Saturday, September 16, 2017

Trek to Kaylong Kartik Temple and Kugti Pass

I'm sitting at my desk, with my eyes on a glowing laptop screen, but my mind is still in the Himalayan mountains.

Having spent the whole of last week trekking through the stunning Chamba valley, attempting my first Cross-Over trek through the Kugti Pass to Lahaul-Spiti in Ladakh, I realize that this trip has been an eye-opener is more ways than one.

I did not know, for instance, that affordable trekking was possible for a small group of five, with the support of two guides, one porter and a cook! Since much of the grunt work of setting up camp, cooking food and foraging for fuel is outsourced, it leaves you with enough and more time to take in the scenery, observe the birds and insects, and enjoy the journey.

This trek passed through the Manikaran Kailash area, an ancient pilgrimage circuit. It was therefore not surprising to see the route dotted with tiny roadside shrines and larger temples. What was intriguing, however, was the set of beliefs and traditions that blended so well with that of the nomadic shepherds who form the economic lifeline of this remote district.

The Keylang Kartik Temple is an excellent example. It is open only from 13 April to 30 November every year - the time when the shepherds are taking their flock from their summer grazing grounds in Lahaul-Spiti down the green meadows and fields of the Chamba valley and the plains, to escape the harsh winters in the mountains.

The temple itself is at multiple levels, blending with the steep slope on which it is located. At the lowest area are the toilets, a little further up, attached to the main building is a shop selling votive's and offerings. This shop is run by the same family that takes care of the temple - priests from the Kugti Village. At the next level you have the temple with a large courtyard, attached to a cooking shed and a little spring-water pool purported to contain the footprints of the presiding deity.

The main temple is a wooden structure divided into two areas - a prayer hall with a window on each of its three walls, facing the towering snow-peaks, and the sanctum containing three idols, one each of silver, panchadhatu (?) and marble. As in most North Indian temples, devotees can walk right into the sanctum and touch the idols before going around the narrow passageway surrounding the sanctum.

The evening Aarti takes place at 7 PM. The priest corrals whoever is around to help with the puja. I was handed a Yak-hair fly-whisk while our guide took charge of the cymbals as we walked around clanging numerous bells hanging overhead. We all then stepped out to offer prayers to two more deities in the courtyard area - Ganesha and Kartik again represented by his vaahana, the peacock.

One thing you will not miss at the temple is the iron chains and tridents along the temple walls. While most of the tridents / trishuls are offerings from the pilgrims on the Manikaran Kailash circuit, the chains are more than just symbolic. They are used by soothsayers from the nearby villages to flagellate themselves as they go into a frenzy while "talking" to the mountain spirits. They become the medium through which the Gods speak to the villagers, and vice versa.

According to the temple priest, the older chains are considered more potent by the villagers. If they need to borrow the older chains to be used in the village temples, they have to deposit two new ones as security. Also, a chain borrowed from the temple is to be carried "without touching the ground", even if it is tucked away inside a bag.

Animal sacrifice is the most accepted form of thanksgiving here. Villagers and shepherds come here to offer animals in gratitude for a successful crossing, or after surviving another winter in the mountains. Perhaps quite appropriately, the main prasad here is mutton-curry and rice. While this may not be to the liking of many Hindu purists in the plains, its best to leave those who survive in the mountains to frame their own rules!

Unanswered Qs:

* Is there any other temple in India where Kartik is considered the protective diety of nomads and shepherds?
* Mythology says that Kartik lost a bet to his brother, Ganesha, and destroyed himself. Does it talk of a sister named Matala-Devi who sits atop a craggy peak on the opposite side of the river?


Manimahesh Parikrama -
Kaylong Kartik Temple - Mythology -

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