October 7, 2015
A twilit afternoon. The sunlight that accompanied our chopper all the way from Phata abandons us just as we step down on the tarmac. The air is different here – crisp, blue and bitingly cold. Mountain peaks that appeared a friendly green from the helicopter loom intimidatingly dark from ground level, their tips lost among thick white clouds rapidly turning grey. At a distance, you see the temple, Kedarnath, lord of the mountains – grey, ancient, majestic, aloof… and one with nature.
A moment later it begins to drizzle – large, ice-cold drops that fall with searing randomness on exposed skin.
Despite the noise and presence of hundreds – vendors, visitors and officials stationed here – there is a prevalent silence, a solitude that urges you to speak in hushed tones. You look around in awe, suddenly, acutely aware of your own insignificance in the grand scheme of things.
Intruder, know thyself: you may visit, but you don’t belong.
The morning of the 7th is a blur.
I had to go through my set of unusually out-of-focus photographs to recall the events of the day properly. Photos, the app that has replaced iPhoto on my Mac, is better than me at documentation. It shows the time and location of each photo taken, which I find amazing. Technology has been a continual source of fascination for me, much to the amusement of my boys. They find my naiveté funny, at times exasperating, as I often come up with ‘new discoveries’ that they have been using for God knows how long. Their “Ammmaaaa….!” (roll eyes, shake heads) is a familiar part of my life.
And so, thanks to Photos, I know that we were in the bus at 6:17 am, trudging up the Shivalik ranges. The idea was to reach Sitapur by late afternoon, settle there for the day, perhaps look at some temples around and visit Kedarnath the next day.
There was a noticeable sombreness at the mention of Kedarnath – I am not sure whether it was due to the still vivid memory of the devastating floods of 2013, or the mere fact that it is located at an altitude of 11,755 ft above sea level. We had opted to skip the 4 – 5 hour trek for a 10 minute ride in a helicopter to save time.
I watched mesmrised from the bus as the first rays of the sun fell on the mountainside and reflected on the waters of Mandakini meandering across the Shivalik valley.
On the way we stopped for breakfast at a partially abandoned petrol station, where our duo of cooks conjured up a sumptuous spread, complete with semolina halwa. They were obviously up cooking breakfast and lunch while we were still in bed.
Back in the bus post breakfast, there was a sudden change of plans, as rumours that helicopter workers were going on strike the next day came via the phone lines. After another round of calls and consultation, we decided that the Kedarnath visit that was to happen the next day was better advanced to that very afternoon, just in case. As Chauhanji assured us, we could still make it if we rushed to the helipad at Phata. But then, when you’re heaving uphill the Himalayas through barely existing roads, there was only so much you could hurry!
We reached the helipad at sometime around 2:00 pm. There were rumours (again) that Kedarnath temple would close at three, which caused mild panic. The officials there, however, kept reassuring us that we would be able to make it on time. They advised us to leave our bags behind and carry only the bare minimum weight. The kind of precautions they were taking made me slightly wary, though it was also good to see that nothing was being taken for granted. The usual ‘chalta hai’ attitude was refreshingly absent.
The helicopter ride was uneventful though I could see that my fellow passengers were quite tense – they had done their research and were keenly aware of the risks involved. I had not; so my ignorance proved to be my bliss. Or perhaps I have a diminished sense of danger in certain contexts.
The surreal feeling that gripped me as I stepped out of the helicopter intensified as I walked up to the temple. I could feel my lungs crying out for oxygen, and like others, I was also panting loudly. It was pure will power that kept my legs moving forward. Till I reached the temple.
Stepping inside the ancient stone portals was sublime. Maybe it was because of the camphor being used there in the temple (they say camphor replenishes good old O2), but I was no longer aware of my thirsty lungs, nor my aching legs. All I felt then was this overwhelming need to let go… Of everything. And just be, secure in the belief that everything would take care of itself.
Sitting in front of the ‘swayambhu’ (self-manifested) Shivaling, automatically obeying the instructions of the poojari, I wept. Without inhibitions. Like a child. Maybe there is a child in all of us, biding time?
The best thing about travelling with strangers is that their presence does not intimidate you. It doesn’t matter if they think of you as silly, crazy or worse. You are secure in the transience of your relationship. Here today, gone tomorrow. Good while it lasts. That’s it. There is a sense of liberation that comes with that knowledge.
We were back at the helipad, sipping some much needed, overly sweet tea and waiting our turn with the chopper. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, the ground was sprinkled with what seemed like white crystals – someone up there had decided to add a handful of salt to the already exotic mix of weather! In a matter of an hour or so, we sailed through sunshine, mist, drizzle-turned-almost-rain, and now hail/snow!
Flying back in a warm haze of profound gratitude, I looked out of the window, up at the clouds and the invisible sun beyond. Without thought, just taking it all in. The magic of the temple, the weather, the mountains, clouds… The lush white clouds.
As I watched, the clouds parted, and in a moment of divine glory, white, dazzling sunlight streamed down on the world! And then it passed – just like that – leaving me wondering if it were the fantasy of an oxygen-deprived brain.
Then, as if to prove me wrong, a moment later came a second display, as gloriously spectacular as the first. I was speechless. Up there, within view of that temple nestled among rainclouds, it felt natural to believe in miracles. I know I did.
Throughout the way back, the discussion was about the 2013 floods, and the unspeakable loss of lives and resources that happened in its wake. Chauhanji had first hand experience of the horrors as he had been on the road with a group that was doing the Char Dham yatra, on their way back from Yamunotri. (Or was it Gangotri? I don’t remember.) He recounted them to us with a surprising lack of drama, which in retrospect was more effective on the whole.
It was a subdued group that got down the bus in front of a desolate looking hotel in a valley at Sitapur. The mountains, valleys and rivers, the precariously positioned roads, the changing weather, the grim physical signs of a past disaster unfolding around us, were all beginning to get into our system.
The sun set to the quietude of the evening… passive, patient, accepting.
It’s too bad (or is it?) that my pilgrimage consisted mostly of moments unphotographed than otherwise. I’m reminded of the scene in The Namesake where Irrfan Khan’s Ashoke Ganguli says to his son: “All this and no picture, huh? We just have to remember it then. Will you remember this day, Gogol?”
I’ll just have to remember it then. Remember that I went to this place where there was nowhere left to go.