Kēdāra kalpa

The Five Sages Reach Shiva’s Temple at Kedarnath — the now-emaciated sages appear five times: trudging through the mountains (above left), by a river bank (below), drinking at an icy pool (left), worshiping at a temple (center), and standing around a hot spring (right), all representing the final stages of a real pilgrimage to Kedarnath. Although the actual temple in Kedarnath does have a prominent sculpture of Nandi in front, the bull in the painting is probably a literal depiction of the legend associated with the site. The gods rain flowers on the sages, confirming that this is the completion of their journey. c. 1800–1825 Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Kēdāra Kalpa (“an account of Kēdāra”), a late tantric text of an uncertain date, can be considered the sthala purāṇa of the Kēdāranātha temple, that celebrates the greatness of Kedāra-Kailāśa and speaks of the great merit of undertaking a pilgrimage to these Himalayan regions.

The Kēdārakalpa The story follows five siddhas or sadhakas on a pilgrimage to the abode of Śiva, and their journey through snow-clad mountains, past the domains of the moon, and encountering on the way not only the greatest of difficulties, but also the most wondrous of sights. Golden cities, apsaras singing and dancing, young maidens hanging like ripe fruit from tree branches, roads paved and rocks studded with rubies and emeralds, come their way.

Kedara Kalpa Series: The Five Sages in Barren, Icy Heights; Punjab Hills, Guler, ca. 1800–1820; VMFA

Temptations are strewn in their path, for rulers of celestial domains offer them vast treasures, the company of thousands of beautiful damsels, untold numbers of elephants and horses, if only they would stay with them, and not proceed further. But with exemplary single-mindedness, they decline each honour and temptation, and keep moving onwards. On the way their appearances change: they turn young, and old again; shave their heads or grow long beards. What does not change is the firmness of their resolve. Finally, they do reach their goal and gain the blessed sight of Śiva: seated in all his majesty with his consort, Pārvati, on Kailāśa.

The Pilgrims in a Palace, Folio from a Kedara Kalpa Series, Himachal Pradesh, Guler, circa 1800–1820. LACMA

In the paintings of the Kedara-Kalpa series are conjured up magical visions: snow-bound wastes, golden stretches of land, tall crystalline peaks piercing the sky, dark caverns, decaying shrines. And suddenly, as the five wrinkled figures move about in these surrealistic surroundings, the painter intersperses among them the most unlikely of details: a lunar silence broken as it were by the shrill cries of aquatic birds, trees growing out of the snow and laden with lush sprays of flowers, mauve rivers filled with blooming lotuses.

The Himalayan journey of the five sages, illustration from a Kedara Kalpa series, attributed to Purkhu of Kangra or his family workshop, Kangra, circa 1800–25

As the Kēdāra Kalpa narrates this journey it also describes the sacred potency of the Himalayan landscape in minute detail and provides instructions for different ritual actions (drinking water, reciting powerful mantras) that are to be done at different locations.

Kēdāra is a Sanskrit word that means marshy ground, soil mingled with water – that forms when snowmelt, rain, and river water turn the ground into a marshy ooze. Thus the name Kēdāranātha or Kēdāreśvara literally means “Lord of the Kēdāra.” It is both a place-name and a name for Śiva.

Pilgrimage to Kedarnath; Possibly made in Uttar Pradesh or Delhi Region, 19th century; The delicate shading and pale pigments in this painting create a romantic, idyllic setting in a rocky mountain landscape, complete with frolicking deer and a meandering spring. Three pilgrims in brightly colored robes are followed by six men carrying a palanquin, a mode of transportation that alleviates the physical burden generally associated with this pilgrimage.

The sight at devdarśini (vantage point of the temple) of the white glaciers flowing down into the darkness of the lower mountains, divided by waters of the Mandākini River, which is one of the Himalayan tributaries of the Gaṅgā, localizes the famous story of the descent of the Goddess Gaṅgā in her river form into the world and underscores Śiva’s relationship to the Goddess. Gaṅgā descends at the request of King Bhagīratha, who performed thousands of years of penance so that the souls of his ancestors may be purified through the presence of Gaṅgā on earth. Gaṅgā finally assents but says that her unfiltered power would be too much for the earth to bear. Thus a mere trickle of the full force of the Gaṅgā exits the protective filter of Śiva’s matted hair and enters our world. This imagery also evokes perhaps the most common act of ritual devotion to Śiva, the pouring of water over a liṅgā.

The panorama of Kēdāranātha on a clear day fuses iconic, aniconic, and natural modalities for experiencing, worshipping, and becoming the conjoined presence of Śiva and Gaṅgā in this world. Kēdāranāth is an especially storied place in the already legendary Himalayan region of Garhwal, the Land of the Gods.

The area in and around Kedarnath is associated with death, mōkṣa and beyond. Several scholars regard it as quite likely that the site now known as Kedarnath may have been once been better known as “the high place of the sage Bhrigu” or Bhrigupatana, mentioned in the Mahābhārata.

Old stories about Kēdāranāth enshrine this location as a point of transition and exit out of the human world. It is one of the places associated with the swargarohana of the five Pandava princes and their wife Draupadi.

In many versions of this story, the Pandavas identify Shiva and grab him to prevent him from leaving. Each of the five brothers grabs a part of Shiva, parts that remain in the landscape and then become the self-manifest rock liṅgas found in Kedarnath and the other four of the Pañcha Kēdāra (the five Śaiva temples in central Garhwal). Shiva’s prishth-bhaga or “back portion” stays in Kedarnath and becomes the liṅgā, while his face emerges at Paśupatināth in Kathmandu, Nepal.

In one of the Śiva Purāṇa’s most substantive passages mentioning Kēdāranāth, we meet a dual incarnation of Vishnu in the forms of the sages Nara and Nārāyaṇa, who are carrying out penance and ascetic practice to Śiva. After a long time Śiva, pleased with their devotion, offers them a boon. The two sages reply: “O lord of gods, if you are delighted, if the boon is to be granted by you, O Śiva, stay here in your own form [“svena rupeṇa”] and accept the devotion of your devotees.” The setting of this episode is in “Kēdāra”, and as requested, Śiva himself stayed in Kēdāra on the Himavat in the form of a Jyotirliṅga. It is also said in the Śiva Purāṇa that he who makes a gift of a ring or a bracelet after reaching Kēdāra becomes beloved by Śiva, endowed with the form of Śiva. On seeing that form of Śiva, a person is rid of sins. By going to Badarī forest he becomes a living liberated soul. On seeing the forms of Nara, Nārāyaṇa, and Kedāreśvara, undoubtedly he can achieve liberation. The devotees of Kedāreśa who die on the way are released from rebirth. Going there, with pleasure, worshipping Kedāreśa and drinking the water there, a person is released from rebirth. “O Brahmins, in this Bhārata country people should worship with devotion Nara-Nārayaṇeśvara and Kedāreśa. Although he is the lord of the universe, he is particularly the Lord of Bhārata. There is no doubt that Śiva Kedāra is the bestower of all desires.”

Shiva Describes the Benefits of Pilgrimage to Kedarnath (Kedāra yātra). c. 1800–1825, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Śiva and his wife, Pārvati sit on a tiger skin beneath a great flowering tree with Nandi resting nearby. Their son Karttikeya, the god of war, kneels before them, accompanied by his vāhana, the peacock. Two of Karttikeya’s hands are folded in quiet reverence toward his parents. Śiva is dressed in princely attire with courtly jewelry and an elaborate crown with apearl fringe. The live snake at his waist, the faint outlines of a third eye and crescent moon at his brow, and the trident he holds are the only traces of his divine identity.

Another legend surrounding Kēdāranāth recounted in the Kēdārakhanda (a Sanskrit text that focuses on the religious geography of the Garhwal region) involves a phenomenon whereby living creatures transform to Śaiva beings by virtue of their proximity to Kēdāra.

Once, a hunter in pursuit of quarry finds himself in a forest that lies, unbeknownst to him, at the edge of the Kēdāra region. An inexplicable darkening of the sun has just caused him to narrowly miss shooting a golden deer (who, he did not know at the time, was the sage Nārada). He sees a snake eating a frog and approaches to investigate. Just as he gets closer, he sees a frog in a hole being quickly swallowed by a large snake. Just as the black snake swallowed this frog, the frog turned into a noble trident-bearing entity wearing a serpent as a sacred thread, with resplendent locks, bearing a half-moon, glorious like Kailāśa, dancing, adored by his followers, blue throated, wearing the skin of an elephant. The hunter encounters another wondrous sight that challenges his perceptions even further: the apparently spontaneous transformation of a tiger killing a deer. The deer becomes Śiva and the tiger, killed by another hunter, becomes a bull on which Śiva then seats himself. The hunter is then met by the sage Nārada who allies his confusion, and tells him that these transformations are taking place due to his proximity to Kēdāra. As living beings cross the event-horizon of the tirtha/region, they achieve the “sarupata” (being one with) of Śiva.

The Himālayas are also the backdrop for many of the central episodes in the relationship of Śiva and Pārvati, some of which are held to have happened near Kēdāranāth. Just before the trailhead at Gaurikund one may stop at the temple of Munkatiya, where Śiva cut off the head of Gaṇeśa.

There is in the north
the king of mountains,
divine in nature, Himálaya by name,
the abode of snow.
Reaching down
to both the eastern
and the western oceans,
he stands
like a rod to measure the earth.
(Kālidāsa, Kumārasambhava)

By the 10th-13th centuries Kedarnath was already well established as a place of pilgrimage and a site of royal patronage, and had become part of the network of tīrthās linked by a sanctification of paths and places linked by devotion, itihāsa, customs, and divine power. Kings travelled to Kēdāranāth, and thousands of kilometers away, in the south, one of the Nāyaṉmārs, Sambandār, had already been singing of Kēdāranāth in his bhakti poetry. Local rulers in the 10–13th centuries patronized temples that incorporated their kingdoms into larger-scale sacred geographies that, were a manifestation of an evolving idea of Bhārat – a cohesive geo-cultural entity extending from the shores of the Indian Ocean up to the snow-capped Himalayan peaks – as a way to strengthen their rule. Rulers forged these connections by supporting temple construction and maintenance in ways that drew artisans from outside the region, by taxing trade and agriculture, by carrying out pilgrimages that linked them to the Gangetic plains, and by using land grants to lure Brahmins from the plains.


  1. Surrealistic images dominate the Pahari paintings of the Kedara-Kalpa, B.N. Goswamy; Published in the Tribune, April 2008

2. Mountain, Water, Rock, God: Understanding Kedarnath in the Twenty-First Century by Luke Whitmore


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