Monday, January 3, 2011

On the trail of Gods - Finale

Next morning saw us waking up to the most amazing view. Jayesh was up way too early to catch a glimpse of golden tipped mountains at the sunrise, if by any luck.  But it wasn’t to be. Nevertheless, what we saw before us was no ordinary sight either. Usually, as the sun rises up in the sky, the snow clad mountains don’t look very sharp. But early in the morning, when the sun is just coming above the horizon, it’s a different story. If you know the science of light, you’ll know that the light is very scattered in the later part of the day. At dawn and dusk, it is much focused, thus rendering sharper views. We were also hoping to lay our lies upon that beautiful avian wonder that is otherwise known as Monal Pheasant, the state bird of Himachal. Some were seen by men coming back from Rudranath the previous day. So we reckoned our chances to be good. Alas, no luck there either (We had to wait for another year, before we saw one on our next Garhwal trek in 2010).

We are back to climbing steep ascent. For a short while through, thereafter it would all be climbing way way down. So much so that the ascents we tackled for last 4 days would seem like a piece of cake. After some 30 minutes of climbing up and after passing a ferocious fight of 3 Garhwal Shepherds (remember the adorable dogs?), we hit the descent. The journey now would take us through the same landscapes, only in a reverse order. High cliffs and grasslands would give way to alpine forests and then back to civilization. As we were about to give up our hopes of spotting a Monal, we did see one foraging on a distant slope. We possibly couldn’t have spotted it. But Kuldeep’s alert visual senses (and I thought I was so good at this) spotted the small movement and just by the shape of it and the gait of it, he could tell us that it was a Monal. However, it was so far away that we could hardly see its magnificent colors. But we weren’t so unfortunate in wildlife sightings either. Just a short while later, Kuldeep again pointed to a cliff where a flock of Tahrs(mountain goats) was grazing.

Believe me, the cliff was nearly vertical with hardly any place to stand, let alone walk while grazing. But adept mountain dwellers that they are, the Tahrs were just as agile and graceful as a dolphin is in high seas. Though being shy animals, having seen us watching them, they quickly moved on to the next cliff and shortly disappeared behind it. Being content, we also moved on. Shortly we entered the woods. And again that Symphony of Feathered Musicians. At many places in the forests, we saw remains of cooking fire with 3 or 4 stones places in a manner so as to keep a utensil and the ashes between them. We wondered if any men spent a night in these woods. That would have been a near impossibility, for it always is chilled during daytime and nights are something that humans cannot possibly survive. But who knows. There aren’t few examples of people having survived the worst of nature’s fury. Or maybe it was Gods who spent the night here.

Now we are picking up speed. But soon it becomes clear that walking fast on the slopes has started to tell on our legs. Kuldeep of course won’t get bothered by any such petty concerns. Jayesh looks pretty much at ease. Hrishi’s legs had started to give in even before Panar. Now I am feeling the heat (?). Keeping balance on slopes is not as easy as it may seem. It puts a lot of strain on one’s knees, calfs and thighs. They have to work extra hard to keep the body from toppling since the weight tends to be put forward. So now my gait is becoming strange. It was a welcome break to see a sadhus hut. Kuldeep enquired if he could fix us some tea. How decadent!! Us, the self indulgent-materialistic-comfort seeker-jerks asking a sadhu to fix us tea. Or maybe we are not. In an inhospitable region like this everyone is a sadhu and everyone is a comfort-creature, everyone in one’s own capacity is a host and everyone is a guest. Whoever can help the passers by, helps. Whoever needs help, seeks help. Everyone’s an equal here. For everyone knows and appreciates the difficulties of traveling and living here. So the sadhu makes some tea for us and since we are out of stock of ganja, provides us with some at a price. Paying our gratitude, we move on.

After an hour or two of walking down yet more slopes, we are at Atri Muni Ashram. Now again a thing about place names. What would one think of when one hears the word Ashram? A place full of spiritually inclined people and one enlightened master of them all. This place is nothing like that. A serene place with a waterfall, a pool of spectacular emerald green water and a cave where supposedly Atri Muni used to meditate.

A thin stream of the waterfall and the emerald pool are magnificent in no small measure. But the cave is a just crazy thing. One has to climb a rocky patch to reach a platform. One wrong move and one can go toppling down a 100mts down the cliff and into the pool of the waterfall. Once above a platform carved out in the rock face, one must then crawl on one’s stomach to go inside the cave. That’s the only entrance to the cave. They say, once inside, there is enough space for a man to comfortably sit and meditate. I was so tempted to go up there. But for one Jayesh was really upset with that decision as the climb is rather risky and then my own feet did not have enough strength to do the skillful climbing. So I too decided against the idea. We filled up our water bottles and refreshed ourselves in the water of the emerald pool and set towards Anusaya Devi, not very far from here.
Soon we were in Anusaya Devi, named as such after the temple of goddess Anusaya in the village. An otherwise lowly populated village, it draws huge crowds of devotees at the height of winter, in December, for a festival held at another temple, Dattatraya Temple in the village. We found a lodge to drop our backload and relieve our legs for a while. After some more tea, we headed to visit Anusaya temple, a little distance from where we dropped our bags. As at Rudranath, this temple too was closed in the afternoon hours. Common, even the Gods need to take siesta. But from amongst the children playing in the temple courtyard, one small boy went away to fetch keys to the shrine and reappeared in no time. In we went with the boy. 

Now this is a kind of temple that we generally see everywhere. A big hall and the smaller main shrine, with a donation box and all. Since there was no priest around this time to perform puja or enlighten us with some mythological trivia, we paid our respects ourselves and asked the boy to lock the temple again. After spending a few minutes in the courtyard of the temple, taking in the views of the forests that we just through, we were back at the lodge to have lunch. A priest from the Dattatraya temple had come there by that time, seeing us tourists and in hope of some ‘offerings’ and struck up a conversation with us, Jayesh mainly. He insisted that we go visit the Dattatraya temple and seek blessings. We obliged. So he performed a little ceremonial ritual, asking us to cite our names and the places we hailed from and repeated the same with some of his own shlokas. Sort of a request to seek blessings from Lord Dattatraya.

Back at the lodge, the lunch was ready. We had a proper lunch after 2 days. The last we ate full meal was at Dumak. Rice and daal, sabzi and pickle. The priest gave us a company here too dishing out some old wisdom. Seeing our cameras he asked us to click his picture. To which Jayesh dutifully obliged and promised to send him the same after we got back home. The priest gave him the detailed address and all. Have you sent him the picture yet, Jayesh? Funny encounters. So that was it. This was to be our last stop in a proper mountain hamlet. We took off for Mandal from where our mode of transport would change from twin to quadruple.

On our way down to Mandal we met a guy from Bangalore who was accompanied by a local guide. He had already completed a trek with some of his friends who had gone back home and this guy still had time on his hand. So he got hold of a guide and was about to complete the trail that we had just completed in the reverse order. Mandal to Devgram and then back to Rishikesh. Did I tell you, there is no dearth of weirdoes to be found in this region?! Having exchanged some trivia we went in our respective directions. In a short while we were in Mandal and in range for the cell phone signal. No sooner had we got the signal than Hrishi was on phone with his fiancé, Ruta. So see built road for the first time in last 4 days. We had tea at one of the street-side stalls, settled our bills with Kuldeep and bid him goodbye with a heavy heart. He had become a dear friend after all, with his affable nature, comic looks and invaluable help in completing this trek.

We got a jeep to reach Chopta, the base town to reach Tunganath, the last of the Panchkedars on our itinerary. We check in at a Chopta hotel by 5 in the evening. Had a nice hot water bath and set out to explore Chopta and enquire about bus timings back to Rishikesh. Not much to be seen in Chopta though, having been witness to breathtaking landscapes for last couple of couple of days. Got some useful info from Garhwal Nigam’s office right opposite our hotel. Back at the hotel, we had an early dinner and later hot milk which was heavenly in the cold weather. And to bed.

Next day morning, we got up early so as to reach Tungnath well before the sun started come in prime. The path to Tungnath from Chopta is well paved. There are even mules available for less capable pilgrims. All in all, it is an easy place to reach, except that our legs were really in tatters now. But riding on a mule or something was simply out of question. That would have been outrageous and insulting to ourselves. So we set off on foot to climb the measly (?) 6 kms to the temple. After much effort – I think me and Hrishi put more efforts here than we had in our entire trek – we were at the grandiose temple. We thanked Tungnath for having made our journey safe and thoroughly enjoyable.

From the Tungnath temple, Chandrashila is some 300 odd mts high. But things are way different there. Climbing those 300mts in a short distance of about 1.5kms means that one has to tackle steep ascent and then, this being the highest point (approx 4000mts/14000ft), it’s highly windy and chilly on top, with another breathtaking panoramic view of the Himalayas in all directions, unlike at Panar. They say that one can view the famous peaks of Nanda Devi, Chaukhama and Bandarpunch. But today, owing to clouds, we couldn’t see very far. One finds stacks of small stones, sort of cairns, arranged here. Hundreds of them.

It is believed that placing the stones in this manner, one’s wishes reach up into the Gods in heavens. Thus every devout pilgrim makes sure that s/he makes one. Not that we believe in that. But we did the same nevertheless in the right spirit of the moment and the place.

We climbed down well in time to start the ‘Part II of the most tiresome and seemingly unending parts of our journey’. Got a bus to Ukhimath. Found ourselves a decent hotel. Found some bandage and anti-septic for I had injured myself on the way to Anusaya Devi. Had lunch and after a little rest and watching TV (signs of having been back to mundane urban life), headed for yet another temple in the town. Again an impressive structure and with ancient idols placed. By late evening we were back at the hotel and having our dinner, went to bed.

Next day saw us traveling back to Rishikesh. We reached Rishikesh well before evening. So we dumped our luggage at the hotel opposite the bus stand and set out to explore Rishikesh, its famous ghats on Ganges and its markets. After visiting the jamn packed streets and markets and having failed in finding Bhuranch Sharbat, we returned to the hotel for the night, content on lichis and our last fix of ganja. Early by the next morning (as early as 3), we got aboard a bus to Delhi and immediately a train to Pune which was just as uneventful as the one we took to Delhi. Journeying back from the surreal to real.

P.S: I would like to mention a thing here explicitly. I’m not a religious person. Far from it. I don’t believe in idol worship or typical Hindu ritualism (from religious point of view that is), I don’t visit temples back at home. And we didn’t come here to do religious pilgrimage. We are just adventure seekers and plain nature lovers. But up there, it’s a whole different ball game. One can’t help but feel obliged and indebted to whatever that one might want to term as God. One can’t help but feel small and vulnerable in those mighty mountains. Make it there while you still can. Remember, this coming from a Western Ghats devotee.

Jai Bhole!!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

On the trail of Gods - Part III

Panoramic View of the Mighty Himalayas
So with our backpacks slung over backs again, we embarked on our pilgrimage. The views of snow clad mountains, which were so far a novelty for us and were infrequent, owing to our journey so far in the lower mountains and through forests, were now our constant companions. We were now walking on top of the mountains with only grasslands and absolutely no trees to block our view.The almighty Himalayas were always visible in their full glory to the North East. And the alpine forests that we had negotiated so far were also visible with all their vast expanses. At one point we could even see Tolitaal that we had passed the day before. It seemed so far away. We boasted in self-glorifying way of how long we had walked.

From hereon, since there was no more altitude to be gained, it was mostly a level ground and after crossing Pitardhara (slang for Pitrudhara), we were descending towards a place called Panchganga. It’s wonderful how places are named in these mountains.
Firstly, they are not really ‘places’ in true sense of the word. I mean, there is no settlement really, just a small hut manned by a lonely man. Or like at Pitardhara, which is just two man-high stacks of flat stones with a piece of wood placed across them to hang bells. It’s like an entrance to Rudranath, only much earlier. Yet they are named and named as if they are holiest of places, which they really are of course. Every inch of this territory is sacred, peaceful, beautiful. So we walk from one holy place to another holy place, that too on a holy path. Truly a pilgrimage.

Our Host-cum-Cook-cum-Guide-cum-Entertainer
So we reach Panchganga. And we find this hut-cum-hotel-cum-kitchen with its sole caretaker who is a host-cum-cook-cum-guide-cum-entertainer. Though at the moment he is in a company of his folks from his village somewhere far down the mountain. These men manning such huts on the way are just as intriguing as the names of the places. They befriend and chat with anyone and everyone passing by. They will cook for people, provide necessary tips and information to travelers like us and also valuable and entertaining insights into the lives of the native people. 
So we enquire with him about how far is Rudranath from here and if we can find a place to stay there. He advises us to stay in his hut as it’s not occupied at the moment, refresh ourselves with some food, and go visit the temple of Rudranath which is a little more than 30 minutes of walk from here. We thought of that as a good idea since it would save us that much of walking back the next day – as we had to go back the same way to Anusaya Devi, and further to Chopta, our destination for the next day. Also, it started raining quite heavily (we were so lucky to had arrived in the nick of time). Thus, the man cooked us the staple, Maggie and put some potatoes in the fire for us to munch on. Roasted potatoes with Ash Flavor. After indulging in the 7-star mountain cuisine, we spread ourselves wide and long and waited for the rain to stop. I dozed off while Hrishi and Jayesh chatted up with the man. A few more men and a woman passed by the hut all drenched in the rain while we were blissfully cozy in the blankets. They just continued towards Rudranath, without as much of a bother for the rain. God, I couldn’t imagine doing that. But that’s what holy pilgrimage and pilgrims are about in India.

The rain must have stopped after an hour or so. Seeing that it would not rain again, we set off towards the highest Panchkedar temple, Rudranath. Rudra by the way in Sanskrit means fearsome and Nath means master, lord, ruler, God. Shiva is Rudra. And this one being particularly tough to reach, goes by the name. With Kuldeep again in the lead, we reached the temple. Now this place more than just a hut or a temple. There are proper houses built of rock and with a proper tin roof. It’s but natural for some pilgrims must want to spend a night here before moving on. They must be catered food and a comfortable place to stay. And then at the end of all these houses in a row is the main temple, a rather small and unassuming one for its name. The foot trail ends here. One can’t go any further than this unless one wants to go climbing the Rudra mountain situated behind the temple. At the time we reached here, the mountain looked even more menacing with clouds gathered at its peak, giving it an ‘out-of-bounds’ look.

The Priest and Rudranath Temple
To our sheer disappointment, the temple was closed and one of the residents which again happened to be Kuldeep’s distant relative informed us that the priest would not come for another two hours or so. Having come this far and not seeing the temple from within and paying our respects, would be such a waste. So we decided to wait for the priest, in spite of the knowledge that we would have to walk back to Panchganga in dark. So we whiled away clicking snaps of Turtle Doves and Red Sparrows. But Gods of the Mountains must have been impressed by our efforts and dedication. The priest appeared much earlier and opened the temple for the only three pilgrims (Read: the pilgrims of the wild and inhospitable i.e us). The priest was a very stern looking, authoritative man with a full beard. I thought just as Rudra as the place itself. He did a little puja and told us about mythology behind Panchkedars and how it would benefit us if we complete this pilgrimage and made some offerings. So we made our ‘offerings’ and after a chai at Kuldeep’s folks’ place, we were back on our way to the multifunction hut. Nothing much different on the way back, except that we met a group of Sadhus from West Bengal. We had learnt that most of the visitors to these regions are from West Bengal and Maharashtra. Bengalis mostly for religious purposes. Marathis for religious, but largely for seeking adventure. We had already met some adventure seeking fellow Marathis in Devgram. And now we were bumping into Bengalis every now and then.

When we reached the hut, there was a whole new set of people chatting with our host for the night. We joined in the revelry. In a short while, another sadhu, who goes by the name Mauni Baba for he keeps, maun, a practice of shunning the words altogether for communication. He never talks, only uses gestures to communicate. We could hardly understand his gestures. But apparently people here have got used to him. They seemed to understand as Mauni Baba as seamlessly as if he had been talking like the rest of us. They told us that he’s a weirdo of sorts. Yeah, here that’s not a rarity either. And I’m sure the natives here think of us the same way. Why would anyone come this far just to seek a little getaway from the colourless urban life?! There are sadhus and then there are us. Both on a quest, albeit of different sorts (or is it really the same?!). And both love smoking ganja. So we roll our daily dose and after a hot meal go for a doze. Next day is when we kind of begin our return journey. Although with one more Kedar to visit on our way back.

The Bengali Sadhu
cont. on