Rudely shaken out of my Bumblebee-inspired reverie, I heard Vijay, the guide yelling out my name from the list of pilgrims waiting to visit Kedarnath. Disoriented, blinking 581 times per minute, like a typical Bollywood damsel in distress, I stood rooted to the ground for a full 90 seconds.
“Time to go!” I heard someone say. “Now?” the word bounced around in my head…it didn’t have the chance to get out. Stunned, I turned around, slung my backpack, snatched the biometric card from my Mum’s hand and took off. For a second, the idea that I was to join some strange oldies, without the comforting presence of my family, on my first helicopter experience over a dangerous valley was lost on me. It’s when I saw the whirring blades of the chopper and the sagging faces shorn of all emotions did it finally dawn on me!
I was an appendage added at the last minute to the first group to fly out that morning!
Why? Because they had just enough space to squeeze someone under 50 kilos! And the only one in plain sight was a kid and I! Naturally the onus fell on me to take the bait! If only they had known I was more scared than that child of 8!
My usual motor mind had gone silent. This couldn’t be happening to me! I ducked as I neared the chopper, got in and sat beside the window next to an old woman. I glanced at the greying handsome pilot in aviators and it made me smile. He was half my size! Obviously they had space to use me as a filler!
Seat belts on, grabbing my pack tight, I clumsily waved at my family on the other side of the glass wall and the chopper lifted off the ground. My fists curled into a ball and I could barely breathe. As the chopper gained height, I looked below in wonder as my ears felt taut and my hearing switch went on and off. Pines, hills and people began to shrink in size until they were the size of peanuts…
And then the trekking path came into view. If it could still be called a pathway that is! The horrific devastation of the floods and the landslides came into sight and up in the air, away from everything and everyone I knew and loved, I found myself pondering about Shiva.
My relationship with Lord Shiva has always been complicated and complex. In childhood, after I grew out of my childish love for Lord Ganesha, his son, Lord Shiva was the one I was trying to impress for the longest time. Being a Hindu allows me to figure out who I want to surrender myself to ultimately, given that there are a plethora of Gods, demigods and deities to choose from. And I have used the freedom to fully explore the vast fabric that is Hinduism before I chose The One, who I could give myself to completely.
For a few years, in early childhood it was Shiva because I found my Mum turning to Him in prayer for everything. Then my Mum’s favorite, a beautiful black and gold idol of Him fell to the ground and broke into pieces and I was the one guilty for the crime. My childish fear that Shiva would bring forth his wrath on me by opening his dreaded third eye and burning me to ashes made me run and hide from Him for many years. In my hormonal teens I was busy with some other deities and demigods.
Until I took seriously to Yoga and Meditation in my 20’s. The few times, when the world ceased to exist during my meditation sessions and all I felt was the pulsating energy within me, the divine image of Shiva, deep in meditation always made its calm presence felt.
But the uncomfortable question always remained without a concrete answer. I found it unsettling to worship the phallic symbol, linga that is used to represent Shiva at all places of worship. It felt too archaic and given my stand against patriarchy I couldn’t go against my own principles.
But in that vulnerable moment of fear and inquiry, I turned to a chant Om Namah Shivaya, that had always given me peace since the time I learnt to speak.
7 minutes later, I found myself ducking my head again and running away from the blades of the chopper. On the helipad at Kedarnath now. The group of oldies went their way and I was left all alone. Since there was nothing else to do but move forward, I moved towards the temple.
All around me was an eerie silence. The floods had washed away businesses; shops selling flowers, coconuts, offerings to the lord, restaurants, lodges, tea shops. Everything lay destroyed to the ground. The pathway as I walked was being laid with the help of some locals and the Border Security Force. Focusing only on putting one foot forward over the next, I suddenly jerked to a rapid stop. The skeletal remains of an unfortunate pilgrim could still be seen from what was once the first floor of a lodge. Shocked beyond words, shivering in fear and drying my icy tears in the bone chilling cold, I quickly unlaced my sneakers, left them outside the temple premises and ran in to find some solace.
Amidst strangers and a soothing recording of Om Namah Shivaya played somewhere within the premises, there I was. Standing in the sanctum sanctorum of the Jyothirlinga, one of the twelve of the holiest Hindu Shrines for Lord Shiva.
“Well…You look different!” I heard the voice in my head say to the divine linga. The Kedarnath linga is very different from all other lingas in that it is shaped like an irregular triangle unlike the usual phallus. I am not a ritual-friendly Hindu and I am usually very uncomfortable inside the sanctum of a temple since women are mostly prohibited from performing rituals alone. I stood like a statue, immobile, unsure of what to do next. This is when I needed my Mum the most. She just knows what to do at all times!
The head priest pointed his index finger at me and said in a beautiful Pahari* accented Hindi that I could pay obeisance to the lord. He said I was even allowed to bow my head and touch the linga. The linga was a bit away from me, so I had to bend forward without a beam for support and before I knew I lost balance, slipped and in that split second my hands reached out to the only thing I could hold to break the fall…The linga!
What the priest forgot to mention was that the linga was covered in ghee! It was freezing and obviously the ghee had dried up! I didn’t notice and seconds later my hands slided on the ghee smeared linga and I fell head first onto the linga. Everyone inside hushed in whispers, but the jolly head priest said Shiva must be so very happy to see me; he forced me to give him a hug after all!!!
The games Lord Shiva plays with us mere mortals…From a woman questioning my faith a few months ago to a girl afraid of heights and flying to a child being hugged by the very same God I ran from, all my life; I felt like Benjamin Button, reverse ageing!
The picture of me outside the temple, smeared with vermilion, smiling sheepishly at my Mum still makes me laugh. It reminds me of one of the best and most important days of my otherwise inconsequential life. And the very important life lessons I learnt that day.
Shiva isn’t waiting up there to lay waste to the land and his people just because we don’t find the time or the inclination to perform some weird rituals to please Him. He isn’t sitting there clad in tiger skin, sweating and itching and making a tiresome to-do list that his messengers would drop in our mailbox( whatsapp inbox??) the next morning. He is definitely not bothered if I worship Him or the myriad avatars of His consort, The Mother Goddess or His best friend, the amiable Lord Vishnu or the lakhs of other deities.
The rituals, the prohibitions, the rules, the limitations, the chains, the boxes, the irrational fear of incurring His wrath and fury are created by Man. They are man made obstacles barricading our souls from understanding its true purpose in the Universe.
The devastation wasn’t wrath brought forth by Shiva’s fury. It was brought on by greedy men onto themselves. The fragile environs of the Himalayas was raped and mutilated repeatedly by humans for their selfish gains. Hundreds of lodges, shops and restaurants in a remote barren place surrounded by nothing but mighty mountains and ferocious rivers. Roads cut on the fabric of the mountains in a place that is unfit for human inhabitation. Helicopters flying dangerously under the permissible limit of 2000ft, polluting the air and creating noise, bringing havoc to the delicately balanced flora and fauna deep within the mountains. Miles and miles of mind numbing deforestation. Channels of rivers cut and irresponsibly diverted to build. More. Always More.
To expect Nature to sit cross-legged on a beach chair, lackadaisical, like She is high on heroin and Eesti Piiritus( Estonia spirit @ 96.6% alcohol) watch this destruction and obliteration of Her very identity is human folly. Not God’s fury.
God has done his bit. He has shown us how to live Right. Follow Dharma*. Do Good. And pay it forward. Time and Again. Yet, if we as a collective, turn out to be nincompoops and point fingers at Him, it is not His fault.
I came out to see the Sun and found my family getting off the chopper on its next flight. I went back in again with them and watched my Mum and Dad performing some odd rituals, radiating peace. I watched my siblings as they looked around in awe and mocked me for flying headlong into Shiva. All was well again…
As I meandered outside the temple, the fragility of everything around me became so clear. Nature was still nursing this bruised haven in the far upper reaches of the Himalayas. If left to Her, She would bring peace and restore the place to its new normal. Which was unlikely to happen as there were men, already working furiously, all around trying to build a concrete jungle on the top layers of the fiercely introverted Himalayan mountains.
Something’s never change. The Man vs Nature conflict has been going on since time immemorial. Although it looks like Man is winning the battle to the short sighted amongst us, Nature always wins the ultimate war. We, as a collective cannot and should not challenge Her might.
On the fateful day in June 2013, following a multi day cloudburst, the Chorabari glacier on the Kedarnath Mountain rapidly melted. And the swollen river Mandakini, the source of which is the said glacier, erupted in a frenzy and contrary to the meaning of her name, “She who flows calmly,” performed her version of a Rudra Tandav* breaching banks, perimeters and anything/anyone that stood in her way. As if Shiva had uncoiled his matted hair and let them loose, the land and its puny men; all came tumbling down.
As I turned a left, while circumambulating the temple, I came across a big rock, orange in colour and oddly resembling the linga within the temple. A small trident rested on it. And tell tale signs of the rock being worshipped was there for all to see. For a few seconds, time stood still for me since this was the rock that came plummeting down ferociously from high up the mountain carrying mud, silt, rocks and death with it but stopped short a few feet away from the sanctum sanctorum.
No one knows how or why. But some call it Bhima, the strongest of the Pandavas who built the temple to honour Shiva. Some call it Nandi*. Some say it’s the Lord himself. If not for the rock, the might of the swirling Mandakini would have flattened the temple, killed everyone inside and caused the entire region to be flooded taking the death toll much higher than what actually was.
The gentle giant of a rock testified that there is something over and above us humans, a commanding presence that has and will have the power to supersede our unbridled avarice for materialistic gains. Something that’s beyond our paltry understanding of the workings of the Universe. Something that will always restore equilibrium when humans break the Law of Universal Balance and immorally tilt it towards them.
Some call it the Wrath of the Gods. Some Pralaya – The Great Deluge. Others Judgement Day. I call it the Universe balancing off it’s ledger account through Nature!
To be continued…
*Pahari : The Pahari people, also called Pahadi and Parbati, are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group of the Himalayas living in the Himalayan regions of India (Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand ) and share cultural and linguistic ties with Nepal’s Khas-Arya.
*Dharma : In Hinduism, Dharma is simultaneously the eternal order that rules the universe and the duty or law that governs one’s life. Fulfilling one’s Dharma is more than simply one’s purpose in life – it is considered the very means by which one transcends suffering and the cycle of birth and death which makes it more Universal than binding to a particular religion. For more visit https://www.embodiedphilosophy.com/what-is-dharma/
*Rudra Tandav : Lord Shiva’s powerful cosmic dance which is the source of the cycle of creation, preservation and dissolution.
*Nandi : is the sacred bull calf, gatekeeper, and vehicle (vahana) of Lord Shiva.
Disclaimer: When I write about God, I tend to use the masculine gender to address him. Maybe it’s because I am conditioned as a Hindu to write that way. For a Hindu, God is Purusha( masculine) and Nature is Prakriti( feminine). They unite to create, balance and destroy the world.
But let me make it clear that God is a fluid concept to me. God could be He, She or gender fluid. It doesn’t make my faith in the Universal Soul/God waver in any way whatsoever. For the spiritual inclined me, the Soul is free of all chains, boxes and limitations the Self prides itself in.