This article is a travelogue written by Sri P. Kaushik based on his travel experience to Mukthinath earlier this year. Its a very useful guide for all those who are planning for a trip to Mukthinath.
During a recent trip in April 2012, I had the great opportunity and pleasure of visiting the Muktinath temple located in Nepal. The temple is known as Thirusalagramam among Sri Vaishnavas. This travelogue will not focus on the history or the Pasurams in praise of the lord there. I want to discuss how one can reach such a place through alternate route, i.e., not by flight. I am a student and I could not spare enough money to make the expensive the flight trip. So I decided to take a chance and go by buses. I am currently living in Kharagpur and so my trip starts from Howrah (Kolkata).
Reaching the Nepal border is quite easy as there are plenty of trains and buses available in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to do so. Any the road journey to Muktinath begins from Pokhara, a city in Nepal located in central of Nepal. I would like to encourage the readers to use google maps in order to get an idea of the places. In order to reach Pokhara, one has to take buses from different points in the border. Pokhara is quite well connected as it is one of the larger cities of Nepal. The closest point in India from Pokhara is at the Bhairahawa border. There are plenty of buses connecting Bhairahawa and Butwal to Pokhara. There are no buses across the border as they have been banned for security reasons. So, one has to cross the border by share autos or rikshaws in order to enter Nepal and buses can be found immediately after entering Nepal. The route followed by me was to enter Nepal from Bihar through the border in Raxaul as it is more easily accessible border point for people travelling from the eastern part of India. Once reaching Raxaul border there are Tongas and share auto rickshaws right outside the station who take you into Nepal. The border post from Raxaul railway station is barely 750 meters to 1 km, a walk able distance. The Birgunj bus stand which is the destination however, is about 5 kms from the border inside Nepal. So the tongas and share auto rickshaws fare per person about Indian Rs. 30 to 40 for travelling from Raxaul railway station to Birgunj bus stand. There are plenty of buses direct from Birgunj to Pokhara, and last bus being at around 2 or 3pm. The fare of the bus from Birgunj to Pokhara is about Indian Rs. 300 per person. Most trains reach Raxaul in the morning, so taking a bus will not be a problem.
When travelling you might get people forcing you to change currency. As of today any denomination of Rs.100 and below of Indian currency is not banned. So one need not convert any notes below the Rs. 100 denomination. The exchange rate between the currencies is Indian Re 1 = Nepali Rs 1.60.
On reaching Pokhara, one may need to halt overnight as most buses towards Jomsom direction leave in the morning only. There however, is no direct bus between Pokhara and Jomsom. For stay overnight, usually good hotels in Pokhara are located close to Phewa lake area. From that area, one has to take the mini city bus to Baglung bus stand, from where buses are available for Jomsom direction. The cost of the ticket in Mini bus is about Nepali Rs. 15 per person from hotel to bus stands. From Baglung bus stand one has to take a bus towards Beni, which are frequently available early in the morning. The cost of the ticket is about Indian Rs. 200 per person. The cost of the ticket varies with seat as well. The seats up front cost more than the seats in the back. One has to reach the place early in order to buy a ticket and get a good seat. The drive to Beni is about 5 hours. So, if you start early morning, you may expect to reach Beni by mid day. Beni is a very small town with nothing much to eat, therefore it is very important to carry your own food during the entire journey. However, Beni is the first point in the journey where one can have the darshan of the holy Gandaki River. It’s from here that the bus route will follow the path along the river.
The river will always be in sight next to the road. Also, just a few kilometers along the road from Beni towards Jomsom is a place where one can find the Muktinath Pravesh Dwar. It is probable that Thirumangai Azhwar proceeded towards the lord at Muktinath through this point. The road, however, from Beni all the way to Jomsom is a muddy and not tarred. So please be prepared for a jerky ride. The drivers are usually very slow, careful and very experienced in handling these roads. There is only one bus available from Beni direct to Jomsom, which leaves early in the morning at about 6.30 am. If you reach later in the day you might have to take a bus to Ghasa from Beni. Buses to Ghasa are quite frequent; there usually is a connecting bus to Ghasa from Beni, when the bus from Pokhara arrives at Beni. The drive to Ghasa takes about 4.5 to 5 hours and a ticket costs about Indian Rs. 350 for Indian nationals as opposed to Nepal Rs. 375 for Nepali nationals.
During the ride from Beni to Ghasa you will find that there is quite a steep altitude climb and you may require keeping your woolens handy. The entire scenery is very beautiful and changes from ranges change from lower Himalaya in Beni to middle Himalaya in Ghasa. From Ghasa buses to Jomsom are available upto about 4pm in the evening. It is very important that you reach Ghasa before that as there are no decent places to stay in Ghasa as it is a tiny village. Again from Ghasa the ticket cost to Jomsonm is about Indian Rs. 350 for Indian nationals and lesser for Nepali nationals. The ride takes about 3 to 3.5 hours. The terrain now changes from middle Himalayas to the upper Himalayas. You may also see quite a lot of clouds, it is here that the last bit of rain falls and the mountains reach much above the clouds and do not let it penetrate and enter Tibet. It is a clear sight to see of how the Himalayan Mountains ensure that monsoon clouds remain in Bharat varsha and not move out. After passing the cloudy region, comes a rain shadow region, a region similar in scenery to Leh and Ladakh. This region is the abode of the lord. Jomsom is present in this region and there usually is acute water shortage in Jomsom. On reaching Jomsom, you may find that hotels do not allow people to stay unless they eat there. So you may have to end up paying for food even if you don’t eat. Dormitories are available at costs as low as Indian Rs. 400 per head with food. You may choose to stay in a hotel as well. As a student, I preferred a dormitory. There are no buses from Jomsom to Muktinath, only Jeeps (Sumos) are available, because the terrain is quite harsh for buses and moreover buses cannot cross a bridge on the Gandaki to reach the other side of the river.
So, only jeeps ply between Jomsom and Muktinath. One may inquire with the hotel people or locals as to where the jeep stand is, it is walk able from any hotel in the small town of Jomsom. It is best to leave for Muktinath from Jomsom early in the morning. The jeeps are share jeeps and take about 12 people on board and charge about Indian Rs. 400 per head for Indian nationals. The only problem one may face going in a small party is that they have to wait for more passengers so that the jeep gets filled up. You may end up getting more passengers once the flight from Pokhara lands in Jomson at around 7.30 am or so. It is better to go early and stand in the queue so that you can get into the first jeep out. Jeeps on the return journey also work in the similar way. Last jeep may be available till evening 4pm. It takes about 2 hours from Jomsom to Ranipuhawa, which is the last stop about 1.5 Km short of Muktinath temple. I suggest that travelers keep some medicines for altitude sickness; the height climb is quite steep. From Ranipuhawa, the pilgrims have to walk the 1.5 Km distance to the temple. The walk may be difficult for elderly people as the air is quite thin in the high altitude and the last reach to temple has about 80 steps, climb which may prove harder.
There are motor bikes available for hire which take elders to the entrance of the temple. There you are at the temple. My suggestion is that, one need not take bath in the morning in Jomsom as the place is very cold in the morning and there is acute water scarcity. It is better to reach the temple and take your holy bath in 108 gangas, which is there in temple. Place is quite warm during the day after 9 am and the holy bath is quite refreshing. One may spend quite enough time at the temple. For, people interested, there is also a Shakti Peeth temple located about 200 meters from the Perumal Kovil. One may also take a holy dip in the Gandaki river down below near the temple. Apart from Srimoorthy Perumal, one may visit the Narasimhar sanadhi a little away from the main temple. In case you miss the last jeep out, there is a Dharamshala for stay at Ranipuhawa; Prasadam is also provided there. One may donate something as compensation.
The return journey may also be done in a similar route. Again the bus timings are quite tight upto Beni. From Beni onwards, one may find more frequent buses as the roads are not so dangerous and it caters to larger population. If you leave early in the morning from Jomsom, you may be able to catch the direct bus to Beni, or else you have to do the same way as mentioned earlier; Jomsom to Ghasa and Ghasa to Beni. From Beni, again buses are available to Pokhara. From Pokhara buses are available to Kathmandu and other places including the border towns of Bhairahawa and Birgunj. Hope it will of help to other fellow devotees of lord Narayana.