My most vivid memory of the one visit to the Surkanda Devi Temple is of me huffing and puffing and almost collapsing in exhaustion, dragging myself behind my enthusiastic mother, a virtual mountain goat. That was 23 years ago when I cluelessly believed that the temple was right there on a hilltop, which it was and I am an Everest climber in making, which I was not.
So there I was after so many years, once again in my parents car, on a still dark Sunday morn, off to pay my respects to the famed Goddess, synonymous with Shakti (strength), revered by the locals and travellers alike.
We began early to avoid all the tourist traffic hogging the narrow mountain roads; the temple was just a few miles beyond the picturesque settlement of Dhanaulti, in the Himalayas.
As we drove along the winding road, the sun began to warm up nicely and one could feel the sting of the sharp mountain air.
We took plenty of short breaks to admire the scenic beauty. Also everyone in the car had forgotten how car sick I can get.
It certainly made my parents very nostalgic and soon the conversation became lively as they replayed every car sick episode of mine since Kindergarten (in excruciating detail).
Time really flew that day (for them) and shortly we were at a place called Kaddukhal. That was where we parked our vehicle to begin the hike. It did not have much to boast other than a few eateries serving breakfast, snacks, hot and cold drinks and puja offerings for the Goddess.
No shopping for us. Didn’t fancy lugging anything, for if my memory served me right, it was going to be a gruelling climb.
Well, we were off to seek the divine blessings.
The track had undergone quite a metamorphosis; it was broader and benches were provided at suitable distance to catch ones breath and rest our aching feet .
Excited voices called out, “Jai mata di”, new brides in their festive attire with a touch of red (auspicious colour) and jewellery (one was wearing the statement Kumaoni nose ring – earlier mentioned here), smiled shyly clicking selfies, accompanied by every possible member in the clan. At one point, the path became quite crowded .
Spied some horses too grazing on the hillside, waiting for those unable to attempt the strenuous walk.
Along the way came across a few make shift shops selling snacks and the usual puja paraphernalia.
Saw a sadhu who had a shelter next to a tea stall . He made quite an arresting picture.
He happily posed for the photos and was magnanimous with his blessings. I think my mother chatting with him and then insisting on donating some money helped.
The tea stall owner was highly amused by all this. As per him, sadhuji here was a highly sought man for photos by the tourists and TV crews that frequented the place .
My father was quite exasperated by our slow progress ( I blame sadhuji and tea man for it ) so it was a relief to hear the faint chiming of the bells .
We were close.
We were there.
And it took our breath away.
Did my memories of the temple and it’s surrounding feel different?
Yes! I was taken aback by the jaw dropping beautiful temple. I believe it was recently constructed to replace the older one that was a typical Pahari Temple, much simpler in looks category.
The structure was indeed magnificent in its new avatar but the Goddess residing remained unchanged, commanding the same reverence as that of long ago, her followers resilient in their faith.
Across the main temple, facing the peaks, stood some minor temples but in size only, for they housed equally powerful gods.
After doing our puja (bought the essentials from the shops at the back), it was time to break the coconut prasad. A few youngsters sprang to help, in exchange for some pocket money . Well, it is labour so I’m in favour of it.
A signboard was put up in a corner for the curious ones, that briefly covered the significance of the spot, geographically as well as spiritually. One thing that stood out(enclosed in inverted commas), “photography inside the temple is prohibited.”
Luckily there was no such rule for the outside premises.
There is something to be said of these spots. They makes your eyes widen in wonder.
One could hear the bells pealing while the solitary drummer continued to beat a steady tattoo in accompaniment. As you breathe in the cold mountain air while the sun gently warms you, a kind of peace steals over you, the profound beauty working its magic.
It certainly made me feel closer to God, reaffirming my faith that there is a higher power, looking out for me.
Truly, calling on Goddess Surkanda Devi and seeking her infinite blessings was an experience to cherish. Now for the drive back, let me sleep away my burden.