For devotees of Hindu religion, four pilgrimage sites in India—Badrinath, Dwaraka, Jagannath Puri, and Rameswaram—are believed to lead you to the path of moksha or salvation, if you visit them once in your life.
The 8th-century Hindu philosopher and theologian, Shri Adi Shankaracharya, is said to have coined the term ‘Char Dham’ translating to the four abodes of god, and followers by the millions visit these four holy destinations each year.
I have not been to Badrinath Dham, or for that matter, any of those four pilgrimages in India. I have, however, heard them much talked about by elders including my nonagenarian mother. So for me, it was nothing short of a revelation when I learned that we, too, had a holy temple of Badrinath located in the lush hills of Kavresthali, a piddling 14 km away from Thamel.
Chatter at teashop
On one of my cycling jaunts to the Kavresthali Hills, northwest above Tokha, I happened to overhear a woman speaking animatedly to a lady teashop owner at a place called Sanglé (11 km from Thamel). The teashop was my frequent hangout when riding on that route
She was talking about a visit she had recently made to a temple site. “I visited, only the day before, a place called Shanti Dham. I'd never been there but had heard a lot about the place. The site was pleasantly located, amid tall woods on the crest of a hill."
“I could not believe my eyes when I saw the Badrinath Temple standing right before me in all its glory,” she added. I listened as I sipped my tea. "The best part was the temple building was done in an intricate design and vibrant colors. It was a mirror image of the temple of Badrinath from India I'd seen in photographs. Wow, it looked as if the entire edifice from India had been relocated there," she went on enthusiastically.
That was enough to spur me on. I could not wait to ask the woman for directions. She said it was barely four kilometers away from the teashop we were at, on the way to Kavresthali and Jitpur Phedi. I checked the time. It was a little past 3.45 pm I can make it to the place in one hour at the most and back home in about 45 minutes, just a little after dark, I said to myself. I made up my mind to go.
Off to the hills
I’d my bicycle lights stowed into my backpack, so there was nothing to worry even if it got a bit late, I reassured myself. I knew the Kavresthali-Jitpur-Teen Piplé route like the back of my hand as I often rode that dirt track. I was sure the subsidiary road to Shanti Dham lay somewhere in between Sanglé and Kavresthali.
"I can find it," I said, and pedaled on towards Bihani Chowk, after which I followed the dirt road to Sangam Chowk. After some 35 minutes, I arrived at an arch entrance to my right, which held a signpost.
The sign read: the way to Shanti Dham. The track climbed steeply uphill past a few houses, and then into the wooded hill. Curious upon seeing a stranger on a bicycle at that hour, a lady who had a house on the incline asked me where I was headed. When I told her, she seemed a little uncertain but told me to try a different and better road, instead, some 1.5 km down the main course.
The road I was on, she said, did go to Shanti Dham, but it was in very bad shape and no longer used by motor-vehicles, or even motorbikes. Only the local folks used it to gather fodder for their cattle or when taking a short-cut on foot to the shrine. I told her I'd manage. As I pushed on, the climb got steeper, and even my granny gear (lowest gear) seemed to struggle hard.
Before long I gave up and dismounted. There seemed no sign of the dirt road, as the recent monsoon had completely washed it away, leaving only deep furrows that ran into each other. There was no way I could ride on.
I managed to walk my bike across, but it was exhausting, as I often had to lug it over deep pits in the road. “Tough, really tough, man,” I said aloud, as I slogged on up the incline. Dusk was approaching fast, but it seemed, the deserted track across the thick woods would not let up. I rummaged for my lights from my backpack and fixed them to the handlebars to save the trouble of doing it in total darkness.
It was beautiful, though: the lush woods included Shirish (mimosa/albizia family), Utis (alder), Lapsi (hog plum), the deciduous Painyu (punus cerasoides) and the ubiquitous bamboo. The upper section was intermingled with chir pine.
In two minds
Suddenly, I realized that I was the only person anywhere around and it struck me that the chances of wild animals straying into those woods from the nearby Shivpuri National Park were not unlikely. What was more, those animals included both leopards and Himalayan black bears; sightings of leopards in the fringe areas of the park including the Kavresthali Hills have been often reported.
Had it been daytime, I would not have worried much, but nighttime is a different story.
I began to waver, torn between two minds. One told me to back out, but the other kept goading me—no guts, no glory—saying I should not give up, as the place must be just around the corner. The woods got quieter and denser as the dusk approached rapidly. Even the birds seemed to slowly retire for the night, winding up their dusk chorus.
My restless mind started seeing things in the darkened shrubs that looked menacing. Generally, when on a solo ride, I do not take a chance like that if it’s a remote place, and on no account after dark. I do not know what got into me that made me do that ride.
The debate between my inner voices continued. Before long, darkness fell, and I switched on my lights. Save for the dragging sound the bike made, and my laborious breathing, the total hush felt spooky.
Soon, the trees and the underbrush seemed to play tricks on my eyes in the dim light. What was that? Did I hear a rustling in the nearby shrub? Even the faint sound of a stream in the stillness seemed too loud. Although wary and edgy, curiously, I kept going. I was near panic when suddenly, I saw a light some 50 yards ahead on the darkened hill. Phew, hope at last!
As I neared the source of the light, I found that it belonged to a restaurant. The place, as it turned out, was closed. The road then met another, wider one that led uphill. I could see another set of lights in the distance, some 200 yards ahead.
That must be the place, I said to myself. As I pedaled up the hill, another light appeared, which came from a roadside house. As I approached it, a dog suddenly rushed out of the house and attacked me. I lost my balance and took a fall on the scree-laden road. Fortuitously, the dog stopped, and I was spared.
Man, did it hurt! I cursed the dog as I slowly got up, dusted myself, and checked my knees and my left elbow. Both stung and throbbed with pain. I thanked myself that there were no tears in my jersey and tights, so, I need not worry about getting a tetanus injection. A motorbike then came roaring up the hill and pulled up next to me.
Relieved to see someone after an excruciating hour on the track, I asked him about the shrine. “You’re almost there, just 50 yards to go ahead,” he said and pointed to the lighted hill. I checked the time. It was 6.30 pm and completely dark.
The guy looked me up and asked, “What's the matter, you seemed to have hurt yourself?" I told him what had happened. He apologized and said that the dog, after dark, at times turned aggressive against strangers. Standing by his master's side, the dog still growled and kept staring suspiciously at me.
I thanked the guy and pedaled the last leg to the shrine. My knee and elbow still hurt. Destination, at long last! The whole area was well-lit up. When I looked at the temple, I forgot all those agonizing moments on the track and the pain from the fall.
The temple looked amazing. The illumination gave it an added appeal. Honestly, I'd not expected to see a building of that kind on that isolated hill. The woman at the teashop seemed to be right; at first glance, it did appear very similar to the original structure from India I'd viewed on the Internet. I could not, however, say for sure, as it was nighttime.
Suddenly, the bells and a dholak (drum) sounded. It was time for the evening arati (worship ritual). As expected, I was not allowed to take photographs inside the main chamber. As the trip was impromptu, I was not carrying my camera, anyway. So, I satisfied myself with a few shots of the illuminated building with my iPhone.
After the arati, a priest opened the gate to the main chamber, which housed a three-foot-tall idol of Lord Vishnu on a raised pedestal. I paid my darshan (sacred visitation), and got a tika from the priest in attendance, Kumar Acharyaji. After the gate was closed at 7 pm, I struck up a conversation with him, but time, it seemed, was not in my favor, as he told me that the founder of the temple complex, Swamiji Shri Chaturbhujacharya Chundamaniji Maharaji, had already retired for the night and would be available for audience only the next day. Another visit to the holy place for me seemed destined. After a brief talk with the priest, I told him that I’d back again sometime in the next week.
As I prepared to leave, I was a little uncertain about the new route. Newer courses, at night, make me all the more confused and nervous. But backtracking by the same route was inconceivable. Even if I dared, I was sure I’d make a perfect dinner for the leopard lurking in the undergrowth.
I decided I should stick to the other road. I saw approaching lights as I was about to hop onto the saddle. A scooter appeared and stopped at the temple site, and I watched a man proceed towards the priest, talk a while, and then walk back to his scooter.
Wow, what great luck, I said to myself! I hastened to the fellow, afraid he might scoot away. “Hello bro, are you, by any chance, going down to the bazaar area?” I told him my predicament and asked if he could escort me there. He seemed all too happy to help.
I’d a tough time keeping pace behind him but managed to tag along close on the steep and winding downhill. Barely 20 minutes later, lights appeared. We had arrived at Sangam Chowk. I thanked the fellow profusely, and we parted company. After that, it was a no-brainer, dark or no, because I’d done the route umpteen times.
When I started from the teashop at Sanglé, I thought I’d be home by 6 pm at the latest. When I got there, it was 8:30 at night. In hindsight, it did not matter because, for me it was, in all honesty, a one of a kind experience, an adventure of sorts, in a place that I couldn’t wait to return to.
Ravi M Singh is 67 and retired. His passions are riding his mountain bike and writing. In his own words: “Looking back, it seems I’ve always been an outdoorsman, lost in his own little adventures.”