Hindu holy men - sadhus - frequent the paths of the Garhwal Himalaya. Some of them know the mountains very well.
I got a lift down the Alaknanda Valley for a few kilometres, and then I started walking. It was the beginning of my journey west from Josimath. My first destination was Kalpeshwar temple.
Kalpeshwar lies in a wooded wrinkle on the south-eastern slopes of the Gangotri-Chaukamba massif, a knot of the Great Himalaya that stands between the Alaknanda and the Bagirathi rivers. Both of them are sources of the Ganga.
Kalpeshwar temple marks the place where Shiva’s matted locks are reputed to have re-appeared on earth, after he dived into the ground at Kedarnath to escape from the Pandava brothers. His face, his belly and his arms erupted from other mountainsides along the flanks of Chaukhamba while his hump - for he was in the form of a buffalo - remained at Kedarnath. It is often claimed that the sage Shankara was the first person to point out these five places of pilgrimage, the Panch Kedars. I planned to visit as many of them as seemed natural on my walk westwards.
The way was hot and my sack was heavy. I stopped to take a sip from my water bottle. While I was sitting beside the path, sweating, a tall man came striding lightly past in saffron robes. He was carrying nothing but an umbrella. A smaller man followed behind carrying a little rucksack. He was not wearing saffron. They were heading for Kalpeshwar too.
“See you later,” the man in saffron said to me, as he strode by.
Madmaheshwar is the place where Shiva’s belly materialised
I met the sadhu again in the teashop at Urgam, a mile before Kalpeshwar. He was smoking a roll-up of charas. Four or five other men were gathered around, drinking tea from steel tumblers.
“And where will you go after this?” asked the sadhu.
“From Kalpeshwar I’ll go to Bansi Narayan...”
“Very beautiful place. Very spiritual.”
“...and then I’ll go to Nandi Kund and on to Madmaheshwar and Kedarnath.”
Madmaheshwar is the place where Shiva’s belly materialised. Nandi Kund is a little lake on the southern slopes of the Chaukhamba massif, high above Kalpeshwar. It was the key to the high-level route that I meant to take from Kalpeshwar to Madhyamaheshwar, but it was not marked on my map.
“You’ll go to Nandi Kund at this time of year?”
“You’ve been there?”
“Summertime only. There is a path from Bansi Narayan. Small path only. No one goes there at this season.”
“And on to Madmaheshwar?”
“Also to Madmaheshwar. I know all these places. All the people here know me.”