Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Eternal Pilgrim

The Eternal Pilgrim
(This tribute to a departed friend was originally written for the magazine Life Positive in 1996.
It was expanded and adapted for a 'story-telling session' to a convention of travel agents, SITE, in 2015)

If you want a glimpse into the soul of India, set out on a pilgrimage.

Join the 500,000 pilgrims who labour each year up steep paths, along dizzying gorges, to Kedarnath. Here, 12,000 feet above the sea, a medieval stone temple nestles in a remote valley. Winter recedes late, and the meadows see the briefest of summers, before the monsoons lash the paths with hail and rain. Two years ago, a cloud burst caused a flash flood that took the lives of 6000 pilgrims, and destroyed the entire township. Only the temple survived. To the devout, this is testimony to the power of the Lord Shiva. To the scientific, it points to intelligent medieval architects, who erected the edifice on a large stone platform.

Modern Indians find a comfortable balance between rationality and faith; between scientific temper and unquestioned ritual. But on my first visit to Kedarnath, all of 12 years old, I lost this balance - and questioned my parents’ faith in the priesthood, and in the value of ritualised prayer. On the one hand was the devotion of thousands - like my mother - who had braved the long drive, the rocky climb, woken in the dark and bathed in the icy cold to worship at the shrine; on the other, the ugly face of the temple clergy’s transparent greed; the complete absence of aesthetic in their worship. I was pushed from one priest to another, told where to kneel, and where to join my hands. I was nauseated by the smell of rancid ghee (clarified butter). Barefoot, I squirmed at the untold horrors of grime underfoot, and was maddened by the unceasing clangor of tuneless bells, I had no choice but to conclude that The Sacred - whatever it is - dwelt outside of this ugly hole.

“Cherish the journey”, I pleaded with an aged pilgrim decades later, as he struggled up the slope in his tattered clothes. “Will I make it to the temple in time for the evening prayer?” he pleaded.

“This river is a prayer, these towering forests an entire rosary”. But his tired eyes had no time for them - his quest was joined to the temple, to the idol, to those clanging bells. “Drink some water, old man, and may the temple bring you peace.”

In my thirties at the time, I had turned to the science of yoga, and I talked to my spiritual teacher about this old man’s attachment to the temple. “The abstract is too difficult for most. The temple is just another path, like yours.” He asked me to be gentle with those who needed symbols.

Again and again, I returned to Kedarnath. Was the path my symbol? Did I seek to draw energy from the heavens, that here seemed both closer and deeper; to be inspired by the glistening snows; to draw comfort from the dark unpolished stone of the Kedar shrine?.

On my second trip, now a young adult, I had stood alone above the stream, in the early velvet of an autumn night. The first stars had pierced the skies, and the river Mandakini danced in phosphorescent delight. Sheltered by the black warmth of a craggy rock, I was blessed by the silence and the distance of my companions, by the many depths I found while the red pin points of their cigarette-ends still threaded up the dark ribbons below.

Maybe it was the silence that drew me, the same sense of retreat that drew early seekers to these icy regions. Irony then, that the paths they beat were now trodden by millions, the quiet refuge they found now marked by cheap artefacts sold at a hundred stalls, by shanty restaurants and pack mules, by the plastic debris of mass tourism.

Still, I walk these paths.

Over two decades ago, I journeyed with another seeker. On another autumn night, along another river. Chari opened the tiny wooden window of our ashram room in Bhojbasa on to a single silver star above the Bhagirathi peaks. A gentle white, painted with the faintest pink and shadowed by the deepest, darkest heavenly blue. How could these gigantic mountains rise into the night as gentle as a dream?

The next morning, Chari was quiet, increasingly intense as we neared the source of the Ganga, the cavernous ice cave of Gaumukh set in a towering glacial snout. Large as houses, blocks of green-tinged ice tumbled to the river bed, with crashes that drowned the rush of the infant stream, then melted back into it.

‘We’ve reached,’ he said. His words as deep with faith as any words I’ve heard; then he raced down the scree to the river, to stand cheering, exultant, upon a rock. This was a Chari I’d never seen before, or since. His was the soft voice of a doctor’s reassurance; the quiet assertion, the gentle bedside manner; even the way he rung my doorbell was special in his short softness. I hadn’t known Chari for long, but from our first meeting, our interaction had been effortless—gentle conversations about the joys of the mountains, long, easy silences, and a sharing of wide ranging music. One night, we had just heard the wild, stirring beauty of Peter Gabriel’s Passion, and sat quietly on my bedroom floor. ‘You know,’ I said, almost ashamed to break the silence,’ if there’s one trek I want to do, it is to Gaumukh, to the source of the Ganga’. An experienced trekker and accomplished climber, Chari looked at me and slowly allowed himself to smile: ‘That’s the only trek left that would mean anything to me.’

And so we had set off from Gangotri, the day after the Ganga temple had closed for winter, into a landscape of autumn leaves and cobalt skies. The infant Ganga was a chill, pale blue, and as we climbed the empty pilgrim’s trail, we left the last of the forest for a desert landscape of gray and brown. At the Bhojbasa ashram, Chari had wanted to engage the resident baba in conversation, but, busy in his kitchen, the arthritic old man had growled in return: ‘I am here to do, not to talk.’

And now we were high above the Ganga, at Tapovan, from where the Shivling peak swept up to its hooded summit. In her cave that night, the ‘Mai’, the holy woman of Tapovan, fed us with freshly fried puris and a potato curry, and answered Chari’s questions about the search that had brought her from a small town in hot and crowded Karnataka to this achingly desolate meadow swept by snow.

More. Chari always wanted to know more. In the after-dinner conversations we so relished, I had learned, piecemeal, of the spiritual search that began in his adolescence, and braided with the other thread of his life, his arduous training as a pediatric surgeon.  During the breaks in his medical education, his spiritual enquiry took him to the ashrams of Rishikesh in the north and Calcutta in the east. To Chennai - Madras at the time - in the south - where he was struck by the luminosity of a young monk. “You have found something”, he pleaded with the monk. “Share something with me.”   

“There is a deep joy to be found in meditating at dawn”, his young teacher told him.

Back in the hostel of his medical college, Chari took to waking at four, spending his first hours in silent contemplation, and earning himself the name by which I called him - ‘char’ being the Hindi word for four.

In every quiet tale he told, there were nuggets to be gleaned. I often asked him about his native Kashmir. Once he told me of the silent snows below Amarnath, where he had looked for a route to the holy cave long before the path was cleared for the ordinary pilgrim. When night fell, he was alone in the snowfields - alone, cold and lost. ‘That night, I lost my fear of death.’

In the Mai’s cave, the fire died, and she let the silence speak.

The next morning, Chari was suddenly restless, as though he needed to escape the intensity of Tapovan. We had planned to spend the day exploring the valleys to the north and west, but Chari’s need to leave was like a black hole. You couldn’t see it, but if you tried to engage with it,  it had an energy vastly greater than blazing suns. I had to step back. At that moment, it was if I would never be able to understand the man. “Something changed in Chari on that pilgrimage. Something so subtle I could never put my finger on it. And yet extremely powerful”, his wife would tell me.

A few nights later, as we shared the late streets of Malviya Nagar in Delhi with drunks and starving dogs, Chari reduced his life to the simple urge. ‘I want to find my guru. When will I find my spiritual guide?’

‘I have found my gurus,’ I told Chari,’ You, and the holy woman of Tapovan. And Jeevanti, my village neighbour, who laughs even as she and her children shiver in the winter cold of Kumaon. All those with whom I have travelled the path of my life; all those who have shared their homes and their hearts and their learning with me - teachers all.’

Chari smiled benignly, almost indulgently at me.

But in reply: ‘I want to meet my maker.’

Five years later we carried Chari’s ashes up the Ganga, in a time of winter silence. He was not yet 40.
Shaant raho mere yaar,
Tu kya insaan tha,
Hum se pyaara Rab hai tera,
Sukh raho us paar”
He went in peace, my friend the pilgrim, in smiling acceptance of a sudden, savage cancer.
The Ganga had shrunk into sparse skeins of lapis and steel, knitted into a valley of ash gray and bone white. The road met my car tyres in a crunch of ice and rubble. Dry orange grass and  ice bordered the road. A single spire of smoke reached, oh so slender, for the skies.

We paused at the exquisite settlement of Harsil, two hours from our destination - the Ganga temple of Gangotri. Five years earlier, Chari and I had paused at this very spot on our way up to Gangotri. Now, the young junipers had grown into strapping youths, winter green against the crystal snow. Jagged Himalayan peaks flirted with winter clouds. Time to drive on, as we had then.

But it was not to be. Less than a minute out of Harsil, our car skidded. Black ice cloaked the road in danger, and when I got out to survey the surface, I realised Chari would never reach Gangotri again.

We turned back to park in Harsil. Silently, threaded through the stand of  junipers, and found our peace above the river. Kalyan drew an Om in the snow. I closed my eyes. And took an age to find my voice.

‘Om bhur bhava svaaha, Tatsavittar Varenaiyam
Bhargodevasya dhi mahi, Dhiyo yonah prachodaya svaha’

The strangely comforting sound of a chant whose meaning I only knew in translation:
“We meditate on the Supreme Sun whose light pervades this world, the heavens and the next world. May thy light guide our intellect in the right direction.”

I poured Chari’s ashes out of the clay pot, and watched them settle to the river bed.

As if from the crystal clarity of the mountain river, I heard Chari’s voice float up to me, from 5 years ago, from that autumn evening when we drove up to Gangotri: “Harsil—what a lovely place in which to spend some time… some other time.’
In a slow arc, I released the emptied clay pot to the river. It settled on a sand bank, and allowed the river to flow into it, and out.  Filling itself to the brim, yet welcoming more.

Never empty, never stale, always seeking more. My friend Chari - the eternal pilgrim.


  1. Thanks, Sheila. He was a very special person.

  2. A beautiful presentation of your friend Chari and some of his pilgrimages. I remember the junipers around Harsil.

  3. A beautiful presentation of your friend Chari and some of his pilgrimages. I remember the junipers around Harsil.