Late yesterday afternoon my family and I were at the temple of Surkhanda Devi, less than 10 kilometers from Dhanaulti and about 30 kilometers from Mussoorie. The mountains are said to be the abode of the devis, but devis do not seem to be in short supply anywhere else either. Our taxi driver said the temple would be less than 2 kilometers from Kaddukhal, on the main road, where he dropped us, but he did not adequately warn us about the steep climb in front of us. There are ponies to take the faithful who are weak in flesh if strong in spirit to the mountain-top.
Why, my ten-year old daughter and eight-year old son asked me, are Hindu temples so often on the top of a hill or a mountain? The temple of Surkhanda Devi is at an elevation of 9000 feet and from the main road it is an arduous ascent of not less than 2000 feet. The experience of god, mystics have said, is a heady experience, and devotees lend their support to others with the words, ‘Jai Mata Di’. How much longer is to the top, we asked someone coming down the path every five minutes; and, as we made our way down an hour later, now armed with the experience of the mountain-top, we in turn felt like veterans and responded to queries with as accurate an assessment as we could furnish of the time it might take to scale the heights. It was a cloudy day, and the mandir could barely be seen, even when we were less than 100 feet away; the clouds drifted in and out, and, for my part, I might have come as close to a mystical experience as I am capable of as we walked through clouds. The experience of god, even to the most exalted devotee or mystic, must be at best a fleeting one – an impression most justly conveyed by the magisterial play of the clouds.
The mountains are the abode of Shiva. But, to return to the earlier question, why are temples so often on the top of the hill? An impression may have been conveyed by some strands of popular Hinduism that gods are very forgiving, or rather that one’s sins may be cleansed, for example, with a ritual bath in a purified body of water, but obviously one must labor to reach god. And if the ascent to Surkhanda Devi is a telling illustration, one must not scoff at such labor. From the mountain-top, the gods survey the landscape before them – though perhaps the analogy of a spiritual panopticon is not quite apt. But there may be many other respects in which the mountains are the natural abode of the gods and goddesses. Whatever they share with humans, and if the evidence of the puranas is reliable testimony the common ground is vast, gods and goddesses are also above humans.