Uttarakhand celebrates numerous religious festivals and fairs all year round. One of the important pilgrimage and festivals is the Raj Jaat Yatra of Goddess Nanda Devi, organized every 12 years.
ॐ हिमाद्रिका हिमांगिनी नगाधिराज वासिनी
बिन्ध्य नाम नंदजा नंदा कोट वासिनीम्।
The heritage of Uttarakhand, enriched with culture and traditions, is so enormous that it cannot be confined within the boundaries of any literature. Uttarakhand, so aptly called Devbhumi or the land of Gods, is blessed with Panch Kedar, Panch Prayag, and Panch Badri in their perfectly natural surroundings.
Panch Kedar is five famous Shiva temples including Kedarnath, Tungnath, Rudranath, Madhyamaheshwar, and Kalpeshwar. Prayag is the confluence of two or more rivers, where ablutions before worship take place. Panch Prayag includes Vishnuprayag, Nandaprayag, Karnaprayag, Rudraprayag and Devprayag. Panch Badri, five famous temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu, are Aadi Badri, Badrinath, Bhavishya Badri, Vruddh Badri, and Yogdhyaan Badri.
As per folk history, Nanda Devi was the family deity of the kings of Garhwal as well as the Katyuri dynasty of Kumaon. Being the family deity, she was addressed as Raj Rajeshwari. Nanda Devi is also known as Devi Parvati’s sister. However, in many places, she is worshipped as an incarnation of Devi Parvati herself.
Legend says that once Nanda Devi returned to her maternal home. Due to some reasons, she could not go back to her in-law’s house for 12 years. She was then sent to her husband’s house with great reverence. Raj Jaat Yatra signifies the journey of Mother Nanda, leaving her maternal home and going to Kailash. Mother Nanda is considered Lord Shiva’s wife. Lord Shiva’s abode is Kailash in the Himalayas. Raj Jaat Yatra begins on Bhadrapada Shukla Ekadashi every year, which roughly falls in September.
In this pilgrimage, Patti Chandpur and Shree Guru Kshetra of Chamoli district are considered Devi Nanda’s maternal region and Badhan Kshetra (Nandak Kshetra) as her in-law’s home. Nanda is Shiva’s consort and Himalaya’s daughter. As per the traditions, the goddess visits her maternal family after every twelve years. After weeks of celebrations, she goes back to Kailash. As per the local Garhwali customs, everyone visits her before she leaves and she is presented with gifts. A number of deities from neighboring areas pay her a visit and she visits a number of temples too. The last temple of the last village that the goddess visits is dedicated to her Dharam-Bhai (brother by the virtue of duty) called Laatu-Devta.
Famous as Himalayan Mahakumbh, Nanda Devi Raj Jaat Yatra is privileged to be the world’s longest on-foot religious trek. Organized every year, it is called Chhoti Jaat, or a small pilgrimage. Every 12 years, the pilgrimage trek is organized on a grand scale and is called Badi Jaat where pilgrims from the country and abroad take part in large numbers. This is truly a divine, wonderful, and thrilling trek in itself. This historic trek is also considered a symbol of the cultural confluence of the Garhwal and Kumaon regions, which are two parts of Uttarakhand. Next Badi Jaat will be organized in the year 2025.
Nanda Devi’s historic tour originates from Nauti village in Karnprayag which is supposed to be her maternal home. The tour starts along with Nanda Devi’s holy palanquin from a divine ancient temple at Kurud village at Nanda Nagar Ghat in Shri Badrinath Chamoli district. From Kurud temple, palanquins from Dasholi and Badhan initiate the Jaat. Pilgrims go for a 250 km journey from Kurud to Homkund on foot. On the way, they cross dense forests, gravel paths, inaccessible peaks, and snowclad mountains.
The first encampment of the pilgrimage is at Ida Bandhan, after crossing a distance of 10 km, later, two more halts are at Nouti. After Nouti, the pilgrims cross Sem, Koti, Bhagoti, Kulsari, Chepadiyun, Nandakeshari, Faldiya village, Mundoli Van, Gairolipatal, Pataranachouniya, and Saila Samudra before reaching the final destination Homkund. During the journey, Lohaganj is one such halt where pilgrims can still see iron arrows pierced into giant rocks and trees. Some arrows have been removed to be displayed at the museum. It is assumed that at some point in history, there was a fierce battle that took place here.
Read more: Splendor of Himalayas at Binsar, Kumaon, Uttarakhand
On the Raj Jaat pilgrimage path, there is a high-altitude glacial lake called Roopkund lake, surrounded by snowclad mountain peaks. It is also called mystery lake or skeleton lake. Hundreds of human skeletons are strewn around the lake and even at the bottom of the lake. Scientists from India and around the world have been studying this lake. They are trying to solve the mystery behind it for decades. With no restrictions in place, scientists from all around the world had been traveling to this lake situated at the height of 16200 feet from sea level and managing to take away human skeletons and other remains in large quantities, in turn stealing the mysteries of the past.
As the lake is situated at a height much above human habitation, the area still has many skeletons remaining. Many skeletons even had flesh attached to them. Along with skeletons, the whole area is also strewn with jewelry, Rajasthan-style shoes, teeth discolored with pan and supari, shells, bangles made of shells, etc. Hundreds of these skeletons were first discovered by a forest ranger in 1942.
To lead this historic pilgrimage tour, the search for chousingya khadu or four-horned sheep begins. It is said that before each trek, this type of unusual sheep had been taking birth somewhere in villages on Chandpur and Dasholi belt. The four-horned sheep has special importance in this pilgrimage, which takes birth in local areas just before the Raj Jaat Yatra. Devotees hang big bags on both sides of the sheep’s back, filled with jewelry, cosmetic items, and other gifts for Devi. After puja in Homkund, these items proceed to the Himalayas. People believe that this four-horned sheep goes ahead and disappears into Himalayan mountain ranges and enters Nanda Devi’s area, Kailash.
Along with palanquins, umbrellas, and arrows of Ringal (dwarf bamboo) wood, made with special artistry, about 200 local god-goddesses take part in this Mahayatra. At 13200 feet above sea level, the destinations of this mysterious trek are from Roopkund to Homkund.
Read more: Jageshwar Dham – Abode of Shiva & Shaivism in Kumaon
After Homkund, the colorfully dressed sheep is left to proceed alone towards the Kailash glaciers. 280 km long Raj Jaat trek climbs from 3200 to 17500 feet above sea level, crossing 19 encampments. The whole pilgrimage is 19 days long and its last destination is Homkund. Pilgrims do last rituals and other religious rituals in the lake and then leave the four-horned sheep to proceed towards Himalayan peaks. Thereafter they start to climb down. Then they reach back to Sutol, Ghat, and Nouti.
The author of this edition is Rekha Devshali from Rudraprayag District in Uttarakhand. Her life journey from being a Government school teacher in a village to a social worker had been filled with challenges. Along with successfully bearing the responsibilities of a loving mother, daughter, and wife, she does a considerate amount of social work and writing work.
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