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New Delhi, September 25, 2009
We were in a different world for seven days in mid-September, having embarked on a pilgrimage to the Himalayan mountain shrines of Sri Kedarnath and Sri Badrinath.
The trip nearly did not happen, as it was raining heavily in Delhi and all over north India almost non-stop for three days. On the eve of our departure, a friend rang up and said he had heard on radio that the "Char Dham" (Kedar-Badri-Gangotri-Yamunotri) were closed because landslides had blocked the route.
A quick Google search revealed, of course, that the news was at least a day old. To be on the safe side, enquiries were made with the tour operator, a Tamilian called Rajan (Kala Rajan Tours), who conducts regular trips to these places and travels with the larger groups in buses. He assured us that the routes were clear and as far as rain was concerned, it was part of the deal. It rains frequently, mostly in the afternoons, in the Himalayas and there are frequent landslides. Huge rocks and rubble block the roads but the Border Roads Organisation usually manages to clear it within a few hours. So we decided to stick to the programme with a prayer on our lips.
Initially, it was suggested that we, a group of ten, start off at 5 o’ clock in the morning. The target was "Vasishta Guha", 22 km from Rishikesh where we expected to arrive by lunchtime. However the group members decided to start only after participating in the "Nirmalya Darshanam" at the "Uttara Guruvayoorappan" temple in Mayur Vihar, Delhi.
Accordingly, our vehicle, a Force Traveller (we found it to be extremely comfortable) picked up all of us from our residences and we were at the temple before it opened.
To ensure an auspicious journey, coconuts were broken at Ganapathi’s nada and we also gave money for "Ganapathi Homam" for the entire 7-day duration of the trip.
Two senior citizens in our group followed us in a Toyota Terago (at first sight could be mistaken for an Innova, but drinks petrol. This led to certain interesting situations when a couple of Scorpios lined up behind her at a petrol pump at Joshimath that incidentally had only a single pump, supplying petrol) at the regulation one car length throughout the trip which they did thanks to the skill of driver Thapa.
Our driver Dharmendra had a lot of fun throughout the trip, making fun of poor Munian, who served as ADC to one of our senior members. Quite unused to mountains, this man from Erode served as a speed regulator whenever the needle went past 25 km. Finally Dharmendra told him to keep quiet (almost like Adi Shankara advocating Advaita), as such advice would put the driver in two minds and lead to a mishap.
The rain had let off a bit when we started at around 6 o’ clock. After about an hour’s running we stopped at a wayside motel for breakfast. Most of us had the first taste of what was to be our staple diet for the next six days—the Aloo Parantha served with "Dahi" (curds). Soon we were at Muzaffarnagar, when it started raining. A traffic jam in this town delayed us considerably and we managed to reach our destination for the day only by 3 o’ clock.
On the way, we experienced our first miracle and a taste of things to come. This was when turning a corner the vehicle was brought to a halt by huge rocks and rubble blocking the way. By this time, we were already on the ghat section high above the swift-flowing Ganga.
Anyway, back to the road block where, like Bhima finding an old monkey blocking his way while searching for "Kalyana Saugandhikam", we were getting a trifle impatient. Help came in the form of a bulldozer that sent the rocks plunging down in no time. We were impressed by the speed and precision with which the machine was made to twist and turn to clear the road without itself joining the plunging rocks. Sometimes, all it takes is a slight miscalculation and some soft earth for such an eventuality.
The rubble was cleared and we proceeded to "Vasishta Guha". It is a cave where the great sage Vasishta is supposed to have sat in meditation. In the late 19th century, Sri Purushothamananda Ji, disciple of Brahmanada Saraswati – direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, set up an ashram there being managed by his handpicked successor Sri Chaitanyaji now. Sri Purushothamananda ji was a contemporary of Sivananda and Tapovan ji.
Soon, we stopped on the roadside beside a gateway that proclaimed to be built during the centenary of the ashram. Vehicles cannot be taken inside as only a cemented pathway leads down to the Ashram located along the banks of the Ganga. Here we got our first lesson, that is, nothing except "dhabas" (small restaurants like the "Thattu Kada" in Kerala) are at ground level in the entire state of Uttarakhand. For every "Prayag", confluence of two rivers where you go down the steps or pathways, there are shrines on hilltops.
As we approached the ashram, a strong smell of cow dung greeted us. We passed some buildings serving as cow sheds. We were led to the room of Sri Chaitanyaji. He is a lean and bearded man and looks to be in his 50s rather than his actual age of 85. He had come to the Ashram at the age of 19 and after serving for some time, decided to become a Sanyasi. However, Sri Purushottamanandaji asked him to seek permission from his mother first before taking up the vows. The Guruji also accompanied him all the way to Kerala. The mother readily agreed but the son, fearful of creating a scene, made himself scarce at that time but was brought back.
Thus started his apprenticeship and with the passing away of the Guru in the year 1961, February 13 (Maha Shivaratri day), he became the Ashram head. The Swamiji asked whether we had lunch and then directed us to the dining hall. All of us sat on the floor and soon fresh and hot chappatis, dal, rice and curds were placed before us. The smell of food attracted a lot of stray dogs. The Himalayan dogs look fearsome with their thick coat of hair that extends all the way to their curly tails but are docile, by and large. One of them actually tried to enter but was driven away. After lunch, we were shown our rooms, located just a few yards away from the Ganga, roaring past like an express train on her way to the plains.
In the evening, we walked down to the river, picking our way carefully through huge rocks lying haphazardly on the riverbed, a testimony to the power of the river that might have brought them down when in spate. All of us washed our hands and feet in the chilly waters and watched the sun set behind the mountains and vapours rising from the river. A member of the group showed us Arundhati Guha, where the wife of Vasishta had stayed.
At dusk, we were taken to Vasishta Guha. You have to stoop at some places and suddenly it opens up into a semi circular room with a Shivalinga placed on a raised platform. Another platform to the side was where Guruji sat in meditation. No one is allowed to sit there. The cave that stretched quite a way inside the mountain was walled off at this point by Purushottamandaji. Apparently, some Rishis in the higher reaches of the Himalayas use that part of the cave for meditation in their astral bodies (the physical bodies will be in another location).
We were told that quite a lot of foreigners come for meditation and spend hours inside. On the way, we had seen quite a lot of them, staying either in the various ashrams or their modern version of resorts. We also sat there for a few minutes in the dark cave with the only available light coming from a small lamp placed in front of the deity.
Then we went outside where a Swamiji had started evening prayers reciting "Shiva Mahimna Stotra". After a while, the Head Swamiji came and went inside the Guha and performed Puja. He came out and performed Arati before a picture of his Guru placed on a raised platform.
Next, we were taken upstairs to a small shrine of Shri Purushothamananada Ji where he performed Arati. By this time, it was past 8 o’ clock and time for dinner that turned out to be simple fare of Chappati and Dal. Then it was time for an audience with the Swamiji. In his room, seated on a chair, he recounted the days he had spent in the ashram. "I have been here for the past 50 years," he said. Except for visiting shrines, he had never been to the south. In the old days, the ashram had only tents and wild animals like jackals and more dangerous ones like leopards and pythons roamed the area during the night. Several of the dogs were killed by leopards.
"Once, I was sleeping outside and felt suffocated. On opening my eyes, I found that a python had wrapped itself around my blanket. Somehow, my attendants managed to drive it away," the Swamiji said. These days, when roads are being widened by breaking the mountainside, a new danger has emerged, that of rockslides. The workers come and advise the ashram inmates to stay inside during the blasting but there is no guarantee of safety as the rocks can land anywhere.
We started off at 5 0’ clock after a bath and hot tea. The ashram provided hot water for bath. As the van started moving, we also began our daily morning ritual of reciting Vishnu Sahasranamam and Lalitha Sahasranamam. The van was all this while climbing up and down various mountainsides. At sunrise, fog enveloped the road but Dharmendra pressed on. This stocky, moustachioed man proved to have steady hands to negotiate the perils of the mountain roads.
At this time we experienced a second miracle. A second rockslide had taken place at the very same place where we were held up the previous day when the bulldozer was clearing the rubble. This was of a more massive nature and no vehicle was able to pass through since morning. According to the plan drawn up by the tour operator, we were to have spent the night at Rishikesh in which case we would have been stuck there.
The next stop was at Deva Prayag where the Bhagirathi joins Alaknanda to form the Ganga. It was here that Lord Sreerama had performed "Pithrutharpana" for Dasharatha during Vanavas. Jagatguru Adi Shankara had visited this place and meditated for a few hours. As mentioned earlier, this entailed a walk down to the confluence after which we climbed several steps to visit a temple dedicated to Lord Rama.
After breakfast at a dhaba, we continued our journey to reach Gupta Kashi at lunchtime. The Pandavas had sat here on penance after the Mahabharata war praying to Lord Shiva to absolve them of all their sins. The Lord appeared in due course but finding that they had committed grave sins of killing their Guru Dronacharya, brethren Duryodhana and other Kauravas and even the Pitamaha Bhishmacharya, found the amount of sin to be too much, disappeared in the form of a bull. There is a Shiva temple on top of the hill, which we visited. Here the pujas are performed in a secret manner with the offerings put inside a shelled coconut (copra) through a hole on the top. We had lunch at a dhaba, the usual aalu parantha and curds, very tasty and filling.
By evening, we reached our night halt at Sonprayag (elev. 1829), confluence of the Soneganga and Mandakini. The hill shrine of Triyogi Narayan is about half an hour's drive away. When we reached there, it started pouring. The Panditji took us to the place where the divine marriage of Goddess Parvati and Lord Shiva had taken place. Rolling thunder and lighting created an atmosphere of some divine plan unfolding as he was explaining details of the wedding. Then we were taken to the main shrine where we placed firewood on the Homa Kund where Shiva and Parvati had taken the "seven pheras". The place has the added significance of having had the presence of all the 33 crore devas for witnessing the divine marriage. It is considered auspicious for married people to have darshan there.
The driver had told us to return as fast as possible as darkness was descending and the mountain road was treacherous. So, regretfully not much time could be spent there.
We were ready for the Kedarnath trek at 5 o’clock in the morning. One of the members of our group, a veteran of three trips, gave us the option of taking hot water bath in the room itself or at the hot springs at Gauri Kund (elev 1981 mt). We opted for the former to save time. As soon as the gate for Gauri Kund opened, we were on our way.
Gauri Kund is significant as this was the place where Lord Ganesha got his "elephant head". According to the story, Parvati had gone for a bath instructing Ganesha not to let anyone in. When Lord Shiva came and was barred by Ganesha, he grew angry and lopped off Ganesh’s head. Parvati, finding that her son was dead, grew sorrowful. Shiva instructed Vira Bhadra to bring the head of the first seen person on the north side. Vira Bhadra found an elephant and cut its head off and brought it. Shiva affixed it on Ganesha’s torso and thus, he became the elephant-headed God.
Here again, the road snaked through mountainsides and after about half hour journey, we were at Gauri Kund, crowded with horses (actually mules) with their handlers seeking custom. Since the seven of us had opted to trek, except the seniors, we decided to press on. It involved a climb through narrow lanes of a market during which we bought stout bamboo sticks for Rs 10 each.
The first part of the trek up to Rambhada, a distance of 7 km was thoroughly enjoyable. A black hairy dog suddenly appeared from nowhere and started following us like the dog that followed Yudhishtira right upto heaven. The sun was not yet up, the Mandakini welcomed us gurgling alongside. Then we had the divine sight of the Himalayan peaks gilded in gold by the rising sun’s rays.
All this while, helicopters carrying pilgrims were making frequent sorties between Phata and Kedarnath. The cost of a return journey is around Rs 7600. This clatter of the ‘copters was the only ‘modern’ sound that we heard as there was no signal for mobile phones, no one had radios or ipods, thank God. It was quite fascinating to hear the tinkling of the bells on the mules and their clomping. At places, one has to swing the stick to prevent them from brushing against you.
Reaching Rambhada, we rested for some time in a dhaba and had breakfast. I had an aalu parantha and tea while some others opted for Pav Bhaji. Both were served dripping with butter. Then the trekking was resumed. However, the first hundred yards on the steep incline, crowded with horses and slippery with their dung, proved that this part of the trek was altogether in a different league.
We started feeling the lack of oxygen at high altitude. I could feel my heart beat and quickening of breathing. This entailed stopping every hundred yards or so and waiting till breathing returned to normal. The path continued snaking its way upwards. All this while, the snow-clad mountains were drawing near. We crossed numerous springs, running across the path, wetting our shoes and socks. We had made it to Rambhada in reasonably good time, in about two hours but now our speed was reduced barely to a crawl. People returning from Kedar advised us to take it easy and proceed slowly.
While resting at one of the teashops (they allow people to rest there, no need to buy tea at every stop) we had a brief chat with a five-member group from Nepal. All of them were elderly but full of good spirits. They said walking was the right way to conduct a pilgrimage, howsoever arduous or slow it may be. We were much reassured by their kind words.
All this while, a saffron-coloured building was seen high up on the mountain side. I thought that from there, it would be plains. However, on reaching there, found that the road was still going up. As we went up, the trees disappeared, to be replaced by grassy meadows on the mountain slopes.
By this time, it was afternoon and time for showers. Soon the peaks were shrouded by thick rain clouds and it started raining. We had considered ourselves to be well equipped to meet this eventuality, having bought raincoats for Rs 10 each. However, chilly winds accompanying the rain, threw back the hoods time and again and made us clutch on to the suits with one hand. Hands and fingers were soon numb, feeling like being put in the freezer.
By this time, we had reached the last 1.5 km in the plains. Kedarnath town (elev. 3581 m) could be seen in the distance but the driving rain made us seek refuge in a shelter. All this time, we were worried about the three elders who had opted for doli rides as they were not to be seen. At this particular point, we re-established contact with them.
At around 4 0’ clock, we were at the bridge, the entry point to the town, set at a higher elevation. My heart sank when I saw that we had to climb yet higher. Our constant companion, the Mandakini was gushing forth past the railings on the pathway. The more energetic ones in our group had already gone ahead and booked us into the first hotel, The Maharashtra Sadan. We had a lunch of paranthas and then got under the razai (quilt) for some rest.
Then, at 6 0’ clock, we proceeded to the temple, just about five minutes walk. One good thing, I found about Kedarnath, was that it had absolutely no vehicular traffic. Ponies are also not allowed beyond the bridge. The owner of the guest house, himself a pandit, accompanied us to the temple. The streets are swept clean frequently by sweepers who, of course, demand money from pilgrims. I found it wiser to leave my soggy shoes and socks in the room and walk barefoot to the shrine.
The temple itself is a modest structure of grey stone with minimum carvings. Inside, we were told that we could have Arati Darshan. We were made to sit in front of the deity adorned in golakas of gold. A finely carved hooded serpent stood over the Jyotirlinga, covered in tiger skin. The ceremonial umbrella "Venkottakuda" was in silver. In the meanwhile, priests started chanting Shiva Mahimna stotra. This particular hymn was composed by a Gandharva Pushpadanta, who unknowingly had stepped on the Nirmalyam of Lord Shiva, to absolve himself of the sin.
Sitting there with folded hands, I felt very emotional and tears started coursing down my cheeks. Maybe it was the thought of having been privileged enough to undertake such a trip for the entire family, through punya acquired through the devotion of generations ahead of me.
Outside the temple, there were sanyasis in saffron robes and one or two decked up as Shiva himself. One of them refused point blank to let his picture be taken while another one obliged.
The next day, we had hot water bath in the hotel and were at the temple by six. This was for the abhishekam for which special tickets costing Rs. 3500 (for five persons) had to be taken. This time, the jyotirlingam, shaped roughly like the hump of a bull, was without adornments and we joined the devotees seated around it. According to legend, Bhima had found Shiva in the shape of a bull here, the same bull that had disappeared from Gupt Kashi. Bhima chased it but managed only to catch the hump before it once again disappeared. The face reappeared at Pashupati Nath in Kathmandu, Nepal while the other body parts can be seen in different shrines in the region.
The devotees were anointing the jyotirlinga with ghee (the last product of milk, symbolising prana), sindoor and water. These rites are to be performed by the husband and wife together. The puja concludes with smearing the lingam with ghee and sindoor with both hands and touching it with the forehead. This act symboIises transferring our sins to the Lord. I felt myself sliding down and with some difficulty managed to get up. Now I understand the expression of washing with tears, because these are the sort of emotions unleashed during such pujas where you can actually touch the deity. An experience that made me forget the chill in the air and disturbed sleep of the previous night and all other discomforts.
Kedar is also significant as it was here that Adi Sankara had eventually vanished from the earth. A "Dand" in marble marks this spot behind the temple.
For a brief while, we were able to talk to the hotel staff about life in Kedarnath. They were all praise for the mobile phone, introduced about five years ago. Otherwise, it involved a trek all the way from their villages near Gupt Kashi for conveying any news about their families left behind there.
Asked why no motorised transport was available, they said the pony-doli operators were resisting any such change. Also there is an imminent danger of pollution. So let the sylvan surroundings remain like that for some time more.
After an early breakfast of Uppuma for a change, we started the return trek. The initial few kilometres were quite pleasant with the sun yet to rise and the pathway clear of the horses. Soon the sun came out and one by one, we divested ourselves of the muffler and jacket. The trusty bamboo sticks proved invaluable during this part of the journey, preventing us from slipping on the inclines. This time, we stopped at Rambhada only for cool drinks and managed to reach Gauri kund by 1235 hrs. By this time, we had realised that light food is most appropriate during trekking.
Then we had a quick lunch at Sonprayag and in a deviation from the original programme of staying there for the night, decided to press on towards Badrinath. We managed to reach Pipalkoti by 8 o’ clock in the night, thanks to the superb driving skills of Dharmendra. The lodging was at Indira, attached to hotel Indralok where we had dinner and retired for the night.
Thus ended the first part of the trip.
On the expense front, we spent Rs 32,750 for the van. The hotel rent worked out to be around Rs 150-200. The main expenses were for morning abhishekam at Kedarnath of Rs 4,300 (works out to be Rs 430 when divided among ten members), again for abhishekam at Badrinath for Rs 13500 (1,350 per person).