As I said, there were ghosts that needed to be laid to rest.
What are ghosts but stories interrupted? Fragile stories that slipped out of the hands that held them and shattered on the floor, or were snatched away without warning or mercy… Orphaned stories from whom both the narrator and the listeners have turned their faces away… Dejected stories with their heads hung, eyes down and shoulders sagging…
Stories without closure, or that by any other name. Resolution, grand finale, happily-ever-after… That which we seek, eternally – like so many Tantaluses reaching out for the elusive fruit and water, even as the dark shadow of Sisyphus’ boulder falls on us.
Stories, theirs and mine, that I have carried for as long as I have lived.
What was it that I sought up there in Moksh Dham? Closure? Or the wisdom to accept the futility of seeking it? Either, perhaps. Or both. Or something else altogether… Like release. From the need for closure.
The 9th of October found us trudging uphill the higher Himalayas, towards our final destination – Sri Badrinath – at an altitude of 10300 feet above sea level. There is no beyond – just Vaikund. That’s why it’s called Moskh Dham – liberates you. So pray, pray for as long as you want, pray for all those you want to pray for.
Yes, I needed to pray – though perhaps not in the conventional sense of the word.
So onward we went, past rivers and valleys and hamlets and small towns. Past prayags and countless temples small and big. We stopped at Hanuman Chatti where mythology says Hanuman and Bheem had their altercation, before a humbled Pandava bowed his head to Vayuputra. We visited Joshimath, where the idol of the Lord Badrinath is brought for pooja during winter when the passage to the temple itself gets blocked due to snow and ice.
The temples were fascinating, but so were the lives of people in and around and on the way to those temples. At least what I could see of them in passing. Life is obviously harsh up there in the mountains. I saw children doing hard physical labour at worksites, women bent over with the weight of what they were carrying to and fro, men manipulating heavy objects through narrow pathways. One of the most common modes of transportation for tourists was ‘doli’, a basket that seats a grown person, and is carried by another on his back! All in a day’s work, I could see. Heartbreaking and humbling at once.
I can see now why pilgrimage is deemed an inevitable part of a person’s spiritual journey, regardless of which God one believes in. For those who don’t, that is, the agnostics and atheists, substitute pilgrimage with travel – the underlying point is the same.
Get out of your comfort zone, walk the lands your feet have never touched. Eat foods that are different to yours. Drink soupy, over-sweetened tea from wayside stalls. Marvel at the vagaries of nature. Appreciate the way trees have bent and twisted themselves out of shape to accommodate the angry mountain winds. Wonder at the soaring birds you cannot hope to see where you live. Breathe in the feeble mountain sunshine and let the cold air parch your lips. Be humbled by the thunder that reverberates across hills and vales.
Talk to people who don’t speak your language. Smile at them till they smile back. See their lives from ground level. Observe their traditions, rituals, costumes, and try to reason out why they are what they are and how they do what they do. Step into their shoes and walk a mile in them.
It changes you, imperceptibly yet profoundly.
I’m wondering whether to use the word arduous to describe this part of the journey, but then maybe it’s better saved for the trip back – especially the last leg from Haridwar to Delhi, caught in the unending/unbelievable traffic jam that beat Dubai’s hollow. Yes, that one was arduous. This one, up roads flanked by grim rock face on one side and plunging valley on the other, roads that seemed ready to disintegrate at any moment, was – well – nerve wracking, so to say. Prayer came easily to everyone.
It was late evening when we reached Badrinath.
This was what I had come for… This.
The seedy, still-being-built-and-will-continue-to-be-built hotel, the ‘breathtakingly’ (literally) steep, narrow and rail-less staircase, the large, haphazard room with one window that looked out at snowy peaks (the best they could offer in terms of a room with a view), were all a blur.
I honestly did not care – as long as there were running hot water and a working flush – which there were. Ok, the bed did faze me – I had this nagging vision of a bedbug or two getting onto my body in the middle of the night. Or into my suitcase which I will then carry back home. A daunting vision, honestly. So I insisted that the sheepish caretaker change the sheets – a concept he took a while to understand – yes, and the pillow covers, please; no thank you, I’ll use my own blanket.
Looking back, I must have been like one possessed – the weary traveller lugging herself with one final burst of frenzied energy, desperation, upon getting the first glimpse of her destination. I bathed and got ready in no time, and must have really pestered Chauhanji because he arranged for a person to take me ahead to the temple while he waited for the rest of the group to assemble. My urgency somehow touched my co-passengers too because Teacher and her son joined me in my sprint to the temple.
I was there. Just like there are moments that elude the camera, there are experiences that defy words. Those that are better left unsaid.
I spent the rest of the evening there, inside the temple, until it was closed for the night, and was back before daybreak on the morning of the 10th. I was there, waiting, when the temple opened – having washed myself at Tapt Kund, a steaming sulphur spring that rubbed shoulders with the icy cold Alaknanda. I lost count of the hours I spent there, just sitting and absorbing it all.
This was what I had come for, after all.
Later that morning, I sat shivering uncontrollably on the banks of Alaknanda, repeating mantras after the Panditji, invoking all those souls, living and dead, that I had been carrying inside me…pleading, pleading silently all the while for closure, liberation. I was vaguely aware of the biting cold, the numbing hands, the frozen legs – but not enough to take my mind off from my desperate prayer. Peace. Peace. Peace… Please.
Sometime later, I said adieu to the temple, promising to be back. Someday.
After breakfast, we hopped back into the bus to visit Mana Gaon, India’s last village with its India’s Last Teashop among other things. Where the present and the real share space with history and mythology. The little hamlet was quaint beyond belief, with a narrow pathway leading up, and houses on either side with their handkerchief sized gardens that grew mustard, cauliflower and cabbage in abundance.
There were wayside vendors selling handmade woollen sweaters and carpets, and every Garhwali woman in her thick, dark, maxi-like dress seemed busy with something: washing and sorting cut wool, weaving, sewing, peddling spices and other goods to tourists or carrying loads up and down the narrow path.
Walking further, we stepped on to a piece of land where Mahabharata and Ramayana, so far deemed mythology, came alive. Here’s from where Vyasa dictated the Mahabharata and here’s where Ganeshji sat and wrote it down. That’s Bheem Pul, Bheembali brought that huge rock as a bridge for Draupadi to cross the river, and that gateway up there, that’s where she – Draupadi – fell during Vanaprastha, and ascended to heaven. Chauhanji revelled in the narration. To me, everything seemed surreal.
The Himalayas have a way of taking your breath away at unexpected moments. One such was the when I first saw the site where two great rivers, Saraswathi and Alaknanda, originate. I have not seen anything awe-inspiring like that in my limited life, nor do I expect to, ever – unless I return to that place someday. But when I look at the carefully clicked photos from there, I despair – my camera fell completely short of capturing the magnificence of the sight ahead of me. The 2D images I now have hardly do justice to it.
It was nature at her grandest, beyond anything the human mind or technology ccould hope to encompass.
Our return journey was uneventful, yet incredibly tedious. We stayed that night in a hotel in Peepalkoti, and continued the journey early next morning – a journey that lasted until past 11 at night. On the way we stopped at Haridwar where most of us bought gifts to take back home. It was during that trip back that we passengers really thawed to each other, sharing jokes and stories and photographs of family and friends – just before we were to go our separate ways.
Teacher and her son were staying in the same guesthouse, and as our flights were around the same time, we left for the airport together on the evening of the 12th.
When we parted, there were no promises to meet or keep in touch – I suppose we had seen too much of life to make promises of that sort. “You have my number. Call me if possible when you come to Kerala, and I’d be really happy. Come over if you can, sit at our table and share our meal. It will please us. If you are able to, no stress.” Teacher hugged me and walked over to her gate, with her son leading the way.
I waited for my flight, watching the sun set over Delhi, thinking of them, thinking of our trip, thinking of my home, my life, and my ghosts… The ones I had laid to rest.
Had I, really?
Again, there has been no epiphany, no miracle. Yet, looking back from the distance of more than a month, I see a shift. A subtle one – just a single degree, perhaps…a tiny seed sown deep within. One I hope will take root, eventually.