Kedarnath … In search of Shiva

In the journey towards divinity, Kedarnath has always been a Ridge too far.  It is one among the Char Dhams or four primary religious destinations, the others being Badrinath, Yamnotri and Gangotri. While Badrinath is accessible by road, the other destinations involve trekking.  Kedarnath is perhaps  the most difficult to access. Personally there has been another connect – in 2013 a trip planned to Kailash Manasarovar had to be abandoned after the cloudburst that inundated the various tributaries of the Ganga. The worst hit was perhaps the Mandakini river flowing through the Kedarnath valley.  This time around we were successful in going to Kailash albeit with a few hiccups (please see https://in-search-of-divinity.fleeky.one/?p=2353)  Having visited Badrinath,  Yamnotri and Gangotri, and of course Kailash the time was now opportune to visit Kedarnath.


           As we drove along the Alakananda towards Rudraprayag where the Mandakini tumultously meets it we were rewarded with spectacular views of mist covered mountains.

       At Rudraprayag the  road to Kedarnath turns left and follows the Mandakini, while the other road along the Alakananda leads to Karanprayag and onward to Joshimath.  The Mandakini true to its name is at times furious and at times placid and startlingly blue. The snow clad peaks overlooking Kedarnath were now beginning to be visible. 

     It is at Guptkashi that the myth surrounding Kedarnath begins.  After the Kurukshetra war  the victorious Pandavas  were afflicted with guilt at having killed their Gurus and cousins. Krishna suggested that they seek Shiva’s forgiveness and thus their quest for Shiva started from Kashi or modern day Varanasi. By the time they could reach Kashi, Shiva had left for the Himalayas as he was angered at the senseless killing. At Guptkashi the  Pandavas had a fleeting glimpse of Shiva in the shape of a bull but before they could get hold of it the bull magically disappeared and hence the name Guptkashi or secret Kashi. The Pandavas built Kashi Vishwanath Temple for Shiva at the site of a water tank where two streams merged. The adjoining temple has Parvati riding a bull.  Indeed Shiva is said to have proposed to Parvati here. The marriage took place at Triyuginarayan Temple, ahead of Sonprayag some 33 kms upstream. More recently, when Aurangzeb had destroyed the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Kashi the linga was moved to Guptkashi for safekeeping.  

Kashi Vishwanath Temple Guptkashi

   As the road winds upwards along the Mandakini Valley, there are several places such as Phata and Bhadasu from where helicopters take off for Kedarnath covering the trek route of 16 kms in barely 10 minutes. We resisted the efforts of our well wishers to take the easier option since to us the journey was more important than the destination. The road comes to an end at Gaurikund from where the  trek begins. The first signs of the havoc caused by the floods  in 2013 was now visible. A parking facility at Gaurikund had been swept away along with hotels and other structures. Parking was now available only at Sonprayag a further five kms downstream. Sonprayag too had been badly affected by the floods but was recovering at a slightly faster pace since the valley was broader here. 

  The sun was beating down on us as we set off on foot along the green and verdant Mandakini Valley. A sturdy mule carried our luggage since we planned to stay the night at Kedarnath. The route is interspersed with waterfalls as the road gradually winds upwards.

At Bheembali, about 6 kms upstream, the Mahabharata story is reinforced at the temple to Bheem the mightiest among the Pandavas. At Guptkashi too it was Bheem who ran ahead of his brothers to catch Shiva. But Shiva who had taken the shape of the bull Nandi,  vanished inside a cave. It is perhaps testimony to the need for courage and strength if one is to relentlessly seek God. 

Bheembali Temple

  The trail abruptly vanishes at Rambada  located another km upstream. Locals told us that Rambada was a small hamlet which was entirely wiped out by the flood in 2013. Two small temporary structures and a faint trail mark the only visible traces of Rambada. This trail was abandoned and a fresh alignment across the Mandakini chosen since the hillside had become very prone now to landslides. The new alignment is some 2 kms longer than the older route and relatively steeper. 

The vanished trail ahead of Rambada
Bridge across the Mandakini and the new route to Kedarnath

     The difficult part of the trek begins after Rambada as the balance 9 kms or so is mostly uphill and the altitude increases rapidly as one approaches Kedarnath which is at  a height of 3580 metres or so. The lack of oxygen begins to affect the cardiovascular efficiency and it is preferable to walk slower than normal. By now the chill in the air too is palpable. One advantage though is that  one does take the name of Shiva with every step! Just as we crest the slope the village of Bhaironghat across the Mandakini becomes visible. This village was cut off by the floods from both sides. The locals attribute it to Bhaironghat Temple that still survives. 

Bhaironghat Village miraculously survived despite being cut off from both sides

    Bhima is said to have finally caught the elusive bull Nandi when he placed his legs on two  peaks astride the valley. Nandi which had thus far successfully hidden itself among other cattle  was left alone as they scampered for safety. The temple was constructed by the Pandavas at this site for Shiva as he finally acceded to their request for blessings and forgiveness. Not surprisingly, the sanctum sanctorum is surrounded by statues of all the Pandavas including Kunti and Draupadi. Krishna, the cousin of the Pandavas is there too. But the pride of place is granted to the Shiva Linga which is in the centre of the sanctum sentorum.    


    A bird’s eye view of the flood ravaged Kedarnath Town reveals a row of tents and some effort at reconstruction. The Kedarnath Peak at 6968 metres towers over the temple town. The Chorabada glacier to the North West is the source of the Mandakini and the companion  glacier to the North East is the source of the Saraswathi which meets with the Mandakini just to the South of the town. The cloudburst over the Gandhi Reservoir situated to the North East on 17 Jun 2013 resulted in the devastating floods. The reservoir no longer exists. 

Kedarnath Town
The Boulder that saved the temple in perspective

  For a town on the pilgrimage circuit it is surprisingly uncrowded. Indeed we could have two quick darshans of the bedecked Shiva Ling due to the sparse crowd. While circambulating the temple we come across the boulder that diverted the flood waters and saved the temple and indeed the faith of millions.  The linga in the sanctum sanctorum too was undamaged despite the sand and debris floating through the temple. It must have been testing times for the pilgrims who perished in the tens of thousands. While geologists attribute the temple being safe to the strong interlocking stones that formed the foundation as also a clever siting of the temple itself in relation to the other flimsy structures in the vicinity, it is undeniable that faith of millions also survived when the temple emerged unscathed. 

   

    Sitting in the sanctum sanctorum at dawn the next morning the vibes were palpable and the scalp tingled. The linga is believed to have been a natural meteorite stone. Indeed the cumulative faith of millions of devotees has invested the temple with its positive vibes. 

Kedarnath Temple at dawn
Mission Accomplished



    On the long walk back to Gaurkund I reflected on my experience. Prime Minister Modi had so memorably tweeted in May this year that all should come and experience for themselves the divinity of Kedarnath. The place was definitely infused with divinity but at the same time I was forced to acknowledge that unplanned development and constructions in the flood plains and most importantly human greed were responsible for the large scale loss of human lives. To retain the sanctity of Kedarnath it is important that the ecologically fragile Himalayas be conserved. One way of doing this would be to place restrictions on the movement of motor vehicles and helicopters and control access of pilgrims all of which only add to immense pressure on the fragile ecology and  scarce local resources. 

    We came away convinced that unless man learns to live in harmony with nature, he is doomed. Nature will always have the last laugh and restore equilibrium with or without man’s help. The choice is ours    

A Visit to Kailash Manasarovar – Part III

Brief Recap

      Part 1  covered the experiences of 40 pilgrims who had gathered from all over the country in Delhi on 12 Aug. Part II  described the sojourn through Kumaon Hills over a period of nearly ten days till they crossed over into China on 26 Aug.

Expanding the frontiers of understanding

      As we walked down to our buses waiting 500 metres below the Lipulekh pass, I mused on the history of the region. Our Rishis had a unique understanding of the geographical frontiers of the Indian civilization. Recognizing that the regions around Kailash and Manasarovar region were the source of three rivers that fed the Indian sub continent – Indus, Sutlej,  and the Brahmaputra, they extended the ideological frontiers by weaving myth and legend around these regions. Militarily, Zorawar Singh, the Dogra General, subdued Tibet by forging ahead to Gartok  bypassing Manasarovar. He defeated the Tibetan commander who had fled to the fort in Taklakot. Subsequently he and his troops went on a pilgrimage to Kailash and Manasarovar. In the process he had succeeded in integrating Ladakh after a Treaty in 1841. He died fighting in Taklakot where there is a memorial in his name.  Even the British balked at extending the frontiers to this extent and were content in ensuring Tibetan autonomy. 

     Our buses took us to the Customs and Immigration Building at Taklakot for immigration formalities. By now it was bright sunlight. By Shanghai Standard Time it was now almost noon when we finally reached our hotel. Our Tibetan guides now took charge of us after a sumptuous lunch cooked by Nepalese and Indian cooks who were in Taklakot on a work permit. The next two days were given over to acclimatization since Taklakot is at 3940 metres. By now we had all been affected by the symptoms of acute mountain sickness – sleeplessness, a nagging headache and depressed appetite. Noses peeling were par for the course. The best cure we found was a nose mask available for 3 yuan for no sun screen could actually prevent sunburn on the Tibetan plateau. All this did not stop us from exploring Taklakot which had a Nepalese Market, an Indian Market and a Chinese market. The legacy of Lipulekh pass as a major trading route was intact. We were pleasantly surprised to note that Prestige pressure cookers, Parle G, Centre Fresh and the ubiquitous Haldirams were all very popular. The locals did not appear too friendly for obvious reasons. We kept a wary distance from them and all conversation was done through calculators. There were a large number of Nepalese labourers on work permits. Most of them had been to India with one of them even having an Indian PAN card. Modinomics strikes again! 


    After two nights we were itching to be on the road again. Our next destination was Darchen 102 kms away passing through Rakshas Tal and Manasarovar. Rakshas Tal was the location where Ravan was said to have meditated on Shiva. A few intrepid souls took a dip in both Rakshas Tal and Manasarovar as though to balance the two opposite poles of their personalities. It reminded me of the story of when the devas, the asuras and human beings had approached Vishnu for diksha. They were all told the single word ‘dh’ and went back satisfied. The asuras took it to mean Daya or compassion. The devas took it to mean daaitv or control over sense organs and for the humans? It was daan or charity! Now we have all three aspects within us and the close juxtaposition of Rakshas Tal and Manasarovar was symbolic of this. 

 
Rakshas Tal

      As soon as we reached Darchen we sought in vain for a darshan of Kailash. The cloud cover was ominous and we wondered when grace would descend on us. A few enterprising Tibetan traders seeing our buses converged quickly on us selling crystal and rudraksh beads. Darchen was just two streets of shops. We did find a grocer selling pecan nuts and walnuts – very vital sources of energy for the severe tests lying ahead of us. The next morning the Parikrama began from Yama Dwar 10 kms away. Here prayers were offered to Yama – to spare us Swarg for now and allow us to complete the Parikrama. 

 
Yama Dwar

     
Porters and ponies were now allocated on a lucky draw basis. I was lucky to bag Gyantse and his pony Dasakpa.  I did not intend to use the pony but it was a mobile ambulance in unfamiliar country. Gyantse was very kind always waiting for me with my flask of hot water as I trudged along the Parikrama. My wife had a porter and a pony. Deraphuk our next destination 11 kms away was at an height of 5060 metres and due West of Kailash. Our LO had warned us that he would leave at 4 PM for Charan Sparsh the closest we could get to Kailash. We barely managed to make it with 20 minutes to spare. By 4 we were ready for a further climb of 2.5 kms. On this stretch there were no porters and ponies. It had started raining and as we got closer to the glacier a light snow began to fall making our climb even more difficult. It was almost dark when we reached the glacier from where the Kuraily river emanates from the West Face of Kailash. Kailash was still hidden by dark clouds. It was time to begin our descent. 

 
Charan Sparsh Glacier


As I walked back I spotted my wife with a few others making their way slowly. I decided to wait for her till she returned from the glacier. I had Rajesh Lochab a Professor in Hissar University and Satish Chand Chauhan a retired ONGC employee for company. That decision to wait turned out to be fortuitous… gradually Kailash began to reveal itself. The darkness began to dispel, and it was bright sunlight soon.  Kailash was revealed in all its glory – my fellow pilgrims were overcome, some shedding tears as the very purpose of our visit had finally been achieved. 

View of Mount Kailash from Charan Sparsh
View of Kailash from Charan Sparsh

  Meanwhile, even more miraculous events were happening back at Deraphuk. Mythili had stayed behind to nurse Bharati Ben who was down with mountain sickness. As she helped her and Chandrama to the toilet down the road she happened to see Kailash clearing. Just then a few locals were passing by one of whom had binoculars.  A swift request and Mythili was granted the same view we had from further up the mountain! Indeed God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. We finally made our way down tired and happy. The next day would be the most strenuous as it involved crossing the 5650 metre high Dolma pass followed by a steep descent to zunzui phu some 20 kms away from Deraphuk.

 
Dolma Pass

    The next day ever faithful Gyantse arrived bright and early when it was still dark and we were off. We had been warned that crossing Dolma pass would be the most difficult part of the trek. However, I found the Lipulekh crossing more difficult perhaps because we were under time pressure then. Dolma pass while higher did not have any time constraints. Further, we had climbed Charan Sparsh, the previous evening almost at the same altitude. So we were fairly well acclimatized. Whatever the reason, we crossed the Dolma pass in good time. Incidentally, a mantra had been given to me during my first night at Budhi. While asleep I had received a strong suggestion that I chant Om Namo Shiv Shankar Shambhu. This was a strange sequence. While climbing however this turned out to be the perfect chant as it had a rhythm of five breaths which made me set an even pace. The astonishing sight of Gauri Kund met our eyes as soon as we crossed the Dolma Pass. This was where Parvathi is said to have bathed and Ganesha was decapitated by an enraged Shiva as he prevented him from meeting his mother.

 
Gauri Kund

After  the invigorating sight of Gauri Kund, there was a steep descent of 4 kms or so which ponies would not be able to negotiate. This would also involve crossing a snow field. This had to be negotiated by all irrespective of their age or fitness. It is to the group’s credit that all were successful in making it through in good time  Another nine kms of walk through reasonably flat terrain brought us to zunzui phu. There were a few anxious moments when  a few pilgrims took longer than expected. More seriously, Vijailakshmi  was taken seriously ill due to dehydration and acute mountain sickness. Immediate action taken by our redoubtable LO ensured that she was put on a drip. By next morning she was fine though. 

With the difficult part of the Parikrama over, the next morning saw the pilgrims in high spirits. The picturesque route of 5 kms between Zunzui phu to Dzang phu was covered in good time. The buses were now available to pick us up and take us to the final port of call, Manasarovar itself. 

 
Pilgrim’s Trail



At Manasarovar, we had been advised to bathe only after noon, by when the water would be warm. As soon as we landed, my wife and I rushed to find a secluded spot on the shore. Braving the cold my wife slipped on a poncho and slipped into the water. With each dip, she prayed for the absolution of the sins of all her extended family members. I followed soon thereafter. Hopefully, the debt to my ancestors and my parents was paid in full. 

manasarovar dip ….Absolution!



After a sumptuous lunch, I decided to spend some time on the lakeside. Gradually, the clouds moved away and the Southern face of Kailash was now revealed to us.  Patterns and shapes were being revealed – some saw an Om, others saw Nandi and so on. I wondered at the capacity of the human mind to create form out of no form and its feeble attempts to describe the indescribable. To me Kailash, shaped like a phallus was the symbol of creation and Manasarovar a symbol of the sea of consciousness of which individual consciousness was a tiny part. This individual consciousness enabled us to appreciate and revere creation and indeed nature. As the Bhagavad Gita puts it, at first there was only the One. The one then split into many in an effort to know itself. We were all part of this effort. 

 
The Southern Face of Kailash seen from Manasarovar

The next day a wonderful havan was conducted by Manikanda Murty, Mohan Raj and Kartikey Swamy in Tamil. Most of the pilgrims did not understand the words but the emotions resonated in all. 

      The pilgrimage was now finally over. It was only  left to cross back into India and make it back to Dharchula more or less traversing the route in reverse. In high spirits, much as a horse bolts back to its stables at the end of day we covered astonishing distances of upto 27 kms in a day on our way back. The promised helilift materialised over two days. Finally, the prodigals returned home. 


What had I learned? Community living, an ability to adjust and get along with people of many different regions, a gradual dropping of baggage both literal and mental, and elimination of the obsession with personal hygiene and looks. The journey of transformation was complete. We were  finally where Shiva had always been -an ascetic and a renunciate. 

A Visit to Kailash Manasarovar – Part II

Brief Recap

Part 1 covered the experiences of 40 pilgrims who had gathered from all over the country in Delhi on 12 Aug and the sojourn through Kumaon Hills over a period of nearly ten days till they crossed over into China on 26 Aug.

Expanding the frontiers of understanding

As we walked down to our buses waiting 500 metres below the Lipulekh pass, I mused on the history of the region. Our Rishis had a unique understanding of the geographical frontiers of the Indian civilization. Recognizing that the regions around Kailash and Manasarovar region were the source of three rivers that fed the Indian sub continent – Indus, Sutlej, and the Brahmaputra, they extended the ideological frontiers by weaving myth and legend around these regions. Militarily, Zorawar Singh, the Dogra General, subdued Tibet by forging ahead to Gartok bypassing Manasarovar. He defeated the Tibetan commander who had fled to the fort in Taklakot. Subsequently he and his troops went on a pilgrimage to Kailash and Manasarovar. In the process he had succeeded in integrating Ladakh after a Treaty in 1841. He died fighting in Taklakot where there is a memorial in his name. Even the British balked at extending the frontiers to this extent and were content in ensuring Tibetan autonomy.

Our buses took us to the Customs and Immigration Building at Taklakot for immigration formalities. By now it was bright sunlight. By Shanghai Standard Time it was now almost noon when we finally reached our hotel. Our Tibetan guides now took charge of us after a sumptuous lunch cooked by Nepalese and Indian cooks who were in Taklakot on a work permit. The next two days were given over to acclimatization since Taklakot is at 3940 metres. By now we had all been affected by the symptoms of acute mountain sickness – sleeplessness, a nagging headache and depressed appetite. Noses peeling were par for the course. The best cure we found was a nose mask available for 3 yuan for no sun screen could actually prevent sunburn on the Tibetan plateau. All this did not stop us from exploring Taklakot which had a Nepalese Market, an Indian Market and a Chinese market. The legacy of Lipulekh pass as a major trading route was intact. We were pleasantly surprised to note that Prestige pressure cookers, Parle G, Centre Fresh and the ubiquitous Haldirams were all very popular. The locals did not appear too friendly for obvious reasons. We kept a wary distance from them and all conversation was done through calculators. There were a large number of Nepalese labourers on work permits. Most of them had been to India with one of them even having an Indian PAN card. Modinomics strikes again!

After two nights we were itching to be on the road again. Our next destination was Darchen 102 kms away passing through Rakshas Tal and Manasarovar. Rakshas Tal was the location where Ravan was said to have meditated on Shiva. A few intrepid souls took a dip in both Rakshas Tal and Manasarovar as though to balance the two opposite poles of their personalities. It reminded me of the story of when the devas, the asuras and human beings had approached Vishnu for diksha. They were all told the single word ‘dh’ and went back satisfied. The asuras took it to mean Daya or compassion. The devas took it to mean daaitv or control over sense organs and for the humans? It was daan or charity! Now we have all three aspects within us and the close juxtaposition of Rakshas Tal and Manasarovar was symbolic of this.

 

Rakshas Tal or Demon’s Lake!

As soon as we reached Darchen we sought in vain for a darshan of Kailash. The cloud cover was ominous and we wondered when grace would descend on us. A few enterprising Tibetan traders seeing our buses converged quickly on us selling crystal and rudraksh beads. Darchen was just two streets of shops. We did find a grocer selling pecan nuts and walnuts – very vital sources of energy for the severe tests lying ahead of us. The next morning the Parikrama began from Yama Dwar 10 kms away. Here prayers were offered to Yama – to spare us Swarg for now and allow us to complete the Parikrama.

 

Yama Dwar – guarded by the god of Death!

Porters and ponies were now allocated on a lucky draw basis. I was lucky to bag Gyantse and his pony Dasakpa. I did not intend to use the pony but it was a mobile ambulance in unfamiliar country. Gyantse was very kind always waiting for me with my flask of hot water as I trudged along the Parikrama. My wife had a porter and a pony. Deraphuk our next destination 11 kms away was at an height of 5060 metres and due West of Kailash. Our LO had warned us that he would leave at 4 PM for Charan Sparsh the closest we could get to Kailash. We barely managed to make it with 20 minutes to spare. By 4 we were ready for a further climb of 2.5 kms. On this stretch there were no porters and ponies. It had started raining and as we got closer to the glacier a light snow began to fall making our climb even more difficult. It was almost dark when we reached the glacier from where the Kuraily river emanates from the West Face of Kailash. Kailash was still hidden by dark clouds. It was time to begin our descent.  

Charan Sparsh

As I walked back I spotted my wife with a few others making their way slowly. I decided to wait for her till she returned from the glacier. I had Rajesh Lochab a Professor in Hissar University and Satish Chand Chauhan a retired ONGC employee for company. That decision to wait turned out to be fortuitous… gradually Kailash began to reveal itself. The darkness began to dispel, and it was bright sunlight soon. Kailash was revealed in all its glory – my fellow pilgrims were overcome, some shedding tears as the very purpose of our visit had finally been achieved.

View of Mount Kailash from Charan Sparsh

Meanwhile, even more miraculous events were happening back at Deraphuk. Mythili had stayed behind to nurse Bharati Ben who was down with mountain sickness. As she helped her and Chandrama to the toilet down the road she happened to see Kailash clearing. Just then a few locals were passing by one of whom had binoculars. A swift request and Mythili was granted the same view we had from further up the mountain! Indeed God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. We finally made our way down tired and happy. The next day would be the most strenuous as it involved crossing the 5650 metre high Dolma pass followed by a steep descent to zunzui phu some 20 kms away from Deraphuk.

Dolma Pass revered by Buddhists

The next day ever faithful Gyantse arrived bright and early when it was still dark and we were off. We had been warned that crossing Dolma pass would be the most difficult part of the trek. However, I found the Lipulekh crossing more difficult perhaps because we were under time pressure then. Dolma pass while higher did not have any time constraints. Further, we had climbed Charan Sparsh, the previous evening almost at the same altitude. So we were fairly well acclimatized. Whatever the reason, we crossed the Dolma pass in good time. Incidentally, a mantra had been given to me during my first night at Budhi. While asleep I had received a strong suggestion that I chant Om Namo Shiv Shankar Shambhu. This was a strange sequence. While climbing however this turned out to be the perfect chant as it had a rhythm of five breaths which made me set an even pace. The astonishing sight of Gauri Kund met our eyes as soon as we crossed the Dolma Pass. This was where Parvathi is said to have bathed and Ganesha was decapitated by an enraged Shiva as he prevented him from meeting his mother.

Gauri Kund – 18600 feet above Sea Level

After the invigorating sight of Gauri Kund, there was a steep descent of 4 kms or so which ponies would not be able to negotiate. This would also involve crossing a snow field. This had to be negotiated by all irrespective of their age or fitness. It is to the group’s credit that all were successful in making it through in good time Another nine kms of walk through reasonably flat terrain brought us to zunzui phu. There were a few anxious moments when a few pilgrims took longer than expected. More seriously, Vijailakshmi was taken seriously ill due to dehydration and acute mountain sickness. Immediate action taken by our redoubtable LO ensured that she was put on a drip. By next morning she was fine though.

With the difficult part of the Parikrama over, the next morning saw the pilgrims in high spirits. The picturesque route of 5 kms between Zunzui phu to Dzang phu was covered in good time. The buses were now available to pick us up and take us to the final port of call, Manasarovar itself.

Pilgrim’s Trail

At Manasarovar, we had been advised to bathe only after noon, by when the water would be warm. As soon as we landed, my wife and I rushed to find a secluded spot on the shore. Braving the cold my wife slipped on a poncho and slipped into the water. With each dip she prayed for the absolution of the sins of all her extended family members. I followed soon thereafter. Hopefully, the debt to my ancestors and my parents was paid in full.

 

Absolution!

After a sumptuous lunch, I decided to spend some time on the lakeside. Gradually, the clouds moved away and the Southern face of Kailash was now revealed to us. Patterns and shapes were being revealed – some saw an Om, others saw Nandi and so on. I wondered at the capacity of the human mind to create form out of no form and its feeble attempts to describe the indescribable. To me Kailash, shaped like a phallus was the symbol of creation and Manasarovar a symbol of the sea of consciousness of which individual consciousness was a tiny part. This individual consciousness enabled us to appreciate and revere creation and indeed nature. As the Bhagavad Gita puts it, at first there was only the One. The one then split into many in an effort to know itself. We were all part of this effort.

Kailash and Manasarovar framed

The next day a wonderful havan was conducted by Manikanda Murty, Mohan Raj and Kartikey Swamy in Tamil. Most of the pilgrims did not understand the words but the emotions resonated in all.

The pilgrimage was now finally over. It was only left to cross back into India and make it back to Dharchula more or less traversing the route in reverse. In high spirits, much as a horse bolts back to its stables at the end of day we covered astonishing distances of upto 27 kms in a day on our way back. The promised helilift materialised over two days. Finally, the prodigals returned home.

What had I learned? Community living, an ability to adjust and get along with people of many different regions, a gradual dropping of baggage both literal and mental, and elimination of the obsession with personal hygiene and looks. The journey of transformation was complete. We were finally where Shiva had always been -an ascetic and a renunciate.

A Visit to Kailash Manasarovar – Part I

Moko kahan dhoonde re bande, main tho tere paas re’ or “Where do you search for me, I am always close to you” sings Kabir.

Unfortunately, the stresses of daily living and the frustrations of hopes belied and expectations not met give the lie to this claim. I tend to agree with Osho when he says, “ The old man has been a worshipper of dead Gods in temples and mosques and synagogues … the new man is one who denies God but will instead find his living God in the trees, in the birds, in the rivers, in the oceans, in the mountains, and in the stars…”.

The insistent pull of the mystical and the divine demands to be heard…and this time we decided to heed the call by applying for the Kailash Manasarovar Yatra organised by the Ministry of External Affairs. The lucky draw proved how unlucky we were …… we were put on the waiting list for Batch 17 scheduled to start from 12 Aug in Delhi. It was subsequently confirmed after several dropouts as rains continued to lash the Kumaon Hills through which the Yatra is held. We accordingly reported to Delhi for the medical tests. Here for the first time, we met up with our co pilgrims at the Gujarati Samaj Seva Kendra (GSS) where we were put up in a dormitory with shared bathrooms. It was back to community living after several decades. We soon got to know each other despite the barriers of language and region. As expected Gujaratis were in the majority… nearly seven of them who bonded together instantaneously. Gradually though new bonds were forged. Bharati Ben from Baroda who occupied the bed next to me separated only by the common steel frame of the bunker bed, was a fighter who had lost her father at a young age and had been forced to take on the mantle of provider. She had chosen to stay unmarried. There were four young strapping Malayalees and surprisingly the Tamilians this time outnumbered them.

The medical tests at the Delhi Heart and Lung Institute were fairly stringent, so much so that four pilgrims were forced to drop out. Murali and Mythili a couple from Chennai were lucky to scrape through despite initial high BP and were brave enough to take the vital decision to go ahead with their trip despite the real chances of being rejected at Gunji (height 3160 metres),  where repeat tests were scheduled before the final crossing over to Tibet. We were now down to forty including our Liaison Officer (LO) Amit Goel. The Group now consisted of three 70-year-olds, a few above 60 and the majority between 30 to 40. Ekta the youngest was 23 years old while Shweta a software engineer at Cisco in Bangalore was 30. The 70-year-olds were amazing. Ram Prasad Bhandari had walked from Rishikesh to Kedarnath a distance of over 100 km.  68-year-old Parthasarathy was a repeat Yatri …he had already been to Kailash 8 times. He had never employed a porter or a pony. This was his ninth voyage. The LO during his briefing rightly stated that if the yatra was to be successful we would all now need to behave like one family, with the strong taking care of the week. To the group’s credit that was exactly what it did during the next 25 days or so.

The next day during the final briefing at the Ministry of External Affairs we were warned about the perils of high altitude trekking and Chinese sensitivities. The Dokalam Plateau standoff was at its peak and little wonder then, we were more worried about the Chinese than the Himalayas. That evening there was a bhajan sandhya program and we were all set to leave the next morning.

Bhajan Sandhya at GSS

Meanwhile disturbing news was trickling in. Batch 16 that had left 4 days before us had been held up at Sirkha due to cloudburst at Malpa. There was a very real danger of the entire yatra being scrapped. Sure enough, we were told late at night that we would not leave the next morning. A high-level meeting was planned to be held at the MEA on 15 Aug despite being a national holiday where the final decision would be taken. Pilgrims had come from all over the country and even abroad. Jayan for instance, had resigned from his job in Saudi Arabia and was faced with the prospect of being jobless without having gone on the pilgrimage. Similarly, pilgrims like Abhishek and Sree Krishna who were employed in the private sector had very limited leave and were answerable to their bosses and faced the real threat of being fired. Others with their own businesses like Bharati Ben, Manikanda Murty, Mohan Raj had put their businesses on hold. It was time for prayers to begin and in true Indian tradition jugaad! Shailu from Nainital knew the MD, KMVN which organised the Yatra on the Indian Side. I pulled a few strings to get the District Magistrate Pithoragarh on board. The GSS was rife with rumours. Our beloved Doctor Nagashaynam was quite keen to return to Bangalore as his patients missed him.

God must have been confused…. the pilgrims were very keen on continuing their journey while their loved ones were just as keen that it be scrapped since there was a very real danger of the situation worsening due to the possibility of flash floods as in 2013 when the entire Yatra had to be abandoned. Finally, the pilgrims won …… a decision was taken that helilift would be organised wherever trekking was not possible. With this, we were all set to go!

Departure to Almora

Sojourn through Kumaon Hills

Once we left Delhi we were in the competent hands of the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN) who had a mighty job on their hands since the entire schedule had been disrupted. Batch 16 had to be retrieved from Sirkha where the bridge at Malpa had been washed away. Batches 14 onwards would now have to be helilifted from  Budhi to Dharchula on their return journey and Batch 16 onwards would have to be helilifted both for onward and return journeys. Apart from this, the civil population in these villages was severely affected due to the disruption of logistics. For instance, all the porters and ponies were now stranded on the other side of Malpa and could not return to their home base Dharchula. Malpa incidentally was the site where Protima Bedi had lost her life during the Kailash Yatra in 1998 after a landslide. Finally, the Chinese too needed to be taken on board since any change in schedule would necessitate changes in visa and arrangements on the Chinese side. This entire jigsaw puzzle had to be put in place by proactively anticipating and reacting to the situation. This was where our batch was lucky in having an extremely competent LO who was well aware of the nuances of helicopter operations in disaster relief situations. He immediately warned us that all heavy baggage would have to be shed in Dharchula and only up to 5.5 kgs could be carried by each pilgrim. This single decision proved to be extremely fortuitous in the circumstances.

However, there was still some time to go before we could expect to reach Dharchula for the helilift since each location had limited capacity to accommodate pilgrims. Our first halt was at Almora, a beautiful pine filled hill station created by the British as a satellite hill station to Nainital.

Selfie time at Almora
Selfie time at Almora

 

Baijnath Temple

The next day however instead of leaving for Dharchula we were diverted to Chaukori.  We passed through the Baijnath Temple at Bageshwar, an ancient temple which had the unique distinction of housing both a Shiva lingam and the statue of Parvati in the same sanctum santorum. A boulder in the temple has another unique attribute …. it can be lifted by nine persons using just one finger!

Boulder at Baijnath Temple Bageshwar

 

Since we reached Chaukori by Lunch, we had the whole afternoon free. Chaukori is another beautiful town at a height of 1650 metres. A few of us decided to explore the countryside and to begin exercising our limbs which would soon need to function at full tilt.

Trekking in Chaukori

 

KMVN Tourist Rest House Chaukori

The next day there was another change of plans. Helilift of Batch 16 from Dharchula could not be completed due to adverse weather. We were therefore forced to move to Didihat a few hours short of Dharchula. Here the baggage restrictions were stringently enforced by  Parthasarathy – a very wise measure indeed. Innumerable trips were made to the neighborhood grocer who obligingly provided his weighing scales. Gram by agonizing gram we shed all our excess baggage and our ideas of daily hygiene – henceforth we would function on just two pairs of clothes, two pairs of underclothes, a windcheater and a jacket. We would bathe only when there was hot water which was very rarely and clothes would be washed if we stayed longer than a night in any place. A fitting offering to the ascetic Shiva!

Fortunately for us, just as we reached Dharchula the next morning we received news that helilift operations were on and the LO efficiently ensured that the senior citizens and ladies were manifested on priority. By late evening we were all in Budhi. The first real test would begin the next morning – crossing the 3350 metre high Chialekh pass.  Due to the various issues involved, there were very few porters and ponies available. Again only senior citizens and a very few ladies could be accommodated. A steep ascent was followed by a rewarding view of the Garbyang Valley. There was further bad news ….. all of us would have to negotiate a landslide which had just occurred the previous night. Bholenath was turning out to be not so Bhola after all!

The mist covered Chialekh Pass

 

Negotiating a landslide in Garbyang with the help of SDRF
    Enroute we passed Batch 14 who were walking back after having successfully completed the visit. Some of them seemed much the worse for wear probably due to the excess baggage they were carrying and the deepening uncertainty. Finally we reached Garbhyang – a sinking village which boasts of many IAS and IPS officers. There were the most delicious apple trees here which the villagers kindly allowed us to have.
Garbhyang Village

By afternoon we were in Gunji (height 3150 metres) where we would have two nights of acclimatization and repeat medicals by the ITBP. The next morning we were put through the medicals with 13 of us  asked to again come back in the evening due to elevated blood pressure levels. BP upto 160 is acceptable in high altitude. These 13 were higher than this. By evening there was yet another change to our program. We would now be delayed by a further 3 days since Batch 16 was yet to cross over into China. This gave much-needed respite to the those who were afflicted by giving them a chance to recuperate. Meanwhile, under the aegis of KMVN a  home stay was organised at Nabhi, a village some 4 kms away from Gunji.  This would help us get to know the local culture and more importantly keep the worry warts occupied mentally and physically. In retrospect, this enforced stay of 3 days helped the entire batch to get fully acclimatized to the high altitude. Meanwhile, the Nabhi home stay proved very entertaining with song and dance and much merry making.

Home Stay at Nabhi

There was some disturbing news when we returned to Gunji. One of the members of Batch 16 had suffered a stroke at Navidhang our next destination. The ITBP doctors were, therefore, more rigorous in their testing. Finally, the day for our move dawned and by now all 40 had been certified fit for further travails. Navidhang at 4260 metres  was located some 18 kms away. Here we would get to rest for a few hours before leaving for Lipulekh pass at 2 AM.

Kalapani located halfway between Gunji and Navidhang is the source of the Kali River. The Kali temple at the site is truly a sight to behold.

The Source of the Kali Nadi
Kali Mandir at Kalapani

We reached Navidhang by 3 in the afternoon. It was vital that we reach the Lipulekh pass located at 5160 metres height by 6.30 AM since the Chinese authorities would not wait longer than that to escort us into their territory. Fortunately, for us, there was no batch waiting to cross over from the Chinese side so the timings could be some what more flexible.  Those who traveled by pony would have to be careful of hypothermia due to the intense cold and the biting winds at the top of the pass as they would have to wait longer than those who were walking up. Indeed Shweta who was inadequately covered up succumbed to a severe bout of shivering on the pass. Timely reaction from others helped her to recover. Fortunately for me,  I did not have to wait at all as I was walking up. Each step was an effort. They were already calling out my name when I reached the top of the pass. Hastily paying off my porter I rushed over to the Chinese side. We could see the buses parked some 500 metres below.  It was the morning of 26 Aug some 13 days after we had all met in Delhi. We were finally in China!

….. To be Continued

What to do when bad things happen to good people

When bad things happen to good people
Adult upset driver man in front of automobile crash car collision accident in city road

 What to do when bad things happen to good people

The grape vine has it that you are a ‘shoo in’ for the corner office, the big promotion. The body language of your associates has begun to change. Premature congratulations start filtering in, and much as you want to tell your heart not to get too excited, not to count the chickens before they hatch, your dreams now have more to do with ‘when’ than ‘if’. You tell yourself that all your hard work has been recognised. It is a just world. Obviously, there is a God. You can already imagine yourself at the high table.

When the long awaited announcement takes place, and you find it is not you but a rank outsider, who is no patch on you, but is better connected to the powers that be, you drain the bitter dregs of disappointment. The world is obviously not just. You seriously question your value system, your moral code.

What should you tell your children?  That it is a dog-eat-dog world, that what matters is who you know and not what you know? The disappointment is so bitter you can taste it. Like acid, it corrodes your soul. Your relationships have begun to get affected. Every time you speak your resentment rises up to the surface. Your words are laced with sarcasm. Now people start avoiding you and you are quick to label yourself as a loser.

Why do bad things happen to good people … rather why do good things happen to bad people? Like the Jack Nicholson character in the movie  ‘As Good as it Gets’  tells a  waiting room in a crowded depression counselling clinic, “You are not pissed off because you have it so bad, it is because the other fellow seems to be having it so good.”

The scenario is not much different for those suffering from heartbreak either. The pain is if anything even greater. What does one do to get over the disappointment of rejection, of heartbreak?

No man is an island. We are all interconnected through a complex web of swirling energies. If an energy picture were to be taken it would be quite unlike the two-dimensional camera pictures that only appeal to one of the sense organs – the eye. Reality is too complex to be made sense of through the limited faculties at our disposal. In this complex ever changing maze the only control one has is over one’s own energy patterns.

 
     The Buddha often narrated the parable of the arrow to help people get over their disappointment. If someone is struck by an arrow, he will feel pain. But if a second arrow strikes him at the very same spot, the pain will be much more than just doubled. And if a third arrow were to strike him in the same spot the pain would now be a thousand times more intense. Ignorance too is like the second and third arrow. It intensifies the pain. Right understanding can help one get over the pain. The first arrow cannot be helped – it can be deliberately shot by someone, a colleague, an ex-lover, or self-inflicted by nostalgia.  Unpleasant feelings rise to the surface, and you are caught up in the vortex as you sink deeper and deeper into despondency. In effect, with every unpleasant feeling that followed the first one, you have shot another arrow at the same spot and intensified your pain a thousand times. The wise person does not worry, complain, weep, pound his chest or pull his hair, or torture his body and mind. Instead, he calmly observes his feeling. He knows he is not the feeling and he is not caught up in it. The pain cannot bind him. He does not lose his calmness, does not worry, does not fear, does not complain. Thus the feeling does not grow and ravage his whole being.He is now able to do what is needed to be done without getting swamped by energy draining emotions.
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Image result for image of siddhartha and devadatta swan

             Whenever  I am faced with disappointment I imagine an arrow striking me and I calmly pluck it out and throw it away.