Alan discovered Nanda Devi Mandir (“mandir” means “temple” in Hindi) during his first week in Almora, before I came to join him in India. We returned to this temple time and time again while staying in Almora, and now that we are living in a nearby village, we visit Nanda Devi whenever we’re in town for shopping or errands.
The Nanda Devi temple sits just above one of the busier parts of Almora’s pedestrian mall. Though it can get busy, especially in the evenings and during weekends, it is often a quiet place, with an inward focus and contemplative quality that provides a welcome respite from the bustle of Almora’s commercial areas.
Nanda Devi is dedicated to the goddess Nanda, and its two old temple towers are very old indeed; they were built about 1,000 years ago. There is also a more modern temple building that contains the sanctum sanctorum where Nanda Devi lives and is worshipped, along with an assortment of other gods.
If the name “Nanda Devi” seems familiar to you, that’s probably because there’s a mountain in the Himalayan range called Nanda Devi, the second-highest mountain in India.
Nanda Devi lives in the mountain, of course, as well as in the temple where she is worshipped.
Nanda Devi is an important goddess in Kumaon. She’s an avatar of Durga, the fierce goddess who’s usually depicted riding a tiger.
As with all gods and goddesses, there are various stories about Nanda. In one I’ve read, Nanda is the daughter of the king of the Chandas, the dynasty that ruled Kumaon (the area around Almora) from the 10th century to the 19th. A prince was in love with Nanda, and chased her, so she ran from him to the mountains, and became one with the peak now known as Nanda. There are actually two peaks that are part of the larger peak, and the smaller peak is said to be Nanda’s sister, Sunanda.
As you enter the precinct of the Nanda Devi Temple from the upper, quieter portion of the pedestrian mall, it’s a rapid transition from small shops to a completely different environment. Though the stone-paved grounds of the temple aren’t large, the area feels spacious and peaceful. In addition to the three temple buildings and one functional building (which I assume the priests use), there’s a huge old peepul tree where people make offerings of incense, small pictures and other ritual items, and tie bits of fabric as they pray for what they most desire.
There are many ways to enjoy the temple. I like going inside and looking at the gods. I find myself stopping in front of some of them for a long time. Some gods’ faces draw and hold me. Or perhaps it’s the gestures of their multiple arms, the sweetness of the incense, and the softly chanted prayers of the people around me.
I also like walking slowly around the old temple towers and looking at the carved images. I particularly like the depictions of animals; they are so natural and alive.
I noticed the erotic carvings after a while, too. I shouldn’t be surprised by these anymore – I’ve seen them on so many India temples, after all – but it still does surprise me to see such frank depictions out in the open, where anyone can view them.
The Nanda Devi temple precinct is one of the few areas of Almora that has any flat ground, and the local kids take advantage of it, especially in the early evenings when it’s still light. We’ve seen cricket practice sessions, and little kids learning to ride their small bikes while bigger kids zoom around on full-size bikes. There’s also plenty of space for simply chasing your siblings around.
The temple is a good place for socializing. You see extended families sitting and talking after making their offerings, and teenagers gossiping and flirting – at a distance – with groups of opposite-sex teenagers. Lots of selfies happen in front of the temple, too; it can be amusing to watch people carrrying brass trays of puja offerings trying to dodge around the oblivious selfie-takers.
As Alan and I sit, contented and quiet, I notice plenty of other couples of our age. They too sit quietly, enjoying the evening coolness, saying nothing. And then, wordlessly, they rise as one from their stone seat, to walk slowly across the paving stones and down the temple stairs. In a few minutes, we’ll do the same.