"Full many a ray of purest ray serene the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness to the desert air."
from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Dwadashajyotirlinga yatra : Day 15 - Kedarnath - 2/2

We were at the mountain top. We would now need to walk about half a mile to the temple.

After the climb on the rocking pony walking on the edge of the path, coping with the sweat-drenched inner layers and the rain-drenched outer layers of clothing, getting on and off the pony for brunch, hoping the group reaches the temple safely, my mind was at peace now that we were at the top. The ponies were relieved to let the riders go, and turned to graze.

There was silence and serenity, and the intermittent chirping of the Himalayan birds added to the tranquility. Looking around at the ponies grazing on the gentle green slopes, the mist over the distant white and blue peaks, the white frothing streams on the black boulders, people in colorful clothes getting off ponies with equally colorful saddles, and the road ahead leading to the temple of Shiva, I had the sense of having arrived. The rain had now stopped, and I could breathe in the clean mountain air in a relaxed mood. There was a very welcome light breeze on my face, the only uncovered part of my body, other than my hands.

In retrospect, it was not a bright idea to wear three layers of clothing on top with the poncho being the fourth, and I felt really thankful that I did not wear a layer of clothing under my jeans. The weather has changed over the past few decades, and each year is hotter than the previous one - in the summer, I would recommend visitors to Kedar to wear a T-shirt and a light jacket with a poncho on top, and jeans and a single layer of socks, if you are a heat-resistant creature like me. People who feel cold easily, should add a layer to the above.  

We had left the ponies near some shops. The pony driver showed me the name of the shop and told me to show up here after visiting the temple, he would be waiting for me. I gave him some money for food, and to feed the horse. We had been asked by Swamiji to spend no more than an hour and a half at the temple, and return in time to start our descent.

Just as we entered the temple town, we walked a few yards and then crossed the bridge. The ferocity of the Mandakini splashing through rocky terrain needs to be seen to be believed. The clean flow of mineral water from the glaciers over the huge dark boulders makes for a spectacular visual. There was a light mist over the river, that gave a very period look to the view.  Kedarnath is a land beyond time, and very dear to me because this is the place where I had first become conscious of the powerful and active presence of Shiva years ago.

After crossing the bridge, there were steep steps - maybe 30 or so, and then a short steep climb to reach the temple town. After this, we walked through the narrow streets to reach the temple.

A street turn away from the temple, again the icon of Kaal Bhairav, looking me in the eye...

As I turned into the main temple street, the temple of Kedarnath was in full view - this had to be my most emotional moment in the trip, I had waited many years for this.

The Pandavas, on the advice of Krishna, were looking for Shiva's forgiveness for the sins of fratricide and killing of Brahmins, after the war of Mahabharata. They spotted Shiva, who took the form of a bull and vanished (became gupta) into the ground, at the place now known as Guptakashi. The hump of the bull surfaced on the ground, and the irregular rock formation is now worshipped as the shivalinga. The Pandavas built the temple around it, now known as Kedarnath - the lord of Kedar. Kedarkhand is the ancient name of Garhwal - now broken into the districts of Pauri Garhwal (the foothills) and Tehri Gahrwal (the valley). The temple stays open from the Hindu month of Vaisakh and closes on the first day of the Hindu month of Kartik - one can visit Kedarnath between May and November. During the winter months, the worship rituals are continued at Ukhimath.

The current temple, at a height of 3580 meters above sea level, is believed to be more than a thousand years old. It is built from stone slabs on a large rectangular platform. The sanctum sanctorum looks older than the main temple, and the entrance has inscriptions in Pali. Unfortunately, no photography is allowed here, as with all other temples. But here more than any other place on earth, I miss not being able to capture all the visuals. The main temple has the statues of the Pandavas, Krishna and Nandi carved into the walls. Outside the temple is a large statue of Nandi, looking at Kedarnath with devotion. The temple has been renovated over the centuries.

When Adi Shankaracharya visited Kedarnath, he revived the temple and initiated traditional ritualistic worship. He is believed to have attained samadhi near the temple, and there is a memorial in his name behind the temple. It is believed that Pandu, the father of the Pandavas, had died close to this place. And the Pandavas themselves left earth in the area behind this temple - known as Svargarohana. There are beautiful trekking paths behind Kedarnath, and it is my dream to spend a week here at some point in my life. Another trip, another time, Shiva's will...    

As our small group of parents and children arrived at the temple, we were not sure where to leave our footwear before entering the temple. Sarveshanandaji was in the temple complex, and asked us to follow him to a shop from where we got a steel plate each with the material for worship. He would stay there with everyone's backpacks and shoes while we went to the temple with Vinayakji. We went through the security gate at the temple, and then performed the abhishek - annointment. At the end of the ritual, Ashverya and I touched our heads to the shivalingam, our worship completed at the twelfth jyotirlinga temple. 

As I came out of the temple, Anantanandaji had just come there with a group of people. He had a large glass jar of ghee - clarified butter. I followed him back into the temple. It is believed that the Pandava, Bhima, massaged Shiva with ghee - clarified butter, and the worship of the shivalingam is traditionally performed with ghee. We may have put as much, if not more ghee on the lingam than Bhima had applied. All the questions I had, the clarifications I had asked at Shrishailam two weeks ago, were answered at Kedarnath. The answer may not be what my mind wants it to be, but acceptance brings peace, there is no arguing with Shiva. 

Vinayakji took us to the memorial of Adi Shankaracharya behind the temple. After this, I performed a hurried parikrama - three circumambulations, around the temple with Ashverya, and then we went back to claim our backpacks and shoes. Not just my feet, but my face and hands were swollen as well. My rings stayed stuck an inch short, on my fingers.  And now, we had to begin our journey down. Anantanandaji suggested walking on the way down. Going down on pony wreaks havoc on the back. Walking wreaks havoc on knees, but it is the easier option.

We started walking down around 2 in the afternoon, and reached after 6. In the nine miles that we walked, we had three breaks for chai, and each time the pony driver, who was hovering close by, would come and offer us a pony ride. The children were walking down as well, and they were in no hurry. After half the journey, they agreed to their pony driver's requests to get on the pony. Ashverya came to me to learn how she could tell her pony driver in Hindi that his pony wanted him to be more affectionate.

I was not in good health, but I would have managed nine miles, except that all nine miles are downhill. Ashverya's easy laugh lightens every moment, and when she was not walking with me any more, I was aware of my physical pain. 

I managed seven miles somehow, but the last two miles appeared to stretch forever. At some point, the pain in my knees could be ignored, and as I stood by the side of the mountain, I saw my leg muscles in involuntary spasm. I remember hoping that I would not fall down because I would not be able to get up. It is my usual practice to chant Aum Namaha Shivaaya as I breathe out, and stay silent as I breathe in. The pain was so deadening that I tried what Anantanandaji had suggested to me a week ago - chanting Hari as I breathe in, and OM as I breathe out. This would not allow a moment when my mind could waver. The frenetic chanting surprisingly brought about a mental silence till I saw a signboard that said there was one mile to go to the base. One more mile? ARE YOU KIDDING ME????? I do not have much to say about that last mile because my memory is lost in a fog of pain.

When we reached the foot of the mountain, our cars were waiting - the children on pony had reached before us, the parents were the last to arrive. Vinayakji was waiting for us, though he had been among the first to reach the bottom of the slope. He had passed us midway on the slopes, and he had vanished down the slopes. The car would take an hour to get back to the campgrounds, that I again spent in deep sleep. I do remember the extreme misery as I hauled myself on the stairs up to the dining hall. There was no yogurt, so no rice and yogurt dinner for me. I drank a cup of mixed vegetable soup, and limped back to my tent. I peeled off layers of wet clothing, and left them to hang by the side of the tent. There was no hot water, nor did I have the energy to go out and ask the attendants to start the water heater. I took a bucket bath in the cold water, and went to sleep after taking some Advil. At some point, the little god came back from her dinner, and went to sleep as well. Tomorrow is another day.

Kedar, again after seven years... Hope to be here again soon.

Aum Namaha Shivaaya!!  

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