Hinduism is a very nature centric philosophy. Hindus believe that the universe sprang from a place in the Himalayas so divine that just a glimpse of it can devour all evil, a palace of the Gods who protect the universe from the clutches of evil, ignorance, arrogance and delusion. This place, which has been revered as the epicentre of the universe is Kailash Mansarovar – a lake at the foothills of the Mountain Kailash (21,000 ft and never been climbed).
For many Hindus, making this epic pilgrimage through the harsh landscape in to the Himalayas, is the very pinnacle of life – the Kailash Yatra (yatra = journey) is to Hindus what Mecca/Medina is to Muslims. The very top of Mount Kailash (Kailash = crystal) is thought to be the abode of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati. The great Lake Mansarovar is a large fresh water lake at a height of 15,000ft and almost 88kms in circumference. It is believed to have been created in the mind of Lord Brahma (manas = mind; sarovara = lake) and so drinking or bathing in the waters can cure one of all evils.
This is not a journey for the fainthearted. Few actually reach the foothills of Mount Kailash. My mother in law, who is not really religious, undertook this journey for reasons she explains in her honest and vivid account of the journey. Most people talk of an epiphany on seeing the face of Mount Kailash and dipping in the waters. But her very real, sometimes sad account, is less romance and more realism. Time will tell if the experience will linger on to deliver its epiphany. Here’s part one (of 3) of her account, written by her (the italics and weblinks in brackets are Sanskrit meanings of words for those unfamiliar with Hindu mythology). The images are from the internet.
Day 1 Sunday
Eve of departure. My bag has been packed for over a week now. I am anxious for the trip to begin – 3 months of preparation – mental and physical, have passed since the announcement by Swami (a guru she met through a work colleague) of the date of departure to Kailash.
Day 2 Monday
We fly to Delhi from Chennai, and then on to Katmandu the same day. I leave Vellore (120kms by road from Chennai airport) quite early in the night so that my mother and Julie don’t keep awake anxiously waiting for me to leave. Chennai domestic airport is deserted at that time of night as all flights are scheduled to take off after 6am. I spend the night dozing in the lounge…..conscious of the rudraksha mala (red seeds or prayer beads in a necklace) grazing the skin of my neck. I also have the red string around my wrist – all symbolic of the earnest pilgrim.
I am not sure who I am , and what I am doing in a situation like this. My entire life has been a statement against organized religion and yet at the fag end of my life I find myself wearing external symbols of organized religion, going on a religious journey, a yatra – as it is called – to Kailash. The idea is at once familiar and alien to me. My Brahmin genes go back many millenniums maybe but in my present life all that has meant little to me. In fact I probably am more familiar with the Bible from long association with my equally irreverent yet paradoxically deeply religious husband. I have lived and worked in the Muslim world and have been impressed by the sincerity and single minded devotion displayed by the Muslim. All religions are man made even if God inspired. And then comes a tangential question – did Man make God or did God make Man? But never mind that . Like the proverbial egg and chicken the question will linger, as long as man thinks. And so , on the eve of departure to the holy mountain, holy to the Hindu, the Buddhist, and to the Bono pagan Tibetan, I continue to wonder at my motivation in undertaking this journey known to be difficult and hazardous at its best.
5.30 am at the airport , all night had gone by in a vague unease. Swamiji arrives with the group and a smile grows inside of me. Unease flees replaced by a wonderful feeling….. luggage weighing and checking in happens and soon its time to board. On the flight I am seated next to Parthasarathy. He is travelling with his sister Brinda. We start a conversation and soon I am transported into a weird world where I am listening to the most unbelievable events that have taken place in this man’s family. His father , a very deeply religious and ritualistic man dies and his skull opens. Swamiji and Appu have both spoken of this phenomenon that is known to occur when sages die. The skull it seems opens and bleeds from the opening….this happens after death. That Appu, a cardiologist , believes that this happens surprises me. But then, Appu’s other beliefs have also been in the realm of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Coming back to Partha – his sister is across the aisle, aware of all that he is saying and nodding her opinion . I cannot now remember all of that conversation, but I remember feeling at some point , a totally alien kind of fear and then boredom. No doubt my defensive escape mechanism kicking in to shield me from what was proving to be too much for my rational mind to listen to without appearing incredulous and rude.
We reached Delhi . The onward flight to Katmandu was cancelled and we stayed overnight at ‘Om’ Hotel – harbinger of things to come. The same evening we were taken to the Murugan temple in Delhi – a new experience for me. Going to temples I mean. Though born in a Hindu Brahmin family, there has never been any ritualized religion in my life. Pujas and bhajans (prayers and hymns) were celebrated on festival days more as a social event than as a religious belief. Childhood passed without any firm impressions of religion. Godmen, saints and sages however evoked a different kind of response. My mother was always respectful and would take long journeys to meet them. All her life she has believed in them, and prayed to them. She has even spent many years living in ashrams in search of spiritual enlightenment . I have in all likelihood imbibed this characteristic of hers …and no doubt that explains the recent events in my life. I think I may have come full circle, having imbibed the opposite end of the spectrum in my marriage, I may have now reverted to type?
DAY 3 Tuesday
Kathmandu…must have been a beautiful Himalayan kingdom at some point in time. Today it is a bustling overcrowded town, the traffic a mad whirl of cars ,autos, pedestrians and minibuses. Nepal is not part of India , it was until recently the only Hindu kingdom in the world. After the butchery of the monarchy and the establishment of the fledgling democracy, it has lost much of its romance. It remains the land of many hindu temples, it is the birthplace of the Buddha ( Lumbini ), Sita ( Mythila ),and boasts of the highest mountains in the world reaching heights of over 8000m, Mount Everest.
The temples are largely dedicated to Lord Shiva. The most famous of these is the Pasupatinath temple. The Shakti peedam temple is dedicated to Shakti–the consort of Shiva. The temples are teeming with people , many, saffron robed. The noise and bustle is not conducive to any contemplative prayer , most people are there to get a glimpse of the presiding deity and fulfill their destinies. . It is a very old temple dating back to almost 2000 years or more. I stand in queue with others to file past the door of the sanctum sanctorum to get a fleeting glimpse- cant see much , the interior is too dark (why is it so dark), the whole snakelike movement of the pilgrim crowd is being orchestrated by Nepali guards in uniform.
I wish I could be one with the crowd which feels such veneration and blind worshipful faith. I feel diminished by the experience and know that I am poorer by the absence of faith. At the Shakti peedam, there is a peculiar smell which I am told is the yoni (Sanskrit for divine passage, womb, vagina) smell of the Devi (goddess)
The worship of deities is highly ritualistic, almost mesmerizing in the chanting of verses and the abhisekhams and the aarti. The vibes in these places can be spine tingling…the auditory , visual, and olfactory stimuli are overwhelming. If only I could also lose my sense of self in all this miasma …..
At Budhnath – a reclining Vishnu in black stone on Adishesh Nag (Nag = snake) also sculpted in black stone, lying in a pool of water. The edge of the pool has a lotus tree with one lotus that blooms every day it is said over the sleeping Vishnu .. 20,000 years old ….
Back at the hotel called “Holy Himalaya” we are allotted rooms. My room mate is Baby. Baby is as old as I am – 65, white haired , pattu saree (traditional Brahmin silk sari) clad, and friendly. She has come with a group of 5, mostly family consisting of sisters in law and brothers and an aunt who is almost 70 yrs old. They have embarked on this pilgrimage with a deep sense of reverence and faith.
After dinner the group gathers in a conference room of the hotel. There were 35 of us, all from different walks of life, between the ages of 30-70 years, with one exception – a 77 Year old who came to be called ‘ young man’ by us all.
The organizer of the trip – Jyoti Adhikari who owns the hotel and the travel agency introduces the team of personnel who is to accompany us on our journey. There is Padam- who is the team leader, Loka his assistant -, two cooks, and five helpers. We are given a short lecture on what to expect once we start on our journey. This Nepali team is to prove itself very resourceful when it comes to arranging accommodation and food for us in extenuating circumstances. But more of that later. We are presently comfortably seated , well fed, and looking forward to a good nights rest in what would in retrospect be considered luxurious surroundings.
Our duffle bags and head caps are handed out. We are told that we can only take as much as the bag will hold , and later even that will be trimmed down to bare essentials. Our caps are all colored the same red with the logo of Eco Trek , for easy spotting and recognition, as many such groups as ours will be joining together in the final laps of the journey from the foothills of the Himalayas up to Mount Kailash and back. Packing and repacking, each time culling a bit, is going to be a frequent activity of ours, but we don’t know it yet. Most of the stuff we have brought goes into the red bag. Trekking shoes, warm clothes, empty cans, food and miscellaneous items are all carefully put in. In the backpack, only essentials. We are all chanting ‘OM Namo Shivai’ by now. That too feels strange in my ears coming from me – does Swamiji even guess this I wonder? But whatever it is, I am determined to go into this wholeheartedly. If nothing else, my enthusiasm must be genuine and must make up for the lack of the true Hindu within me. It is Tuesday night in Katmandu and tomorrow, we begin our journey.
(continues in Part 2 tomorrow)