This is a memory from the winter of 2020 – early 2021 and it felt like forever since we had been on a long hike. We were thick in the middle of the pandemic and travel didn’t feel normal at all. Humans were confused whether to feel joy or despair upon coming across other human beings. Since my travel style is a mix of backpacking and rustic old style, it usually involves a multitude of local encounters and I was desperately seeking some adventure that would provide a much needed adrenalin rush in a good way. I had been to Jageshwar earlier but had completely missed Vridh Jageshwar in the previous visit.
It had been a glorious few months in Kasar Devi and we had braved through the winter cold. As soon as February began, we chalked out plans to visit the nearby places for weekend visits.
In the last week of February, we left early morning from our cottage in Kasar Devi and walked to the diversion of the road for Jageshwar near Almora, and were lucky to instantly hitch a ride till Chitai Golu Devta. We paid our respects at the temple and started walking on the road and were lucky again to find another ride that dropped us at Artola – the point from where the road diverted for Jageshwar. I remembered from my earlier visit that it would be a pleasant 2 odd km walk from here as the region around Jageshwar is surrounded by pine and deodhar forests to reach the Dandeshwar Temple.
Since the distance between Almora and Jageshwar is only 35 kms, we didn’t bother to have breakfast when we left from Kasar Devi and figured that it made sense to eat an early lunch along the way or directly after reaching Jageshwar.
In 2015, I had stayed in Jageshwar for a day and someone had mentioned that while Vridhh Jageshwar was quite close to Jageshwar; it was a good 8-10 km distance from the road and there was a diversion road for Vridhh Jageshwar from Artola. In the absence of a proper mode of transport (bus or shared taxi), it wasn’t practical to think of a day visit from Jageshwar to Vridhh Jageshwar and back. I had multiple bags with me and therefore had to sort of plan my travel accordingly.
It was a surreal walk on the road from Artola as there were hardly any vehicles and we reached Dandeshwar Temples at about 1230 pm. We were quite hungry and came across a boutique stay on the way to Jageshwar after crossing Dandeshwar Temple. The dining area looked very inviting and we asked the staff if it was possible to make lunch on order? They said lunch would be simple dal, green leafy vegetables, chapati and rice and would take about 30 minutes to make. We requested them to speed it up as we were super hungry!
Food was out of the world when it arrived after some time and we ate till our stomachs were full! The 250 Rupees per person charge felt absolutely worthwhile. We thanked the staff wholeheartedly, paid them and set on our way. We visited the various temples in the Jageshwar Group of Temples complex; crossed the Jataganga stream to reach the Kuber Temple. Jageshwar town seemed to have expanded and didn’t have the charming feel as earlier so we were already thinking of an alternate plan of stay!
We asked the Pandit Ji at Kuber Temple about the hiking trail for Vridhh Jageshwar temple. It was early afternoon and we had ample time for trying to head somewhere else. Pandit Ji was quite confident and told us that the trail to Vridhh Jageshwar was well marked and pretty straightforward. He estimated that the hiking – trekking trail from Jageshwar to Vridhh Jageshwar is about 3-4 kms and should take between 1.5 to 2 hours maximum. He also told us that there were a couple of homestays right in front of the Vridhh Jageshwar Temple and that we would have no trouble finding a place to stay for the night.
It was about 315 pm when we started our walk from Kuber Temple. There was a proper cemented path with beautiful houses surrounded by early spring flower blooms on the way as the onset of the Jageshwar to Vridhh Jageshwar trek. One of the homes had such an incredible array of flowers – on the pretext of asking about the trail, I ended up asking whether the house was also a homestay! The lady of the house quoted a heavy price and we figured that as a classic trait in Uttarakhand. I stuck to the task of confirming the path and was told that a road is being built and that we should take the walking trail even after the road joins.
We were on the right trail and easily climbed a steady ascent in the initial 15 minutes. The weather was sunny when we had started but quickly began to change with clouds gathering and a breeze starting to blow even before we had reached the first road construction that was said to be our first landmark. I tried asking anyone on the trail where the path joined the bigger road in progress but there was no one to be seen and as if on cue, it started drizzling.
Thankfully, we had carried our rain jackets and since we had a rough idea about the trail, continued walking on the dirt road and kept a look out for a walking trail ascending towards our right. The drizzle was steady and we were overjoyed when a vehicle appeared on the road and was kind enough to stop for us. The gentleman was a local who said he was aware of the correct trail to Vridhh Jageshwar and informed us that it is easily identifiable.
We were ecstatic to spot red rhododendron blooming flowers in the forest and even though the road was dusty, the drizzle came as a welcome delight with the smell of petrichor. Even though it was only around 4-415 pm, it started feeling a bit dark in the forested region and we heaved a sigh of relief when we finally saw a hiking trail emerge from the road. It was a sharp ascent and although I was still uncertain about us being on the right path, the occasional raindrops and cold breeze ensured that we kept going ahead rather than second guess.
After about 20-30 minutes the light improved as we climbed higher and were relieved to notice that the drizzle had stopped and the sun had started peeping through the clouds. The rhododendron flowers looked even more beautiful after having a shower in the rain. We clicked a few pictures and I made a mental calculation that there was daylight till 630 pm at least. Even if we were on the wrong trail, our general hiking direction was in the region of Vridhh Jageshwar Temple and we were quite confident about making it to a homestay before dark.
Just as I was starting to get worried about not reaching Vridhh Jageshwar nor seeing any signs if we were on the right trail, we came across a stone boundary and there were multiple trails branching from that place. It was getting super confusing and for a minute I contemplated turning back and just getting back to safety in Jageshwar since we knew the way back. As a distraction, we decided to take a small rest break sitting on the stone boundary and were pleased when a dog came from somewhere.
The presence of a dog increased the possibility of a settlement nearby and my joy knew no bounds when a group of women carrying firewood appeared from nowhere and told us that we might have missed the correct trail but pointed us to a path and said that we will hardly take 15-20 odd minutes to reach Vridhh Jageshwar Temple. It was about 515 pm and we thanked the ladies and rushed on the trail. We had a spring in our step and relief on our minds now that we finally knew that we were about to reach Vridhh Jageshwar Temple and that there were 2 homestay options there.
Within no time we reached a road-head where the road had very recently been laid with tar and for a moment wondered if we had to go left or right but google maps quickly solved the problem. Recent development in the remote areas means there is hardly any place left without mobile network and internet connectivity. The weather had totally cleared and the sun was out. We were in front of the Vridhh Jageshwar Temple and there were only a handful of buildings.
I had assumed that this was a temple town but the solitude felt even more pronounced when we saw that there were only a total of 4-5 buildings that comprised Vridhh Jageshwar! We were shown the room at one of the homestays and were quoted a reasonable price of INR 500-600. It was a basic but pretty comfortable room with an attached bathroom and the owner was soft spoken and a kind hearted man. The homestay doubled up as a dhaba with a general store and the owner lived there with his wife. We requested him for an early dinner of freshly cooked dal, vegetables, rotis at 730 pm and quickly asked him if there was a chance of attending either the evening or the morning aarti at the Vridhh Jageshwar Temple?!
He looked at the watch and asked us to rush to the temple as it was about to be 6 pm and the evening aarti would begin anytime now! We were having a great day and loved this piece of information and quickly walked to the Vridhh Jageshwar Temple. The evening colours in the sky were simply out of the world and the horizon was being painted in yellow and orange hues. Since we were at a much higher altitude, the air felt cleaner and colder and the green hills completed a pretty picture.
The temple was a massive stone structure and the architecture style was similar to the bigger temples in the Jageshwar Group of temples. The Vridhh Jageshwar Temple pre-dates the Jageshwar temples and is said to have been established in 7-8th Century AD. The evening aarti was about to begin and it felt peaceful and calm as there were no other pilgrims or visitors at Vridhh Jageshwar. There is a certain charm about visiting places off the main tourist circuit and we were quite pleased with being able to sit in the aarti and feel the mantras being chanted.
After 30 odd minutes the evening aarti was over, we thanked the Pandit Ji and spent some time gazing at the stupendous after-sunset views. We were super hungry and walked back to our homestay which also doubled up as a general store and a dhaba where pilgrims and visitors could get food made on order. It was almost 7 pm and food was going to take a little longer to get ready so we went to the room and aired it out a little. A bit of fresh air in closed rooms always works wonders. While Jageshwar felt hot during daytime, there was a proper chill in the air in Vridhh Jageshwar and it was not even night yet.
We were quite relieved when the owner uncle handed us an electric rod to heat water (if we needed it). The night skies from the homestay terrace were incredible in the absence of any light pollution in Vridhh Jageshwar. There was a solar powered light at the Vridhh Jageshwar temple but that was hidden by a big tree in the homestay compound. The electricity conked off and decided to give us an even more epic view of the stars. We weren’t complaining and went to the dhaba area when the food was ready.
It was nice to see a proper family run place and aunty was making hot chapatis. We gobbled up the offerings as we had nothing to eat after the fabulous lunch in the afternoon. The wind had really picked up and it felt like a thunderstorm was on its way. We ate well, thanked uncle and aunty wholeheartedly and went back downstairs to our room. It had started to get cloudy and funnily enough the electricity came back!
There was full 4G internet connectivity and it felt nice to lie down in the warmth indoors and do some aimless scrolling. We slept well, after all the body had a nice workout with the hike and was pretty tired.
It was a spectacular morning as the weather had cleared and a stunning 180 degree view of the Himalayan ranges awaited when we were going to the temple for the morning darshan and aarti. There were crystal clear views of Mount Trishul, Nanda Devi and other peaks. We were overjoyed and requested for aloo paranthas for breakfast and enjoyed them in the outdoor sun with the splendid views. Even though the original idea was to leave back for Kasar Devi early morning, it was a delay that felt totally worthwhile.
Someone mentioned that Vridhh Jageshwar lies on an old trekking/hiking route commonly used by pilgrims and it is possible to continue via walking trails to reach other important temples in the region. At around 11, we started walking towards Panuanaula (next sizeable village on the road) and I came across a signboard and a trail towards Jageshwar Dham which mentioned the walking distance as 3 kms. We quickly understood that we had surely got lost in the jungle yesterday and made it to Vridhh Jageshwar by a much longer and confusing trail. A shared taxi duly arrived and we got a ride till Panuanaula.
I don’t remember the exact sequence but it was rhododendron flower season and we got down at a place called Toli where there are a couple of local shops that make fresh squashes. The homestay uncle in Vridhh Jageshwar had given a reference of one of the squash makers and we ended up picking a number of bottles of the various varieties that they recommended. The prices were also quite reasonable, we thanked the owners and caught one of the numerous shared taxis bound for Almora.
It was a feeling of contentment and satisfaction to come back to our cottage in Kasar Devi!