Wander a little distance away from the bustle, up a sandy trail past the backyards of houses, and you’ll see something quite different: clusters of ancient temples with exquisite carved friezes dating back to between the 8th and 11th centuries. Some have collapsed, and the giant carved stone blocks threaten to roll to the ground. Others have towering shikaras frequented solely by bats. Though they’ve been declared protected monuments by the asi, they’re all abandoned, appreciated solely by the cows tethered nearby and village dwellers climbing past to their homes.
Dwarahat lies on the ancient central Himalayan devotional trail referred to in the Skanda Purana as the Manasakhanda, leading up to Manasarovar. But pilgrims unfailingly pass it by for the statelier temples of Jageshwar on the Jataganga. Nevertheless, the ground you tread here is mythical, and the rocks you touch, legendary. The region is traditionally described as the place inhabited by the lord of gods (Shiva) and demons, and a place of penance for rishis. Legend has it that Lord Shiva came here for penance after Sati’s sacrifice. Dwarahat was also said to have been visited by the exiled Pandavas, it was from here that Hanuman lifted the Dronagiri mountain containing the Sanjivani herb, and carried it back to heal the critically wounded Lakshman.
Most of the 55 temples scattered around the central town area were constructed by the Katyuri kings and then the Chand rulers, who conquered them when the Katyuri dynasty fell into decline by the 11th century. When in their prime, the Katyuris were grand patrons of the arts, constructing more than 400 temples around the present-day district of Almora alone.
The variations in size and construction style of the temples trace the evolution of the north Indian Nagara style of architecture in the Himalayas. The main temple in the Badrinath group sits on a high plinth and has a distinctive, slender shikhara. The Vishnu idol within is new; the old ones are locked away safely in a worker’s cabin, by the museum under renovation.
Though the Katyuri kingdom was a predominantly Hindu one, three of the shrines in the Manian temple group are dedicated to Jain Tirthankaras and three others to the holy Hindu trinity. The Kacheri complex, meanwhile, reposes in the depths of a sunken pit next to a shed full of noisily lowing cows. Historians say it once served as the court of the Katyuri kings.
If you’re partial to romantic ruins, the dramatically dilapidated Gujjar Dev temple is the place for you. Named after one of the earlier Katyuri kings who constructed it, its leitmotifs and iconography are immediately recognisable—there are friezes of elephants, lotuses, contortionist apsaras, as well as carvings of Ganesh, the sacred Dakshinavarti conch and Narasimha.
Equally worth a visit are the 100-year-old Kumaoni homes around the temple clusters. The painted, carved wooden window frames are overgrown with creepers, and glossy calves peer out of graceful arched doorways. Nobody makes houses like these any more, as the Forest Act doesn’t allow villagers to lay a finger on local materials.
An hour’s drive from Dwarahat is the Dronagiri temple, on top of the mountain immortalised in the Ramayana. Atop it is an ancient ‘Shakti peetha’—one of the 51 holy places where Shakti’s dead body was said to have fallen—established by Shankaracharya. Today, it attracts herds of blushing newlyweds surrounded by their new families, all of whom climb the temple’s 800 steps to ring the numerous bronze bells that hang aloft from the temple’s low roof, and be blessed by the goddess Shakti.
An hour’s drive and a 5-km trek from Dronagiri will take you to Pandukholi, a lake around which the Pandavas are said to have stayed during their exile. It’s also famous for being the place where ‘Babaji’, guru of Swami Paramahamsa, attained enlightenment when he saw his previous incarnation in a vision. Even if you don’t dare brave the perilous descent through ‘black forests’ and rocky outcrops to the cave, the panoramic views of slopes covered by wildflowers and jungles shall have made the effort well worth it.
Paths of life: Local women in Dwarahat
Devotion in Dwarahat speaks various tongues—the ancient one that’s fallen silent, trapped in stone; the ceremonial, the mystical and the popular. Of these, the belief in the god of justice, ‘golu devta’, is the strongest. Invocations to him adorn most taxis in the Kumaon region, and each village has its own methods to propitiate the deity. In Ranagaon, a village of 100 priestly families, every 10 families have their own living manifestation of the devta, who must preside over all important ceremonies. When an old devta dies, the families gather and hold a ceremony to instal a new one. A fast is begun, drums are beaten, a goat is slaughtered, and finally, the person who begins to shake and fall into a trance is named the new devta. A modest shrine—a pile of boulders surrounding a stone in the centre—is put together in his honour.
Lingering in the town centre also affords pleasures that would take hedonistic city-slickers by surprise. The luxury of eating a modest, hot meal of daal and roti, or of getting to see a smog-free peaty-black night sky glittering with a million stars. Or, like the lady who came to town to purchase a cabbage and stood staring in fascination at a carp fluttering around a fish tank in a sweet shop, be delighted by that unexpected sight.
Dwarahat is a scenic, 38-km drive from Ranikhet, Uttarakhand