Kedarnath Temple: The Ancient Shrine that Survived Himalayan 'Tsunami'

About India's most famous 'Jyotirlingam' temples and 'Char Dham' pilgrimages

The Kedarnath temple. Wikimedia Commons

Kedarnath is one of the 12 sacred 'Jyotirlingam' shrines of Shiva and is a well-known 'Shaktipeethha' - an important temple for Shaivaites. Most significantly, the temple is part of one of the holiest and most popular Hindu pilgrimages - the Char Dham Yatra that includes Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri, Yamunotri. The temple, situated at a height of 3,584 meters on the Garhwal Himalayan range near the Mandakini river, is believed to be over thousand years old, and is only accessible by foot.

The pilgrimage begins from Rishikesh, about 14 miles from Haridwar in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand and pilgrims need to trek 14 km uphill from Gaurikund to reach the shrine.

About the Kedarnath Temple

Situated in a deep gorge and surrounded by some of the world's tallest mountains, the Kedarnath temple was built in 8th century A.D. by Adi Shankaracharya, and stands next to the mythical temple believed to have been built by the Pandavas. According to Hindu mythology, the Pandavas, in the epic Mahabharata, after having defeating the Kauravas in the Kurukshetra war, visited Kedarnath to seek the blessings of Lord Shiva to redeem themselves from the sins of killing their own kith and kin. Legends have it that Shiva constantly eluded them and finally took refuge at Kedarnath in the form of the Nandi bull.

At the temple door stands a huge stone idol statue of the sacred Nandi Bull adorning the 250ft x70ft courtyard.

Inside the temple, the 'Garbha Griha' or the sanctum sanctorum, contains a conical rock formation is worshipped as Lord Shiva in his Sadashiva avatar. The inside walls of the temple hall are decorated with carvings of Hindu deities depicting mythological events.

A Himalayan 'Tsunami'

Every year, from May to October thousands of Hindu pilgrims trek to the holy Kedarnath Temple, located in the Himalayas, 11,753 feet above sea level and surrounded by ice-clad peaks.

But 2013 was different. Flash floods and landslides triggered by heavy monsoon rains in northern India came and devastated the sacred land of Lord Shiva closing down one of India's most important Hindu pilgrimages, the Char Dham Yatra in Uttarakhand, the state worst hit by a natural disaster that was waiting to happen owing to deforestation, urbanization, and irresponsible tourism.

According to government estimates, at least 5,000 people were killed in the deluge although the death toll could be more than double the official figure. At least 100,000 people including 26,500 pilgrims were rescued by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and other rescue teams despite inclement weather.

How the Kedarnath Temple survived

The Kedarnath valley was the epicenter of the 2013 Himalayan 'tsunami.' Heavy monsoon rains and the resulting landslides washed away most modern constructions in its wake but the 1200 year old Kedarnath temple survived. The Badrinath-Kedarnath Temple Committee in Dehradun, Uttarakhand said that the temple is almost unscathed and the statue of Nandi outside the temple door is also intact. All pilgrims who took refuge in the temple during the tragedy also survived while the destruction all around the temple is close to complete annihilation.

The temple's strength in survive such a disaster can be attributed to ancient Indian architectural wisdom. According to journalist Nandkumar Kamat, "India would survive the challenge of climate change only if traditional wisdom is combined with ecological sensitivity and appropriate, locally suitable modern technology in architecture and civil engineering. The evidence comes from miraculous survival of a man-made structure - the Kedarnath temple."

The survival of the Kedarnath temple is owing mainly to the architectural principles used in designing and building it: "Heavy polished stone slabs were welded to slabs without any mortar and 'man-woman' type joints were used to integrate the superstructure. Kedarnath temple survived the force of floods because of a strong stone plinth specifically built in the steep valley area to withstand the vagaries of the climate."

Read more: About the history and architecture of Hindu temples