Around 150 km from the popular holiday destination Manali is the Trilokinath temple, the only place of worship where Buddhists and Hindus pray together to the same deity. This cave shrine in the village of Udaipur, in the Lahul and Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh, is believed to have been constructed over 2,000 years ago. Perched atop a towering cliff, with the Chandra Baga river flowing below it, the temple can only be reached by a dusty road that hugs the towering mountains.

Trilokinath is a popular pilgrimage destination for devotees of the Hindu god Shiva and Buddhists. Local Hindus believe it was built by the five Pandavas to honour Shiva. “They [the Pandavas] made the temple in Himachal Pradesh because this is Parvati valley, Shivji’s maika (wife’s home),” said the temple’s caretaker. The Buddhists worship the Trilokinath deity as Arya Avalokiteshwar, after the bodhisattva who embodies compassion.

The Trilokinath temple as seen from the road leading to it. Photo credit: John Hill/Wikimedia Commons [CC Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported]

The temple, surrounded by snow-capped peaks and pine trees, is a quiet and peaceful place. Nothing but the cave shrine remains of the original structure, around which the state government has constructed a white building.

Tibetan flags, at the entrance, sway in the gentle breeze. The clanging of the brass bell, rung by devotees as they enter, is the only sound heard inside the compound.

A small, white shrine with a granite lingam and a Nandi bull (the guardian deity of Kailasa, the abode of Shiva) stands in the middle of a grey paved courtyard. Nearby is a large Buddhist prayer wheel.

Past the compound, inside the room around the original cave shrine, sit a Hindu priest and a lama. Many devotees have to bend to avoid bumping their heads as they make their way through the low entranceway. Inside, on the right, sits the lama on a bench, which is covered by a white cloth. To the left, portraits of the Dalai Lama and other bodhisattvas line the wall. This inner sanctum can hold no more than 15 people. Right across from the entrance to the room, flanked by two gold-painted columns and behind a short wrought-iron gate, is a six-limbed white marble idol. The Hindu priest sits there, accepting the dana or charitable donations from devotees. The lama and the priest take turns to bless the visitors.

A statue of Arya-Avalokiteshvara at a museum in Zurich. Photo credit: Andreas Praefcke/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Legend has it the original grey idol was stolen and replaced by the current one, supposedly around the 12th century. There are stories surrounding the theft. In The History of the Panjab Hill States, historians John Hutchinson and Jean Philippe Vogel write that a Kulu Raja reached Trilokinath and tried to carry off the idol, but was defeated in the attempt as the stone became too heavy to move. According to local legend though, as the caretaker explained, “a band of thieves tried to steal the original but they all met with gruesome deaths for this sacrilege”.

The origins of the temple remain a mystery. Locals say it was originally a Buddhist monastery or a vihara, while Hutchinson and Vogel suggest it was built as a Shiva temple but was turned into a Buddhist monastery in the eighth century by Padmasambhava, considered by Tibetans as the founder of the Nyingma school of Buddhism.

Neither story matters to devotees, who flock from far and wide. “Trilokinath is a special place,” said Shyam Tripathi, a 50-year-old resident of Uttar Pradesh, who was on his third pilgrimage to the temple. “If you come here and ask for whatever you desire with an open and pure heart, you will receive it.” S Dawa, a 35-year-old Tibetan, who lives in the Mandi district of Himachal Pradesh, says the two gold-painted columns are a measure of the devotee’s morals. “If you have done good things in your life then you can easily pass through the space between the column and the wall,” said Dawa. But, “if you are a sinner, then no matter how thin you are, you will not be able to get through that space”.

The prayer wheel in the temple courtyard. Photo credit: John Hill/Wikimedia Commons [CC Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported].

Inside the cave shrine, most devotees try to squeeze between a column and the wall, suggesting the myth is taken quite seriously. A woman stares at her partner in near panic after she is unable to get through. Smiling nervously, she tries again. The relief on her face is genuine after her second attempt is successful.

Every year, in the third week of August, members of both faiths come together for the three-day Pauri festival. A prominent event in the region, it is attended by locals, Hindus and Buddhists, and is a mix of festive and devotional activities. The devotees first seek blessings from the priest and lama. This is followed by chanting of prayers and rituals. Lamps are lit continuously for the three days.

After two days of prayers, the fair begins. There are several stalls selling chai, while balloon popping and throwing contests are played amid singing and dancing. On the final day the head of the temple leads a procession to a point in Chandra Baga, where, as per a tiny booklet distributed within the temple, “seven streams connect and we believe that Shivji showed himself to his devotees there”. This is followed by cultural activities, including more song and dance.

Yashwant Dhumal, a 40-year-old shopkeeper whose family has lived in Udaipur for as long as he can remember, described the festival as a “sight you would not often see”. “Especially because people from both faiths attend the festival in equal numbers and everyone is incredibly happy together.”