Close to the Manimahesh Kailash Peak in the Himalayas lies Manimahesh Lake. With no grass in sight and surrounded by boulders, small hills and dry bushes, the lake looks like it sprung up from nowhere. Year round, the places lies still and silent; there are no ants, no snakes, no wildlife except for a few bird species that are rarely sighted. But once a year, during the Manimahesh Yatra, there is the chatter of pilgrims that come to the lake for a holy dip; it is believed that Shiva performed tapasya here for many hundreds of years.
Shaped like a saucer, the lake has two distinct parts. A large part of the lake is icy cold and is called ‘Shiv Karotri’, while a smaller, lukewarm part is called ‘Gauri Kund’; men and women bathe in these different parts of the lake.
The legend behind the place states that Shiva created Manimahesh after marrying Parvati (known in these parts as Mata Girja). The Gaddis, who reside in the Gaddi Valley, say that their chuhali topi (pointed caps) were gifted to them by Shiva. The Gaddis also believe that after staying at Mount Kailash for six months, Shiva goes to the netherworld after handing the reigns to Vishnu. The day he departs is Janmasthami – the birthday of Krishna. They day he returns is observed as Shivratri, before the night of his wedding.
On a clear day, the abode of Shiva, Mount Kailash, can be seen reflected in the lake’s waters. On rare occasions, the first rays of the sun fall on the lake in the shape of a bright orange tilak, giving its holy legends some credence.
For the Gaddis, the Manimahesh Yatra is a most pious undertaking. The yatra is heralded by a procession of pilgrims and sadhus carrying a holy chhatri on their shoulders. The trek is undertaken barefoot over a distance of 14 kilometers from the Hadsar road to Manimahesh Lake. Pilgrims are provided jeeps, food and medical facilities. For the very devout, a nine-day trek from Chamba is the way to go.
The actual trek to the lake takes about six days. Once the pilgrims reach the lake, ceremonies take place all night. The next day, after a dip in the lake, they circle the lake three times, seeking Shiva’s blessings before they head back home. And once more, the whole area slips back into silence.