Reaching the pinnacle
Sonal Mansingh dared to dance where angels fear to tread.
IN PRAISE OF THE SUPREME ONE Dancer Sonal Mansingh.
She was always among the top dancers of the country, but Sonal Mansingh was literally the topmost dancer in a literal sense. Having just returned from a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, she has become the only dancer in the world to dance before the sacred mountain on the roof of the world.
Her eyes overflow as she relives the moment. "How could I even have the ego to raise my foot there, if it were not His will?" she wonders. After a thoughtful silence, she states, "I know I will go back."
But it was no easy trip. She went with a group led by Swami Chidananda Saraswati of the Paramarth Niketan, an organisation involved in social work that has established a dharamsala at Mansarovar recently. The trip went via Nepal.
The conditions were taxing from the beginning. "Once in Kathmandu valley, it is all mountains. The Friendship Bridge is the only flat terrain," she begins the tale.
Once across, there was a steep climb and a search for each party's vehicle which took over two hours. Then it was a long winding "ubar khaabar" road to reach the border town of Zangmu. Immigration formalities took place there, and here the authorities held back the trucks with her party's luggage. The result: Everyone remained in the same clothes, wet to the skin.
"We don't realise sitting here, how every step hurts," recounts the dancer, now re-ensconced in her tasteful South Delhi home. Tiredness and altitude sickness had already begun to take their toll, and some people returned home from this first baptism. "All the people who had fudged their medical reports - it showed up: heart palpitations, nose bleed, even a small cavity speaks up."
Afterwards they were bundled back into the vehicle and trundled on over the Tibetan plateau. "It is a completely different terrain. Rocks and boulders. There is no road, only tracks. We had to start wearing masks."
Next day they camped on the banks of the Lake Pigutso.
"There was lashing rain. I was in the same clothes in which I left Kathmandu," recalls the veteran of many a performance tour. This meant she had only a thin shawl as protection from the wet and cold, in winds that make you feel "as if your head will blow off." In the middle of a night spent in the land cruiser, the trucks arrived. "A torch was shone in my face and a blanket thrown at me," she laughs.
In this adventurous manner she reached Saga, on the banks of the River Tsang-Po (the Brahmaputra).
At each stop the group was losing members who opted to return home. At this Chinese cantonment where photography was prohibited and they were advised not even to open the window curtains, the Paramarth devotees had arranged an arti to the river. Amidst the beautiful scenes were practical challenges like trying to dry the clothes of 100 people, since the luggage in the trucks had been soaked through.
It was only when they reached Prayang, which is even higher than Mansarovar, that altitude sickness manifested itself in Sonal. She persevered and arrived at a plateau where there is a shrine. "We did a kosh parikrama (circumambulation). Below we saw Mansarovar, a blue expanse. On one side was the Gurla Mandhaja range - snow clad, like jagged teeth. And across from Mansarovar, Kailash. I just fell to the ground and wept."
The south face of Kailash, says the dancer, well versed in the shastras, is "really Yogeshwar." It looks as if leaning back in meditation. "I saw on the right side one eye and on the left it was totally white. Then on the left two eyes appeared."
There is a silence as she sees it all over again. "So it is Ardhanarishwar and it is also Trinetra, but not as we imagine it." She recalls, "It is a presence, not a mountain."
The next morning she danced there, as part of the Saga Dawa Festival, an important Tibetan festival. A huge pole is erected with prayer flags tied to it "like a Maypole".
"That (pole) is the manmade Mount Meru in front of Kailash, which is the real Maha Meru."
What could she dance for such an audience? "I did Bhagawati stuti.
Then I said here Shiva is not alone, he is a householder. Uma Maheshwar, Patanjali, Vyaghrapada... Then, Hari and Hara are great friends, and he (Hari) is Devi's brother. Keeping all these family relations in mind, I paid obeisance to all of them."
Still electrified at the experience, she says, "I was crying, because I couldn't believe it. I thought, this is the supreme moment of my life.
That He wants and He has accepted my nritya seva. And that Devi has arranged it."
Later she saw the other face of Kailash, which she describes as Panchamukha. "You can see five distinct faces and a nag (serpent) above."
Physically descending from the mountain was easier than coming back to regular life after that high.
On her return to Delhi, she says, "I was like a robot. I was still (up) there. I didn't recognise anything. I was either just sitting or sleeping."
She left the city for a while and when she returned she began unwinding.
But two ideas are paramount in her mind: One, that she will return to Kailash, and secondly, that Devi, "the lady of the house" has showered such grace on her.
"Because without that Shakti, even Shiva is shava."
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