Abounding in natural beauty, the Himalayan region is full of places of worship and reverence dating back to ancient times. Numerous legends connected with great Indian epics are associated with these shrines. According to Hinduism, Himalaya, in Sanskrit means, "Abode of Snow" and is also revered as the abode of Shiva. He is widely worshipped here and several shrines and temples are dedicated to Him. Some of the shrines I visited and revisited over a span of three decades, captures their beauty both in terms of photography and as a trekking locale. Some of my favourites are listed below.
Dharali Temple, Ganotri
This is a tiny village between Harsil and Gangotri surrounded by orchards. Located on the banks of Bhagirathi Ganga, it has a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, built on the same architectural pattern as Kedarnath. By some strange natural phenomena, the temple has sunk into the earth with 20 feet intact, without damage. Ancient stories would have us believe that Bhagirath meditated here to get the Ganga out of heaven to flow on earth. Every pilgrim to Gangotri makes a point to stop here and marvel at this strange temple. The half -buried temple in the sands of Bhagirathi is quite a sight. A break for tea coupled with a view is recommended to pilgrims heading for Gangotri.
Vishwanath Temple, Uttarkashi
This is easily the most important temple in Uttarkashi, 154 km from Rishikesh and on way to Gangotri. The daily morning and evening aartis are attended by many amidst chanting of mantras. Within the courtyard of this Shiva temple is a temple dedicated to Shakti, the goddess of strength. There is a massive brass trident of Lord Shiva which is a replica of the Vishwanath temple in Varanasi. It is believed that in Kalyug, Shiva will move from Varanasi (Kashi) to Uttarkashi.
Shankaracharya Temple, Srinagar
Trekking to this temple in winters with the road turned to solid ice, is an experience etched in my memory forever. With great determination and effort it was possible for us to visit this ancient temple located on the Pas-Pahar in Srinagar. It has a commanding view of the city and is considered one of the oldest shrines in Kashmir. The temple stands on a solid rock and is surrounded by a terrace enclosed by a stone wall. Inside the temple is a huge Lingam, the object of worship. A flight of stairs leads up to the shrine and its fencing walls have some inscriptions. The surrounding forests on the hill provide the perfect backdrop.
Ukhimath Temple, near Kedarnath
Also known as the Omkareshwar Peeth, it houses the deity of Lord Shiva in winter months, brought down after the festival of Diwali from Kedarnath. It is taken back to Kedarnath in a procession to the original temple in mid May every year. River Mandakini, a tributary of Ganga flows down in the valley, originating from the glaciers of Kedarnath massif. Being the winter seat of the Panch Kedar, it is worshipped by the devout in winter months. The courtyard of the temple is surrounded by a double-storied building used by priests and travellers. Ukhimath now houses some hotels which provide accommodation to those going for their Char Dham Yatra in the summer months.
Gananath Temple, Almora
At an altitude of 2116 m, this wonderful Shiva temple is in a cave, 47 km from Almora. A fair is held here on every Kartik Purnima and folk songs are sung with fervour and enthusiasm by the locals who throng in large numbers. Folk dances are also performed. The best approach to this rather secluded cave temple is from the village of Ranman from Someshwar. It is surrounded by thick pine forests. I happened to discover this hidden temple while doing a pictorial book on the Kumaon Himalaya, making enquiries from local folk at Someshwar on special shrines which were not well known.
Jageshwar Temple, Almora
This is a cluster of large and small temples, situated 34 km from Almora-Pithoragarh road. A short diversion from village Aartola leads to this hidden complex. The narrow road along the Jata Ganga brings you to this cluster of temples. Numerousf Deodar trees in the vicinity lend a serene look to the whole area which used to house about 124 temples once upon a time. This temple complex is said to be 1200 years old and its craftsmanship is exquisite. In the monsoon month of Shravan, a big mela draws hundreds of people. It is believed that Adi Shankaracharya himself visited Jageshwar and renovated it before leaving for Kedarnath. Behind the complex is a shamshan ghat (burial ground). Pilgrims used to pass through this temple in earlier times before proceeding to Kailash-Mansarovar.
Amarnath Cave in Kashmir
This is one of the holiest places of worship of Lord Shiva. It is a cave chosen by Bhole Shankar to reveal secrets of immortality and creation of the Universe to his consort Parvati. This is the legend behind this cave and its significance to followers and devotees of Shiva. At a height of 14,000 feet, there is an ice -lingam, a natural formation of ice which is the object of veneration. The most auspicious time to visit is in the month of Shravan. I have been fortunate to visit it twice, both from the traditional route form Pahalgam as well as from Baltal side. Besides being a natural wonder, the trek is unsurpassed in natural beauty. Today, helicopters can fly you to the shrine in a few minutes from Pahalgam though am not sure if that is a sad or happy development!
Bageshwar Temple in Kumaon
Also known as Bagnath, this is one of the most visited temples of Kumaon in Uttarakhand. It is a must for Shiva devotees and is dedicated to Shiva in the form of a tiger. According to popular folklore, Bageshwar is blessed by Lord Shiva and therefore all prayers of pilgrims are answered here. Big fairs of Uttarayani and Shivratri are held here. Situated in the heart of town, 90 km from Almora, at the confluence of rivers Saryu and Gomti, they say that the Lord takes care of all your sorrows once you come here. Bageshwar is on the trekking trail to Pindari Valley as well as on the route to Chaukori from Almora.
Triloknath Temple in Lahaul
This Shiva temple, in the barren and desolate landscape of Lahaul, is about 4 km short of Udaipur on the left bank of river Chandrabhaga. It is a unique temple because it is given a Buddhist look by Guru Padmasambhava by installing the six armed image of Avalokiteshwar. It is sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists. A festival is held here in August. The temple has exquisite mountain scenery all around and because of Rohtang Pass being closed for six months a year, pilgrims can visit this holy temple during summer months.
Triloknath Temple, Mandi
There are over 80 temples in this temple town of Mandi in Himachal Pradesh. The temple stands by the side of the road with the river Beas flowing beside it. Built by Rani Sultan Devi in AD 1520 it houses a three-faced figure of Lord Shiva. Noteworthy are the wall carvings and stone figure of Nandi, the carrier of Shiva. The temple is revered for its architecture where besides Shiva, it houses idols of other gods like Sharda and Narad. Mandi can also be called the temple town of Himachal for its profusion of temples.
Baijnath Temple, Kangra
The temple has a long history with many myths and legends surrounding it. In the 8th century, Sansar Chand II, the Katoch king carried out extensive repairs and renovations. The temple was damaged extensively by the 1905 earthquake and has been repaired since. There are many Sanskrit inscriptions on its stones which provide details of its construction. The River Beas flows in the vicinity and is shadowed by the Dhauladhar range of mountains. Many Hindu festivals are held here every year and it is a big attraction for devotees in Kangra district. T