“through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us. . ."

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Kailas Yatra -Journeys from within and without

‘Thus the pilgrimage in the outer space is actually the mirrored reflection of an inner movement or development, directed towards a yet unknown distant aim which, however, is intrinsically and seed-like contained in the very direction of that movement. Herefrom springs the readiness to cross the horizons of the known and the familiar, the readiness to accept people and new environments as parts of our destiny, and the confidence in the ultimate significance of all that happens and is in harmony with the depth of our being and the universality of a greater life’. (Lama Anagarika Govinda - The Way of the White Clouds)

Sree Kumar flicks the handycam’s switch and focuses on the old lady’s face. ‘Okay, tell us why you want to visit Kailas and Manasarovar’. Ma Gouri beams into the lens of the handycam and lets out a stream in Gujrati. As I vaguely listen to the unintelligible words, I try to read into her expressions to understand why at the ripe age of 68, Ma Gouri wants to risk her life to see a mountain and a lake.

We were part of a group of Indians going on the yearly pilgrimage to Kailas – Manasarovar. In the foyer of the Ashok Yatri Nivas in New Delhi, my friend Sree and I had begun the making of our ‘epic’ on the Yatra. We had already decided that the shoot would be developed with Ma Gouri as the central character. In our early forties and holding a Sony Handycam for the first time in our lives – yet, fantasies ran as bright and wild as it did 20 or 25 years earlier.

I have been dreaming of this trip since 1987 when I took a passport. Every year I would cut out the advertisement of the Ministry of External Affairs that said ‘Kailas- Manasarovar Yatra’ on the top, go through the articles cut out from Frontline or The Hindu, re-read my books on Kailas, call up Sree and say how about this year. I would get the latest exchange rate of US dollars to be paid to the Chinese – and that would mark the end.

I saw Himalayas for the first time in 1986. The original plan was to take part in the Kumbh Mela at Hardwar and return. But after being nearly pushed to death in the melee’, I thought why not see Rishikesh too. At Lakshman Jhoola there was this ex-army officer’s lodge- he dug out maps of Garhwal Himalayas and urged me to push on to Gangotri. Mid-April and all I had was a sweater, borrowed from my brother in New Delhi. At Uttarkashi, people told me, Yaar, oopar baraf pada hai, gadi nahin jayega (its snowing up there, buses won’t go). I said, fine, where does the bus stop last? Harsil, they said. Okay, I said, I’ll go to Harsil. With a stinker of a goat by my side, I ride the early morning bus to Harsil. Turning a bend, I see my first snow capped mountain far away. Kya nam hai wo pahad ka? I break out excitedly in my broken Hindi but the goat gives me a baleful glare and says nothing. I never learned its name – but years and many trips to Himalayas later, that mountain is still within me. I still see the morning glow of sunshine on its peak… At Harsil, I gape at the snow-bound road. The army officer and men standing nearby look at me amusedly. Go on, the officer said, its only 25km to Gangotri, my men are up there at Hanuman Chatti, go to them if you need anything. I heave the bag up on my shoulder and walk on. The first touch of snow. I make a ball of it and throw it down to Bhageerathi. I think of my colleagues in the Bank mulling over their credits and debits and lets out a guffaw. I crawl over the snow piled up on the road. I am hooked for life.

Journeys have always been like that ever since. I have been content to reach wherever I can, never frustrated with unreachable destinations. There is a goal, but striving to reach it was what really mattered. NOW was all that mattered. The last point is always just ahead and one could go on further. Really, there aren’t any last points. One could go on and on ……

From New Delhi, it takes two days to by bus to Dharchula, the base camp on the Indo-Nepalese border. By the time we left New Delhi, I have interacted with most of my fellow- yatris. At Dharchula, the Yatris engage ponies and porters. Sree & I decide not to take ponies and to walk the entire stretch. Sree hires a porter so that he can shoot his video unhindered. I am the tough guy, veteran of so many treks, I will carry my own bags, thank you. I had forgotten the first lesson that the mountains had given me. Lessons in humility. The first day of trek from Tawaghat to Sirkha via Pangu, we have to do two days’ walk in one, the sun shines oh-so-brightly and my legs wobble half-way up; like the Lammergeirs that hover over our heads, a boy latches on to me, says, saab, oopar bahuth chadayi hai, bahuth mushkil hotha hai, aap porter lijiye (it’s a steep climb ahead and its tough for you, Sir. Let me carry your stuff). Panting, I shake my head – weakly. A kilometer below Pangu, I give up. Whew!

Our politicians and bigwigs should be brought to Himalayas occasionally. Make them walk, make them look at the awesome mountains, let them realize the abysmal insignificance of their petty being –

The pony riders move out, like tied-up lump of sacks. Sree and I, with the other trekkers, lag behind. Basu, the Bengali clerk in FCI, is a tough trekker – he surges ahead. I wonder whether he notices the scenery. Along the path, I periodically come across plastic covers, ‘Tiger Biscuit’ wraps, Cadbury chocolate wraps and even a plastic water bottle. Red, yellow, golden, blue. I diligently pick up every shred and put them into my jacket pockets. Makhan Singh, my porter, is puzzled. I tell him – ‘what these buggers think, are they walking in their backyard?’ His frown clears and he laughs. At the camp at Sirkha, after dinner, the liaison officer discusses the day’s journey. The policeman tells us what to look out for the next day. I pip in – ‘ Tell me, who eats Tiger biscuits?’ A fat Gujrati raises his hand – I love Ttiger! ‘Then,’ I say, ‘ keep the bloody wrappers in your pocket or is it too heavy for you to carry on the pony?’ The liaison officer calls me the ‘environmentalist’ and admonishes the group not to litter. The Gujju darts a malevolent glance at me. But since then everyone was careful about littering.

The 14th batch of yatris was on the third day of the trek. Going up, up all the time. We reach Malpa, where 2 years ago, nearly 300 people, including 60 yatris died in a landslide. Only 20 bodies could be recovered. We were going to do a small pooja there. Rakesh, whose parents died here, is with us. Rakesh is a brawny, paunchy, raucous fellow, but the death of his parents here softens us towards him. Swamiji lights the dhoop sticks and the rest of us do the same. I look down at my feet and at the gap between the blocks of rocks fallen from above. THEY ARE STILL DOWN THERE. Past Malpa and up and up to Budhi along side the river Kali. My heart chokes, my legs fly, I chant Om Namasivayh. Tears, as forceful as the waters of Kali explode and stream down my face. I am in a trance as I climb up the steep, slippery narrow ledge. Makhan Singh, my porter, has stopped singing Hindi film songs and silently tries to catch up with me before I slip into the abyss of Kali’s womb. I say, O lord, here I am, let me take all the pains and sufferings and misfortunes of the world, I will bear it and bring it over to you. My son’s face flashes before my eyes and pain grips my heart. Sorrow, sorrow, sorrow. I am unable to understand the whys and wherefores and wonder what am I doing here. I weep and weep and my heart emerges crystal clear and pure and peaceful. I realize that I have crossed the Pass. The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard. (Katha-Upanishad).

Come to think of it, journeys whether to Himalayas or to the grocery next door are by itself a microcosm of life. A single misstep on the narrow ledge and you’ve had it, man. And you cannot really opt out. No point in singing Stop-the-world-and-let-me-out. You can’t say, NO MORE. Even if you did, it doesn’t end there, you are only going in a different direction.

Beyond Malpa we climb a steep hill and reach Budhi. Cannabis indica (Ganja) grow lush on either side of the path. Makhan Singh plucks the leaves and presses and squeezes and rolls them into balls. Khar jaake dam maro, bhai saab (go home and have a drag, bro!), he says and offers the balls to me. I remember the HAPPINESS and put them reverently into my bag.

Every climb is followed by a steep downhill run. Occasionally you pause for breath; one doesn’t rest for fear of losing the body warmth. There isn’t much thought; mind is focused sharply on every step. But then, suddenly you come across a gushing stream or a waterfall. You see the tiny flowers clinging onto the rocks. You see a bird or two and are at a loss to identify them. And all the time, looking at you benignly, slightly amused, stand the snow-capped peaks. I pester Makhan Singh by asking the name of every mountain and he is vexed. Wo sirf pahad hai, saab, naam koi nahin unko. For him every mountain, every bird, every butterfly and every flower are just that. Sirf. Sirf. And I, like a dog let free, must explore, must see everything, must listen to every sound and smell every flower. I pause at a tree and run my hand over the bark. I bent down to look close at the millipede that crosses my path. At every little brook, I cup a mouthful of water. Sometimes I just stop and look. I wish I could take all these and put it into my haversack. Makhan Singh gets impatient. If we are to go like this we will reach the camp only after nightfall, he mutters. But after two days he is resigned to my ways. I know he likes me. Whereas his friends have to carry heavy loads, he has it easy. Every time I eat a chocolate, I make him take one. I talk to him about Kerala; about the ocean, the elephants, the green, green paddy fields and cashew nuts.

Sree passes by with his porter, Puran Singh. ‘Enthedey?’(How goes?), he nods and moves on. Sree is a good companion. In the trips we have been together, we never make it point to walk side by side. Sometimes we do, sometimes don’t. Sometimes we sit and chat. Sometimes the silences lengthen to hours. But we are content with each other. Each has his personal space. Each goes on at his own pace. Yet we sense that we look out for each other.

Crossing the Rowling Pass, we go by Kharbeyang, a small village. The houses have beautiful, intricately carved wooden doorways. On a steep slope I slip in the muddy, dungy slush, break my stick and fall on my back. Biscuits in my haversack are crushed and soggy. I throw it to the ferocious-looking dogs.

Gunji is a bigger village. The Kali and Kunti rivers do a prayag (confluence) here. It is a major frontier post of the ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police). There is a perceptible tension on the face of the yatris. Tomorrow morning there would be a physical check-up; those who fail will be detained. We meet a couple from the previous batch. Gloom spreads on the face of the older yatris. They huddle inside their sleeping bags. Home-remedies are whispered to counter the risen blood pressure. The younger set look nonchalant and crack jokes. I wander around. There is so much to see.

‘Everybody MUST hire a pony at Gunji’, the liaison officer orders, ‘or we cannot cross the dreaded Lipu Lekh Pass together’. We pass along Kala Pani, another ITBP post where we eat lunch and then further, walking along the pleasantest meadow I have ever seen, camp at Nabhithang, the last post of the ITBP. Towards our right, a few kilometers away, a mountain rises from the mist. I see the unmistakable ‘OM’–shaped glacier. Swamiji reads Sanskrit verses from a holy book. Dr.Ramachandra clambers up a rock and meditates, looking at the Om Parbat. I longingly gaze at the glacier and wish I could be there. Sree and I look around for a Malayalee jawan but have to be content with a Tamilian.

At 0230 in the night, 17000 feet high, we clamber up on the ponies, but I can’t stand the pain on my buttocks and the cold biting my toes. I walk most of the way. Up there near the Pass, we pass a dead pony and the live ones rear up in terror. The yatris shriek and fall thumpingly on to the snow. Velankar cries, o kahan hai ye khodawalla, kisi ne pakado ye janvar ko (where is the horseman, somebody hold this bloody animal). I mutter in the ears of the pony, Sabash bete, chalo bete, achcha bete.

We reach the top of Lipu Lekh Pass at around 0630. Exhausted, shivering; yet grateful that we have crossed the Pass. I look beyond the ledge into Tibet, now part of China. Faraway and all around- snow. Snow. Then, up came the 12th batch. They have a veteran look. They look at us patronizingly. We shake hands and hug. We ask them how it was. ‘Great, marvelous, you’ll find out yourself’. Some shout ‘Kailaspati ki jai ho!’ Some on their knees kiss Indian soil. Some shout anybody from Bombay, anybody from Baroda, etc. Makhan Singh, like the other porters who cannot follow us into China, is busy catching a client for the journey back home. Sitting slightly away on a ledge, I smoke a cigarette after many days. I wonder what makes the soil Indian or Tibetan or Chinese. I wonder at this frenzy of us humans to identify with some piece of earth. I pee on the Indian soil and move on to Tibet/China. Faraway, I see the Gurla Mandhata Mountain. Kailas must be somewhere out there.

The members of the 14th batch are as diverse as Indians can be. And the motive or inspiration for the Yatra varies from person to person. Nearly half of the 30 are Gujaratis. Seems the state government has offered them quite a number of incentives. Money, haversack, T-shirts and stuff like that. Arre yaar, if the Muslims can get a subsidized pilgrimage to Mecca, why shouldn’t the govt. subsidize us Hindus for the Kailas Yatra? Understandably, the rest of us are envious. 4 Delhiwallas as Delhiwallas can be. 4 Tamilians, 1 Kannadiga and we the 2 Malayalees form the South Block. The Southies sleep together, and the 4 Bengalis keep company. We snicker about the Northies and the Northies despise us. 5 or 6 of us trek all the way; the rest shamefacedly ride the ponies, gripping on to the animals in utter terror. The Bengali swami is on his 7th yatra but still very much a man of the world, however nicely he sings Robindra Shongeet. We sing bhajans in the bus, do puja chanting Sanskrit verses out of a book and throwing all sort of things into the sacred fire. The middle-aged businessman from Bombay throws schoolboy smut around and expects us to laugh. The fat matron from Gujarat presses herself against any whiskered male. The lady executives from Bombay complain about the lack of proper toilets. The Baroda sisters yak and yak and yak. Sree and I assess the sex appeal or the lack of it among our fellow women Yatris. People hardly look around. They don’t see the birds or butterflies, the flowers or the trees, the mountains or the streams. Getting to the next camp is the most important thing. Get to the camp first so that you can get the best bed. Get into the bus first so that you can get the best seat. Get into the dining room first so that you can eat before others do. The liaison officer says, ‘I wonder why people are taking so much of trouble coming this way. One could easily fly down to Lhasa from Kathmandu and then take a vehicle to Kailas and Manasarovar’. I am puzzled and disillusioned with my fellow Yatris and myself. Have we come here to relieve our past Karma or take a new bag of it back with us? But then at Darchen, at the base of Kailas, Lama Anagarika Govinda tells me – if you wish me to be your Guru, do not look upon my person as the Guru, because every human personality has its shortcomings, and so long as we are engaged in observing the imperfections of others we deprive ourselves of the opportunities of learning from them. Remember that every being carries within itself the spark of Buddhahood but as long as we concentrate on other people’s faults we deprive ourselves the light that in various degrees shines out from our fellow-beings.

Hore is our first stop out of Taklakot. In the morning, Sree and I take plastic bottles of water and defecate in the Barkha plains. Tibetan Mastiff dogs hover around our rear. A Tibetan walks by, singing an ethereal song that waft across the plains. Lone telegraph poles stretch away into the horizon.

Qugu. Wading slowly, I feel the cold creeping up my legs. Now my knees; now my thighs; Manasarovar gently beats against my chest. Head submerged, I look at the stones beneath. I let out breath slowly; bubbles, one by one plops – I am one with the lake. I am one with the world. I am one with all that Is.

At Zaidi on the shores of Manasarovar, the prayer flags beat out a strange rhythm in the strong wind. I sit on the leeside of the small mound and watch the blue lake. Out there four or five of Bar-headed Geese bob up and down as a large flock of Brahminy ducks feed contentedly nearby. Couple of Hoopoes fly over my head. I close my eyes. The vast expanse of the lake begins to flow into one’s mind. Amidst the drumming prayer flags I could hear a dog barking faraway. A Brown-headed Gull screeches as it climbs against the wind. The mind becomes still like a pot of water filled to the brim. The moment is so pregnant with inexplicable feelings and I feel things are about to be let loose. I frantically search for a break – then relaxes. Peace fills the mind again. Away, across the blue waters, Kailas glimmers in the sunlight.

Kailas. There are many mountains in the Himalayas – great height, sheer beauty, awesome power, infinitely remote – but Kailas is not a mountain. It is a huge magnet the size of a mountain that pulls people’s hearts towards it. Amidst the bare brown mountains this huge conical block of black rock topped with vanilla, lords over the Barkha plains. I talk to a Norwegian trekker at Parkha. He is a postal clerk back home but has been coming to this area for the last 4 years. I don’t believe in God, he says, but I can’t help coming back again and again and walk around Kailas. I have to. I must do it every year as long as I am alive.

Dolma Pass 19800 ft. Walking had become rhythmic in the lower altitudes. 20-25 km a day and one have to walk to a beat. Mine was Om-namasi- vayah –Om. Here at Dolma in the blistering cold and steep climb and rarified atmosphere, I cannot spare my breath for chanting. As the trekkers slump down gasping for breath, the Yak-bound brethren lumber up. In spite of the exhaustion, we have a superiority feeling. We WALKED, our faces said. The Yak riders are embarrassed. They say Om Namasivyah. It is the struggle to achieve that really counts, that makes the achievement worthwhile. One can do the parikrama (circumambulation) even in a helicopter.

There is story about a Zen master whose hut was ransacked by a thief who found nothing to steal. The monk was away and when he returned he caught the thief. The monk took off his only garment and gave it to him. Then, in the night, sitting in the nude, watching the sky, the monk said- ‘ I wish I could have given him the moon!’ Zuthul Phuk, the top of Dolma Pass. Snow falling continuously. It could turn out to be a blizzard. Around me are the prayer flags, the odds and bits left by people over the years - for here, the pilgrim has to leave something he owns. Snow falls over my gray beard as I silently stand witness to nature. You have nothing, my mind tells me; you own nothing. Even you, my mind laughs, belongs to nature. I lick the fresh snow and move on.

Kailas North face. Sree looks at the snow clad peak through binoculars and mutters- ‘Jeez, look at that snow balcony on top! Is that a white curtain draped over there? Sivan Pillai and Parvati Akkan have to be there and must be looking at us now’. Sree walks up alone to the higher ridge. He picks up a stone and offers it to Kailas- ‘this is for my father’; another one- ‘this is for my mother’. Velankar digs out a Bhajan book and starts chanting verses. Dr. Ramachandra bellows – ‘I want to die here at this moment! I don’t want anything more! I gaze at the mountain unblinkingly and am oblivious to the dipping mercury and the blowing winds. I am full-filled.

Aham nirvikalpo nirakara rupo vibhuthvacha sarvatra sarvendriyanam.

Na va sangatham naiva muktirnameya chidanandarupa sivoham sivoham.

(I have no form or fancy; the All-pervading am I; Everywhere I exist, and yet am beyond the senses; Neither salvation am I, nor anything to be known: I am Eternal Bliss and Awareness – I am Siva! I am Siva! ( Shankaracharya – Nirvanashalkam)

Post script: On the first night halt of our trek at Sirkha it rained. In the fibre-glass hut where we slept, water leaked little drop by drop at only one place. Just between where Sree and I slept, near the pillows, right on top of the Sony handycam, with its waterproof cover open.


(The above forms part of an intended book by the same name)


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  1. Beautiful ! Read just half of the post as now i need to go the clinic.I read it till the point where you saw that glacier.(i have been to Pindari glacier once but thats not the topic here).
    I am not very good with words so all i can say is that Mr.v.Balachandran ,you are a brilliant writer.

    Btw , i am a Kumauoni brahmin (uttranchali) ,a pucca pahadi ...Mansarovar yatra is in my wish list .
    Thanks for the mention of this post in your comment..gotta go now..

  2. One more thing ,it would be good if you add a tweet tab ,or a social share gadget on your blog.I wanted to tweet this post of yours.

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