Garhwal Himalayas is the abode of Lord Shiva. But somewhere down the ages, Narayan — one the most powerful of Hindu deities, had secured a foothold in land of Shiva — in the temple of Badrinath and pilgrimage to Badrinath commenced and the region came to be known as “Dev Bhumi” and Rishikesh became the gateway. The route to Badrinath meanders along the bank of the Ganga upto Devaprayag and then along the bank of Alakananda. Till the middle of 19th century, the pilgrims had to walk for days along the bank of these two rivers to reach Badrinath. They used to visit ‘Panch Prayag’- the five sacred confluences of Bhagirathi, Mandakini, Karnaganga, Nandakini and Bishnuganga with Alakananda, on the route. But now the pilgrims zoom past these ‘Prayags’ in their fast moving Quails & Sumos and the ‘Prayags’ are now left abandoned, lonely and tranquil. That is precisely why these are now worth a visit. Surrounded by mountains, on the bank of mighty rivers, the ‘Prayags’ are built on myth and legend, endowed with scenic beauty that is unparalleled.
71kms from Rishikesh, perched at a height of 1175ft, Devaprayag is the birthplace of the Ganges. According to the ‘Puranas’, before the creation, ‘Bramha’- the creator, sat here in meditation spanning thousands of years to appease ‘Bishnu’ to obtain permission for creation. Legend has it that Devasharma, a Maharastrian Bramhan, propitiated ‘Narayan’ by long meditation and forced ‘Raghunath’- the incarnation of ‘Narayan’ and the hero of the ‘Ramayana’, to come to Devaprayag after his conquest of Lanka(modern Shrilanka) and stay here forever in the temple of Raghunathji.
The stone temple of Raghunathji is the main attraction of Devapragay. According to an inscription on the stone wall behind the temple, devotees used to visit this temple in the 1st century AD. That indicates the temple is more than 2000years old. The temple, a stone structure of about 70ft height with wooden crest, is not as grandiose as the Badrinath temple. A lotus shaped pitcher and a brass stick adorn the crest. As we approached the door, the priest came running; we are the only visitors. Inside, Raghunath in full battle dress with Janaki -his consort- silently welcomed us. I was told Raghunath has lots of gold jewelry that are kept in a bank locker. On Ram Navami, Basant Panchami and Baishakhi, Raghunathji, wearing these jewelries sat on a stone thrown in the courtyard of the temple to give ‘Darshan’ to the devotees. It is said; Rama himself once sat on that throne. A flight of stair from the courtyard goes down to the confluence of Bhagirathi and Alakananda. The swirling muddy current of Alakananda embraces the saffron water of Bhagirathi to form the holiest river of India – the Ganges. Despite the constant sound of the swirling current, a transcendental tranquility prevails all-round. The sun went down behind the mountain. Evening crawled in. Streetlights are put on. It’s time to move on.
According to the ‘Puranas’, it is birthplace of ‘Ragas & Raginis’– the base of Indian music. Pleased by the meditation of ‘Narada’- the heavenly sage, Shiva in the form of ‘Rudra’ created these musical notes on which the rich Indian music stands to day. So the ‘Prayag’ was named after ‘Rudra’. It is also the place where Jim Corbett killed the famous man-eater of ‘Rudraprayag’. The leopard, by that time, had killed as many as125 humans.
70 kms from ‘Devaprayag’, modern ‘Rudraprayag’ is the gift of Swami Sachchidananda. This blind, penniless ‘sannyasi’ some how managed to find the finance and the necessary manpower to re-build the place single-handedly. The dilapidated temple of ‘Rudranath’ was a re-built. He repaired the ‘Ghat’ on the confluence, built the hospital, the Sanskrit and the Intermediate College.
A set of steps led to the confluence of ‘Mandakini’ and ‘Alakananda’. The turbulent blue water of ‘Mandakini’ embraces the muddy water of ‘Alakananda. From the concrete ‘Ghat’ Chains, secured at one end, hang into the swirling water-a safe handle to those “lion hearts” who dares to have a bath. The temple of ‘Rudranath’ is on the upper end of the steps. It’s a clean, small stone temple of indeterminate age. Bhaktaram Dimri- the principal of the Sanskrit college- claimed that the temple was constructed much before the time of ‘Sankaracharjya’ who had done only some repairs.
Besides the main temple, small separate temples of ‘Ganesh’ ‘Lakshmi-Narayan’ and ‘Bhairav’ are housed in the complex. The main temple is divided into two portions- the sanctum & the front (Natmandir) and its crest is dome shaped and adorned with lotus and trident. Opening the heavy wooden door, curved with motifs, we entered the ‘Natmandir’ to see a pair of stone bull sitting relaxed facing the sanctum. This is a speciality since Shiva temples display only one image of bull, not two. But here the sanctum houses two idols of Shiva- ‘Naradeswar’ & ‘Kameswar’, so the ‘Natmandir’ also displays two statues of bull. Two fine images of ‘Parvati’ and ‘Ganesh’ stand on both sides of the ‘Lingams’.
‘Rudraprayag’ (2000ft) is surrounded by lofty mountains and a fast depleting forest of Deodar and Pine. It is not as serene as ‘Devaprayag’. ‘Rudraprayag’ is now a district town with promises for development but with receding forest line and loosing tranquility. The road bifurcates here; one goes towards Kedarnath and the other proceeds to Badrinath via Karnaprayag, Nandaprayag and Bishnuprayag.
33kms from Rudraprayag, Karnaprayag is on the confluence of river Pindar or Karnaganga and Alakananda. Emerging from Pindari glacier, Pinder river changed its name to Karnaganga on entering Garhwal. ‘Karnaprayag’ — a sub-divisional town, is also the junction of two main bus routes of ‘Garhwal’ and ‘Kumaon’. So Karnaprayag is noisy and dusty. We decided not to spend the night there. Nandaprayag is a better choice for night-stay.
The ‘Puranic’ tale of Karnaprayag revolves around the tragic hero of Mahabhara’- Karna. Coming back from Kailash-the abode of Shiva, Karna liked the place and decided to stay for awhile. Moved by the serene beauty all around, he wanted to sit in meditation for which ablution in a Prayag (confluence) is a must. But the place was not a confluence. So Karna forced Pinder river to descend and to meet Alakananda here. Thus a Prayag was created and was named after its creator. Karnasila– a stone on which Karna is believed to have sat for meditation is still there. A modern temple, dedicated to Karna, garish with colour, has been built near that stone. It is also said that the last rites of Karna were performed here.
The main temple, perched atop the confluence, though named after Karna, is dedicated to Uma- the daughter of the Himalayas. The stone temple, said to be re-constructed by Sankaracharjya, includes a Natmandir and a Garvagriha (sanctum). Uma is accompanied by Parvati, Ganesh and Shiva. A deified statue of Karna is also there. The confluence is just below the temple. A stair leading to the confluence from the temple passes through a temple of Shiva and the ‘Binayak Shila’ which is believed to shield one from all dangers. Well, it definitely failed to shield Karna! Every 12th year a procession with the image of Uma used to traverse the whole of Garhwal and Kumaon but now it is limited only within a few villages of the sub-division.
Situated at a height of 2800fts, at Nandapryag river Nandakini gently embraces Alakananda. In the distant past Nandaprayag was a bustling place full of pilgrims in the summer and o Tibetan merchant & traders during the winter. But those days are gone. Now Nandaprayag is left to the gurgling sound of the rivers and the bird calls.
The ‘Puranas’ has it that, once while Parvati was coming back to Kailash with Shiva from her father’s house, she became thirsty. As Alakananda is believed to have emerged from the feet of ‘Narayan’ and she being the consort of Shiva, is forbidden to drink its water. So Shiva threw his trident that struck the base of the mountain Trishul and river Nandakini emerged to quench the thirst of Parvati. She is also known as Nandaa in the Kumaon. So the river is named after her. According to another tale, in a later period a great king named Nanda came here to spend his last days and performed a great Yagna (sacrifice). He donated many things and thus became so famous that the confluence is named after him. Nandaprayag is also credited with the Ashram of Kanwa Muni– the foster father of Shakuntala.
There is no temple on the confluence of Nandakini and Alakananda; instead a park was constructed by the forest department- a welcome departure. But there is no dearth of temple here. Two Shiva temples stand on each side of Alakananda and near the village market two more temples dedicated to Gopal (baby Krishna) and Chandrika are waiting for the pilgrims.
If you are not attracted by temples or folklore, you will still love Nandaprayag for the all round tranquility — the flowers in full bloom, the all-pervading silence of the night broken only by the call of the cricket and the soft gurgling sound of the confluence.
This is the only Prayag without any place to stay. So one has to see it from Joshimath, which also houses the famous Jyotirmath, established by Sankaracharya in the 8th century AD and the ‘Nrishingha’ temple, infamous for its human sacrifice which was stopped by Sankaracharjya. Bishnuprayag is only 3kms from Joshimath if you decide to walk on a serpentine and steeply descending mountain trail that goes through dense forest. But if you decide rather to refrain from such adventure and would prefer to take a vehicle, then Bishnuprayag is 8kms on the road to Badrinath.
Rishiganga, emerging from the foothills of Nandadevi Mountain and Bishnuganga, coming from the Niti pass, merge to form Dhauliganga alias Bishnuganga. Bishnuprayag is the confluence of Dhauliganga and Alakananda on the Badrinath road. This is the most calm and quiet of the five ‘Prayags’. The sound of occasionally passing heavy traffic suppresses the constant sound of the swirling water that flows through deep a gorge in the midst of green forest.
On the confluence, a small octagonal stone temple stands in splendid isolation. The temple, built by the Maharani of Indore- queen Ahalyabai, in 1889 AD said to housed a Shiva lingam. But I found a Bishnu idol. A staircase from the courtyard led to the confluence, known as ‘Bishnukunda’.
Legend has it that Narada, though ordered by Bramha himself, refused to take the responsibility of creation and so was cursed to take birth as human. But even in the human form, Narada could not forget Bishnu. So he came to this confluence and meditated. After years of meditation Bishnu was propitiated and who released Narada from the human bondage. The confluence was named after Lord Bishnu.