The bus slithered up the twisting, curving mountain roads with sharp hairpin bends and blind U-turns. But the pink shirt clad ultra thin driver never once wavered, even when the visibility was minimal. He never let the bulky chassis of the huge Volvo overwhelm him. Together they seemed like the mythical Sheshnag* guarding the pilgrims while smoothly gliding up the treacherous paths that lay ahead of us.
Mountains after mountains in green, grey and brown went past my window and the tree line changed distinctly. Trees like Himalayan Pine, Cedar, Oak, Cypress, Silver fir, Birch, Chestnut, Elm; trees one can never hope to see in the plains made their presence felt by their sheer height, foliage and their peculiar aroma, that’s common to all trees up the mountains. And who can forget the ubiquitous Rhododendrons!
Like a 4 year child, high on sugar and hyper, I stuck my face on the glazed window and tried very hard not to blink. There was so much to see and no time to waste. I didn’t want to miss a leaf, let alone a tree!
While the glass pane of the window changed scenes like a wanton television set, one thing remained constant. Like a true soul mate, Ganga followed me everywhere. She played charades, peek a boo and hide and seek with me for hours as the bus moved up, up and only up without stopping for a minute.
And then suddenly something very strange and unique happened. The colour of the river began to change and soon enough the river split into 2 very distinct channels. I rubbed my eyes to check if I was hallucinating after hours of barely blinking. The bus pulled to a sudden stop and I hopped out like a rogue tadpole to see for myself the wonders of Ganga.
Dev Prayag, literally meaning Godly Confluence, is one of the most sacred of all river confluences. Here is where the heavenly rivers Alaknanda, Bhagirati and the invisible mystical Saraswati (it’s believed she is hidden underground) merge to become the Holy Ganga.
While I am prone to getting my silly heart broken and my unruly mind ruptured because of misunderstood human connections, the only healer I allow myself the luxury of, is Nature. My God has always spoken to me through Nature and this particular confluence was him telling me he isn’t too far away, as always.
The journey uphill continued in stunned silence. Everyone was lost in their own world. Dev Prayag seemed to have had the same kind of effect on all of us.
I was feeling beyond myself. In a bliss induced high!
Next Stop. Kedarnath.
The reason behind my resounding NO when my Mom broached the idea of the trip many months ago. The fear behind the reason. The betrayal of faith behind the fear. My volatile relationship with Lord Shiva behind that massive sense of loss and betrayal.
Kedarnath meaning Lord of the field is a temple situated at 3583m(11,755 ft) on the shores of the Mandakini River, a tributary of Ganga and the cause behind the mega devastation of the previous year. Legends say that the Pandavas came to meet Shiva after the kurushetra war to seek forgiveness for the sin of killing their own kin. Apparently Shiva was in no mood to meet them, let alone forgive them. So he turned himself into a bull and hid among cattle. When the enterprising brothers managed to track him, Bhima, the strongest of them all, managed to pull him by the tail while he tried to escape by diving head first into the ground. The benevolent Lord then had to appear before them and forgave them.
The temple, built by the 5 brothers has Lord Shiva in the form of an irregular shaped Linga* here. Open to public only between the months of April and November due to extreme weather conditions, one can reach the temple after an arduous 22 kms uphill trek since it’s not easily accessible by road. Ponies are allowed too.
The only reason I tagged along with my folks to the trip was this trek. Since my faith was fractured and my relationship with Lord Shiva at the moment could at best be described complicated, I wanted to test myself if I was any good for a high altitude trek. My rowdy dreams back then despite my fear of heights involved a full blown trek to the Nanda Devi National Park knowing fully well that some part of it was forbidden! A mountaineering course at the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering and Allied Sports. And some ascents of a few mountains. Annapurna, Kanchanjunga, Everest…err heard of them, I’m sure? (Rowdy. I said rowdy dreams, didn’t I?)
The guide, Vijay silently crept up on me and broke my bubble of bliss. It felt like he was enjoying it after my incredibly clumsy fall into the Ganga on the very first day!
The only thing that made me sign up very reluctantly for the trip was cancelled. The trek was off limits to all pilgrims that year because of the extensive damage to the trekking path by the floods and the fear of landslides wasn’t off the radar yet.
Why? Why me?
Murphy’s law? Or was it Shiva? Or was it just my fate?
As if the earth shattering news hadn’t had its fill, I was told that a helicopter ride was the only alternative. And that I had to undergo a medical check-up. My weight, heart-rate, blood pressure; everything had to be at optimum levels. At 6 AM the next day!
Ahh! The Divine Comedy! I felt like Shiva was playing a prank on me.
I mean HE knew I feared flying! And I was prone to low BP and low sugar levels early in the morning! HE knew I have been underweight all my life! Despite all the hours of Yoga and Meditation for 7 years, HE knew I was the perfect candidate to be REJECTED!
My parents came through. No doubt they did! Shiva has always been partial towards them!
My siblings did. Obviously! They have always been lucky!
All the oldies in the group did. No wonder they bribed some poor passing angel!
And there I was…very hesitant to get up there on the scales. The group that had been body-shaming me since the trip began sat there gloating.At dusk that October I weighed 45 kilos. My BP levels were low. The young doc on the other side looked at me curiously. So did I!
Apparently, I was the only one whose heart rate came out perfect, despite me being very anxious. He, in a matter of factly tone, asked me to eat for 2 at dinner and breakfast the next morning and stamped my biometric card with a smile saying I was the only one fit to climb at altitude.
I was thunderstruck. The group was shocked. My folks were happy and nonchalant. As I found a quiet place to sip my ginger tea from a ramshackle shack in silence, the sun went down and just like that the temperature dropped a few notches. Holding the cup tight and hugging my mother for extra warmth, I stared at the last rays leaving the mountains in a purple aura wondering at the games Shiva plays with us mere mortals…
The bus screeched to a halt in an eerily silent lodge in a small town called Sitapur. In pitch black darkness, under the light of the moon and with the help of a few mobile phones flashlights, we checked in.
My siblings and I had to share a room in the basement while my parents got a room on the first floor with a quarrelling couple next door.
Like a typical slasher movie, my sister was uneasy from the moment she stepped in. The room was stone cold and the woman kept repeating she heard voices. I was too famished to notice! Still damp and reeking of the flood waters of the previous year, we were told that the bottom half of the lodge lay submerged under water for months. Recently cleaned and spruced up for the pilgrim season, the lodge did pose a very horror-flicky vibe.
A hot meal (I obviously ate like a pregnant cow!) and some star gazing mellowed her down. Or so I assumed. She lay tossing and turning next to me for hours complaining of negative energies and an eerie presence while I slept like a log. Well…it was too cold. I lay frozen under my woollens inside a couple of duvets to bother about indiscernible voices and wailing ghosts!
Thawing myself out at 3.30am the next morning, I was up and about in a rush of energy and enthusiasm to overcome my fear of flying. I had my rock, my family around. What was to fear?
A very heavy breakfast of Puri, Cholle, and Sheera dripping in ghee was laid out and every one of them was prompting me to eat for 2! I was so full I had to drag myself into the bus for the short ride to the helipad. We were weighed again( 46 at dawn…a full kg up overnight!) and made to sit in the waiting room in groups of 5 or 6, depending on our combined weight equivalent to 350 kilos exclusive of the pilot.
I was so excited, like corn being popped! I couldn’t sit in one place at peace. I found myself pacing and standing with my face stuck to the huge glass walls staring at the yellow and black helicopter. Bumblebee, I thought to myself.
Suddenly, I heard my name on the speaker. I came out of my Transformers inspired reverie and turned around.
Another shocker! Again!
To be continued…
*Sheshnag : The mythical 5 headed serpent guarding Lord Vishnu.
*Linga : The abstract representation of Shiva