Garhwal and Kumaon, the two Himalayan regions in Uttarakhand, are famous for their numerous Shiva temples, many of which have great historical and architectural significance as well. Often referred to as the ‘Dev Bhoomi’ (the ‘Land of Gods) or the ‘Country of Shiva’, Uttarakhand is certainly the place to visit for spiritual contentment, peace and tranquillity. Every village in Garhwal and Kumaon narrates a fantastic tale of Lord Shiva and his mythic feats.
Famous Shiva shrines in the Garhwal region
The region of Garhwal has a lot of Puranic mythologies associated with it. The region has some of the most revered Shiva temples of the country. According to mythologies, after the Kurukshetra War at the advice of Lord Krishna, the Pandavas came to Uttarakhand to ask for a pardon from Lord Shiva for killing their own relatives and do penance. In the process of eluding the Pandavas, Lord Shiva, who was initially displeased with them, manifested his presence in the forms of five different body parts of a bull. It is believed that the Pandavas built five sacred temples at each of the locations where they were shown those body parts. This five sites which are identified by different parts of Lord’s body constitute the sacred Panch Kedar circuit. Kedarnath is the place where the hump was believed to have appeared; it was told that the head had surfaced at Rudranath, the arms or the hands at Tunganath, the navel and the stomach at Madhyamaheshwar, and finally his hair at Kalpeshwar.
Perhaps one of the most popular yet one of the most difficult pilgrimage spots of India, the Kedarnath Temple at Rudraprayag is one of them. Kedarnath is the remotest of the four Char Dham sites, located 11, 755 ft above sea level and close to the Chorabari Glacier and the Mandakini river. The temple can be visited only during the summer time as snowfall makes the area inaccessible during the winter. During the winter, the Shiva idol has to be temporarily transferred to Ukhimath. The site is believed to exist from the time of the Mahabharata. The temple is a stone structure built not later than 8th century CE. Here Lord Shiva is known as Kedareshwara. Kedarnath is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas of Lord Shiva that exist in India.
The highest point in the Panch Kedar circuit, Tunganath is situated at a height of 12,073 ft. It is also the highest Shiva temple in the world. Like Kedarnath, this site also has its own share of legends that associate the place with the Pandavas. It is a typical stone-built hill temple that is no less than 5,000 years old. Like Kedarnath, the temple remains closed during the winter and the image of the deity is transferred to Omkareshwar Temple near Ukimath. The route from Chopta to Tunganath Temple is dotted with a number of small Shiva temples which are worth visiting.
The second Kedar of the Panch Kedar circuit, Madhyamaheshwar is also famous for its scenic beauty along with its spiritual significance. Situated in the midst of the lush green of the Himalayas, the temple is an ancient stone-structure of unique architectural importance. A short trek of 2 km from the main site takes one to the location known as Vriddh Madhyamaheshwar which is the place for a yet older shrine. From this point, a magnificent panoramic view of the Kedarnath can also be experienced.
Another Shiva temple believed to be built by the Pandavas and a Panch Kedar site, the Kalpeshwar Mahadeva Temple is situated in the Urgam Valley of the Garhwal Himalayas. The myths have that the dreadlocks or the ‘jata’ of Lord Shiva appeared here and thus the Shiva idol worshipped here is known as Jateshwara.
The Rudranath Temple in the Chamoli district is no doubt the toughest among the Panch Kedar sites. It is a beautiful natural rock-cut temple that is located in the midst of a dense rhododendron and Alpine forest. The image of Lord Shiva worshipped here has a fearful face and is known as Nilkantha Mahadeva. The river Ganges flows by the temple. Here the sacred river is known as Baitarani which was believed to be the same as the mythological river flowing between the earth and the heaven.
Vishwanath Temple, Uttarkashi
The temple was believed to be built by none other than Parashuram. Like Kashi or Varanasi, the deity of Uttarkashi is also Lord Vishwanath. Maharani Khaneti of the Garhwal kingdom rebuilt the structure in 1857. The Shiva Linga has a height of 60 cm and a circumference of 90 cm.
Apart from the above temples, there are numerous other Shiva shrines in the Garhwal region. Some of them are little-known but many of them like Gopinath Temple at Chamoli, Agasteshwar Mahadev Temple, Triyuginarayan Temple and Koteshwara Temple at Rudraprayag, Budha Kedar Temple at Tehri Garhwal, Tapakeshwar at Dehradun, Bendeshwar Mahadeva Temple at Pauri Garhwal district, Neelkanth Mahadeva Temple at Rishikesh, Bilkeshwar Mahadeva Temple at Haridwar are some of the quite popular Shiva sites among the pilgrims.
Prominent Shiva sites in the Kumaon region
Like Garhwal, the Kumaon division is also a favourite destination of the Shiva devotees from all over the world. Every village in the eastern part of Kumaon is worth visiting during the months August-September when the sacred Aathon festival is celebrated. Almost all villages observe the festival which is devoted to the marriage between Lord Shiva and Goddess Gaura, who was the daughter of King Himalaya. During the festival, the Kumaoni women worship these two deities and pray for the health of their families and a satisfactory agricultural produce.
Jageshwar Temple Complex
This site in the Almora district is a cluster of 124 shrines of varying sizes. Every year the complex witnesses the visit of lakhs of Shiva devotees during the Shravan (monsoon) festival in August-September and during the Maha Shivaratri Mela in February-March. The 2500 years old temple complex is also believed to be the home of another of the 12 Jyotirlingas of India.
The relatively new (though 350 years old) Shiva temple near Nainital is one of the most popular pilgrimage sites of Uttarakhand. Situated at the height of 2312 m from the sea level, the site offers a splendid view of the Kumaon Himalayas. Inside the temple, the Linga is surrounded by the images of Vishnu, Brahma, Parvati, Ganesh, Hanuman and Nandi.
It is told that the limestone cave temple known as the Patal Bhuvneshwar at Pithoragarh has a hidden path connecting it with the great Kailash Mansarovar, the abode of Lord Shiva. Apart from the deep religious significance, the site also offers a spectacular display of stalactite and stalagmite formations of various colours. Myths tell us that it was the great Sun King (Surya Vansha) Rituparna who discovered the cave in the Treta Yug. The myths surrounding the cave-temple also claim an association with the Pandavas. Lord Shiva is worshipped here in his image of the Bhuvenshwar or the Ruler of the Universe.
Situated at 22 km from Kausani, this ancient Shiva temple is believed to be constructed sometimes in the 10 century CE. The site lies in between the mountains Chandika and Neeleshwar. Its location at the confluence of the three holy rivers Gomti, Sarayu and the latent Saraswati has provided the temple with a unique spiritual value.
Besides these temples, the Kapileshwar temple at Pithoragarh, Bhimshankar Mahadev temple at Udham Singh Nagar, Gananath and Kot Ling Mahadev temple at Almora are also some of the quite popular Shiva sites in the Kumaon Himalayas.