‘There is no happiness for him who does not travel, Rohita! Thus we have heard, Living in the society of men, the best man becomes a sinner….Therefore, wander!’
Indra (Protector of Travelers) to a young man named Rohita
September 9, 2015
It’s 6:15 and the Uttarakhand mountains are busy steaming up slow-moving clouds into the early sky. Swathes of cloud are literally flowing from mountain tops like the steam from coffee mugs. It is condensation in progress. Far more engaging than the diagrams called How Precipitation Works I hazily recall from geography class. Arrows on paper are forgettable, but drag a schoolchild up a mountain and stand them in the rain and they’ll be sure to remember the lesson. Far below and to our right as we head north, the Ganges flows south, gleaming like a platinum chain necklace.
I’m on my way to do yātrā—Sanskrit for ‘journey’ or ‘procession’. Tirtha-yātrā is a journey or pilgrimage to a holy site. I am heading to Kedarnath, the most remote of four sacred sites in a Himilayan pilgrimage circuit called Chota Char Dham (‘small circuit of the four abodes’ since there is another Char Dham that covers a greater geographical area). The other three sites in the Chota Char Dham circuit are Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri, all in the Northern Garhwal region, around 50 kilometres as the crow flies from the Tibetan border. Badrinath is a seat of the god Vishnu, the Preserver. Gangotri and Yamunotri are both goddess sites. Kedarnath is a seat of Shiva, the destroyer, and was the epicenter of the floods and slides in June 2013 that become one of the worst natural disasters in the nation’s history. I had found myself just three days earlier, researching guesthouses and booking taxis, and inspecting backpacks and shawls in the shops in Rishikesh, with a gently focused compulsion. I didn’t tell many people I was going. This compulsion felt private in effect and universal in origin. But not social. Not social at all.
I kept my intentions to myself, partly because I didn’t want to jinx it, and partly because I wasn’t sure I could satisfactorily explain my motives. For one thing, I am not a Hindu. I am drawn to do this, as I have found myself increasingly ‘drawn’ to places rather than ‘planning’ the next trip. Plans, such as booking travel tickets and hotels and such are simply the technical responses to this draw. The question, ‘Where do you plan to go next?’ becomes a bit of a non sequitur. These days it feels more as if I am pulled somewhere like a swallow is pulled south in the winter ‘whose way and motion is a harmony and dance’ as Wordsworth said. Well, at least that’s the idea. The reality is often awkward, messy, sweaty, exhausting, frustrating, and occasionally intimidating. Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Arjun, my driver, stops for chai and we take the measure of each other. He is gentle and carefree and seems happy that I’m doing this. “You will see the power of Shiva,” he promises, reminding me of the famous temple at Kedarnath that some claim is 6,000 years old. Arjun’s mood, already maintaining a position well towards the upper end of the positivity scale, improves noticeably as we get deeper into the mountains and further from the hubs of commerce. A youth stands in the road and waves a blue flag at us. Arjun explains that he is letting Char Dham pilgrims know that there are free refreshments, all funded by individual donations. The CD player grinds out a percussion-heavy chorus that somehow reminds me of Welsh male choirs. It blends well with the scenery.
“This is Garhwali music,” Arjun says, proudly.
“Are you Garhwali?”
He glances at me in the rear view mirror and smiles.
“Yes. My family live in Rishikesh thirty years, but this is my home.”
He throws an arm out of the open window and gesticulates at everything between heaven and earth. When we stop for breakfast a couple of hours later, we sit next to the owner who is involved in heated debate with a young man.
“I don’t understand what they say,” says Arjun ruefully. He looks embarrassed that he does not know the language of his heritage. “It’s not like Hindi at all.”
Many people here look Tibetan. This is Bhotiya country, the Transhimalayan people who reside in the upper Himalayan valleys between India and Tibet. Things are different here from the plains. I see local women hitch-hiking alone, something I’ve never seen anywhere else in India.
“This is an interesting part of Uttarakhand,” I comment.
“This is not Uttarakhand.”
Arjun is joking, but not quite.
We make good time (only once do the road conditions require me to get out and walk) and reach the town of Sonprayag in the Rudraprayag district by one o’clock. Here, we learn that we can’t travel the 5 km to Gaurikund by car, where I had planned to spend the night because the road is still under construction from the damage inflicted in 2013. We are surrounded by around 40 bored-looking semi-employed young men, mostly taxi drivers and mule herders neither of which I’m intending to recruit. I feel suddenly self-conscious, reluctant to exit the car. The Kedarnath yatra is open from mid-April or May through until Diwali (New Year) around October/November. Chota Char Dham used to receive 2.5 million pilgrims annually, but numbers dropped dramatically after 2013. The last spike in visitors was in June/July during Shravan, the holy month dedicated to Lord Shiva. From September 17 it will spike again with the start of Ganesh Chaturthi. But now is a definite lull. I am the only foreigner, and also the only woman that I can see. I often find myself wondering where the women are in India. They seem as elusive as Snow Leopards. As a Westerner, I represent the hope for some fast cash, a hope I dash almost instantly by announcing that I plan to walk the whole way rather than hire a mule. I am, thereafter, looked upon with a kind of sullen disinterest. Arjun is shuffling his feet, obviously itching to get back on the road.
I head towards the GMVN office. The acronym stands for Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nagam; a state government agency that oversees tourism activities in the Garhwwal region, which is largely related to pilgrimage. I feel a bit relieved when a kindly gentleman is able to explain to me in passable English that I need to register as a yatri (pilgrim) and that the registration office opens at three.
The question is many layered. “Yes, single person,” I reply.
I brace myself for a two hour chai session as he casually adds, “And you also get medical check.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right.
“All pilgrims must take medical check.”
What could he mean? All kinds of unsavoury images spring to mind, mostly involving sharp shiny instruments. All further inquiries from the staff behind the registration windows are rebuffed. They won’t speak to me. It is not yet three o’clock. In a country where only 2% of things happen on time, that 2% can be surprisingly intransigent. I find a tiny chai stall and stuff myself and my backpack in a dark corner, scrawling notes in my journal while being silently assessed by the other customers. I write, Possibly in over my head at last.
I return to the GVMN offices promptly at three. A sign the size of the window boasts a new Android application for pilgrims offering ‘real time self-navigation’, and access to emergency services. The clerk throws me a suspicious look and grabs my passport.
This is obviously highly irregular.
“Go police,” he barks.
I try not to sound unnerved.
He motions dismissively towards an office perpendicular to his. On the veranda, one policeman and a heavy set man in plain clothes are seated on plastic chairs.
“You need go registration,” says the heavy man before I can say anything.
“But they sent me here.”
I decide the best policy is to silently refuse to move while smiling innocently. My presence was bound to become irritating sooner or later and they’ll be happy to be rid of me. Perhaps suspecting my tactics, the plainclothes man enters the office and returns bearing a large musty register. After a few false starts, he begins—rather reluctantly—to jot down the relevant details from my US passport, during which he looks up to ask. “Single person?”
I nod to confirm.
It proves an impressively incremental procedure, with an additional five minutes of rummaging through the office desk drawers to find a workable pen. Somehow between us, we complete the form, though I am unable to stop him writing ‘United Kingdom’ in the box asking ‘country of origin’. I return to the registration officer who equally reluctantly issues me with a pink receipt slip and shoos me into an adjoining office. I am relieved to discover that the medical check up consists of a blood pressure test and two questions. Am I a single person and do I take hypertension pills? No, did he think I needed to?
“Your fitness level very high,” he says, which I find encouraging.
I am presented with a “biometric” card, that officially establishes me as being in adequate physical condition for the journey ahead. On the back is a brief message in English, Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil from the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare about the merits of breast-feeding babies up to six months. I had my own bar code and a hand-written number. I am a card-carrying pilgrim. Number 154. No one has asked me for any money. But I am still unclear about the logistics. An internet search had generated conflicting results. The old road from Gaurikund to Kedarnath had been washed away in the floods and an entirely new route built in 2014. I’d been quoted anywhere between 16 and 22 kilometres.
This did not sound especially far, but the route spanned altitudes between 2000 and 3500 metres. I had traveled to high altitude regions before; Kashmir, Ladakh, Spiti, and Upper Kinnaur—and to some domains significantly higher than where I was headed. But I had not trekked in those places and I wondered how my middle-aged body would cope. Come to think of it, I had never trekked in my life. Before I left Rishikesh, a friend and experienced trekker had asked me if I had any trekking experience.
“I’ve gone on lots of long walks, does that count?”
She hadn’t said anything.
I finger the biometric card in my pocket, as if its existence alone could guarantee physical endurance. I strap on my backpack and merrily trot through the next police barrier heading for Gaurikund, 5 kms north. Sonaprayag is a one road town, so even with my poor sense of direction I was in no serious danger of getting lost. I wave cheerfully at three policemen stationed in a wooden hut the size of a garden shed. One of them waves back but then shouts something in Hindi. I decide to ignore it and keep walking. I hear more shouts and pick up the pace. I’m in no mood for a repeat performance of the two-hour interrogation by Delhi police two years earlier. I can’t let this whole crazy venture be scuttled by a petty bureaucratic technicality pounced upon by some bored jawan scanning for CIA plots in the bottom of his chai glass. A chilum-soaked saddhu with rasta hair and loincloth leans down from a rock temple.
“Yes! Om Namah Shivaya!”
“Om Namah Shivaya,” he says, his hand raised in a kind of salutation.
It’s like a gateway. A test. The saddhu has blessed me. I’m good to go!
But then the whistles start. By this time I have crossed an iron bridge and am picking my way through a construction site. A road worker lopes up alongside me and points urgently to our rear. I wave my hand in a ‘don’t worry I’ve got this under control’ way and pretend to be on the phone while my heart starts to race. The whistles begin to fade and I relax a little. But then they start up again and this time they sound fully insistent. Oh my god! Can they please stop blowing their whistles? I just want to go on pilgrimage! I keep going, banking on the jawans being too lazy to pursue me very far. But I am wrong.
“You not hear whistle, madam?”
The policeman’s face is more perplexed than angry. I mumble something about having been absorbed in prayers, feeling uncomfortable lying, and even more so for lying about a religious practice.
I’m still walking but the return to the checkpoint is inevitable. The policeman slows down and I give up and turn to face him.
With a flash of clarity simultaneous with a slight pang of shame I realize that all he wants is to stamp my registration card. We walk back together to the police post, where (to make me feel even worse) he buys me a chai and lets me take his photo. This false start is the first in many lessons from the yatra guru—the teachings received through the very act of pilgrimage itself. I didn’t need to elbow my way in and insist on a place in the queue. I was already there. The path was already open. I just had to walk it. The jawan was far more forgiving than he needed to be and I had been far more stubborn than I needed to be. Trust. Trust is the first lesson.
The second is patience. It turns out that the police are not letting anyone through the checkpoint until 4 pm. It is now a quarter to four. I am the only one there. Couldn’t they bend the rules a bit? No. It is impossible. Quarter to four and no sooner. I sip my chai and consent to discuss the relative merits of Barack Obama and Narendra Modi with the cops and respond to the occasional inquiry about being a “single person”. By four o’clock, eight other people have gathered at the checkpoint. A middle-aged man and his son, a jolly group of four students from Delhi, and two single men; a tiny curly-haired barefoot fellow from Tamilnadu, and a thin laconic serious-faced youth. When we at last get the all clear to forge ahead, and begin to make our way north along the half-built road, I see the sense of keeping strictly to a common starting time. I was beginning to understand that everything going on around me was for the protection of the pilgrims. If everyone set out at the same time, then the police could keep track of who was on which leg of the journey. If one of us didn’t turn up at the next registration post, an alert would be raised and a search would ensue.
The silt and gravel road soon diverted to a wide path paved with flat rocks to prevent slippage and lined with a railing painted in the colours of the Indian flag. Only one kilometer in, and the concrete huddle of Sonprayag slipped effortlessly behind me and soon disappeared behind a bend. As I head up a series of switchbacks, forested mountains encircle me like a mother’s arms. To my right, mountain slopes of pine, oak, birch and rhododendron, sliced by waterfalls the length of skyscrapers that plunge into the Mandakini river, barreling through the ravine with a pounding roar or low rushhhhh depending on the relative acoustics of my circuitous ascent. To my left, a lushly shifting rock collage of moss and lichen rummaged by fat-bottomed lizards is interspersed with waterfalls cooling the surrounding air like a natural AC, and glacial water springs where I pause to splash sweat from my neck and face. The number of pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand is why it is known as ‘Dev Bhoomi’—‘God’s country’, but the landscape alone seems a suitable stomping ground for any passing divinity. An ebullient post on Tripadvisor asserts, in such surroundings ‘even an atheist would get involved with the feeling of spiritualism’.
I pace my stride to try to keep in occasional sight of at least one of my fellow pilgrims. My sense of security stems from a trust that those of us who share this road also share some common values, but I am also breaking the golden rule of the solo female traveler by walking alone in the wilderness. The little Tamil man keeps looking back in my direction, as if checking on me. I arrive in the mountain village of Gaurikund one and a half hours later. I actually walk through and out the other side before I realize there is no more to it. At 6,000 feet, the town provides a base camp for the Kedarnath yatra, and until the road is repaired, it can only be reached on foot or by horse. There are two streets. One winds down into a staircase to the riverbank. The other continues on and up 17 kilometres and another 6,000 feet into the Garhwal Himalayas. Gauri is another name for Parvarti, Shiva’s wife. It was here, legend goes, that she performed a series of ascetic practices to win his affections, while he remained unmoved, deep in meditative retreat and in mourning for his deceased wife, Sati. Even when the God of Love shot arrows at him, intended to make him fall for Parvarti, Shiva opens his Third Eye and incinerates him on the spot, returning to his meditation as if nothing had happened. But meantime, as Parvarti’s own spiritual practice deepened, she developed complete control over body and mind and came to realize her true self as the universal goddess, Mahadevi. Eventually, the fervor of her realizations generated an intense heat that threatened to set the whole region on fire and shook Shiva from his meditative state. When Shiva went to see what was going on he found Parvarti–no longer a love-sick maiden but a force of nature. It was through the intensity of her love for him that Shiva came to realize his own power. Shiva and Parvati are the most passionate couple in history. For one thousand years, they did nothing but have sex, and didn’t even speak to another soul. Their passion made the earth tremble and the gods blush.
Gaurikund is also the place where Parvarti, while bathing in the hot springs, is said to have fashioned her beloved son, Ganesha, out of the soap suds from her body. Gaurikund’s hot springs were converted into a public bathing place, but were entirely destroyed, along with much of the town, in the natural disaster of 2013.
After one or two inquiries, I find the Tourist Rest House tucked away down a short flight of stone steps. I hadn’t booked a room, finding the online booking form confusing and deciding to trust the travel agent in Rishikesh who told me not to worry since it was low season. Fortunately, he was right and the place is only half full. Again I find myself the only woman, something I am going to have to get used to on this adventure. After another marathon form-filling session (into four separate ledgers), I am shown to my room by Palao, the earnest and diligent manager. It’s a bargain at 700 rupees; spacious with a large bathroom and plenty of hot water, and a double bed with spring mattress (Indian mattresses seem to have a personal grudge against human comfort). Palao’s uncle makes me yellow daal, chapati and aloo jeera. It tastes utterly amazing. I regret not having bought a map. There’s one hanging in the dining hall, but it’s faded and upside down. I twist my head around to try to figure it out and get suddenly dizzy. I check my phone. There is no reception. There is no wifi. The TV in my room has no signal. I can’t quite explain why this makes me feel so happy. But it does.
Palao hands me a chai on the balcony that affords a soothing wooded vista half way between the riverbed and the mountain rim. I pull a woolen shawl around my shoulders, welcoming the chillier air after the energy-sapping humidity of the plains.
He looks with me across the ravine.
“Before 2013, three large guesthouses were there.”
I scan the hillside but can find no evidence of any buildings having been there. Not a single cement block or piece of foundation.
“One guest house all 300 people die.”
The beauty all around me trembles a little as I take in this news. It will tremble some more in the days to come.