World of Hindu mythological tales and folklore is very interesting, charming and varied. It is believed that about thirty three crore Gods and Goddesses occupy Hindu pantheon. Quite possible…in a culture where many plants, animals and almost all the elements of nature are worshiped, where every small village, hamlet has it’s very own guardian angle, reaching even that staggeringly high  number is not out of bounds. With every revered place and deity are associated certain folklore and tales.The authenticity is neither questioned nor argued. It is simply accepted.

One of these is Latu devta of Wan. The folklore related to Latu Devta is very interesting and one of it’s own kind. Nanda devi is  one of the most revered deity of Uttaranchal. She is considered to be Avatara of Goddess Parvati and Latu Devta is her adopted brother. Goddess Parvati nee Nanda Devi did not have any brothers. On one occasion she felt very sad about this and wanted someone to be with her at Kailash Parvat as her brother. She went to Royal family of Kannauj and requested the queen to send one of her two sons with her to Kailash. On the way to Kailash they reached Wan and here Goddess decided to take bath in the river Kali Ganga. While waiting for Her on nearby hillock Latu felt very thirsty. He went to nearby hamlet and asked women to give him water. Women folk were in a jovial mood and instead of water handed over the pitcher containing local drink to Latu. Unaware of their prank Latu drank the whole content of pitcher and became unconscious. On her return from river, Goddess became very angry with the women and conferred a boon on Latu that he will be worshiped by the inhabitants of the area but no one will be allowed either to enter the sanctum of his temple or see him.Till date the doors of the temple are opened only for one day in a year and then too neither devotees nor even Pujari is allowed to have a glimpse of Devta. The Pujari enters the sanctum blind folded and lights the lamp. Doors of the temple is closed by evening.

This temple is very different from any other temple. There is this massive Devdar tree at the place. It is the only Devdar found in entire region. Rest are centuries old Surai trees.There is another anecdote regarding presence of that single Devdar tree in the area. However I am not talking about that here as I am not able to recollect all the details narrated by the old gentleman, a retired porter, we met at Wan. So, the abode of Latu Devta is said to be inside the a chamber in the trunk of this Devdar tree.People of the area have great faith on Latu Devta. They visit the premises with their troubles and unburden their heart at His threshold and when the wish is fulfilled, the task done, they return to present a bell. Hundreds of bells hanging from poles are the testimony of people’s undying faith on the deity.The place becomes alive with massive crowd of devotees on the days of fair being organized there. People from far off villages come and stay in tents etc. Bhajans, Kirtans are sung in praise of Lord.

We first heard of Latu devta at Gwaldam.One local gentleman advised us that if we intend to go to Wan, we must go to Latu devta temple.During the day we spent at Wan village we heard His name many times from villagers and children.

While we were returning from Bedini, yashwant and Pushkar trekked upto Ran ka Dhar to meet us.In fact they knew we had to leave by evening and they wanted to spend as much time as possible with us.We too were delighted to have more of their company. With these two kids we went to Devta’s temple.Their enthusiastic company suffused enough strength into our tired limbs to trek upto the temple.

As we climbed towards temple we wished we had more time in hands.The Surai trees dotting the hill along the circuitous path leading to temple left us spellbound. Each one had it’s own tale to recount.They appeared so ancient as if they had witnessed all those mythological events unfolding. It is said that these trees have very long life. Don’t know much about their botanical characteristics but can definitely vouch for the enigmatic impact they imprint on your being. They look like wizened saint, lost in deep meditation.Their towering presence make you feel that they are the dwelling places of divine spirits. The secrets, the teachings, the lessons they have in their heart, one need to tune up to understand. Trees to me are one of the most sacred images of God.

 

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Sonorous sounds of faith and devotion.

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Behind us, under the tree is shrine of Latu Devta and these are the kids who brought us to temple. In fact before going to meet us at Ran ka Dhar they came here and kept incense sticks and match box…all set and ready …to be lighted by us when they brought us here. The little one Pushkar insisted that we should pray to Latu Devta for appeasement of our any wish. He had full faith that our wish will be fulfilled and then we would return to offer the bell. The faith, love and affection of kids filled my heart with sublime emotion. Kiddos, you are the harbingers of our hope and faith in all that is pure, innocent and selfless. We shall definitely love to return at least once.

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This one was clicked by Yashwant, the elder kid, on their insistence ofcourse. That triangle like structure is where incense sticks are lighted by devotees.The outstretched arms of Devdar trees….bless us Lord.

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There is a guest house of Garhwal mandal vikas nigam (tourism department) and another of forest department near the temple, on the hill. During Nanda Devi Jat Yatra, this is an important station for devotees.The time we were there the entire premises was very quiet, peaceful….kind of aura when you can feel nearer to God, more intimate to your best self.

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View of Wan village and valley from temple.

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Boys waiting for us to climb down from temple. They rush down speedily, said that going slow tire them.

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‘A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.’ Hermann Hesse

Pictures by Sunder Iyer

 

 

 

It was 3rd of March 2015 . We reached Chakauri as the day was wrapping up. We had witnessed an amazing sunset from the rooftop of a road side house at Berinag. Kind of sunset that leaves us awestruck with huge, orange-red circle of sun majestically gliding on vast horizon, filling every object with an ethereal beauty.

Our train from Lucknow had reached Kathgodam at about 11.30 A.M. Our taxi was waiting for us outside the station and we immediately hit the road. We reached Chaukori at about 7 P.M. After dinner we retired to bed early with dreams of early morning dialogue with snow-clad majestic peaks of Himalaya.

Chaukori is a tiny Hill station in Pithoragarh District of Kumaon Division of Uttarakhand. This was our second visit to Chaukori. Once almost about 17 years back we had visited Chaukori with our two sons. As is the story of every tourist place, Chaukori too has changed a lot with passage of time but it still has those quiet pockets where woods sit by you silently whispering untold stories, chirping of birds gels into virgin melody of folk songs riding from villages down in the valley. Splendid view of majestic Himalayan peaks Nanda devi, Nandadevi east, Nandakot, Panchchuli, trishul and Annapurna transport you to an entirely new world. Bathed in moonlight when snow-capped peaks resplendently stand out in inky blackness of night, you are compelled to believe that there far off is a land of fairies and angels.

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4th of march, cool, tender twilight moments, salubrious mountain air though nipping was ahh so refreshing. We were on the watch tower at Kumaon Mandal guest house premises waiting for the sun. Here we met Mr. Sunil Arora, the lone traveller. His enthusiasm for wanderings is simply amazing. And then slowly the rosy tint started appearing on the sky far away behind snowy peaks and then suddenly one of the peaks was bathed in silky orangish pink light….the simmering, flickering fingers of the sun were caressing the pearly white head of the peak with soft tender touches….I could hear the music in my soul….the divine tinkling of temple bells….the atmosphere was as if filled with unsung prayers and hymns……

The valley on other side was filled with an ocean of clouds. Chaukori at one time must have been a quaint little tiny land mass surrounded by valleys on all the sides, encircled by mountains, peaks and hills. In those early morning hours it must have looked like a floating island in the clouds. The magic still can be felt and witnessed.

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After a cup of tea in open in the company of charismatic Himalayan peaks we set off for unhurried wanderings. Eariler when we were here in Kumaon Mandal guest house, there were no buildings in the vicinity except that big old palatial house. Now a number of houses, resorts, hotels have come up. Earlier there was no paved path and we roamed around between bushes, trees. This time we had to go out on the road from the main gate of guest house and we walked on a laid down path. We walked up to the tip from where hills sloped down to valleys.

There was this little temple under a big tree on that hill. Steeped with silence and surrounded by tall trees this small portion of hill was a perfect place to sit down and catch up with oneself. The lone Buransh tree between dense greenery smiled all bright and red. Snow clad mountains seemed nearer. After spending some time we returned to guest house. On way back in a grove enjoyed chirping and twittering of different species of birds.

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Back in the guest house most of the fellow travellers were out in the open — the middle aged couple from Varanasi with their young daughter, the group of Bengali boys heading for Munsiyari with a trekking plan booked, this Bengali documentary maker with his mother and mausi and Sunil ji. All of them left after breakfast. We too had a plan to go to Munsiari but as the road on the way was blocked due to heavy snowfall and anybody going towards Munsiyari needed one extra day, we had to cancel our programme of visiting it. If we went ahead, it would not have been not possible to get back to Kathgodam in time to catch our train. We even thought of cancelling our reservation if we could get the seats reserved for a day later but that could not happen hence we stayed there in Chaukori for the day.

After every body left it became quieter as we two were the only occupants in entire premises besides the staff of guest house. Sometimes that is what you need…..let the time slip away while you sit wrapped in eloquent silence, trying to merge yourself with nature all around. We wandered all around leisurely discovering new paths, spotting different birds, inhaling the fragrance of unnamed flowers and chatting with the local kids, enjoying the gathering of women to celebrate Holi, The sudden charismatic appearance of two rainbows in the valley, suddenly finding myself face to face with an idol of Ma Kali, locked in a room of deserted and dilapidated hut..

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Night dawned and the entire hill station plunged into pitch black darkness as there was no electric supply that day but that too proved to be advantageous for us. A bonfire in the verandah and its warmth was too cosy and comforting. In front of us were the Himalayan peaks bathed in moonlight.

How they stand out! The combination of snow and moonlight…so mystique it looked. The entire range like illuminated Arc of Noah in the dark, raging water waves invited us to take the voyage of faith. It was so divine.

Yes , we missed the chance of being at Munsiyari, a chance to enjoy the majestic beauty of Himalayas from closer quarters but as is said everything happens with a purpose, our extended stay at somnolent hills of Chaukori too served a deep, fulfilling purpose. Such divine encounters not only rejuvenated my soul but brought myself closer to me.

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all the pictures by Sunder Iyer

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As we approached the gate of the enclosure inside which stands the cluster of Jageshwar group of temple, we could hear the Sholakas, mantras echoing in the premises. A family was conducting pooja in Mahamrityunjay temple. Mahamrityunjay temple is  the oldest and the biggest one in the group. Stately Devdars on the other side of the river gliding behind the temples stood silent and meditative. Dotted with many Nagara styles of temples of different sizes, the place enticed me to travel into the era long back. Why so many shrines were erected in such a small area? The temples are said to be erected between 8th to 18th century i. e. from Katyuri king’s time to Chand dynasty period. Did different kings built different temples to pay homage to God? Did they get it built for fulfillment of their wishes or to commemorate their victory in any battle? Did any of them got erected any of the temples as penance? These Devdars, the river, the mountains…are they witness of the those times? So many questions rushed through my mind but none of them lasted more than a second. They evaporated sooner than they were generated. Such was the magical impact of the tranquility spread all around that all thoughts and curiosity vanished and calmness spread within.
There are about 123 temples in the cluster and every shrine has a shivlinga inside it. Though the stone plaques in front of some temples displayed the names of Surya temple, Navgrah temple but these too looked like other temples. Some of the statues found here are now kept in the museum at Jageshwar. The museum has two galleries and some rare sculptures are displayed here. The temple of Navdurga and Pushtidevi were locked at the time we visited so could not see them from inside.

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Bal jageshwara/ Tarun Jageshwar temple in the premises is considered to be one of the 12 Jyotirlingas.

सौराष्ट्रे सोमनाथं च श्रीशैले मल्लिकार्जुनम् ।
उज्जयिन्यां महाकालमोकांरममलेश्वरम् ।
परल्यां वैद्यनाथं च डाकिन्यां भीमशंकरम् ।
सेतुबंधे तु रामेशं नागेशं दारूकावने ।
वाराणस्यां तु विश्वेशं त्रयंम्बकं गौतमीतटे ।
हिमालये तु केदारं घुश्मेशं च शिवालये ।
ऐतानि ज्योतिर्लिंगानि सायं प्रातः पठेन्नरः ।
सप्तजन्मकृतं पापं स्मरणेन विनश्यति.

In the above shloka mentioning all the jyotirlingas, the eigth one— Nagesham Darukavane is said to be referring to Nageshwar/ bal jageshwar at present day Jageshwar in Almora district of Uttarakhand. Darukavane means forest of devdar and the dense forest  of devdars around the temples justifies the explanation.
This temple faces west. Outside the entrance on either side are two well sculpted images of dwarpals Nandi and Skandi with all their arms and armaments.

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The Shivling in the sanctum sanctorum is swayambhoo and appears to be divided in two parts.  The larger part depicts Lord Shiva while the smaller one devi Parvati.  There are two Ashtdhatu statues of Chand kings Deepchand And Tripal Chand in standing posture behind the Shivlinga. There is a burning light[jyoti] in cupped hands of the statue of King Deepchand, reputed to be burning  incessantly from times immemorial.

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Mahamrityunjay temple is perhaps the only temple of Shiva called by this particular name. As is evident from the name devotees come here to perform the life saving pooja. This is east facing temple and the unique Linga here has an eye shaped opening. God here is worshiped as savior from death. Chanting of mantras and their reverberation leave a very powerful impact.
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Almost all the temples have carved stone gate with images of dwarpals on both sides. On the shikharas of temples various images of Gods, mainly Shiva with ganas are etched.

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The temple has an interesting legend attached to it. It is believed that Lord Shiva had come to this site for meditation. So when the women folk of the village came to know that  a young yogi with haloing aura  has come to meditate, they all gathered to catch a glimpse of him, making the men folk infuriated and to control the situation Shiva converted himself into a child and since then he is worshipped  here in his child avatar.
Many years ago Jageshwar used to be a pilgrim halt enroute to  famous Kailash Mansarovar yatra. It is also said that Adi Shankaracharya stayed here and worked towards restoration of the temples before moving towards Kedarnath.
Though normally in the month of march it is not very cold in the valley but this year weather showed different patterns of  mood. We were told that till a week ago the road to the temple was covered with snow.  Thunderous rain and hailstorm two days ago too contributed in  bringing the temperature considerably down. It was very early in the morning. The sand stone floor of temple premises was bitingly cold. The carpets spread to make pradikshna easier for devotees were drenched with the moisture, water literally oozing out.
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Logs burnt in open courtyard. One  pujari sat near it. Yellow, orange flames leapt and danced in air. Harmonious echo of chanting of prayers, blowing of conch, peeling of bells, murmuring of river Jat ganga transported me in a trance like state. Rising column of smoke as if invited to accompany it to the mystique horizons.The Devdars around the temples stood close giving ample shade to let the silky , tender blades of green grass flourish while few sunrays haltingly stepped in to kiss the glistening dew drops and droplets on leaves and grass.
If at all the moments could be frozen………………….
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All the pics by Sunder Iyer

The day was folding its wings slowly. The golden rays were gradually retreating to the shadowy darkness of dense cedar jungle. Tall elegant cedars on both sides of curvy hill road stood rapt in eloquent silence. We were on our way to Jageshwar temples group{ about 36 Km from Almora in Uttarakhand}

We could hear the soft murmuring of water. A group of centuries old temples came in view on one side of road. There were one or two others scattered on either side of road. It felt like being on the threshold of long passed era of history, steeped in spiritualism and mysticism.

By the time we reached the Kumaon Mandal guest house sun had set. Standing on the balcony in front of our room we looked at the cluster of temples. The only road of small hamlet of Jageshwar ran lazily from one side of temples while river Jat Ganga flowed encircling the temples from back . Tall devdars standing erect on the hills beyond the river stream turned blackish green as the lengthening shadows of dusk engulfed them. Whole aura was permeated with a mystique feel. Looking at the temples I could feel a calling from beyond.

Away from the chaotic mess of routine life, the tranquillity in the valley acted like balm on tired mind. Now and then sound of bells in the temple echoed in the valley. Gradually the shapes and contours of temples merged in the darkness. The river, calling in a soulful voice could be heard more distinctly. And then slowly the full round moon stepped in above the majestic trees of devdar.

Bathed in moon light the hills, the small houses, the temples, the river, the forests all looked ethereal. On left side of the guest house on a high hill was this huge leafless tree. Its round solid trunk holding the naked braches and branchlets spreading in all the direction looked majestic. It’s whole being sparkled in silvery grandeur. The conical tip of the shrine below it glittered like a source of light to illuminate the darkness within.

Nothing more celestial could have I conceived. The tranquil wind blew very gently. No, not even blew it was whispering, breathing peace to every thing around.

It was the night preceding Holi festival. Some where in the village people were singing the folk songs,accompanied by the beats of drums. Riding the air currents the songfull voices reached us……big round moon floating in the sky, the transparent silvery blue moonlight layer spread all over, the wind permeated with melodious voices…the silhouettes of temples .draped in mellow light……life seemed just complete…no haste to rush anywhere…no heed to passing of time …felt like being a part of scheme of nature….Oh! it was such a liberating feeling.

And then another glorious day dawned.We got up early, took bath and were in balcony.The hamlet was still in arms of sleep but nature has awakened. Sun God has started stretching it’s bountiful arms.Making way through the dense devdars light was creating hazy, pious pattern over the temples. Pujaris in the temples have started the early morning havans and smoke column rising from vedis lovingly embraced the haze of lights and behind the temple complex rose the black gurgling column of the smoke emitted from a burning pyre. Behind the temple complex is the cremation ground. The cremation ground dates back to the time of Chand dynasty and now is used by the inhabitants of the nearby villages. Watching the three kinds of smokes and haze coiling,uncoiling,emerging from different sources and mingling,unmingling with one another was an experience beyond words. The celestial, the pious, the beginning, the end altogether they created mystical inscriptions in the space over the temples and those centuries old Devdars watched solemnly. When a small ray of light flickered over the leaves of cedar I felt them smiling with compassion over my feelings of amazement and complete surrender to the almighty pulsating source of divine energy .

It was the morning when you can almost feel that you have met God.

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Pictures by Sunder Iyer