High up in the greater Himalayas, every twelve years a golden idol of goddess Nanda Devi is carried in a silver palanquin to an imposing glacial lake — Homkund. The journey is a long arduous 280 kilometer trek through dense forests, high altitude meadows, snow laden passes and icy streams. The terrain is rough; yet the journey is done barefoot by thousands of devotees. The journey is a homage to legends that are over a thousand years old.
This difficult journey, the Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yatra is one of the biggest events of Uttarakhand. The pilgrimage is in honour of goddess Nanda Devi, revered as Mata by the hill folks of Uttarakhand.She is taken in a grand procession to her husband, Lord Shiva’s home by the villagers, which is in the inner icy folds of the greater Himalayas. The procession starts from Nauti, near Karanprayag and ends at Homkund passing by glacial tarns like Roopkund.
There is something surprising about this three-week-long yatra. Despite the rough terrain and icy conditions, the pilgrimage is done barefoot by the devotees. Yet undauntedly, the pilgrims follow these rules. So what makes them face such hardships?
“Uttarakhand is dev bhoomi (Land of Gods) and Mata wants devotees to treat the pilgrimage as a spiritual journey. The rules are fairly strict,” clarifies Dinesh Kuniyal, one of the few well read pandits of Lohajung, a village enroute. He continues, “Many hundred years ago, Jasdhawal, the King of Kannauj and his queen had undertaken this pilgrimage towards Nanda Devi. They had taken an army of people including dancers for the yatra. The mood was that of merriment. Enroute the journey, in one of the high camps there was much singing and dancing throughout the night. This invoked the wrath of the Mata. She cursed the dancers and turned them into stones. That is how the place Pathar Nachauni (stone dancers) got its name.” Patar Nachauni exists even today and is a 13,000 feet high camp on the Roopkund Trek.
Another interesting feature about this yatra is the four-horned ram leading the procession. The ram is decked in colourful scarves, bangles, ribbons. It acts as the guide of the procession. When the procession reaches Homkund the ram is let loose as a messenger bearing gifts to the goddess. So how does a four-horned ram get miraculously born just months before the yatra? There is a story to this too.
“After turning the courtesans to stones, the Mata wanted the king punished. She bid the king and his descendants to do yatra every year as a penance,” Dinesh Kuniyal continued with this story. “But doing this tough yatra every year was not possible. The Mata would not relent. The King’s wife, the queen, quickly realised the gravity of the situation. The queen intervened and begged forgiveness from the Mata. The Mata somewhat appeased, relented and bid the king to do the yatra every 12 years.” Dinesh Kuniyal added further, “Now 12 years is a long time. Lest people forget its time for the yatra, the Mata’s power ensures that a four horned ram is born in one of the villages near Nauti. And surprisingly they do!”
These stories are definitely riveting — yet there are some tales that are spooky too. During the journey, the devotees pass by the mysterious lake of Roopkund. There are skulls here that date back to 9th century AD. Though their genesis was shrouded in mystery until recently, the locals always had their own version of how the lake got these skeletal remains.
“King Jasdhawal had disobeyed the goddess. So furious was the Mata, that she enlisted Latu a local deity. With Latu’s help she created thunderstorms and avalanches. Huge hailstones rained down on the king’s army. The army of Kannauj didn’t have a chance. All of them perished in Mata’s fury. It is their skeletons at the Roopkund lake,” concludes Dinesh Kuniyal. What’s startling is that forensic science revelations on the bodies of Roopkund are not far from the legend. Read more here.
As Latu had helped the goddess, there is a special place for him on the yatra too. At Wan, a beautiful village at 8,000 feet, nestled in the midst of tall cypress trees is a temple of Latu that is worshipped by the pilgrims before ascending higher.
The stories are numerous and intertwined. Part legend part real, trekkers to Roopkund are filled with them as they climb higher. Just for these legends the Roopkund is a colourful trek to do.