Holistic Living - The Eternal pilgrim
by Life Positive
As much as the trip, I remembered the writing that emerged from it—an inspired 'essay' about my experience of Kedarnath (a holy place in the Himalayas). It found its way into the school annual, and I had my first galling encounter with editorial prerogative, when the monotheist Christian Brothers made a telling amendment to the last two words of a 12-year-old's writing. "Truly this was the abode of the Gods," I had written, in the gushing manner that I later learned to call purple prose. Enshrined in The Columban, 1968, this indelibly altered to read: "Truly, this was the abode of God."
Not that mattered terribly. For, on the same pilgrimage, I had radically altered my notion of religion and worship. On the one hand, was the devotion of thousands like my mother, who had braved the rocky climb, woken the dark and bathed in the icy cold to worship at the shrine; on the other, the ugly face of clergy driven by greed and the complete lack of a religious aesthetic. Pushed from one oily priest to another, nauseated by the smell of rancid ghee (clarified butter), squirming at the untold horrors of grime underfoot, and maddened by the unceasing clangor of tuneless bells, I had no choice but to conclude that the gods, or God, dwelt outside of this hellish hole.
I was to return to Kedarnath twice. Never to the temple. The last time, few steep miles down the track, I stopped to share the water bottle with an ageing Bengali pilgrim on his way up. "How far? Will I get there before the aarti (ritual worship)? I must leave early tomorrow morning..." A panting rush of words I didn't answer.
On my second trip, I had stood alone above this stream in the early velvet of an autumn night. The first stars had pierced the skies and the river Mandakini danced in phosphorescent delight. Sheltered by the lack warmth of a craggy rock, I was blessed by the silence and the distance of my companions, by the many depths I found before the red pin points of beedi-ends grew into the warmth of steaming mules, and the muted tinkling of bells into the quiet chatter of tired souls.
Another autumn night, another river, Chari opened the tiny wooden window of our ashram room in Bhojbasa on to a single silver star above the Bhagirathi peaks. A gentle white, the faintest pink and the deepest, darkest heavenly blue. How could these giant mountain rise as gentle as dream? The next morning, Chari was quiet, increasingly intense as we neared the source (of the Ganga), the cavernous Gaumukh set in a towering snout of ice and glacial rock. Large as houses, blocks of green-tinged ice tumbled to the river bed, the craft following.
"We've reached," he said as deeply as any words I've heard, and then raced down the screen to the river, to sand cheering, exultant, upon a rock. This was a Chari I'd never seen before, or since. I hadn't known Chari for long, but from our first meeting, our interaction had been effortless—gentle conversations about the joys of the mountains, long, easy silences and a sharing of wide ranging music. One night, we had just heard the wild, stirring beauty of Peter Gabriel's Passion, and sat quietly on my bedroom floor. "You know," I said, almost ashamed to break the silence," if there's one trek I want to do, it is to Gaumukh". Chari looked at me and slowly allowed himself to smile: "That's the only trek left that would mean anything to me."
And so we had set off from Gangotri, the day after the temple had been closed for winter, into a landscape of autumn leaves and cobalt skies. The infant Ganga was a chilling blue, and as we climbed the empty pilgrim's trail, we left the last of the forest for a desert landscape of gray and brown. At Bhojbasa, Chari had wanted to engage the resident baba in conversation, but, busy in his kitchen, the arthritic old man had growled in return: "I am here to do, not to talk."
And now we were above the Ganga, at Tapovan, from where the Shivling peak swept up to its hooded summit. In her cave that night, the 'mai' of Tapovan fed us with puris and alu (Indian bread and potatoes), and answered Chari's questions about the search that had brought him from the small towns of Karnataka to this achingly desolate meadow.
More. Chari always wanted to know more. In the after-dinner sessions we so relished, I had learned, piecemeal, of the search that began in his adolescence, and took him to the ashrams of Rishikesh and Calcutta, to Madras, where a young monk was luminous with the joys of meditating at dawn. Then medical student, Chari took to waking at four, earning the only name by which I called him—Char (four)-i.
In every quiet tale he told, there was a little nugget for me to glean. I often asked him about his native Kashmir. Once he told me of the silent snows below Amarnath, where he had looked for a route to the cave long before the path was cleared for the ordinary pilgrim. When night fell, he was alone, cold and lost. "That night, I lost my fear of death."
In the mai's cave, the fire died, and she let the silence speak.
The next morning, Chari was suddenly restless, as though Tapovan was too intense for him. We had a day to spare, but his need to leave was like black hole. You couldn't see it, but when you drew near, it had an energy vastly greater than blazing suns. At that moment, it as if I would never be able to understand the man.
But one night, as we shared the streets of Salvia Nagger in Delhi with drunks and starving dogs. He reduced his life to the smile urge. "I want to find my guru. When will I find my guru?"
"I have found my gurus," I told Chari," You and the mai and Levant, who laughs even as she and her children shiver in the winter cold of Kumaon. And Arun, and Sushil and Kalyan, and Ron, and all those who have shared their homes and their hearts and their learning with me." Chari nodded, but in reply: "I want to meet my maker."
Five years later we carried Chari's ashes up the Ganga, in a time of winter silence, the river sparse skeins of lapis and steel, knitted into a valley of ash gray and bone white. Black and grainy, the road met the Sierra tyres in the crunch of ice and rubble. Dry orange grass spilled from an orifice of icicles and single spire of smile reached, oh so slender, for the skies.
And here was Harsil, where fresh young junipers grew in winter green against the crystal snow. The sharp summit of Draupadi ka Danda flirted with winter clouds. We crossed a tiny stream, and found our peace above the river. Kalyan drew an Om in the snow. I closed my eyes. And took what seemed like forever to find my voice. "Om bhur bhava..." The strangely comforting sound of chants whose meaning I'd never really learnt. The ashes settled to the river bed.
Hadn't Chari said to me that evening, as we drove up to Gangotri:" Harsil—this would be a nice place to spend tome time... some other time."
In a slow arc, I released the emptied clay pot to the river. It settled on a sand bank, and allowed the river to flow into it, and lo, filling itself to the brim, it welcoming more.
Never empty, never stale, always open, the eternal pilgrim.
Mohit Satyanand, India
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