It’s almost meditative, watching fat glistening dewdrops hang off sharp needles of deodars on a freezing winter morning. At our lodge, my family of four and I sip endless cups of ginger-and-spice-flecked pahari chai and suck on a rock of jaggery. We can hear a meandering rivulet gurgle across the street. Time stops in Jageshwar, a little-known village in Uttarakhand’s Almora district—but the myths and stories that do the rounds of its streets are alive and kicking.
“That tree you see there,” says Bhuwan Chandra, manager and resident storyteller of our lodge Van Serai, pointing at a thick trunk that splits into five individual deodars, “they call it the Panch Pandavas.” A thinner, smaller deodar grows right beside the tree. “That must be Draupadi,” adds Chandra. Everyone in this languid, spiritual village dotted with ancient shrines, is a storyteller and spins their own version of mythological tales, Chandra says. “If you stay long enough in Jageshwar, around its ancient shrines, with long peaceful hours to while away, you’ll do the same,” he smiles. A few metres from our lodge is a shrine that looks like an eight-foot pile of rocks: The Rin Moksh blesses those with pending debts. “If you have EMIs, you should pray here,” laughs Chandra.
Jageshwar hides another secret deep in the folds of its deodars—a cluster of 124 cut-stone Shiva temples built between the seventh and 13th centuries. The main cluster, the Jageshwar Temple Complex, has over 25 big and small shrines dedicated to Shiva and other deities—all hemmed in by the Jataganga river. Little wonder that Chandra has another story to tell. “A large deodar stands at the centre of it with thick, snake-like exposed roots, falling over the river like a Hindu saint’s jata (matted hair). The Pandavas washed their sins here before heading to the Himalayas.”
At day’s end, the temperature hovers around four degrees. The deodars, stoic as ever, cast long shadows at every bend and shrine. We do a quick round of a museum attached to the temple, which houses 160 rare sculptures, some dating back to the eighth century. Back at our lodge, a hot traditional meal awaits us, soaked in the goodness of ingredients locally sourced, perhaps just earlier in the day. Madira bhaat, a coarser version of locally-grown rice, ragi rotis served with jholi (cucumber and black lentil pakodas cooked in buttermilk curry) add to the warmth that has encased me in Jageshwar. A bowl of kheer doubles it. In spite of a full belly and sore feet, we order another round of pahari chai. Because Chandra has new stories to tell.