"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 - 1/2

We got into our cars at 1:30 in the morning.

The drive from Guptakashi to Gaurikund from where we would get ponies and palki - palanquins, is about 20 miles, that takes slightly more than an hour through the mountains. There are places to stay at Gaurikund, but none as beautiful and comfortable as the campgrounds at Guptakashi. I dozed off and on in the car, and staggered out when we reached Gaurikund.

During the car ride, I had found out from Swamiji that there had been a rock slide because of the rains for the past few days. We would have to walk not just the one mile through Gaurikund, which is a steep climb, till we reached the horses but also, we would have to climb two miles beyond that point where the ponies stood. And, there was a forecast for rain today.

It was early morning, the mountain air was bracing, we were enthusiastic, Kedar beckoned. The group was all gung-ho about walking up the mountain. Within a quarter mile, most people had slowed down and we walked brazen-faced, knowing that the ponies waited ahead. I realized just how physically out of shape I was for this trek. Within a few minutes of climbing up the slopes, my raincoat over my fleece jacket over my shirt over my undershirt had more than warmed me up - I was uncomfortably hot and the only way to cool myself was to dunk my head under every mountain stream. 

By the time we reached the ponies, it had started drizzling. Not that this made any difference to me, I was already drenched from head to toe with mountain spring water. There were stores selling ponchos and raincoats, and Ashverya and I got equipped for the rest of the trip, like many others. The raincoats costed Rs.500 each - expensive perhaps, considering the quality, but not exhorbitant. Everyone in the group was now assigned a pony and a pony driver, or a palki - palanquin, as per the preference. 

Much as I had wanted to walk up the mountain, I was considerably older and heavier than the last time I visited, and in much worse health as well. So far, I had avoided pony rides, partly because it feels risky when the ponies walk on the edge of the cliff, and partly because of my fear of heights that is accentuated by the clear view of the chasm and the rocking motion of the pony. I had overcome my fear of heights in the past year after years upon years of dread. On this trip, the pony ride was neither scary nor uncomfortable, he could walk on the edge if he liked.

My pony's name was Tikoo, and my pony driver's name was Raghuveer Singh. Raghuveer lived in Rudraprayag. Six months in the year from May to November, Raghuveer walked and took travelers on pony up and down the mountain. And the remaining six months, as Kedarnath shut down, he stayed unemployed. Polite and quiet, he would stop the pony or slow it down so I could get good pictures. I wish I had some of his contentment in dealing with my own life.

The children were traveling as a group. Ashesh's pony was Bunty and Ashverya's was Babli - inspired by the movie Bunty aur Babli. As we went up the slopes, Ashverya's laughter would ring through the mountainside. I knew Ashesh or Amruth would have said something funny. As she passed by, my little compassionate god told me her pony driver was telling her not to pet her pony, so she was petting it secretly when he was not watching. I wish I had some of her attitude in dealing with my life as well.

Petting the pony secretly :)
There were mountain streams everywhere, and waterfalls on distant mountains. The entire region is magical, full of beauty when the eyes are open and full of peace when the eyes are closed. My silly pony walked along the edge, allowing me to take pictures of the wonderful chasm beside us.

One of the things to note in the mountains, is that one cannot expect to be with a group the whole way. We were fortunate that our pony drivers took care to keep us together.

There was a mist over the far mountains, and all around us were waterfalls, cascading down the rocky mountainside. I had asked my pony driver to point out scenic views, just in case I missed them. He complied, slowing down the pony and pointing out views to me.

And of course, no visit to the abode of Shiva is complete without a sighting of icons of Kaal Bhairav, Shiva's commandant. The mountain dogs are very friendly, sweet creatures, and one finds them at every turn.

After what seemed like ages but could not have been more than an hour, we came to some shops. Some ponies and people rested there, but not our group. 

I was so glad we did not have to get down. I feel for the pony but there is only so many times I can get on and off the pony on the slopes. The people in palki - palanquins, are in no less cramped a position. About 2/5ths of our group was in palki.

My pony driver slowed down, and pointed at a stream to the left.

There was a metal bridge across the stream, with cement tiles on which my pony plodded along, the moving tiles under his hooves adding to his rocking motion as I struggled to sit straight and take pictures of the stream falling on the rocks on the other side. 

I saw an old man with his aged mother leaning on him for support as they trudged up the mountain, and another couple climbing like it was a walk in the park.

The pony driver slowed down again, this time pointing to a magnificent cascading waterfall on a neighboring mountain - Rudra Falls!
Rudra Falls
The stream flowing on our mountain was no less magnificent, and reminded me of our plans for a much-delayed project for a water feature in the backyard in Dallas.
Mountain streams as we plod by
It was time for the ponies to have their gud-chana - mix of jaggery and chick peas, and for us to eat much needed hot savories and snacks, and drink some chai. Our group got divided into the many shops and ate our fill. All the shops carry Maggi noodles, so popular among Indians, even those who now live elsewhere and those who have parents from India.

My pony driver, taking the gud-chana to the pony

I noticed the bracelets on a lady, sitting with a group having chai at another table. She was sitting with a bunch of people who appeared to be speaking in a rural dialect from Haryana that I could not understand very well. But hey, women are women, and bracelets are bracelets, some things are just universal. I showed her my bangles, and we did not need to speak to appreciate one another's jewelry.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who has the most bracelets of all?

Right after taking pictures with me, the lady with the bracelets lit a bidi - betel leaf with raw tobacco, and lit one for her husband too. We spent a good half hour or more at this place, the pony driver was in no big hurry either, it was a relaxed pace.

We rode for another hour. It was raining hard, and I had kept my camera away. But now the sky cleared up, and my pony driver slowed down the pony and got my camera out of my backpack. The neighboring peaks were now visible, covered in mist. We were close to the top of the mountain ourselves.

When I saw these icons of Kaal Bhairav, looking out in different directions at approaching people and ponies, I knew we had arrived.

Aum Namaha Shivaaya!!

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