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  • The Jageshwar Valley, Where Death Is Conquered
  • Nachiket Chanchani (bio)

The Jageshwar valley, situated thirty-five kilometers northeast of the district town of Almora in Uttarakhand state in northern India, has one hundred fifty lithic edifices and nearly as many steles dating from the seventh to the twenty-first century (Fig. 1).1 This conglomeration makes this valley the locus of the largest number of Hindu monuments and sculptures in the wide swath of Himalayan terrain extending from the Kangra valley in the west to the Kathmandu valley in the east. How, when, and why did the Jageshwar valley develop into a great tīrtha2 (sacred center)?

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Fig 1.

Location of the Central Himalayas.

Unless otherwise noted, all site maps, floor plans, and photographs are courtesy of the author.

Even provisional answers to this question are neither straightforward nor easy to obtain. For unlike places of historical and cultural significance in Kangra and Kathmandu, the Jageshwar valley has received little scholarly attention. Accurate floor plans of only five [End Page 133] edifices have ever been prepared. Discrepancies of up to fourteen hundred years in the dates assigned to individual monuments abound and there is little consensus on their symbolic morphology. Furthermore, many previous writers on the Jageshwar valley have attributed its shrines and steles to either the Katyuri or the Chand hill dynasties, although there is no inscriptional evidence to support such claims.3 Finally, relationships among and between the Jageshwar valley and other tīrthas in the Central Himalayas, and in regions beyond, await scholarly investigation.

My working hypothesis is that the Jageshwar valley attained its exalted position by around the tenth century when a lofty temple honoring Śiva as Mṛtyuñjaya, the triumphant conqueror of death, was constructed. The valley has maintained its status to date. This, I further postulate, is because of the sustained efforts of succeeding generations of builders and users who have carefully constructed the valley as a landscape of apprehension and aspiration. Over the course of this essay, I shall explore this hypothesis by descriptively analyzing the geography, ecology, and built environment of the Jageshwar valley, practices at the site, and narratives connected to it. Additionally, I shall compare its distinctive geophysical and cultural features with those associated with other tīrthas.

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Fig 2.

Schematic map of temple cluster at Dandeshwar, near Jageshwar, Uttarakhand, India.

As maps and field surveys attest, the Jageshwar valley stands apart from its surroundings. Unlike other Himalayan basins, which are bisected by south-flowing streams, a north-northeast–flowing rivulet traverses the [End Page 134] Jageshwar valley. This rivulet is today called the Jata-ganga. Furthermore, unlike adjacent basins that are characterized by broad floors, sided by hills molded into stacks of sunny terrace fields, the Jageshwar valley is dark, very narrow, less than two miles long, and bounded by forested slopes. Upon spending time in this forest, one discerns that its oaks, rhododendrons, and pines have been thinned. In those few areas where these species still abound, they either serve as visual markers of Jageshwar’s boundaries or as agents that ensure that the Jataganga has ample, flowing water year-round. Meanwhile, deodāra or devadāra (Cedrus deodara), an evergreen long associated with the mythology of Śiva, has been encouraged and allowed to become the predominant tree species.4 That many of these deodāra stands are over a millennium old suggests that the forest has long enjoyed protection.5

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Fig 3.

Schematic map of temple cluster, Jageshwar.

Alongside the careful enhancement of the forest cover [End Page 135] and the rivulet’s hydrology, successive generations of ascetics and Brahmin, Rajput, and Dom householders, living in and around the Jageshwar valley, have shaped the land by repeating certain choices about its use. These include refraining from building terrace fields, restricting human habitation to four hamlets, namely Mokshadham, Dandeshwar, Jageshwar, and Koteshwar, and clustering lithic monuments around two hamlets. One of these clusters, today consisting of fifteen monuments, is sited at Dandeshwar in the middle of the valley where the Jataganga turns due north (Fig...


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