"The hills are lonely, sharp and steep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep."
- a Military-sponsored signboard on the Badrinath-Mana Road, near the Tibetan border.
I got to visit Badrinath-Kedarnath (via Delhi) last month - my third foray into Northern India within a year (thanks to Mom!). The week-long, 'conducted' Yatra was too full of images and too hectic for me to have recorded it in some form convertible into a proper journal here. Here is a very sketchy account of what was seen - and felt:
- Haridwar was just what I had expected. The Ghat, the clock-tower, the Ganga Arti, the crowds of bathers,... hot and muggy weather, and the river water surprisingly cold. I wandered the ghat, watching the crowds, the Arti, hawkers selling plastic sheets to Arti-watchers, the chaos,...
A huge Siva statue stands a little upstream, oddly facing farther upstream with its back towards the ghat; Goddess Ganga sits on a pedestal in mid-river, riding a croc. Half-submerged, near the Western Bank are small statues of various divinites, all shown facing east, into the river. Among them is a figure of Guru Nanak, who ought to be facing West(*).
- Hrishikesh was a bit more of the same show. A folly of a temple, 13 storeys tall with sharp spiky towers and painted a glaring red - stands next to the famous Laxmanjhoola. There are Ashrams, all concrete - and over-sized effigies of Gods - all over the place, which has grown into quite a town, a far cry from pre-Independence days when it was described as a secluded spot populated by the odd hermit - and where tigers prowled.
- Beyond Hrishikesh, the foothills (Sivalik range) have a healthy forest cover for a few kilometers but then on, on both sides of the Ganga are burnt-out-looking barren hills, with only cacti and agaves making a few scratches of green. The river looks the color of overmilked coffee.
- At Devaprayag, the Alakanda (which brings the murky, coffee-look) merges with the deep green Bhagirathi to form the Ganga at a turbulent sangam where a large population of foot-long fish thrives. At Rudraprayag, another deep green and slender stream, the Mandakini, loses itself in Alakananda's murk.
- The road to Kedarnath follows Mandakini and starts climbing sharply after Rudraprayag; the hillsides gradually get greener. At Agastyamuni, with the weather still muggy, one has the first vision of snow-mountains - the trapezoidal crest of the Chaukhambha.
At a chai-shop there, I saw a hill-woman in a bright blue sweater and bright red scarf, with an infant strapped on to her - the color scheme and much else strongly reminiscent of Leonardo's 'Madonna Litta' (another member of our party reported witnessing a quarrel featuring the same lady, a "hag" accusing her of having broken her (the hag's) marriage).
An elderly sadhu, whose face was uncannily reminscent of the famous composer Dakshinamurti, lay in peaceful repose under a tree next to the chai-shop; he seemed unaffected by the flies buzzing around.
- The road terminus of Gaurikund is another 30 or so kilometers ahead. A conjested pilgrim-village. A kilometer of shops, dharamsalas and what not lie tightly packed alongside a 3-footwide pathway.
Easily, the most picturesque of all temples in this Yatra is at Triyugi Narayan, about 45 minutes by jeep from Gaurikund. From the temple, which lies at an altitude of 7000 feet, we watched a panorama of rugged mountains in the distance; as one gazes, a small bank of clouds passes over the mountains and the crests briefly gleam with a fresh and generous dusting of snow ... and then, the spectacle melts into dusk.
- A stiff 14 km trek (it took me five hours flat of near-nonstop walking) begins at Gaurikund and picks its way up the hills along the rim of a deep and narrow gorge cut by a very noisy Mandakini. Rhododendrons have just begun to bloom, the odd horse-chestnut is also in form. In the upper reaches, there are a few grassy patches (locally called 'bugyal'), spangled with exotic orchid blooms...
Kedarnath is in the center of a few-kilometer wide plateau behind which rises a wall-like range of mountains, several of which top 18000 feet in height, and which are unfortunately, hidden by clouds at midday, this time of the year (one had caught several spectacular glimpses of the peaks while tiredly hauling onself up the foot-trail; and had to be satisfied with that much).
A handful of sadhus chill out near the temple; one of them had dressed up as Shiva (quite a hard act in this very chilly place) and sat meditatively puffing a beedi and not showing much interest in the few notes that had got deposited before him.
Surprisingly, by far, the single biggest group of yatris to Kedarnath are from far away Maharashtra - tough, wiry villagers, men and women, old and young, determinedly walking up the steep slopes, ignoring the dolies and the ponies; am told by a source with considerable authority that this strong Maharashtran presence is a still persistent effect of the fervent and almost country-wide temple-building activity undertaken by the Maratha queen Ahilyabai Holkar in the 18th century; it was perhaps she who drew up the list of 12 Jyotirlingams, with Kedarnath being the farthest to the North (8 of them are clustered in West/Central Mahrashtra-Western MP-Gujarat).
Kedarnath temple is a small, plain and not unattractive stone building. The interior is desperately crowded with worshippers and almost shockingly, there is no security check at any point. The focus of worship is a large, irregularly shaped rocky Lingam, also said to represent the hump or rump of a bull (the resemblance to either needs quite a lot of imagination to visualize) which Shiva turned himself into, in a rather inexplicable effort to hide from the Pandavas, who were desperately seeking his blessings to expiate some sins committed in battle.
- The drive from Gaurikund to Badrinath was a day-long affair. The Chaukhambha can be glimpsed several times, glittering away in the morning sunshine; then, the hot blast from the plains at Rudraprayag, another slow ascent, this time along the Alakananda valley, past scorched-looking hillsides; a sprinkling of jacarandas in bloom, then the deodar and pine forests slowly taking over... Approaching Joshimath, one sees snow again atop distant mountains, one of which has two sharp and almost identical peaks - I decide to christen it the 'Devil' (Note: another, more imaginative. member of our party saw a 'reclining woman' thereabout). I name another distant mountain - many pronged, with sharp tips - the 'Tiger's Paw'.
Our path (called the 'Chetak Highway' after Rana Pratap's legendary horse) descends for a short while from Joshimath and then begins a dizzying climb that gains well over 5000 feet in just about 30 kilometers. Here is a description, by Keralan writer S.K.Pottekkat (c 1965), in free translation: "Charging forward resolutely, then twisting and turning sharply, rearing and recoiling as if in panic and dramatically recovering ... mighty Chetak struggles heroically, as if in vicious battle, against the challenge of the formidable battlement that 'Kuber Shila' truly is. The roar of the turbulent river can be heard from thousands of feet below... This portion of the journey is a profoundly scary experience...."
- Badrinath lies at 10500 feet, near the lower end of a U-shaped and gently sloping and few kilometers wide glacial valley, both walls thereof rising to snow-peaks of 15000 feet and upwards (their hard profiles and snow-caps can be clearly made out even at night, in star-light). Past the straggly town, the valley winds northwards to the village of Mana and then turns North-west towards the glaciers of Satopanth and the Swargarohini Peak, a few tens of kilometers away. It is humbling to think that that during the last ice age, this entire valley was filled by a huge glacier and Alakananda is but a skimpy remnant of that immense sheet of ice...
Neelkanth, the tallest peak in the area is usually hidden behind clouds; all I could get of it was a fleeting glimpse at sunrise, bright orange-yellow and pure white - like a generous helping of vanilla ice-cream with a dash of orange syrup poured over at the top - and flowing viscously down the sides ... (to Pottekkat, half a century ago, the same mountain had appeared as a "silver scimitar thrust into the heavens"; curiously, my own vision of Neelkanth matches rather well with HIS description of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa!).
Badrinath temple has a very colorful facade - all blue, yellow, red and white in their purest shades - and from the distance, looks like a scaled-down carpenter's model. It teems with worshippers throghout the day. and security arrangements are far more stringent than at Kedar and we had to wait 2 full hours in a queue for Darshan - the small, gilded, heavily ornamented idol of Badrinath, flanked by Nara-Narayana and Lakshmi... The town itself is a messy affair, and like most places I saw on this trip, presents a curious and very real problem - electric lines and cables that criss-cross and clutter the sky almost everywhere, spoiling the views of the mountains.
- The trail to the Vasudhara Falls begins at Mana village and follows the glacial valley (the board of a shop where one starts off declares: "The last shop in Hindustan"; China/ Tibet is a further 40 kilometers away, across uninhabited mountains) in the direction of Satopanth - this is also said to be the path taken by the Pandavas on their final heaven-ward journey... The track runs thru a strangely desolate Alpine landscape, flowery meadows, rugged, snow-capped mountains and a persistent, chilly wind. Too sad, I could not trek all the way to the falls, a scheduling problem...
- We stopped by at Joshimath on the way back. Sankaracharya is believed to have set up a Monastery here and to have meditated under a still-flourishing tree (looks like a mulberry tree) named 'Kalpavriksha'. As I waited for the rest of our group to finish their devotions, a senior member of our group, who had got to know me fairly well, came up and said: "Thought I should tell you; the priest said if one touches this tree and makes a wish, it will definitely come true. So ...!"
(*) The episode from the life of Guru Nanak, in which the Master chided some devout Sun-worshippers by throwing the Ganga water towards the west at sunrise - claiming he was watering his fields in the Punjab - was where I first heard about Haridwar as a sacred site.