The rhythmic tapping of a hammer on a chisel breaks the silence of a frosty winter morning eagerly awaiting the warm embrace of a tardy sun. A bespectacled man dressed in traditional attire of coat and pyjamas woven from sheep wool topped by a Himachali topi and hunched over a massive block of deodar wood deftly traces his chisel over fading pencil lines.
Cautiously guiding the chisel with gentle raps of his hammer, the immersed artist infuses life into blooming flowers, writhing serpents, dainty apsaras and divine deities. He remains unaffected by the flow of devotees in the temple precincts and the coterie of villagers basking in the sun. His thoughts confined to myriad designs to be etched in the wooden logs as an offering to his beloved devta who resides in the lofty mountains.
The upper reaches of Yamuna Valley in Uttarakhand are particularly quiet during the freezing winter. The serpentine roads along azure Yamuna wear a deserted look. The snow-cloaked presence of Bandarpoonch Massif is unmistakable in the distance as one travels inland from the town of Barkot, while the exhilarating road trip to Yamunotri on the eastern bank of Yamuna is an adventure in itself. And it is for this reason that a motorcycle proves to be a particularly handy asset when embarking on a journey to experience the cultural wealth of the Rawain region of Uttarakhand.
Barkot is a typical Himalayan town with matchbox houses cramping precarious slopes that drop to the River Yamuna below. Legends associate this region to the Puranic King Sahasrabahu whose rampant abuse of power is a central theme in mythology surrounding the sixth avatar of Vishnu, Parashurama. Parashurama’s mother Renuka is a popular deity in far-flung villages along the Yamuna while his
father Jamadagni Rishi has an attractive wooden temple dedicated to him in the village of Than not far from Barkot.
It is hard to miss the rising edifice of a five-storied tower-type house in the village of Sunaldi just across the river from Barkot. Built from alternate blocks of wood and stone with grounded urad dal as a binding agent, this earthquake-resistant house has survived many storms. Around five kilometres from Sunaldi in the village of Molda is another three-storied tower-type structure that serves as the temple of Goddess Bhadrakali, a venerated deity of a number of villages around Barkot. The present structure dated to 19th century has inscriptional evidence of patronage by the rulers of Tehri and is a striking example of indigenous style of temple architecture perfected by Himalayan temple builders.
Riding on Barkot-Rajgarhi highway one comes across beautiful villages dotted with traditional houses displaying varied experimentation in shaping wood to choicest of designs. Straddling this highway is the village of Pujaili, home to Raghunath Temple. This gable-roofed temple made from stone and deodar wood is bound by lime and uses extensive vertical and horizontal interlocking for stability. The distinct features of this temple are three circular wooden chattris mounted above the garhbagriha. Floral motifs, entwined snakes harking back to influence of Nagas in Himalayas, male and female deities grace the low entrance.
Beyond the non-descript town of Rajgarhi that bears the ruins of a dilapidated fort desperately clinging to isolated remnants of brilliance, the road rapidly sheds its smooth character. Twisting and turning through a dense jungle of pine it descends to the village of Gangtari where another temple of Raghunath has come up recently. Though sharing similarities in design with the temple in Pujaili, its architects have added several new features like an open verandah and secondary shikharas that enhance scale of the overall structure. Not only have the traditional methods of temple building been conserved they have been improved on by diligent artists.
While the ride between Rajgarhi and Gangtari is bumpy, the torturous climb from Gangtari to Sarnaul is downright hazardous. Hacked out of steep cliffs with a turbulent stream flowing nearby it tests mettle of both humans and machines for the prize that awaits in frontier village of Sarnaul. It is difficult to ascertain the antiquity of these wooden temples due to periodic renovations but the modest temple to Renuka in the village is timeless.
While its original rotting wooden panels, faded figures on embossed brass plates and weathered slate roofing may have been replaced with shiny counterparts they continue to narrate tales passed down over generations. The stoic mountains loom high above the village challenging the human resolve to survive in this inhospitable terrain but the Himalayan chisel and hammer continue to toil in tandem for they are not born out of flames but forged in the icy cold of Himalayas.