"Among mountains, I am the Himalaya," says Krishna in the Gita. Indeed, Himalaya, or the Citadel of Snow, is not only a sacred range of mountains to Indians, but also is the source of their life, and the soul of their culture. Rivers such as the Ganga, Jamuna, Saraswati, Brahmaputra and Sindhu, which enrich the Indian land and nurture the Indian people, are gifts of the Himalaya.
"At a height of about four-and-a-half kilometres slumber the sacred lakes, eternally mirroring in their still waters only the heavens and the mountain wilderness that cradles them," describes a Russian traveller, Zenaide Ragozin.
Indian poets from Valmiki to Kalidasa, and from Kalidasa to Tagore, have derived great inspiration from the splendour of the Himalaya.
The Himalaya is also the abode of the Divine Mother. The Goddess Parvati is the daughter of the Himalaya. With her is identified one of the great peaks, the Gouri Shikhar. Her consort, Shiva, also dwells in the same mysterious and sacred region, and with him is identified Mount Kailas.
Many great sages had their hermitages there and the famous tirthas the holy places of the Himalaya, have been the physical and spiritual destinations of innumerable people through the ages.
We have devoted a separate chapter to the cave temple of Amarnath. Let us now have a bird's-eye view of the temples of Hardwar, Kedarnath and Badrinath.
The Ganga, after meandering for over 800 kilometres through the labyrinth of the mountains, descends to the plains at Hardwar, which was for a long time known as Kapilasthan, because a great sage, Kapila, lived there in days gone by.
At Hardwar is situated the sacred kund Hari-kiCharan, or the Foot of Vishnu. It is considered a privilege to have a dip in its water. On its wall can be seen the footprint of Vishnu. Near Hari-ki-Charan there are several temples including the famous Gangadwara. Nearby there are many ghats or sacred bathing spots. In the mountain walls which surround Hardwar there are many natural caves. These have provided shelter to devotees since time immemorial.
The ancient town of Hardwar bears the memory of many dramatic happenings. Kankhol, near Hardwar, was once the home of king Daksha, the father of Sad, an incarnation of Parvati.
Sati, one of the fifty daughters of Daksha, was married to Shiva. But for some vain reason, Daksha was very displeased with Shiva.
Once, Daksha decided to perform a rare rite known as the Brihaspati Yajna. For this occasion he invited many sages and kings, and all his daughters and their husbands, except Sad and Shiva!
But when Sad heard of the yajna, she arrived at her father's house, uninvited and unannounced. She knew that according to Indian tradition, a father's doors could never be shut to his daughter. Unfortunately, Daksha forgot this. At the very sight of Sad he burst into a tirade against Shiva.
His words fell harshly on Sati's ears. Her love and reverence for her husband were so deep that she could not bear the abuses. But what could she do or say to her father? Out of anguish and despair she collapsed - she was no more.
Soon the tragic news reached Shiva. Trembling with fury, he pulled out a lock of his hair and dashed it to the ground. A spirit, Birabhadra by name, sprang up and mobilised an army of supernatural beings in no time.
Under Birabhadra's command, the unusual army soon reached Daksha's palace and destroyed everything. Daksha himself was beheaded and his head was consumed by the fire lit for yajna. Later, when Shiva calmed down and agreed to restore life to Daksha, a goat's head was secured and fixed on his neck.
Shiva placed the dead body of Sati on his shoulders. Heart-broken, he roamed about here and there. A long time passed. At last, Vishnu, used his weapon, the Sudarsana Chakra, to cut the dead body into pieces. Wherever a fragment of Sad's body fell, there sprang a shrine and the place became holy.
There is a well at Kankhol - Sadkund - believed to be the spot where Sad sacrificed her body. There are several sacred places around Hardwar associated with mythological events.
There is Kushavarta where Sage Dattatreya used to meditate. The river Ganga, while coming down from her secret abode in the upper regions of the Himalaya, playfully swept away the belongings of the sage. The sage's belongings, of course, were nothing more than a stick and jug. But the sage became so angry, that he was about to utter a terrible curse which would have brought an end to the flow of the Ganga. Fortunately, Brahma himself appeared before the sage and reminded him that, after all, it was a matter of great joy that the Ganga was flowing on to the earth! The sage was pacified only when Brahma promised to bless the place by his permanent presence.
At a distance of about 290 kilometres from Hardwar, at a height of more than 3000 metres, is situated the famous temple of Badrinath. It is surrounded by mountains which rise to a height of 7000 metres. On one side stands the grand Narayan Parvat, wrapped up in silverhued snow: on the other side flows the Alakananda.
The deity, Badrinarayan, is a manifestation of Vishnu. The beautiful image is seen in a meditative mood with a variety of jewels covering his body. A canopy of gold is suspended over his head.
Though Badrinath is a very ancient holy place, the temple and the deity lay neglected and forgotten for a long rime, thanks to the remoteness of the area. The temple was ruined and the deity somehow got immersed in the Alakananda. It was Shankaracharya who, through meditation, traced the deity. He restored the deity to its original seat, over which the temple was rebuilt.
For about six months in the year, the region remains covered with snow and, consequently, the temple remains closed. It is as though Nature had reserved the place exclusively for herself. During this period, a representative idol of Badrinarayan is worshipped at Joshimath. But before the doors of the temple are closed for the winter, the chief priest lights a lamp filled with ghee and puts it near the deity. The lamp remains lit till the day the temple is reopened six months later.
The same process is followed in the case of the temple of Kedarnath. The Pandava brothers, during their last journey through the Himalaya camped for some time at Kedarnath. Draupadi was already dead before their arrival, and the youngest of the Pandavas, Sahadeva, breathed his last there.
Amid the enchanting beauty of the place, the Pandavas sat down and meditated to invoke the grace of Lord Shiva. Since then, Shiva has been worshipped at Kedarnath.
When the path to Kedarnath is blocked by snow, the representative deity of Kedarnath is worshipped at Ukhimath.