Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
TIME OUT : May 2, 1999
It was an absolutely mad decision for a confirmed secularist to undertake a Char Dham pilgrimage to Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. I was influenced by the fact that the whole bus load of people who planned to go, belonged to a family I knew from childhood. The siblings and their spouses, scattered in different cities across the world, came together for this occasion. My mother, an intrepid traveller, was to join the group. A stronger inducement was that an old schoolmate decided to come too. Anusha believed it would be a singular experience, a break from the office routine, and from family excursions which tended to turn into action replay on a different location. On this journey though, we could coast along without a care. All we needed was a sweater, stout shoes, a pair of jeans - a couple of books if things got slow. But they wouldn't, we would be travelling through unknown regions. There would be spectacular mountainscapes to thrill the souls of the dwellers on the flat plains.
On the day of our departure from Delhi, I began to suspect that things were not going to be quite what we expected. The suave professionals in our group who discussed global issues with radical, progressive sangfroid, were suddenly transformed into mamas and mamis, straight from Mylapore (Chennai). All it took was some turmeric paste shaped into a makeshift Ganesha, a candle, and a little brass bell to ring in a wave of bhakti. Kittu anna lost his NRI accent in solemn Sanskrit mantras. Vasanji forgot his British phlegm in eyes-closed ardour. I sneaked a look at Anusha. She wore an aura of rapture. (Et tu BrutÆ?) The youngest among us, newly weds Sita and Jeffrey, who aimed to document the trip for some British TV channel, were so moved that they almost forgot to shoot the puja scene which launched our venture. And our "light luggage" included cartons of sarees and dhotis, ghee and incense, all to be gifted away at the many holy spots we were to visit. Thick ropes were handed out. No, not for mountain climbing, but to pack our suitcases in plastic bags. When the bus started to move, instead of Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar to cheer us, we had Santa manni leading us in bhajan singing. My dismay melted quickly. I found I was actually enjoying it.
Uttar Pradesh wore all the shades of green in September. Streams babbled everywhere, hyacinths and lilies starred in every pool big and small. On trees and fields, water birds made luminous flowers under the sun. Every milestone brought a wayside shrine. Soon, the level land began to loop itself into hillocks, laced with cloud shadows.
The idyll was broken at Haridwar. Was this ugly waterway between cemented platforms, packed with impenetrable human masses, and honeycombed with shops, the divine Ganga brought down from the heavens? Could this polluted water wash away our sins?
But as the skies turned from orange and pink to grey, the evening rites of river worship began in five spots by the shore. A prayer song blared through the loudspeakers, and branched lamps twirled high in the air, forking like slow motion lightning on the flowing river. Hundreds of tiny lamps on leaf boats were released into the waters to twinkle at the stars above. The cry "Jai Gange Mata!" rose from a thousand throats....
Further up in Rishikesh, I got to see the river tossing into foam scalloped eddies. The purple hills loomed like gaint cut-outs as I sat on the lonely ghat with my feet in the running water. Dawn broke into rosy streaks. A young priest appeared from nowhere to do a daybreak puja, intoning shlokas from millennia ago. It was the start of time travel - back into a prehistoric oral tradition submerged in racial memory.
On the next lap, our bus followed the winding track beside the Ganga of a thousand visuals. Now a sportive brook, then a sparkling waterfall, and further up a furious current swirling aggressively. Under a chiaroscuro of cloud, hill and tree shadows, countless streams rushed into the main waterway. Birds hovered in the air and insects darted in and out. Once, we saw giant spiders motionless in nightmare webs stretching across from one bush to another.
In contrast to the timeless wilderness, the villages we drove through were in a state of ferment. Posters, flags, meeting under the trees, and grim processions, all reminded us of an agitated present. At one spot when the bus was stopped by a procession, I got down to take pictures, but was forcibly thrust back into the bus by protestors demanding a separate Uttarakhand State. This intersection of time and eternity was a constant feature of the whole trip. The socio-political turmoil, rank poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and child labour were visible evils everywhere. You also saw how the environment was despoiled by mindless tourism. The hills had huge, raw weals on them from ruthless quarrying. Lorries groaning under mounds of fresh cut logs, passed us continually.
And yet, the sense of an ancient past, its roots deep in the spiritual, metaphysical, literary and aesthetic traditions of this land, banished awareness of the present as the only urgent reality.
At Gupt Kasi, the priest announces with a conviction which admits no questioning, that it is the "exact" place where Siva, persuaded by Parvati, gave a fleeting glimpse as the androgynous Ardhanarisvara. This was for the Pandavas who sought him to redeem them from the sins of fratricide. But once again, Siva hid himself in a herd of bulls up in the Kedar mountain. Waters stream down on both sides of the hundred steps you climb to reach the hoary portals of the shrine. A chamber beside the main sanctum (with its constantly dripping walls) holds Ardhanarisvara astride the sacred bull. A tank in the centre of the spacious courtyard has waters pouring out of the mouths of a bronze elephant and cow, believed to be from the underground sources of the Ganga and the Yamuna. The visages are exquisitely carved. In the pale green watery light filtered through the low clouds, with the cold breezes blowing against us, the familiar shloka "Karacharana kritam", and the song "Sri Parvati Paramesvarau vandÆ" paying homage to the male and female principles, acquire an emotive meaning hitherto unknown. To sing them is to feel the quest of the Pandavas as part of the eternal lore of good and evil, in the unceasing human struggle to overcome loss and pain. It is a moment beyond ritual and religion.
The trip provided more epiphanies of that kind, always at unexpected moments, mostly through the actualisation of the music I had learnt without much thought or reflection. After the discomforts of the pony ride up the narrow tracks, the sharp hill sun burning the face, while the eye feasts on the iridescent slopes criss-crossed with waterfalls, and valleys smiling through the extravagant burst of tiny wildflowers, you suddenly come upon your first sight of Kedarnath. It is a spectacular stage suspended against the snow-topped peak piercing the azure sky. Sun-rays are beamed through the clouds like dizzying MTV dissolves.
Standing on the steps of the sanctum in the spartan temple, fresh from the banks of the Mandakini, it was natural to intone the Siva stuti learnt in the lisping days. After the initial words "Nagendra haraya", the entire congregation of pilgrims from several parts of India far and remote, separated by language and sub-cultures, joined the chant in a ringing swell of adoration. The prayer became incantation.
We are told that the linga we sit around to worship is the hump of the bull that Bhima managed to grab before the disguised Lord dived underground. But it was enough to cleanse the Pandavas of sin and sorrow.
"Lord, bless Lakshmi, Saraswati, Gowri...." I hear Anusha mutter. No, she is not praying for her friends, but for her cows back home from whose milk she has extracted the ghee which she is now taking out of the guarded bottle to smear on the linga. Kine take precedence over family and friends.
Somehow my mother manages to find a brahma kamal. It is believed that mystics take the form of this large luminous flower, blooming on the topmost heights of the Himalayas, to perform their penances in undisturbed secrecy. This is a rarefied realm of mythopoesy, beyond reason and reflection. We are plunged into the vortex of the vibrant energy at the matrix of an ancient culture.
Take the road to Badrinath and again you fly the magic carpet over well known legends and tales. The rivers pour into one another making sacred meeting points. At Rudraprayag, we learn of the forests close by where Princess Usha fell in love with Aniruddha, grandson of Krishna, a tale re-enacted in the annual tradition of the Bhagavata mela in village Melattur, Tamil Nadu.
We pass Karnaprayag where Karna was supposed to have gifted his protective armour to the god Indra, willingly making himself defenceless prey to Arjuna's arrows. We move through Pandukeshwar where the unfortunate albino king Pandu is said to have spent his last years under a curse.
By the time we reach Badrinath we have overcome our squeamishness about filth, stench and the ugly commercialisation of worship we confront everywhere. The Alakananda beckons to me to take an ice-cold dip, after which the figure of Sankaracharya at the temple corridor, flanked by his four disciples offers a clear message. Serendipitously, his "Bhaja Govindam" surrounds us through the recorded voice of M. S. Subbulakshmi. But the experience is not of devotion and surrender, that you read on the faces of the endless pilgrims who pass by in an exalted daze. Here, along with the cave at Jyotirmath where the philosopher had established one of his four centres of advaita, I discover that the lesson learnt in the school text long ago, repeated ad nauseum as "unity in diversity", is not a convenient catch-phrase, but an incontrovertible truth for this country of ours. Why else would a saint from Kerala walk through the incredibly long tracks across the land many centuries ago, to reach this remote region? Up on these mountains, non-dualism must seem most natural, and the identification of the individual consciousness with the cosmic consciousness a wholly possible reality.
Mana, a tiny hamlet on the Indo Chinese border, has sights more inspiring. A breathless climb takes you to a small cave, its stone walls weather-beaten to a cool, silky smoothness. It is believed to be the location of an outstanding literary achievement. Here the sage Vyasa composed the Mahabharata in an uninterrupted flow of oral narration. Ganesa, the occupant of the little temple below, was the scribe who broke off a piece of his tusk to inscribe those verses on palm leaves. A priest materialised as if by magic. He lit a lamp, casting mysterious shadows in the cave. Tamaso ma jyotir gamaya... we are led from darkness to light in few minutes of meditative silence as we recall the marvels of that epic masterpiece.
A walk over the hill takes you to the source of the Saraswati, as she explodes fiercely into rainbows out of a rocky cleft, and pours into a torrential stream which calms down below. That is when I realised why Muthuswami Dikshitar, playing his veena in quiet Tiruvarur by the Cauvery, described the goddess as Vegavauhini (fast flowing) in a homage he composed in the raga of that name. As the waterfall roars into your consciousness, you also know why he imaged Saraswati as the primal sound which creates, animates and energises the universe.
There were many more images to tease us out of thought on that journey, until, we were caught up yet again in the Uttarakhand turmoil. This forced us to make an unscheduled halt at Rampur, a village hanging precariously on the hill slopes. The hartal prohibited vehicles on the road. Anusha and I decided to walk a few miles back to the breathtaking Sonprayag we had passed on the way. Mother decided to chaperon us through the "dangers" of the trek!
For a while we had the colourful company of a little group of villagers, dancing and singing with folk pipes and drums, while two men carried a pole adorned with a red scarf, a switch of hair and flowers. Some had gagged their mouths to observe the vow of silence. They were going to worship a tribal goddess in the adjacent village. Sita and Jeffrey followed them in an enthusiastic shooting spree.
An hour's trot brought us to where the Mandakini leapt from the crags in a tidal spray of pearls into the sinuous dance of the Songanga. At our request, the local washerman picked up his bundle and vanished into the woods. We were the lone human presence in that primeval scene of unearthly splendour. We scrambled into the swirls. Our earlier dips in the Mandakini, Bhagirathi and Alakananda had not been as carefree as here in the clamour of the rivers, broken feebly now and then by a barbet or bulbul. I believed then that our ancestors were right. The joyousness of that immersion was enough to wash all miseries away. It rejuvenated flesh and spirit. I blessed the agitation which made this seclusion possible.
It couldn't last, of course. An hour flashed by before shoe-shod tramping broke our dream. A company of American tourists with video cameras had arrived on ponies. We plunged into neck deep water and pretended to a vow of silence, wondering what footage would be screened later in Texas and Arkansas, with excited commentary about "natives" performing mysterious rituals in the river.
But we carried the river back with us. It continues to flow in and out of time.
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