Atoning for Your Sins in the Himalayas: The Panch Kedar Pilgrimage
India is generally associated with two remarkable features: the vast Himalayan mountain range, which hosts some of the highest peaks in the world, and for being the birthplace of religions. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, all originated in India, while Hinduism has been described as the oldest religion in the world.
The majority of Indians follow Hinduism, deriving their faith and beliefs from the ancient Hindu sacred texts and mythologies. Hinduism is a polytheistic religion with many gods and goddesses, yet every individual is free to worship any of the pantheon of gods. Among all the deities, there are three prominent gods, also known as the Trimurti (literally ‘three deities’) or in English, the Trinity: Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer). Shiva is the most revered god in the Trinity, and there are many sites and temples dedicated to Lord Shiva in India.
India has an abundance of temples dedicated to these gods, and one can find them in every corner of the country. Yet, there are a few sacred temples which distinguish themselves, and they are mentioned in ancient Hindu mythology. Of all these temples, the Panch Kedar, made up of five sacred Shiva temples in the Garhwal Himalayan region, are the most well-known temples found in India. What makes the Panch Kedar temples remarkable is the fact that they are all located within the Himalayas and require challenging treks to access them. The subject of many legends, their creation is connected to the Hindu epic Mahabharata, and they all are dedicated to the god Shiva.
Today, growing tourism has transformed these religious shrines into tourist destinations, and most visitors to Panch Kedar come in pursuit of leisure rather than for reasons of faith. Yet with all the modern day's challenges, these five temples audaciously attract devotees and are still visited by thousands of pilgrims annually.
Tourist information sign of the Panch Kedar pilgrimage route by Uttarakhand Tourism. (Sushant Pandey / Knowledge of India )
Visiting the Panch Kedar Temples
The Panch Kedar temples lie in the foothills of the Himalayas, within the Garhwal region of the Indian state of Uttarakhand. Home to many famous religious shrines dedicated to Hindi deities, the state is also known as Dev Bhoomi , or Land of Gods.
They can only be reached during certain parts of the year and access is closed during the winter season due to the heavy snowfall the region receives. The Panch Kedar temples open for devotees at the end of April or the first week in May and are closed by the last week of November.
The pilgrimage is popular amongst younger people searching for the thrill of trekking to holy and spiritual locations. The views are incredible. On a clear day, several of the highest peaks in the world are visible, including Nanda Devi, Kamet, Mana Peak and Chaukhamba.
Visiting the Panch Kedar temples involves some challenging trekking, as reaching each temple takes one or two days on foot and they are all situated more than 2000 meters above sea level: Kedarnath Temple (3583 meters/11755 ft), Tunganath Temple (3680 meters/12073 ft), Rudranath Temple (2286 meters/7500 ft), Madhyamaheshwar Temple (3490 meters/11450 ft) and Kalpeshwar Temple (2200 meters/7218 ft).
According to Hindu mythology, these five temples must be visited in the order mentioned above.
Himalayan peaks seen from Madhyameshwar temple. (Sushant Pandey / Knowledge of India )
Mythological Origins of the Panch Kedar Temples
Most renowned temples in India trace their origins from Hindu mythology, and the Panch Kedar are no different. According to the Mahabharata, one of two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the Panch Kedar temples were built by the Pandavas, or five brothers, to please Lord Shiva.
The Mahabharata narrates the bloody struggle between two groups of cousins, the Kaurava and Pandava princes, which continued for 18 days. Eventually, the Pandavas were victorious as they were fighting for truth and honesty. The triumphant Pandavas were devastated by the fact that they killed their own kin to win a war. To atone for their sins, they decided to find Lord Shiva and seek his forgiveness.
Shiva was infuriated by the way the war was fought and decided to evade the Pandava princes. First they visited the holy city of Varanasi to seek forgiveness, but they couldn't find Shiva there. In search of Shiva, the Pandavas headed to the Garhwal Himalayas in Uttarakhand. Shiva however took the form of a bull to hide himself from the Pandavas.
The Pandava brothers on mount Swargarohini. (Author provided)
The Pandavas searched all over, but couldn't find Shiva. Eventually, they noticed a herd of bulls grazing in the plains. Bhima, the fourth brother, immediately recognized the bull to be Shiva. To make sure, he stretched his body to a large size, thereby scaring the bulls. The frightened bulls started running, and they crossed Bhima by passing between his legs. Only one bull was not intimidated by his enormous size. Knowing this bull to be Shiva, Bhima tried to catch the bull by its tail and hind legs. The bull overpowered Bhima and disappeared by jumping into a nearby gorge.
Later on, the bull reappeared and disintegrated into five parts. The five disintegrated parts were hump, legs, stomach, face, and hair. The bull's hump emerged in Kedarnath, the arms in Tunganath, the stomach in Madhyamaheshwar, the face in Rudranath, and the hair in Kalpeshwar. The Pandavas were pleased with the reappearance of the bull, as it meant they had the blessing and forgiveness of Lord Shiva. The Pandavas trekked to all the five sites and built a temple for each body part. With the construction of the temples, Pandavas atoned for their sins and headed to Swargarohini, the stairway to heaven.
Thanks to the Mahabharata epic, these five temples are renowned sites for atoning sins. Thus every year thousands of devotees do the Panch Kedar pilgrimage in order to seek forgiveness and blessing from Shiva.
The Kedarnath Temple is one of the most important Hindu temples in India. (Sushant Pandey / Knowledge of India )
The Kedarnath temple is the most famous of the five and is also part of the twelve Jyortirlinga, the twelve traditional temples of Shiva in India. Because of this, the Kedarnath temple is visited by thousands of pilgrims every year, and it attracts more devotees than the other four combined.
At Kedarnath, the bull's hump appeared, and here Shiva is worshiped in the form of a hump. The temple lies at an elevation of 3583 meters (11755 ft) above sea level and reaching it requires a challenging 22-kilometer (13.6 mi) trek. The trek used to be 16 kilometers (9.94 miles), but the 2013 Kedarnath floods damaged most of the trek route and accommodation facilities.
The temple is built of large, heavy slabs of stone and is considered to be more than 1000 years old. A large statue of the Nandi bull is situated outside the temple door guarding the god's abode. The temple lies on the banks of Mandakini River, an important tributary of the Ganges river. Kedarnath is the most visited temple of the five Panch Kedar temples, and has most tourist facilities catering to the demand of devotees. Kedarnath temple lies 220 kilometers (136 miles) from Rishikesh and 450 kilometers (279 miles) from the national capital of Delhi. The trek route to reach Kedarnath Temple starts at Gaurikund, passes via Rambara, before reaching Kedarnath Temple.
Tunganath Temple is the second temple on the Panch Kedar pilgrimage route. (Sushant Pandey / Knowledge of India )
The second temple to visit on the Panch Kedar pilgrimage is the Tunganath Temple. It is the highest Shiva temple in the world. Here Shiva is worshiped in the form of the bull’s arms and legs. Situated at an elevation of 3680 meters (12,073 ft) above sea level, it is reached after a moderate 5-kilometer (3.1 mile) trek. The trek starts from Chopta, a popular tourist destination. Chandrashila Peak, located 4000 meters (13,123 ft) above sea level, lies ahead of Tunganath, and offers a stunning 360-degree view of the nearby Himalayan peaks.
View of Mount Chaukhamba from Tunganath Temple. (Sushant Pandey / Knowledge of India )
According to Hindu mythology, Chandrashila Peak is where Lord Rama meditated after defeating the demon-king Ravana. Tunganath is located 210 kilometers (130 miles) from Rishikesh and 450 kilometers (279 miles) from New Delhi.
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Reaching Rudranath Temple is the most challenging section of the Panch Kedar pilgrimage. (Sushant Pandey / Knowledge of India )
Rudranath temple is the third temple to visit on the Panch Kedar pilgrimage, and here the bull's face is worshiped. The trek to reach Rudranath Temple is the most challenging. The temple itself is carved out of rock and surrounded by a number of lakes including Surya Kund, Chandra Kund, Tara Kund, and Manas Kund. Visitors reach Rudranath temple after enduring a 24-kilometer (15 mile) walk, and the sudden variation in the gradient makes the trek challenging. Rudranath Temple lies in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, and the trek starts from Gopeshwar town.
Rudraprayag, one of the five sacred confluences of the Alaknanda and Mandakini Rivers, and home to the Rudranath Temple. (Sushant Pandey / Knowledge of India )
Unlike Kedarnath and Tunganath, the other three temples in Panch Kedar attract less visitors. They have limited facilities such as restaurants and accommodation. Most tourists and pilgrims bring their own water and food when visiting the Rudranath temple which is located 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Rishikesh and 450 kilometers (279 miles) from New Delhi. The trek starts at Gopeshwar, passing Sagar village and Panar Bugyal, before reaching the Rudranath temple.
According to the Mahabharata, the bull’s stomach appeared at this location, inspiring the construction of the Madhyamaheswar temple. (Sushant Pandey / Knowledge of India )
Situated at 3490 meters (11,450 ft), Madhyamaheshwar is the fourth temple to visit when doing the Panch Kedar pilgrimage. In keeping with Hindu mythology, the bull’s stomach is worshiped as Lord Shiva.
Madhyamaheshwar temple lies amidst a vast Himalayan meadow, providing a panoramic view of the prominent peaks. The trek to reach it is the second most challenging along the Panch Kedar pilgrimage. The trek length is 18 kilometers (11 miles) and completing the journey demands sheer determination.
Two kilometers (1.25 miles) from Madhyamaheshwar, pilgrims can visit the Budha Madhyamaheshwar at 4267 meters (13,999 ft). Budha Madhyamaheswar is a perfect site to enjoy the view of the Himalayan peaks, including the Kedarnath Peak, Kedar Dome, Kharchkund, Mandani, and Chaukhamba Peak. The trek starts at Ransi Village, passes via Gaundhar, Bantoli, Nanu and Madhyamaheshwar, before reaching Budha Madhyamaheshwar.
The fifth and final temple on the Panch Kedar pilgrimage is Kalpeshwar Temple. (Sushant Pandey / Knowledge of India )
Situated in the picturesque Urgam valley in the Garhwal region, the Kalpeshwar temple is the fifth and last temple to visit on the Panch Kedar pilgrimage. At Kalpeshwar, the bull's hair and the head are worshiped in the form of Shiva. Covering a mere 500 meters (1640 ft), the Kalpeshwar trek is the easiest trek among all the Panch Kedar. The temple lies in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, and the nearest big town is Pipalkoti . The shrine lies 254 kilometers (157 miles) from Rishikesh and 485 kilometers (301 miles) from New Delhi.
Completing the full Panch Kedar pilgrimage is a lifetime achievement that not everyone is able to endure. If you should manage however, visiting the Badrinath Temple is a must. Located in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand, it is one of the four sacred sites (Char Dham) in Hinduism and Lord Vishnu is its primary deity. Badrinath temple is mentioned in several Hindu legends, such as the Mahabharata, Skanda Purana, and Vishnu Puran.
Visiting Badrinath Temple after completing the Panch Kedar pilgrimage is a must. (Sushant Pandey / Knowledge of India )
Other Temples in the Region
India and Hinduism are known for producing some of the world’s finest architectural masterpieces . In India, the temples are not only the center of worship but have also become significant tourist attractions. The Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh and twelve Jyotirlingas are the perfect examples of the cultural dominance of Hindu temples. Renowned for its temples, Uttarakhand is home not only to the Badrinath and Panch Kedar, but also an additional selection of shrines which are referenced within Hindu mythology.
One example is Gangotri temple in the Uttarkashi district at the source of the Ganges River. Similarly, the Patal Bhuvneshwar caves in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand are referenced within the Manaskhanda Puran and Skanda Puran. The Swargarohini trek is another famous trek found within the state, and it is believed that the Pandavas used the Swargarohini route to reach heaven.
Visiting these temples is not for the fainthearted. But the effort pays its dividends by redeeming the faithful of their sins, and providing an unforgettable glimpse of the majestic peaks of the Himalaya and rural India. If you have the opportunity to visit the Uttarakhand, don’t miss out on the chance to visit these five sacred sites associated with Hinduism and its mythology.
Top image: Kedarnath temple is the first on the Panch Kedar pilgrimage and is visited by thousands of pilgrims every year. Source: Sushant Pandey / Knowledge of India
Sushant Pandey is a History and Geography lover and part-time biker and traveler. An IT professional who loves to explore India on a motorcycle, watch documentaries, cook and blog at Knowledge of India in his free time.