DAY 9 MONDAY
We wake up early and find hot water waiting for us. A bath in a tent. It is stimulating. Almost 5 days of travel and the bath is more than welcome. We have been given saffron colored sarees to be worn for this very occasion. A yagna (prayer ritual) to be performed at Mansarovar lake. So the ladies all wear saffron saris and the men wear their dhotis, one or two are bare chested , and the homum (fire ceremony) is conducted by them. Swamiji is also there, but does not take active part in the puja. We have our puja things, a small brass plate, a small nandi (a bull- mount of Shiva), and a small lingam (symbol of Shiva), to participate with. For me, all this is a new experience. Am I a fraud for going along with all these things that have no meaning for me? But I am determined to blend, isn’t that what one must do in Rome etcetera? After the yagna, we have breakfast and are ready for the journey to our base camp.
This Tibetan town is situated at the foothills of the Himalayas. Small town with a few shops. Women and children colorfully dressed with beads and necklaces and lots of interesting things for sale. They come in hordes and invade the dormitory. They speak their language, we speak ours, bargains are on. One word they seem to know and like to use is familiar to us – pagol (mad) – they say and twirl their fingers over their temples. But the wares are enticing and they make a lot of money.
What is it about Tibet that makes a deep impression on me – an arid inhospitable land which has not made the slightest attempt to make itself tourist friendly. The Kailash yatris (pilgrims) alone must comprise hundreds every year. Forget hotels or lodges, there are no toilets anywhere. One doesn’t really look for modern conveniences when one is out back, but towns? People live in towns. The peculiar stink that permeates through the town leaves itself deeply embedded in our clothes and for days after our return to civilization, we carry it in our nares and occasionally it wafts into our consciousness. Clothes and bags have to be sunned thoroughly to get rid of the smell. Is it yak smell, or unwashed human smell, or both?
We go to Tirthapuri. Milarepa (Tibet’s most famous yogi/ascetic) is said to have meditated in the caves here. There is also a story about Bhasmasura (once a devotee of Shiva who then became a demon) was annihilated here. The rocks have calcareous deposits which can be scraped off and look almost like ‘vibhooti’ or holy ash (applied on the forehead) . The gompa or monastery is dark inside. The only light entering the sanctum is through a hole in the roof of the ‘cave’. There are numerous candles burning, and there are presiding deities sitting on deep shelves in the walls of the ‘cave’, protected by glass casings. The whole atmosphere inside is stirring with the soft chanting by monks, the candle light flames flickering and weaving, casting shadows on the glass casing and illuminating dimly the sitting Buddhas behind. Some very ancient texts are also preserved here.
It is drizzling as we leave Tirthapuri. We pass the Sutlej river and some hot springs. A beautiful rainbow appears in an unbroken arc across the clearing skies,stretching it seems to the end of the world. The night is spent in Darchen, in a dormitory housing almost the whole of our group. The beds are placed alongside each other. We sleep foot to head and make sure we lie in one position without too much side to side rolling for fear that we may end up sleeping on each other. Getting up to go to the toilet is an exercise in itself, crossing gingerly over bodies, using the torch sparingly to avoid disturbing sleeping partners…Did I say toilet? Definitely a euphemism…P
But with the thought of our parikrama coming up soon we wake up in an upbeat mood.
DAY 10 Tuesday
Austapadh/base of the holy mountain west face
They called it the ‘inner parikrama’ though strictly speaking it was not. Parikrama as I understand it is a circumambulation of some holy site. This was a climb across the foothills to the base of Kailash mountain, the Atma Lingam (represents the divine soul of Shiva/life). It is supposed to be a very difficult steep climb and there are a lot of drop-outs from the group who prefer to stay back at Darchen. We get into our 4WDs and drive to the spot where the climb is to begin. From this point we can see the top of Kailash – it is the west face (I think) that we are seeing. The snow covered mountain is flanked on either side by mountains in front, to the left and to the right which have the names of the faithful companions and gatekeepers of the abode of Lord Shiva…There is Nandi, Subramaniam and Ganesha. Before the climb begins Swamiji gets the group together and we get an idea of what we will soon be going through. Steep and difficult climb over seven hills and plateaus with the very last stretch being the most treacherous. 27 kms trek in weather that could turn from cold and chilly to icy. We have to climb slowly and make sure that we don’t lose sight of the others. It is easy to get lost in these mountains. If one is too tired to go on, sit and wait for the others to get back. On no account try to get back on your own. Swamiji is very particular that we all understand the potential dangers of this climb.
The atmosphere is extremely rarefied at this height. Oxygen tensions are half what they would be at sea level. We have garlic and camphor in small bags hanging from our necks to sniff if it gets too difficult to breathe. As we climb up to the crest of the first hill, the mountain is seen but clothed in a dense cloud obscuring most of its face. The air is crisp and clear once the sun appears. The mountain however remains clouded and cannot be seen. We sit down in a bowl like plateau. It is very peaceful here. We have a bhajan here (it disturbs the quiet of the place and I feel it is a sacrilege of a kind), and the group is ready to move on after a break of some dried fruits and nuts. There are six more such hills, 27 kms up and down . I am not going any further. Swamiji gives me permission to drop out and I stay back while the rest go on. I settle down for a long and serene time surrounded by these majestic mountains. I am alone here. There is complete stillness around me. The silence is chilly after a while and I sleep. When I think back now to the time I think that short sleep I had on the mountain that day was the best sleep I have ever had in my entire life. I did not want to wake. I don’t know how long I slumbered, I had left my watch behind and had no idea of the time. I was woken up by a passing group of monks who hailed me, not being sure whether I needed help. Once reassured they walked on.
I stood up and looked around. Below and to the south, in the distance I could see the glimmering blue of the Mansarovar lake, clear clouds in clumps and wisps lazily floating across the skies, to the North was Kailash which was still shrouded. The gatekeeper mountains kept guard. They looked a bit sinister and I did not want to gaze at them for long. Around me however,the plateau was green , soft and brilliantly dotted with small clusters of mountain flowers – yellow, purple, red, white, they formed a beautiful patchwork quilt. I lay myself down again and drowsed off. A long time passed. The sun was no longer strong. A cold breeze began to blow and I woke shivering. I could make out in the distance, a figure waving and calling frantically. Soon she was by my side, panting and breathless and in tears. It was Valli, and she was in quite a state. She had apparently found it difficult to go on, but instead of staying where she dropped off from the group, she decided to descend down on her own. She was in a panic when she thought she had lost her way. And finally when she caught sight of me, her relief was unbounded and she said a few silly things which I could attribute only to low oxygen in the air….
And now the clouds from the face of Kailash had dispersed and the ice covered mountain could be seen in its entirety. Not a benevolent object. Quite the opposite in fact. I could well imagine how frightening it might seem to one who is lost in its vicinity. Since it was now getting dark, Valli and I decided to descend down to the base on our own despite the warning that we had been given by Swami in the morning. We could not know when the rest would be back and it was probably safer to attempt a climb down when there was some light . We did worry a bit about wild animals but that thought only spurred us on faster. By the time we arrived at the base, it was dark and the 4WDs were already lined up waiting to take us back to our camp at Darchen. It was not long before the rest of the group hailed us. These were the victors of the day. The ones who had braved the snow and ice of that forbidding mountain to reach the atma lingam. There was no time for any questions, we returned to our camp. Later I heard from the others what they experienced when they reached the Atma Lingam at the base of Kailash. They had touched the holy mountain. It was not hard to understand the euphoria and the joy, after all the hardships endured, to have actually reached and touched the holy mountain.
Another night in the dormitory.
DAY 11 Wednesday
For some odd reason which is kept a state secret we have to spend one more day in Darchen and can leave for our outer parikrama only tomorrow.
I am depressed. I feel as though I have made this journey in vain. I have given it my best try, spared no efforts, kept an open mind and hoped that my journey wound kindle some spark of faith or belief. I have not been able to make it out physically, mentally or spiritually. What a colossal failure! I might as well give up asking questions, admit to myself that the rest of my life will be spent in resignation and acceptance. If life ceases to have meaning and ceases to be a quest, isn’t one already dead? “More people are dead than we know of. Only some have the courtesy to lie down’” Philip’s (late husband) words ring in my ears. Nevertheless, from this moment on, I have no questions to ask and no quest to follow..
This seems to be my last entry. So the rest of this diary will be based on what I can remember of the events that followed after we left Darchen.
DAY 12 Thursday
We are all set to leave Darchen. Our 4WDs will take us to Tarpuche from where we start on the outer parikrama i.e. the circumambulation of Mt.Kailash. This is to take a total of 3 days. By the end of the first day we should reach the north face of the mountain which is the climax of the journey. The first rays of the sun that hit the mountain give it a golden glow of unbelievable beauty. It is supposedly a sight to behold – and only the truly blessed are witnesses to it – Shiva’s abode in all its splendor. On the second day, the descent is preceded by ascent to the highest point of the mountain range – the Dolma pass 4920mtrs (Everest is 8848mts). Up to Dolma pass it is possible for the journey to be made on mules, but beyond the pass after some distance, the mountain slopes are too steep to use mules and this is the most difficult part when there are no footholds, the tracks are rough and narrow and so steep that the descent becomes one long slide down after another with no supports to prevent a fall. Here is where a helper comes in handy. In fact the whole journey is impossible without the help of mules, their handlers, and the helpers.
Once the steep side of the range is crossed, the rest of the journey is either by mules or walking. The second night is spent in the plains more than halfway round the mountain. The third day by mid afternoon we should reach the point where the cars await us. So now we have some idea as to what to expect. But reality is far more difficult. But maybe it was so only for me, I don’t know. Everybody only talks about the glory of Kailash and the exaltation on seeing the Lord. I on the other hand felt lost and let down. My body felt battered and there was nothing more I wanted than to get back to civilization. Whatever hope I had nurtured towards some kind of change within me, some spark of faith, some conviction of the existence of God, died a natural death. I cannot deny that I was overwhelmed by the beauty of Kailash at close quarters especially with the dawn rays illuminating it and clothing it in a shimmering of orange and gold colors. I cannot deny that this experience is truly immense in its entirety, reducing us humans to small dots of inconsequential beings. When within sight of and close to Kailash, one feels completely dwarfed by it, shaken to the core by it.
I am not religious, I am merely a mortal trying to get a glimpse of the religion that I am part of. I have come this far only to realize that I can never be part of it. I will always be apart and on the fringes trying to understand and feel.
The actual journey was a nightmare, though not initially.
When we reached Terapuche there was a heightened sense of expectation coursing through us all. Now that we had come so close to our goal, we were definitely excited. The process of choosing mule (or ghodi or cora as it is called in these parts), handler and helper is quite a simple one. Lots are drawn and you are allotted your animal et al. Thereafter for the next three days they will be your constant companions. Without the handler, the mule is practically impossible to mount and ride. The cora, we have now to say ‘her’ as she would get terribly offended at being an ‘it’, is really a nag as in ghodi. Once you have been given one, you have to woo her into liking you as you will find her more complaint and gentle if she does. If not, she can give you hell. On the whole, I think it is how the handler is with her that is important. He should know how to ease her fears and get her to obey him especially when she has to carry a neophyte on her back and traverse through all kinds of difficult terrain.
One is supposed to rest easily on the makeshift saddle on her back, sit up straight and not use the reins at all. The handler leads her through perilous ups and downs , through streams and icy sloughs, sometimes she sinks almost knee deep in the snow and buckles slightly, you keep wondering when you are going to fall off especially if you have had that misfortune once.
I had the misfortune of inheriting a skittish mule, a surly handler and a helper who disappeared within 10 minutes of our setting off on the journey! The helper is supposed to carry your backpack with bare minimal essentials that you have to have on the journey, and also help prevent your falling off the ghodi in the event of your saddle slipping or whatever. The whole system works well if you are lucky to have responsible handlers and helpers which is what I discovered the hard way. My mule and I were happy with each other at first. I was just beginning to like the ride, enjoying the mild sun and the grandeur of my surroundings, until we reached the fluttering flags alongside the trail. The Tibetans are a prayerful lot and we were passing chortens or stupas where they would have prayed and tied these colorful flags as offerings. Very scenic.
But the fluttering of the flags in the wind was making my cora very nervous. Plus she must have been uncomfortable with her saddle off her midriff. Whatever…I was also getting more and more nervous with the saddle slipping. I must also have been trying to stay on her desperately. All animals are sensitive to changes of temperament and mood and mine was no exception. My helper had disappeared, and the handler was ignoring my feeble attempts at attracting his attention. The cora was obviously not happy and was rearing a bit and snorting, all these premonitory signs were ignored by the handler (actually he was just a kid, could not have been more than 14 years old). When we passed the fluttering flags, my ghodi neighed nervously and skittered a bit before sharply rearing up. My poorly balanced saddle got thrown off and I was off the mule’s back with my left foot still in the saddle and the rest of me on the ground. The handler was furious. Not concerned at all about poor me being bruised and hurt, he headed straight for the cora to pacify and resaddle her, all the time muttering ominously.
‘Saddle’ of course is a euphemism again… imagine a whole bunch of blankets rolled up, not particularly neatly, thrown over the back of the animal. The worst part of it was that we had been told right at the start that no one was going to hold up any one else. Each man/woman for himself/herself. If you are hurt or lagging behind, bad luck. So there was I, on the ground with no one to help me, with a mule that was getting more skittish now and a handler who decided he was not going with me any more. The stream of yatris (pilgrims) went by and I could recognize no one. Of course, by now, several groups had got mixed up and here is where the red cap given to us in Katmandu would have been useful had I been wearing it. To my great relief after a while, I saw Swamiji and his coterie riding by. I waved him on, conscious of instructions given prior to start of journey. I was getting very annoyed at having fallen off so ignominiously. If my helper hadn’t deserted, or if the handler had been a little more careful, this wouldn’t have happened. To add fuel to the fire the silly boy refused to let me get on the pony again! I sat there fuming, looking around to see if I could see any of the group leaders going by in that single file of yatris. I caught sight of one thank God (!! ) and complained bitterly about the way my handler was behaving. So finally between the handler, the ghodi, and the guide, I was hoisted up again and soon I was back in the file. My handler was more adventurous than his fellow beings, time and time again, he would get off the beaten track onto rather treacherous looking ground. I am afraid, after this episode, I was more nervous than ever and till now cannot imagine how I endured the whole journey.
Swamiji was very solicitous when he came to know of my fall and assured me that I would feel fine after a night’s rest. Would things have been better for me if the start had been different? It was such breathtakingly beautiful at times – the towering mountains , the streams white and clean , the rapids, the shaky bridges that we had to cross, the narrow trails along side steep mountains- an exhilarating experience – unforgettable indeed.
We reached the north face of Kailash that evening. And there were shouts of exultation. All, including our Tibetan companions, fell into a worshipful stance. I must have been the only person there untouched by the thought of having reached the holy mountain. Uppermost in my mind were thoughts basic to my physical well being, my mind was too numb with the discomfort of the journey to be moved. ..
DAY 13 FRIDAY
The next morning I had a choice – did I want to go on ? No hesitation there. I was feeling better. My aches and pains seemed to have receded into some far corner of my mind and no longer were dominating my consciousness. And having come this far, I was loathe to admit defeat. Swamiji meanwhile had given my helper ( who apparently had gone way before us to catch up on a little sleep – at these heights ,drowsiness was a problem ), and my handler a pretty good piece of his mind warning them that they would not be paid unless they behaved themselves . Effective it was too. They were extremely mindful of my comfort from then on. So we trudged on to higher grounds – snow bound slopes we climbed and reached the highest point Dolma pass. The descent thereafter seemed a bit easier . Gauri kund – a green lake set far below a ring of mountains- some pilgrims went down to collect the waters from the lake. And then we came to a point from where we had to walk . The mules would no longer be able to climb down the steep slopes encountered. It seemed interminable – this part of the journey. Skidding, sliding, descending any which way possible, clinging with one arm the support offered by the helper , the other hand holding on firmly to the support of a staff, it became more of a robotic journey than ever. Once we reached the plains , we got our mules back, and by the time we reached the camp site it was raining and close to night time.
Tired and hungry we slept in tents that night. The conditions were cramped with 8 of us to a tent. The fatigue was evident and everyone was a bit subdued. Hot soup cheered us up a bit, and now it was just a matter of another day. Sleeping with a torch and a toilet roll had become second nature to most of us and that night when I went out , it was to a clear sky. The rain had stopped , stars were bright and sharp, very close they seemed. The only other time that I have seen such a sky was in the desert in Oman. The beauty of the night heightens my awareness , I can hear the river , the mountains around stand solid witness to the sensation of absolute stillness. So much calm. I feel so peaceful. I could hear faint singing – our Tibetan friends were camped in the open presumably somewhere close by.
DAY 14 SATURDAY
Hot soup and cornflakes for breakfast, and once again we start off. It is still not light in the mountains and the sense of peace continues. My mule and handler seem in sync – with my mood. This pleasant state of being continues and over the 2- 3 hours we ride comfortably over the plains. Soon, in the distance, we catch sight of our car . The journey is over !! What a sense of relief. When you don’t know how far your destination is, you go along with a sense of resignation I guess. But once you know, your impatience knows no bounds. The next hour couldn’t have gone by more slowly. When we finally reached, everybody was jubilant! And this time, I was jubilant too.
DAY 15 SUNDAY
There is not much more to add. We returned to Darchen and Mansarovar where one more night was spent. This time we went out at 2 am to watch the skies and the stars. It was cloudy though and we could not see much. Apparently on the previous two occasions when Swami has been there, he has seen the stars coming down to the lake and Uma has seen the light of the stars on Kailash. The visibility this time around was poor and no such celestial phenomena was evident. We returned to our beds very disappointed. I had of course been skeptical right from the start, and was disappointed to be proved right in my skepticism.
DAY 16 AND 17
DAY 18 TO 22
I had booked along with 17 others in my group to go to Muktinath on return to Katmandu. Swamiji and the rest returned to Chennai. I was too tired and felt totally exhausted to stick to my original plans. So I stayed back in Katmandu while the others went off to Muktinath. Stayed in ’Holy Himalaya” recuperating from the physical, mental, and psychological strain of the past two weeks. I ate momos -chicken – on the streets of Katmandu, watched TV and reveled in the luxury of a room with a queen size bed and attached western toilet with 24 hrs running hot and cold water! Making up with a vengeance almost for the privations (albeit self induced) of the past weeks.
The only other thing worth noting in this diary is the return from Katmandu to Delhi and Chennai. We had flight cancellations galore and missing of connecting flights and various other small problems which led us to spend an extra night on the floor of the airport departure lounge in Delhi. No major hassles for seasoned post Kailash travelers.
We were back in Chennai on the morning of the 23rd of August and 4 of us shared a cab back to Vellore.
Good to be home.
10 days since I got back from my trip.
I have been hoping for some positive signs of change. What has happened though is what I feel may well be the ‘death knoll’ of my new found ‘religiosity’. I look up the meaning of the word – religiose- excessively or sentimentally religious, affectedly pious….could I have defined my condition any more accurately?
The Kailash experience was one which will not be easily forgotten. Far from arriving at some religious truth I have been made acutely aware of how ‘irreligious’ I actually am. A pretender – that is what I have been in the last 2 years (since joining Narayani Hospital, meeting Appu, and finally meeting Swami). Kailash has opened my eyes to who I am not. My ‘body’ consciousness, thoughts of bodily discomfort and inconveniences resulting in disturbances of physiologic functions became obsessive enough to flood out from my consciousness all reflective thoughts of a higher order. And though the majesty of the mountain and the pristine surroundings did register faintly, overwhelming thoughts and feeling related to the body dominated.
And now back in familiar surroundings, I find myself in a sort of limbo. I find it difficult to get back to my routine of early morning yoga and meditation. A sense of lassitude and inertia has set in. I am de-motivated. And though I know I will not slide back to my earlier self destructive behavior, I no longer am energized. I know now that there is no ‘place‘ to go to, no ’target’ to pursue or achieve, no ‘God’ to realize –at least not for me and certainly not in this life time.