"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

Monday, July 11, 2011

Dwadashajyotirlinga yatra : Day 17 - Back in Delhi

We were in the bus by 5:30 a.m. Everyone would go their own way from Delhi, we had now started the last leg of our journey. Unlike the chatter that usually filled the bus, the group was mostly silent on this last bus trip. Either people were dozing off, or they were in a contemplative mood. I settled uncomfortably into my seat.

Leaving Haridwar
As we left Haridwar before daybreak, I had a fleeting glance of the lights over the Ganga. My buddies - the panchakanyā - the five maidens, had gone the previous evening to the Ganga, and dipped in the river 108 times, no less. It was only last year, after dipping in Manas Sarovar, that I had thought back on all the opportunities I had missed to take a dip in the Ganga. And when I had seen Haridwar on the itinerary for this trip, I had thought this was a signal from above. Apparently, I had misread the signal. No dip, no regret. Another trip, another time, Shiva's will...

Ashverya dozed off almost immediately. We had been among the last ones to board the bus, and the luggage space above was filled with the gigantic lunch boxes that the hotel had packed for us. I had to keep my bags at my feet, and my legs had no place to stretch. With hurting knees, aching legs and swollen feet, and the persistent cough from Varanasi, one could say my body was in a bad state. Initially, I took comfort in not having a fever, but three hours into the journey, I had reached my threshold of pain and physical discomfort. I found space at the back of the bus where there were a couple of seats with foot space. Glad nobody made expert comments on where I should sit in the bus, because I was barely holding my pain in, and I was very likely to verbalize my feedback to well-intentioned busybodies. The bouncing at each road bump was preferable to painful crouching next to a sleeping child, who could now stretch out and lie on the seat. 

Swami Sarveshanandaji started a massage session with some people who allowed him to massage their aching feet, and then stretched their legs, and gave a neck massage, and finally asked people to put their hands behind them, and lifted them in a way that stretched their shoulders. Apparently, this was doing people a lot of good. He asked me, perhaps for the last time on the trip, if I would take the benefit of his expertise and get my swollen feet massaged. I stuck to my guns - there is just no way that would happen in this lifetime.  

Except for a stop for restrooms, the bus kept going on. Finally, when we were two hours from Delhi, we stopped for much-needed chai

The Swamijis maintained their consistent great mood that had set the mood of the trip.

The children were sweet and sporting as always, a touch of divinity that lit up our mundane lives.

The Swamijis decided that it was better for those going to the NOIDA ashram to leave the bus at Ghaziabad, an hour before Delhi. Ashverya and I followed them, our final destination is ahead - NOIDA ashram, to visit Swami Chidrupanandaji with whose blessings we had started this trip.

Once we got off the bus at Ghaziabad, the car to take us to NOIDA was nowhere to be seen. It was stuck in the Dehi traffic at peak traffic hour. We sat by the side of the road, and took in the scene - people going on their way to work, cycle rickshaws plying groceries, people stuffed into chhakdas - mass rickshaws, people rushing to work in taxis and rickshaws, and an interesting scene - a truck driver doing his laundry on the road by the side of his parked truck.

Fifteen minutes in the Delhi heat was enough to knock me senseless. One of the things that Amma had told me earlier in the year was that she trusted her sons, and did not re-think what they would have thought out already. Now, I was with people whose recommendations I could trust implicitly. I settled into mental silence while the Swamijis figured out how to reach the NOIDA ashram.

Finally, the car arrived, and we reached the NOIDA ashram, and Amma started preparing upma for all the hungry people. There was no power, and therefore no air-conditioning at the ashram - I needed to not think as I cut vegetables to help Amma with her cooking. We had the hot and spicy upma, that made my body radiate even more than earlier, but now I had something in my stomach, and the energy to start planning for the journey ahead, back to the US of A. Despite bad health, Swami Sarveshananda-ji packed my suitcases, and took pictures of us with Swami Chidrupananda-ji.

After phone calls to friends and family in Delhi to plan the remaining hours in India, we left the ashram. The Swamijis had organized and managed a logistically challenging trip, all the time maintaining a smile on the face while being physically exhausted and even ill at times.

For this opportunity to visit the dwādaśajyotirlinga - the twelve temples of Shiva and some of the śaktipītha - sites of power with ancient temples to the mother goddess, for visiting the spots where the avatāra Rama walked the earth during exile - Panchavati, where the avatāra Krishna established the new capital of his grandfather's kingdom - Dwarka, for the opportunity to visit the spot where Buddha first preached on earth - Sarnath, for the chance to visit the modern Swaminarayana Akshardham complex in Delhi, for visiting the NOIDA āśram and Swami Chidrupananda-ji thrice during the trip, for the company of my little god whom I had emotionally blackmailed on Mothers' Day to make this trip with me, I am supremely grateful for Shiva's grace, grateful for the leadership and the personal warmth of the Swamijis, grateful for friends I made on this trip, and grateful for the learning from the experiences on this trip.   

Aum Namaha Shivaaya!!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Dwadashajyotirlinga yatra : Day 16 - Back in Haridwar

Nothing compares with waking up in Guptakashi.

I woke up at 3 in the morning to a variety of chirping sounds. We had seen some exotic birds yesterday. But when I stepped out of the tent to take some close-up pictures, it was still dark and I could not see anything. And yet somewhere, birds were singing, which brought to mind the quote by Tagore - faith is the bird that feels the light, and sings when the dawn is still dark.

Our rain-drenched clothes from yesterday were still wet and needed to be packed in plastic bags before going into the backpack. After unsuccessful attempts at waking up the little god to see the dawn over the mountains, I took a bucket bath with lukewarm water, and was ready for the day. 

As I came out of my tent, it was still 5 in the morning. The snow-clad mountains of Chaukhambha were covered with mist, and the town lay in the valley below.
Chaukhambha peaks
Dew covered the grass and condensed droplets sparkled on the petals of a variety of exotic flowers in the campgrounds.

There was no breeze, but it was a pleasant mountain morning, the early morning light fell softly on the expansive landscape. Somewhere in the far distance, there was chanting on loudspeakers that could be heard around the hills. I could imagine people waking up all over the town and starting the day in the unhurried way that life moves here. The peace of the surroundings reflects in the locals - simple, accepting and courteous, ready to help with whatever we needed. All was good with the world, my visit to Kedarnath had answered all my questions as I had hoped it would.

Many people sat outside their tents, the hotel staff ran up and down the steps on the layered slopes, serving tea. The ancestral villages of both sides of my family were both less than sixty miles away. How could my parents who grew up in this beautiful land adjust to life anywhere else? It was evident from the growth of population and vehicles since my last visit - Uttarakhand is growing again, people are returning.

It was past 6:30, and I rushed back to wake up the other person in my tent. We needed to be in the dining room for breakfast at 7.

Swamijis with Dheeraj, finalizing the cash transactions
At breakfast, Sarveshanandaji announced that there was a piece of good news and bad news, everyone wanted the bad news first. It turned out that only a few people had confirmed tickets on the train from Haridwar to Delhi, the rest were wait-listed, so the Swamijis had decided to cancel the train reservation, and instead we would all travel together by bus. This "bad news" went down well with the group - a private bus allows everyone to travel together and chat, stop for chai together and chat, and did I say chat? After all the cheers, Swamiji announced the good news that since we had ponies in place of the planned helicopter ride at Kedarnath the previous day, we would each be getting some money back, and handed out the cash.

Everyone was relaxed, glad the trip had gone so well. We had completed the trip as planned by the Swamijis - not a single hitch, no serious injury or sickness.

Ashverya wanted a picture taken with the panchakanya. She had loved their company, and the love and friendship that they had so obviously shared through the years.

It was time to pick our bags and leave in the cars. I had a double dose of Advil in the morning. My knees hurt a lot, but at least, they would not buckle under my weight. From Gaurikund in the morning to Haridwar by evening, this was going to be one long fun car ride that I was looking forward to.

Traditionally, women work the fields in Uttarakhand
As we left Guptakashi, we caught sight of the Kashi Vishwanath temple in the far distance. Close to this temple is the temple of Ardhnarishwar, and the Manikarnika kund - pond, where a shivalinga is bathed by two springs that are said to represent the Ganga and the Yamuna.

Kashi Vishwanath temple in Guptakashi, in the far distance

The beautiful Mandakini flowed by the temple town, far below, as we drove by.

At one point on the road, we saw a group of monkeys sitting by the road and I rolled down the window and took a picture. There was one monkey sitting by the road, and for one instant, I looked into his eyes through the camera. His eyes had a strange intensity but I was not thinking much more than that I had got a really good picture.

The driver told me that the monkey was asking me for something, probably food. It is amazing how natural it feels for locals to understand the body language of other creatures, I share that equation only with my dog-child whose every facial expression and behavior I think I am able to read. The driver's comment also brought home to me how much I needed to evolve, to think of a fellow creature's need before my own. I was so engrossed in getting a picture that I had not thought what the monkey was looking to get from this interaction. As I looked back, the group was still sitting there, waiting hopefully for the next car that would give them something.

At one point, the traffic stopped. There had been a small rock slide, and cars from both sides were inching past, an act of great skill that the drivers in this area have mastered. At some point, it looked like we may go off the road, but we managed to scrape through. Looking up the mountain face, the rocks looked like they will collapse on us every moment, but I live to tell.

I was in the seat behind the driver. Sarveshanandaji told me to put my feet up on the arm-rest between him and the driver. Impossible in this lifetime, I said. He asked if he should massage my feet. What?? I said there was no way he could be pressing my feet. He said - not pressing, he would be massaging them to start the blood circulation. My feet were in a really bad state, and it was a very tempting idea, and if it was anyone in the group except the Swamijis, I would have taken them on their offer. 

The valuable hours of travel in the car were spent very well. Anantanandaji spoke again about chittavruttinirodha, and the five categories of sources of thought that he had explained in Dhanbad. This time I was smart enough to borrow paper and pen, and write things down. It is amazing how much I forget each day - each time I hear him speak, one more piece of the puzzle falls into place.  
Down at the level of the river

Step farms on the slopes

Finally got a close-up of a lady in traditional clothes
We had been hoping to drink chai at some place, and finally we came across the car with the children stopped by the roadside. Two people in the car had been sick, and Ashverya had been nauseated because of motion sickness as well, but luckily got by without throwing up. Our car stopped, and I could hug my lovely daughter. Other cars stopped as well, and people went into the little restaurant that had huge glass windows overlooking the Mandakini. It is such small charming places surrounded by the breath-taking splendour of the lower Himalayas that make every moment of this road trip spectacular. A pleasant surprise at every turn...

View of the Alaknanda

Mist rising over the river

View on our left, as the car stopped to let cars from the other side pass
It was already past 3, and we would definitely not reach Haridwar before 7 now. My phone charger purchased in Varanasi had broken in the morning, and now my phone was dead. Swamiji bought a new bright red phone, and put another SIM card in. Apparently, my phone had died for good, and I now had my third phone number in fifteen days. I called family in Delhi and Ahmedabad to let them know I was temporarily to be available at this new number.

We spotted marijuana plants by the countryside. These leaves are crushed and mixed with milk, with a crushed mix of almonds and other nuts and fennel seeds, to make a very tasty smoothie, called bhang. The intoxicating effect is mild, unless consumed in large quantities. Though the devotees of Shiva are known to drink bhāng, the devotees in this car were not allowed to as much as chew the tip of a leaf.

Our car driver pulled into a restaurant where Dheeraj wanted to stop for lunch, a restaurant vibrant with color. The staff prepared a meal for the group in half an hour. In another hour, we were on the road again.

Back on the road, we still had some mountains to go around before reaching the plains.

Rear view of the roadside stores we stopped at
Around 7, we were close to Haridwar. 

The children had apparently negotiated with Sarveshanandaji that he needed to get them pizza for dinner. He obliged, despite his physical health and exhaustion, taking them to the one Domino's outlet in the town. The outlet was popular judging by the crowd in the photographs. I was not there, and do not know the context of these pictures.

After dinner, we had an all-group meeting where Anantanandaji, Sarveshanandaji and Vinayakji shared some thoughts on the yatra - pilgrimage, with us. After this, some of us sat with Anantanandaji and had tea, as he gave us some parting words of wisdom. It was a short session - it was late, and we had to leave at 5 in the morning the next day for Delhi, by bus.

The children had planned an all-nighter with Sarveshanandaji, which he did not fall for. They went upstairs to watch movies in Venkatji's room, and when the parents went upstairs to break up the party, we found the TV at full blast and the audience asleep.  

Tomorrow, I would be waking up at 4 to be down in the lobby by 5 to leave for Delhi.

Aum Namaha Shivaaya!!