After arriving in Bageshwar yesterday afternoon from Almora, we were tempted to climb up to Chandika Mandir, a beautiful temple sitting atop one of the peaks that mark Bageshwar’s location at the confluence of the Saryu and Gomti rivers.
But after nearly four hours on a bus, with a speaker directly over our heads belting out Hindi film music, we really needed a nap. So we walked around Bageshwar for an hour or so, ate lunch, and had our rest, planning to make our Chandika Mandir visit the next morning.
We set out for the temple shortly after breakfast this morning. Thankfully, the weather was much cooler than when we arrived yesterday afternoon, with a cloud cover. So even in 75 percent humidity, the conical green hill rising above Bageshwar and its river temple now looked like a pleasant urban hike, instead of a tiring one.
We started up the side of the hill facing the Bhagunath Temple, the central temple that marks the confluence of the Saryu and Gomti rivers. The most direct route starts just above the small riverside ghats and houses on far side of the Saryu, crosses a field in front of a school, and then winds up narrow streets between tall, densely packed houses. These streets are more like concreted mountain tracks, and making our way up them really did feel like hiking. Whenever we got to a fork, we’d get a friendly pointer from people doing household chores in their stone-paved front yards.
As we climbed above the houses and reached the entry gate to the temple grounds, we began to see lovely views of the town and the valley that extends north from Bageshwar. It’s interesting to see how quickly the houses thin out and agricultural fields begin to take over.
Another nice sight is families of monkeys relaxing in the trees.
As you arrive finally at the temple, you can smell the sweet odor of incense wafting down towards you. The caretaker of the temple, and likely plenty of visitors, have left bundles of incense sticks burning not only at the many shrines here, but also at the bases of large trees and in planters around the temple grounds.
Chandika Mandir is dedicated to the goddess Kali, and there are shrines for her and for other forms of the goddess, including Durga.
Just as we saw at Chitai Temple in Almora, some devotees have tied bells to various places around the temple as offerings, in thanks for answered prayers. There aren’t many thousands of bells at Chandika Mandir as there are at Chitai, but you can see many gold-edged red ribbons tied to large trees and other places around the temple, as tokens of thanks. Some ribbons are fresh, some have faded to pink, and others are slowly disintegrating.
We met one sweet couple who were visiting the temple to offer their own thanks. We were chatting with the husband at a quiet viewpoint below the temple when he told us that he and his wife now had twin sons, born to them after 17 years of marriage. When his wife joined us, he explained to her that we were from America, and that he had told us about their miracle. She smiled shyly at us, meeting my eyes for just a moment before turning her gaze to the view below.
A few raindrops had dotted the ground during our half-hour or so of wandering around the temple shrines and admiring the views. But now the rain was getting heavier, so we decided it was time to make our way down the other side of the hill. It was not quite as steep a descent, with more switchbacks and plenty of stairs. This path runs in the same general direction as the motorable road that ends in a parking lot beside the temple.
We made our way through the market and crossed a narrow footbridge over the Saryu, a much pleasanter alternative to the motorable bridge directly beside it. This bridge was built in 1913, and it sways as people make their way across it.
It’s pleasant – and risk-free – to stop in the middle of the footbridge and watch all the activity going on at the Baghnath Temple. Today there were two large funeral fires at the edge of the riverbank. Earlier, we’d seen a procession of men carrying loads of firewood on their backs to the burning site, so we’d figured at least one funeral was scheduled for today.
Once we reached the temple, the rain was falling in earnest, so we sat comfortably under a large tree with its thickly layered and generously spreading branches. We watched the fires, and an older gentleman came over to explain to us in halting English what was happening. “Dead bodies,” he said. “Ladies.”
We pointed to the small groups of people squatting a short distance from the fires, and asked, “Families?” “Families,” he agreed.
We certainly weren’t the only ones absorbed in watching the fires; the man who had spoken to us was part of a small group of men about the same age, and others sat on a roofed concrete platform nearby, also watching. I wondered how it was to live here, to see this sight almost daily, and sometimes – perhaps even often – to know exactly whose body is being burned.
As the burning continues, people carry on with their normal business. Young men are fishing just a couple of hundred meters downriver from the burning site, while an even shorter distance upriver, small groups of girls and women are washing clothes on both banks. Huge birds, undaunted by the rain, swoop high above the water, occasionally making a dive below the surface. And just behind us and the fire-watchers, a group of men plays cards, with a small cow lying beside them and watching the game.
It’s a curiously peaceful experience to sit and listen to rain beating on the metal roof and the leaves above us, blending with the river’s roar below, while watching the activity going on all around us: the getting of food for the living, the maintenance of daily habits, and beside it, the ages-old rites for the dead. After enough time had passed, we got up, stretched, and slowly made our way back to the hotel to eat lunch, wash our clothes, and nap.