Kedarnath temple is a Saivitepilgrimage place in the Himalayan mountains, where according to tradition, Lord Siva manifested in his form as a linga of light (Whitmore 74). Kedarnath pilgrimage is a member of the four abodes system (char dham). The Kedarnath temple is located amidst the tall Himalayan Mountains and is one of the holiest Hindu places on the Indian subcontinent. The pilgrimage to Kedarnath is a difficult one for the pilgrims (yatris) due to the location of the temple which sits on top of a Himalayan mountain at an altitude of 3553 meters, a region often cited as “land of gods” (dev-Bhumi). Kedarnath is a “crossing-over place” (tirtha) that offers the possibility that one can “cross-over” the ocean of rebirth. Furthermore, Hindus consider pilgrimage (yatra) to Kedarnath as one that grants wishes, heals, and purifies karma. (Whitmore 7). In a general sense, the positioning of Kedarnath is in the shape of a linga. According to Hindu beliefs, by praying to Kedareshwar, one can get one’s desires fulfilled. The importance of the shrine can be further understood from the beliefs that Upamanyu (a rgvedic rsi) prayed to Lord Siva in this place in the Satya Yuga and the Pandavas worshipped Lord Siva here after the Mahabharata war(Singh, S., Youssouf, M., Malik, Z. A., & Bussmann, R. W 9). The journey to Kedarnath is difficult, yet most Hindu pilgrims (yatris) undertake this pilgrimage to destroy their sins (pap) and generate merit (punya) (Whitmore 5). This Yatra is pursued especially by Hindus who are in samnyasin stage of their life. The overview of Kedarnath presents a Hindu pilgrimage (yatri) with a unique opportunity to experience, worship, and to be in the conjoined presence of Siva and Ganga in this world (Sijapati, M. A., & Birkenholtz, J. V. 2).
The origin of Kedarnath temple is a debatable issue, but the most prominent view by devotees about its construction suggests that the Pandavasconstructed it. It was revived later by Adi Sankaracarya but nothing can be said about the date of construction of the temple with certainty (Thapliyal, U. P 1). Claims like these are common in Hindu religious literature, academics do not regard these myths as historically accurate.
According to the old accounts, Kedarnath is one of the places correlated with the climb to heaven (swargarohan) of the five Pandavasand their joint wife Draupadi. The Pandavas were desperate to cleanse themselves of the karma generated during the Kurukshetra war in which they killed their own cousins (the Kauravas), narrated in the Mahabharata epic (Whitmore 29). Having felt guilty of killing their own cousins, the Pandavas sought the blessings of Lord Siva for redemption. Siva eluded them repeatedly and while fleeing took refuge at Kedarnath in the form of a bull, a form commonly associated with demons (raksasas). Lord Siva, unhappy with the Pandavas, refused a meeting and left Kasi (Varanasi, U.P), his abode. He appeared as Nandi the bull in Guptakasi. In many versions of this story, the Pandavas identify Siva and grab him to prevent him from leaving. Each of the five Pandavas grabs a part of Siva, parts that remain in the landscape and then become the self-manifest rock lingas found in Kedarnath and the other four temples of the Saivite sect dedicated to god Shiva in the Garhwal region (Panch Kedar)(Singh, S., Youssouf, M., Malik, Z. A., & Bussmann, R. W. 9).
Pilgrimage by foot (paidal-yatra) is the iconic form of yatra to the Kedarnath templeand exemplifies the pain (kasht) and inner production of focus and energy (tapas). Walking to Kedarnath barefoot was better and the traditional way for getting the full experience of the location, an experience that involved both pain and pleasure, but not every yatri is able to carry out this traditional method. Most yatris, prefer to ride on horseback, to be carried by porters, or to come by helicopter (Whitmore 127). Families that pursue this pilgrimage to Kedarnath or any other dham mention that one purpose of a yatra is to instill traditional values in the children of the family (Whitmore 127).
Inside the temple, yatris who enter the temple in the morning are allowed to massage ghee into the linga. The puja itself is standardized and often include consecration (abhisheka) of the linga. Standard puja offerings usually include camphor, sacred thread, rice, incense, mustard oil, forehead adornments, raisins, split chickpeas, nuts, and more expensive pujas add scarves and plastic flower garlands (Whitmore 123). The general ritual procedure in Kedarnath would occur as follows: invocation (avahan), initial vow (sankalp), puja, arati, and offering of flowers (puspanjali), and finally, the ghee malish. Each member of the family would take ghee into their hands and be urged to massage the linga with ghee (clarified butter)while the priest (pujari) recites the mantra (Whitmore 123). For many yatris, massaging the linga, provides them a unique opportunity to experience intimacy with a famous and powerful form of God (Whitmore 78). Everyone irrespective of their skin colour, caste (jati) and creed is permitted to feel, touch, and express their devotion by smearing butter on the linga as a religious ritual (Hiremath, Shobha S. 1.)
Every year around 500,000 yatris visit the Kedarnath Dham valley, spaces in the economic catchment area of the Kedarnath valley became spaces predominantly aligned around the yatra tourism of middle-class pilgrims, who expect for comfortable travel. Hence, sheer numbers far exceeded the long-term carrying capacity of the mountain environment (Whitmore 103). This sudden growth of yatris in the Kedarnath region, the nature of economic development connected to pilgrimage and tourism, and poorly planned infrastructure were not sustainable, leading to vast devastation in the region.
In 2013, the flash floods in the parts of the north-west Himalayan region caused acute damage in the Uttarakhand state of India. The severity of the floods and damage was the most devastating in the Kedarnath region. It caused the death of about 4000 people and almost a similar number were reported missing. Unofficial reports suggest an even higher number of death and people missing in the region (Sati, S. P., & Gahalaut, V. K 193). The cause of the flash floods was determined to be heavy rainfall, triggering landslides in some places, damaging roads, buildings, and other infrastructure. The extensive damage and large death toll displayed the frangibility of the mountainous region and a lack of synchronized relief and rescue operation (Ziegler, A. D., Wasson, R. J., Bhardwaj, A., Sundriyal, Y. P., Sati, S. P., Juyal, N., … & Saklani, U, 1). Construction of several hydropower projects simultaneously, improper road alignment with poor construction, inadequate consideration of slope stability and faulty engineering techniques were some of the other major factors responsible for the 2013 flash floods (Sati, S. P., & Gahalaut, V. K 198). During the disaster more than 100,000 yatris were in the region. Despite the floods, the Kedarnath shrine persevered, shielded by a massive boulder, a “divine rock” (divya sila), and by its own solid construction, the temple itself held firm but filled up with debris (Whitmore 153). The unpredictability of the landscape and the continued extreme weather made it arduous for up to two days even to deliver supplies to the survivors, and some attempts even resulted in helicopter crashes. During the floods, dead bodies were coming down the Mandakini river and groups of survivors were coming out of the jungles and finding their way to villages in the upper Kedarnath. Consequently, all these events led to the closure of the Kedarnath temple.
In Kedarnath, there is a tradition that when the shrine is closed it is the turn of divine beings to come to the site on pilgrimage while it is off limits for humans. On October 4, 2013, the first day of the fall Navaratri, Kedarnath re-opened for yatris (Whitmore 164).
The Kedarnath valley being surrounded by the Himalayas, lakes, rivers, and forests has natural scenic beauty with several places for pilgrimage making the entire region a highly promising tourist destination. The occupation of the people living in the Kedarnath region is directly or indirectly linked with tourism, and tourism has established itself as a primary component in the Kedarnath valley economy. The relationship between residents and tourists can impact positively by providing new opportunities and negatively through restraining individuality with new restrictions (Bahuguna, A., Joshi, P. C., & Maikhuri, R. K 303). Today, the accessibility to the Kedarnath temple compared to the last decade has become much more commodious because of better transportation provisions. The helicopter service for the Kedarnath shrine has been started for the pilgrims/tourist.
Though tourism in Kedarnath and the surrounding Himalayan regions have a huge potential for economic improvement, yet it has negatively affected the education of youth residing in Kedarnath. Much of the youth generation started working at an early age for immediate economic gain, neglecting their basic education (Bahuguna, A., Joshi, P. C., & Maikhuri, R. K 305). “Particular constellations of social, political, and economic forces can over centuries transform the character of a particular pilgrimage place almost beyond recognition” (Whitmore 26). Despite such a devastating flood in the Kedarnath Valley, the state government has no specific policy for development and planned construction keeping the environmental issues in mind. “Since the state leaders themselves are involved in hospitality and real estate, both overtly and covertly, no one actively discourages illegal construction” (Joshi, Hridayesh 133). Political leaders and the businessmen have not lost sight of the potential to further their own interests at the yatras, and both segments vie for advertising and merchandizing. Yet, Hindus considers it as a religious duty to embark on the pilgrimage of four holy shrines which include Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri (Chardham), the most captivating reason for this Hindu pilgrimage is that this trip washes away all the sins and cleanses the soul for paramount salvation.
References and other materials consulted
Bahuguna, A., Joshi, P. C., & Maikhuri, R. K (2011) Socio-cultural impacts of pilgrimage in Kedarnath and adjoining areas of Garhwal Himalayas. J. Env. Bio-Sci., 2011: Vol. 25 (2): 303-306
Hiremath, Shobha S. (2006) Kedar vairagya peetha: Parampara & Rawal Jagadguru Shri Bheemashankarlinga Shivacharya. Ukhimatha (Ushamath): Himavat Kedar Vairagya Simhasana Mahasamsthana.
Joshi, Hridayesh. (2016) Rage of the River: The Untold Story of Kedarnath Disaster. Translated by Vandana R. Singh. Gurgaon (Haryana), India: Penguin Books India.
Lochtefeld, J. (2010) God’s gateway: identity and meaning in a Hindu pilgrimage place. Oxford University Press.
Singh, S., Youssouf, M., Malik, Z. A., & Bussmann, R. W. (2017) Sacred groves: myths, beliefs, and biodiversity conservation—a case study from Western Himalaya, India. International journal of ecology, 2017.
Sijapati, M. A., & Birkenholtz, J. V. (Eds.) (2015) Religion and Modernity in the Himalaya. Routledge.
Sati, S. P., & Gahalaut, V. K. (2013) The fury of the floods in the north-west Himalayan region: the Kedarnath tragedy. Geomatics, Natural Hazards and Risk, 4(3), 193-201.
Thapliyal, U. P.(2005) Historical and Cultural Perspectives, B.R. Publishing Corporation, New Delhi,
Whitmore, L. (2018) Changes in Ritual Practice at the Himalayan Hindu Shrine of Kedarnath. Ritual Innovation: Strategic Interventions in South Asian Religion, 71-90.
Whitmore, L. (2018) Mountain, Water, Rock, God: Understanding Kedarnath in the Twenty-First Century. Oakland, California: University of California Press.
Ziegler, A. D., Wasson, R. J., Bhardwaj, A., Sundriyal, Y. P., Sati, S. P., Juyal, N., … & Saklani, U. (2014) Pilgrims, progress, and the political economy of disaster preparedness–the example of the 2013 Uttarakhand flood and Kedarnath disaster. Hydrological Processes, 28(24), 5985-5990.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Char Dham Yatra
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Article written by: Gagan Preet Singh (February 2020) who is solely responsible for its content