaks were not visible, but i started the walk nonetheless.
Most of the oath passes through a thick rhododendron forest. The inclines were steep in places, but mostly it is a gentle up hill walk. Most of the height is gained in the last one third of the trek where in stretches it is almost vertical. Very little information is available on the temple online. I heard about the beauty of the place from a friend. A veteran of many treks and high altitude Himalayan expeditions, he swore by its beauty, thus prompting my investigation.
Two thirds of the way up the hill, one comes across the quarters of the priests, There are also a few attached rooms where one can stay for the night. It is a good idea to do because then you can climb up to the mountain and watch the sunrise, which is bound to be a spectacular sight. I met the rather young priest and he said that he had just come down, so once i reach the top, i should be all by myself. Time for an one-to-one with the big guy i guess!
The last bit of the trek is comprised of steps cut into the rock and at places its almost vertical. The beauty of the temple is that throughout the trek you know where it is, but it does not show itself. But when you climb over the steep steps and come to a plateau, it suddenly reveals itself. And what a revelation that is!
By now you are suddenly aware of the height that you have gained. You are higher than any of the surrounding hills and on either side of you are sheer drops. If you peek over the edge (if you dare to, that is!) you will see a thick carpet of trees. And again, there is silence! That soundtrack of nature!
Like i predicted, the peaks were blocked by clouds. Standing there, i could imagine how it would look had the clouds suddenly disappeared, revealing the snowy giants. But i am glad i came here and i have every intention of coming back.
The Kartik Swamy Temple has a unique ritual. A big fair is held in Kanakchauri on the occasion of Kartik Purnima (usually on the last week of November). It is believed that if you carry a bell to the temple and make a wish, it will come true. As a reasult the temple complex is full of bells. Thousands of them, in various shapes and sizes. This reminded me of the Chauragarh Temple near Pachmarhi, in Madhya Pradesh. Both temples are located on top of mountains and can be accessed by long treks. The only difference is, in Chauragarh Temple, the devotees offer trishuls (tridents) instead of bells.
I also spotted some offerings of sindoor (vermilion) and combs. I could not understand the logic behind this. In Hindu mythology, Kartik, or Kartikya is known for his handsomeness. His vanity is also reflected in is choice of vahana (divine vehicle) – a peacock! I think since both sindoor and combs are used as cosmetics, they would make sense as offerings to Kartik. I might be wrong, but in case you know the explanation, please do tell me.
Like the priest had predicted, i was all by myself at the top. Intent on making the most of this rare solitude, i spent over an hour there, just sitting and gazing into the abyss, battling inner monsters. I knew that after i climb down, i would begin descending and very soon i would be in the hot, shimmering plains. Predictably, the abyss gazed also into me and whispered words of kindness and promises of a return into my eager ears.
Right now, four months later, i am sitting in a south Delhi barsati, jabbing at the keyboard and counting down to the day when i will go back to the mountains.