Image of Gandhi on a rupee coin

Kedarnath Temple stands in a mountain cirque high in the Garhwal Himalaya. It is dedicated to the god Shiva. Some of the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi are scattered here. In summer Kedarnath is packed with pilgrims. I went in winter, and found it deserted.

It was dusk when I came to the end of the road in the valley beneath Kedarnath. There was a row of deserted shanties beside the bus stand, and there was a sign to the Tourist Rest House. I followed the sign up through the trees and found a concrete palace. Then I looked again and saw that the palace was not yet quite built. I spent the night in a portacabin in the palace grounds.

In the morning I breakfasted slowly on paratha and omelette and tea and then I set off along the wide path to Kedarnath. Just above the village, two women were working an ‘Indian bulldozer’ - a large shovel with a rope tied to the handle near its base. One of the women was holding the handle while the other raised and lowered the shovel with the aid of the rope.

The day brightened. I passed through another village, shuttered and deserted, and then I came out into a gentle valley laced with snow. A towering wall of rock and tumbled ice blocked its end. At the base of the wall there was a huddle of stone buildings, immeasurably tiny. This was Kedarnath.

I pitched my tent in the snow at the edge of the village, by the side of the Mandakini River. There was no one else to be seen.

At the end of the Mahabharata war only nine men remained alive out of all the great armies that had massed on the field of Kurukshetra. The five Pandava brothers were alive, but their sons were dead and their women barren, scorched by a weapon of the gods that the last of the Kaurava warriors had unleashed in the bitterness of defeat.

Yudhisthira, eldest of the Pandavas, was haunted by grief and sat down to starve himself to death.

"Do not grieve,” said the sage Vyasa. “All this is Fate. Now do your duty."

So Yudhisthira came into his kingdom, and ruled it wisely. But the Pandava brothers had nonetheless committed the sin of killing their kinsmen, and only Shiva could absolve them of it.

One of the twelve ‘Pillars of Light’ (jyotir linga) where Shiva is manifest in the material world

Shiva is the god of meditation and of storm - the very essence of divinity. The Pandavas went to call on him at Varanasi. He dodged them and departed for the Himalaya. When the Pandavas caught up with him he disguised himself as a buffalo, and at Kedarnath he plunged into the earth to escape them. Bhima, the Pandava strongman, seized the buffalo’s hump just as it was disappearing into the ground, and Shiva consented at last to appear before the brothers and free them from their sin. Ever since then, Kedarnath has been one of the twelve ‘Pillars of Light’ (jyotir linga) where Shiva is manifest in the material world, and one of the five main Shiva temples (panch kedari) in the Garhwal Himalaya.

Various parts of the buffalo's body emerged at four locations in the Himalaya. Together with Kedarnath, they make up the panch Kedar - the five Kedars. Each location has a temple and is a place of pilgrimage, but Kedarnath is pre-eminent amongst them.

Somewhere north of Kedarnath, the Pandava brothers and their joint wife Draupadi began the climb towards heaven. Draupadi was the first to fall. Then, one by one, the men fell too, until only Yudhisthira and his dog remained. When the chariot of the gods came to collect him, Yudhisthira said;

“The dog must also come. I don’t want happiness if I have to abandon a creature who is devoted to me.”

The dog scrambled up into the chariot of the gods.

In heaven Yudhisthira could find no trace of his kinsmen.

“Where is Draupadi?” he said. “Where are my brothers? Take me to them.”

“As you wish,” said the gods. Yudisthira was led along the rank pathway to hell. He could hear the cries of Draupadi and his brothers and kinsmen.

“Stay a moment,” they said. “While you are here our torments cease.”

Yudisthira turned to the messenger of the gods

“Go back,” he said. “I’m staying here.”

At that moment the darkness melted, and a fragrant breeze blew up, and the shining gods appeared.

“Your hell was just an illusion,” said gleaming Indra. “There is some good and bad in everything. All kings should see hell for a moment. Now join us, with Draupadi and all your kin.”