Tidbits from a Himalayan Trip
If I were to write a complete travel diary of my Himalayan trip, it would take days. I thought of using the fact that a picture is worth a 1000 words to my advantage! For the rest, I searched through the memories in my heart to churn out the most juicy tidbits, reserving the best for the end dessert of course. The last two tidbits are pertaining to the saints and yogis of the Himalayas. There is a lot of content that I have not written here for nobody can enjoy the entire menu in one sitting! Hope you enjoy this banquet that has been dished out with a lot of seasoning and flavor.
1. We were on the road to Kedarnath. A treacherous climb on horseback was preceded by a treacherous climb on the motorable road. In the bus, our own, internal tour guides had told us the story behind the shrine at Kedarnath and had ended with the advice
“Chant the name of Shiva. That is a must if you have to benefit from this place.”
I internally rebelled at this because I felt that chanting my own dear Sai’s name would be effective anywhere and anytime. I kept these thoughts to myself as chants of “Om Namah Shivaya”, “Kedar Baba Ki Jai” etc. resonated in the bus.
A few minutes later we were caught in a tight situation. our bus and another bus, in an attempt to pass each other, got stuck. Moving an inch crashed the window of our bus while the same such movement made the front tyre of the other bus roll slightly over the precipice. In that tense situation, the chanting of the divine name got louder and stronger. (naturally!) The next movements put both the buses in greater danger and immediately there was a shriek,
And everyone, in unison began chanting the Sai Gayatri!
The situation resolved well but later we all had a hearty laugh over how when it truly mattered, all mantras and chants were forgotten and we resorted to our own time-tested chant of the Sai Gayatri.
2. Whether it was Gangotri, Badrinath or Kedarnath, there were Tapt Kunds or hot-water springs at the holy spots. It was a real miracle of nature to see and experience water at 80 degrees Centigrade existing by the side of water in a river at 2 degrees Centigrade. All the spiritual aspirants, sadhus and sadhakas in the region bathe in these hot springs.
We too took a dip there and instantly, all the cold we were feeling was gone. We did not wear our woolens for almost 2 hours after the bath. God really has made such a nice arrangement for those involved in austerities and penances.
But wait a minute. What if someone lets go of all austerities to simply enjoy the warmth and heat of the hot spring?
We personally tried it out and understood how God had ensured that this apparent warm ‘pleasure’ does not swerve the aspirant from the spiritual path. The sulfur content in the Tapt Kund is so high that sitting for more than 10 minutes in it is extremely fatiguing. In my excitement, I stayed for 20 minutes and had exhaustion the whole day!
3. Kedarnath is an exhausting 14 km trek to the top which can be done on foot, on horse or via dolis (palanquins) carried by 4 people. I tried walking it up but ended up hiring a horse for myself after a 5 km trek. What amazed me was the Pittu. These were people who were carrying another person in a basket on their backs, all the way up and down for a payment of Rs. 3500. On one hand, I was taken aback at what extents people struggle for a living. On the other, I was amazed at the capacity of the human body. ( The Govt. tried to bring in a cablecar (ropeway) for Badrinath but all the horseowners, palanquin bearers and Pittus protested vehemently and stopped its arrival for it would deprive them of livelihood!)
4. I was one of the first to reach the top at Kedarnath ( simply because I started about 2 hours before the others). I sat at the attached restaurant of our guest house and ordered for some hot chapaties. (Indian bread) The waiter’s name was Darshan and he was quite chatty. He started talking to me and asked me where I came from. Not wanting to talk much, I replied,
“Are you from Bangalore proper”, he probed.
I just let out a sigh and then asked him,
“Have you heard of Sathya Sai Baba?”
“Oh! Sathya Sai Baba! He will surely return.” was his immediate reply.
I was simply surprised because any stranger’s reaction on hearing the name of Sri Sathya Sai Baba as far as I was concerned was,
“Oh! He passed away last year.”
“How do you know about Him?” I further queried.
“ I have my Guru. But I keep in touch about all the great Gurus. And Sathya Sai Baba is the greatest!”
5. The most interesting was the meeting with Kedar Baba. Well, Kedar Baba is the name by which Lord Shiva is known in Kedarnath. However, here I am referring to a saint who lives behind the Kedarnath temple. I had read the book, “Living with the Himalayan Masters” by Swami Rama where he states strongly that one must approach any person in the Himalayas with humility because one never knows who the other person might be.
We all gathered in the small tent that Kedar Baba’s disciples had put up for him. Once inside, he packed some sweets in covers and giving it to us, said,
“There is one packet for each family.”
I was pleasantly surprised. There was no way he could have found out that the 18 of us actually were divided among 5 different families. We were a motley group of youngsters, uncles, aunts and even a few grandparents! He made some amazing personal revelations to my wife Pooja, including the secret prayers she had made in the Kedarnath temple. But the highlight was his answer to a question posed by a member of our group.
“Babaji, what should I do now as my sadhana?”
“Do whatever Sathya Sai Baba told you.”
“Now that He has left, I feel very sad.”
“Foolish one! Remember, the form is not the avatar. The word is the avatar. His word shall stay forever.”
What a profound statement that was... The avatar lives as long as His word lives. Let His word become our lives and He lives with us!
6. About 22 kilometers away from Rishikesh is the Vashishta Gufa Ashram (translates literally as the Vashishta Cave hermitage). This is a very special place for me because Swami had visited this very cave in 1957. Sri N.Kasturi, Swami’s official biographer, captures that visit with beautiful and profound memories in the part 1 of Satyam Shivam Sundaram. While that biographical account is spell-binding, I managed to obtain a few juicy tidbits from the late Sri Raja Reddy who also accompanied Baba on the trip.
He said that, as described by Kasturi, Swami Purushottamananda, a disciple of Swami Brahmananda of the Ramakrishna order, requested Swami to sing the songs of saint Thyagaraja, Thyagaraja's Krithis as they are called. There were three singers in Swami’s troupe, Sri Rajareddy himself and two other Carnatic singers by name Ram and Lakshman. None of them knew the songs that the saint requested. But Swami sang it out in His mellifluous voice. Awe-struck, the 70 year old sage hugged Swami exclaiming,
“He (The Lord) has sent you! He has sent you.”
The 31 year old Swami smiled at the sage. Then, He turned to Sri Raja Reddy and said softly,
“He has not sent. He Himself has come!”
The cave there is so deep and so beautiful. We all sat there imbibing Swami’s presence and it was so easy to do it there. Then, coming out, we met with Swami Chetanananda who is currently administering the Ashram. In his room was the picture of Swami with Swami Purushottamananda. There is a small story behind this picture too. Forgive my necessary detour at this point:
One of the my friends who was part of the entourage had visited the same cave hermitage in 2007 and seen the picture of Swami with Purushottamananda. Then, in 2008, when he made another visit, he came to know that the precious picture had been lost. Since he was planning another trip there in 2009 too, he had procured that same photograph from Radiosai and got it laminated. Swami had blessed him and the photograph before the Divine Delhi trip. And today, he had got a picture of the disciple, Swami Chetanananda happily posing with the framed photo that had been restored to him.
Even as he rose, Swami said, "Purushotamanada'a picture?" There was joy writ large on his face as he said, "Yes Swami! I gave it to the disciple as you directed. He was very happy." Swami blessed the lad with padanamaskar and a smile before moving on. He then moved to the stage.
Near the cave, the magnificent Ganges flowed gently and calm. I rushed and took a dip in her cool and icy waters. It felt simply divine. I recommend that anyone visiting Rishikesh should take time out to visit this little hermitage.
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© 2012 Aravind Balasubramanya
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