Himalayan Yatra 2016 Experiences

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Shruthi Sridhar, student, Amrita University and Shrinidhi who is heading to pursue her MBA share the proceedings and their experiences of the Himalayan Yatra in a vivid and beautiful manner. Photo credits to Sriram, Adarsh and Gowrishankar

It has been one week since my return from Himalayan Yatra 2016. The memories registered in my head are still crystal clear, the images captured by my mind camera haven’t yet begun fading, I can still feel the cold wind blowing and somewhere far far away I hear laughter, merriment and cheers. The voices are familiar and that familiarity spreads an unimaginable warmth in me. The Himalayan Yatra 2016 did change life tremendously. So, here I sit, with a million images flooding my eyes, sighing deeply once in a while , looking back on the most memorable days of my life.

 

Nearly 40 people ,from different walks of life, met at the Coimbatore Junction on 5th June and boarded the Kongu Express to Delhi. And so began the journey that changed lives and perspectives phenomenally. The remaining 12 people joined us from Delhi.

The train Journey that I expected to be unmanageably dull and boring wasn’t really so. The scenario changed from awkward HIs and HELLOs with strangers in the beginning to inventing and playing games that were laugh riots with the very same people. We all became 10 year old enthusiastic children coming up with new games every once in a while to kill boredom. We invented card games, word games, memory games and what not thereby unleashing our childish creativity. By the end of the journey, we weren’t strangers anymore. All ice was broken and shattered.

Another thing about the train journey was the number of cities, villages and states we were passing through. It showed us the diversity of India in two days. Of solar fields and dish tv antennas in slums, of rains and rivers and hot air and rocks, of myriad cultures and changing climates, of people, places and things, the train journey recited a poem about the country that it was running across.

After a lot more intense gaming and interacting, we reached Hazrat Nizzamudin, Delhi. From H.Nizamuddin we took a bus to Sarai Rohila Station, Delhi. Our train to Haridwar was scheduled at 9:30 pm.

 

We reached Haridwar in the morning and took a 45 minutes auto ride to Kriya Yoga Ashram,Rishikesh.

After a short session, we went to Vashishta Guha and the riverside of Ma Ganga. There were pebbles of all sizes lying around and Ma Ganga was flowing calmy by the banks. The water was cold and a bridge across the river in a distance completed the setting beautifully. It was like someone had given life to a beautiful painting. After taking a dip in the holy Ganges and absorbing the serenity of the setting we went into Vashishta Guha. Sage Vashishta is said have done his penance in this cave. We returned to the ashram and went to the meditation hall. We’d gone there earlier that day before we left for Vashishta Guha.

Shrinidhi: As only 10 people could meditate in the Gufa at a time, I decided to first take a plunge in the warm water. When I stepped into the water I was in for a shock! At 3 PM when the sun was right above , the water in the Ganges was icy cold ! We took a quick plunge and went to the Vasishta Gufa and meditated there. It was cool and the atmosphere was charged with powerful vibes. Meditating there was a very positive experience.

At the Kriya Yoga ashram, we attended the 6:30 pm arati and meditated for a while. Set in an elliptical dome with absolutely no light, the hall was cold, calm and quiet. There were circular rugs with cushions on the floor.

 

The next day we travelled to Ukimath. We reached Ukimath in the early evening and went to the Ukimath Shiva Temple for the 7 pm arati.

Shrinidhi: except our two Guides – Smirithi ma’am and Adi sir, we were all filled with anxiety and enthusiasm together as we boarded the bus to Ukhimath. The marriage of Anirudha (Krishna’s grandson) and Usha ( Daughter of Banasura) took place in the square adjacent to the Omkareshwara shrine. The thought that we were fortunate enough to tread the place that was once stepped upon by such Avathara Purushas made me feel extremely blessed. 

The temple priest told us the sthalapurana of Ukimath.

The Pancha Pandavas renounced their kingdom and wealth to do tapas in the Himalayas and their penance was so powerful and devout that Lord Shiva decided to test them. He appeared in the form of a huge bull in front of them. Yudhistra asked Bhima to block the way. But, the bull enlarged itself so much that different parts of the bull appeared on different parts of Himalayas. The Pancha Pandavas built temples in the places where the parts appeared and these are called the Pancha Kedars today. These are Tunganath, Kedarnath, Rudranth, Kalpeshwar and Madhmaheshwar. But, the best part about Ukimath is that visiting Ukimath is equivalent of visiting all other 5 kedars of Lord Shiva. Another story related to Ukimath is that Lord Krishna’s great grandson Anirudha and Usha got married in this temple and hence it’s called Ukimath meaning Usha ki Math.

Also, the Shiva Lingaa from Kedarnath is brought down to Ukimath and the rituals are performed in Ukimath during extreme winter as Kedarnath remains closed due to snow avalanches.

The energy of the place was so divine and powerful that I realized the value of the trip. There are so many people who wish to visit these places and I had had that wonderful opportunity. I was truly grateful to be present there in that moment: The moment when the bells were ringing with a mystical rhythm , the moment the weather changed from stuffy heat to biting cold, the moment the chill in the air carried a Himalayan legacy, the moment we resonated with the divinity of the place. It was moments like these that defined the trip. Moments like these that molded us into better human beings. We meditated there for a while, chanted Aum Namah Shivaya and let the energy flow freely.

Ukimath rooms were a complete dull down from what we had in Rishikesh. There were 7 of us in one room. The place was cramped and cold. We got just enough sleep to catch up for the next day. But, this kind of running on minimal resources didn’t seem like a big hurdle in front of the beauty of Himalayas and what we reaped out of the trip. In short, we learnt to look at the good things life had to offer rather than complain about the absence of comfort.

On 10th June, our day started at 4 in the morning. We woke up, took a shower and left the ashram in early hours of the day for we had the Tunganath peak to conquer for the day. Tunganath, where do I begin?

We took a bus to the foot of Tunganath. Had nice hot aloo paratas and chai for breakfast and started the climb by ringing the bells at the entrance with all energy and enthusiasm. Looking back, our regular trek diet comprised of Aloo parathas and chai.

Tunganath and Chandrashila

Hence began our journey up Tunganath. It was all breezy in the beginning, picturesque mountains stood as if they were waiting to be photographed, horses strolled by carrying people, other pilgrims walked around taking pictures, putting their selfie sticks to maximum use. This was our first acquaintance with trekking and very honestly, we were a little breathless before reaching even half a kilometer. But, as the trek progressed we learnt to overlook breathlessness and take in the scenery around with all eyes and ears. There were lush green lawns everywhere. Not the lawns that were well manicured and mowed down regularly. These were the kind of lawns maintained by nature, the kind of lawns strewn with rocks and pebbles, the wild, untamed grass greeted us everywhere and the greenery soothed our senses. The temperature kept dipping as we went up and the view kept getting bigger and better.

One thing that amazed me about the trek was how supportive people were. Here I am, standing in a strange land, 2000 kms away from home, with a huge group of strangers, but the thing about these strangers was that they cared about me. They were concerned. They constantly checked on me. They were worried about my safety. And suddenly, they weren’t strangers at all. They were acquaintances. They were friends. They were family.

We reached the Tunganath peak comfortably after trekking the entire morning. We bought arati taals from a nearby shop, filled a jar with ganga jal and entered the temple. Tunganath, at 3680 mts above sea level is the highest Shiva shrine in the world. Mount Kailash is higher but it is not a shrine as such. The temperature inside the Tunganath temple was way lesser than outside and the chill instantly hit the spine reminding us of the sanctity of the place we were in. Namah Shivayam reverberated within the walls of the temple. We completed the rituals and stepped out.

Once we were out of the temple, we were all set to trek to Chandrashila Peak which was another one and a half kilometers higher. It was 4400mts above sea level with a narrower and steeper way up. There was also a loose warning that there might just be fog seen from that height.

Shedding all inhibitions and apprehensions, we set to conquer Chandrashila. But, in all honesty, the one and a half kilometer climb to Chandarshila was much more difficult than what we had anticipated. The path was narrow, steep and slippery. We were breathless, exhausted and were on the verge of giving up. But, with a little support from the co trekkers, we reached the peak.

Chandrashila Peak was such an enchanting beauty that it got me spellbound. The goosebumps I got in the moment I saw the Indian National Flag flying high and proud atop the Kali Temple will be marked as a moment I’ll remember for a lifetime. After all, we’d trekked half the distance of Mount Everest and it’s not a feat that many humans achieve. I walked behind the temple with my heart beating fast and what awaited me on the other side swept me off my feet. Mother Nature presented herself in all her beauty in front of me and wherever I turned I could only gape at her pristine elegance. If we take a look at our everyday lives, we are surrounded by so many man made things, so much human influence in the world. There is so much artificiality that eyes dry out due to lack of nature. And here I was, standing on a no man’s land, breathing in the cleanest air I’d ever breathed, gaping open mouthed at the grandeur of Nature, calming my eyes with all the greenery, soothing my ears with the resounding silence, syncing all my senses with the slow cold wind. I let myself be carried away, I let everything go. We were resonating with nature and celebrating our oneness with it. We sat on the edge of the world, quite literally and meditated with our eyes open. We let our mind cameras capture as many images as possible and let our thoughts wander far and beyond our control. After all, it was a land hardly treaded and we’d conquered it in all glory. Undeniably the best 30 minutes of my life.

Chandrashila Peak: A truly surreal experience.

Shrinidhi: This was a trek in the true sense as there were no proper roads to the temple. At the end of the trek, we were in the highest temple in India , at an altitude of 4300m above the sea level ! The scenery there was absolutely breath taking and we were all elated at seeing helicopters and eagles flying below us ! That was a one-of-a-kind experience. The trek down was more challenging than we thought ! One miss and it would be a Humpty Dumpty but we all made it with the grace of Lord Shiva.

We climbed down Tunganath and reached the bottom in the evening. We waited for others to return and then boarded a bus back to Ukimath. This reminded us of the importance of resources. Compared to Ukimath, Rishikesh’s ashram seemed comfortable. But, atop Tunganath, even Ukimath’s ashram felt like a luxury we can’t afford. We learnt to appreciate resources and hence another life lesson was learnt.

It started raining heavily on our way back and the driver maneuvered through some difficult bends skillfully thereby averting fatal accidents. Yet another thing to be grateful about.

We reached Ukimath in all health, thanked the driver, had dinner and called it a day. An amazing day, that.

After the tiring trek up Tunganath, it was decided that we have a simple day in order to charge up for a trek that will be thrice as difficult as the previous. We went to Guptakashi and Kalimath.

Guptakashi and Kalimath

We started from the ashram at 9:30am and went to Guptakashi. Guptakashi stands for Secret Kashi. It was a small temple with one special feature. There were two metallic bull and elephant figures protruding from a wall, the water coming out of their mouths was said be a mixture of Ganga and Yamuna.

After Guptakashi, we went to Biometric to register ourselves for Kedarnath night stay in tents. Once that procedure was done, we headed to Kalimath.

There is a belief that Goddess Kali lost her temper, cut herself into pieces and threw the parts everywhere. And the places where each of her parts fell have become major Kali temples. Kalimath is one of those temples. The most striking thing about Kalimath was the long line of bells tied close to each other. I personally loved running my fingers along the bells to create the continuous jingle.

We had early dinner and took to bed early. A very simple yet memorable day.

Shrinidhi:We returned to Ukhimath and listened to a satsang by a swamiji on Yoga , about Bharatham and how other countries have realised the value of our vedic practices (and how we are still being ignorant and aping the west). We also learnt Ganapathi Namaskara which is a proven super brain exercise. 

Kedarnath

On 12th June, we began our trek up Kedarnath, a thrice as long, thrice as cold and thrice as rigorous trek as the Tunganath trek.

The day began at 2 in the morning. A long day was scheduled for us and we were geared up to face it. We took enough supplies to keep us warm and dry.

A two hour bus journey took us to Sonprayag where we bought raincoats and trekking sticks. After having a light breakfast on the roadsides, we took jeeps to Gowrikund. I sat on the rear end of the jeep, holding onto the top and looking out at the road, the trees and the mountains I was leaving behind. A poetic moment, I’d say. There was slight drizzling en route but the drizzling developed into heavy rains within minutes. We were all soaking wet even before we could put on our disposable raincoats. We tried walking up with that but, it was uncomfortable and difficult. We took shelter under a shop and waited. Withtin 5 minutes, news came to us that our trek had been cancelled and the roads leading up to Kedarnath have been blocked due to heavy rains. We walked back dejected and took jeeps back to Sonprayag. Although Kedarnath was a challenge, we were looking forward to taking it. But, nature is unpredictable and so is life. We learnt that lesson. We went back to Sonprayag and we were warming ourselves when news came to us that the trek was back on and the cancellation has been called off. I had never felt more happiness in the world. Never. We went back to Gowrikund, ate hot aloo parathas, bought new socks and changed into them, rented proper raincoats, got warm, dry and comfortable again and then started the trek at around 9 am.

Shrinidhi: As we were about to start, there was an official announcement saying that due to risk of landslides due to downpour, the Chardham was to be closed for 48 hours. We stood there disappointed that Lord Kedareshwara was “So near but so far away” and also little relieved that they din’t ask us to come back after we had gone half way. After all, we had seen on our trip back from Tungnath how much danger rains can cause in the mountains. We took the jeep back to Sonprayag and we were awaiting further instructions when we got the news that the trek was open since the rain had stopped ! We hurried to resume our abandoned trek quickly clearing our shoes of logged water and getting into dry socks.

We trekked up with a steady pace covering one kilometer in half an hour, halting at scenic locations to take pictures and selfies.

The trek was long and the path kept winding up and up. It felt like there was no end to it. We trekked the whole day and at a higher altitude, the temperature suddenly dropped drastically and we had to wear gloves and mufflers to stay warm.

After brief chai and Maggi breaks, we continued up again. The last leg of the journey brought with itself a number of pleasant surprises.

First up, the scenic beauty was growing to be indescribably exotic. The wind was cold and the air was fresh, a huge herd of mountain sheep grazed the wild grass, helicopters flying overhead disrupted the stillness occasionally and the winding path curved beautifully taking us up, up and up.

Second: our first encounter with snow. Our spirits soared so high at the mere sight of snow. The white crystal mass of happiness in our palms and smiles from ear to ear on our faces. we took some of it in our hands and threw it up to the sky on a count of three. I will remember this moment more vividly than ever. Small moments like these make the biggest difference when they become memories.

Third, first glimpse of the snow peaks from a distance. Far far away, there they stood majestically, huge mountains covered completely in snow, the sunlight reflecting on them, on a clear cloudless sky. They stood so tall, with so much elegance, Nature’s pristine beauty, unperturbed, untouched by the humans. Definitely worth trekking up.

Fourth, walking through clouds. As we were nearing the end of the trek, a dense cover of fog engulfed us completely, leaving us freezing amidst it. We could see only a 100mts in front of us, whichever side we turned we saw fog, a fog that crept around us quietly and blanketed us with its cold arms. We were walking through the clouds and that moment made history. On cloud nine? Yes, literally.

We reached the base camp at 7:30pm.3500 mts above sea level, 22kms trek up, we’d done it. We’d done it after all. The base camp was a neat matrix of white tents. The temperature was about 3 degree Celsius.

Shrinidhi : As we took a two minute break, we looked up and saw white mist floating towards us like a heavenly bale of cotton. In a minute, we were covered. We could no longer see the Base camp which was our destination ! What !! we could not even see the road !! O my God ! I can’t see the people near me ! How worse can it get ?! I cant see my own hands ! We were totally dazed. The temperature suddenly plunged and we could no longer obviate our sweaters and like a spell, it grew dark ! Luckily for us, a few Godas were returning and they agreed to drop us at the Base camp. I mounted the Goda tired and eager to reach my destination. Ahead of us was a huge mound of round stones stacked downhill ! As I was sceaming at the Goda waala to allow me to climb down and walk, the horse put its feet down into the stony downhill. In a second it pushed away the Godawaala aside and the next second, its front feet buckled down. The Godawaala moved aside as the horse seemed to get wild if he approached. I was sitting on a pebbled downhill at the back of a buckled Goda . At that moment, like the protagonist in the the novel Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki, I thought I was one of the few people who would get to see their location of death before dying ! But the horse seemed to be made of stronger stuff. With an almighty lurch, it got up and carefully trudged down the pebbles into safe roads !

On my way back to the tents after dinner, I caught a sight so stunning that it will remain etched in my memory for a lifetime. It was 11:00 in the night and the mountains were silhouetted by the grim darkness. Amidst the shadows of these mountains, stood the astoundingly beautiful snow peaks. The silky white snow was reflecting the cool moonlight and the clear, cloudless sky was studded with millions of stars. I was standing outside my tent, looking up at this marvel, all alone, all by myself for what felt like an eternity. I will never let that moment die, never in a lifetime.

You know how one moment defines the entire trip? That moment defined mine.

We slept in tents, inside sleeping bags. It was a completely different experience. As the night grew colder, we curled up inside it to keep ourselves warm. And in the morning, we woke up to a resplendent sight of the snow peaks bathing in the sunlight. The warmth the sun brought was welcome.

We freshened up and went to the Kedarnath temple. It was another one and a half kilometers walk. On the way, we saw many saadhus sitting under makeshfit huts and by the roadside. They wore Kesar coloured dhotis, worn out and ragged, their deep, sunken eyes looked beyond and far, their faces were plastered with viboothi and their long, emaciated fingers cradled gutka pipes, the fumes encircled their turbanned heads and there they sat, enjoying the trance and the tranquility that came with it.

We reached the temple in about 45 minutes. The queue was long and Namah Shivayam filled the air. We waited in the queue for a while before moving into the temple. Inside the temple, the crowd was uncontrollable. Moving people produced such strong currents that we were being carried in without any specific effort from our side. We did some rituals inside the temple. The temple as such was very simple. There were vigrahas of the Pancha Panadavas and Draupadi inside. And the Shiva Lingaa was inside the main shrine. We completed the rituals and stepped out on the sunlight again. There was a short meditation session outside the temple.

Shrinidhi: On the 13th of June – Somvar, we went on and had the darshan of Lord Kedareshwara. A t that moment, I felt I truly understood the meaning of the line “Avn Arulale Avn thal Vanangi” from Manikkavasagar’s Siva Puranam. It was an emotional moment to realise how fortunate we were in the plains and how truly lucky we were to have made without any mishap to Kedarnath and to be able to see him. After the Darshan of yet another of the Panch Kedhars – Kedharnath where the hump of the bull form of Lord Shiva was seen, we sat down and meditated and Chanted “Aum Namahshivaya” followed by a soulful rendition of “Bho Shambo” by Smrithi ma’am. As we climbed down, we were all more grateful and less fussy. This trek up and down taught us surrender and gratitude. Our dinner was Hot Maggi personally prepared by Adhi sir and Smrithi ma’am as a token of appreciation for having successfully completed the trek.

Once all this was over, we walked back to the tents. On our way back, we stopped by the helipad to witness the helicopters landing and taking off. The air that was still and cold was cut through by the blades of the helicopter and the sound of the wings echoed back and forth. And when the helicopter took off, it produced such a strong wave of wind that we took a step back. Another unforgettable moment: The wind in my hair when the helicopter took off. We stood there watching the helicopter grow smaller and smaller, flying about the expanse of Kedarnath.

On returning, we had breakfast and packed our things and set out on our way back to the sea level. We trekked for an entire day again and reached the base at sundown.

We returned to Ukimath, had dinner and slept. June 12th and 13th : Easily the most eventful days of my life.

We left the Ukimath ashram at 6 in the morning and boarded the bus back to Rishikesh. Considering, we were exhausted from the Kedarnath trek, we all slept well in the bus. We reached Rishikesh at around 2:30pm. The curfew was set at 8:30 pm and in the mean time, a guided tour around Rishikesh was arranged.

Back to Rishikesh

We went to Lakshman Joola, the temple by the river and let diyas afloat in Ma Ganga. We shopped for souvenirs and returned to the ashram for the last session. We all shared our experiences and thanked the organizers for the wonderful opportunity.

With that, we boarded the bus back to Delhi.

We reached Delhi the next morning at 7:30 am and boarded Kongu Express. Our train started at 8:35 am and from there I began counting time left with the friends who ever strangers 7 days ago.

We talked, shared food, played dumbcharades and enjoyed each other’s company while it lasted. And by the end of first day in train, the idea that this marvelous time was fast coming to an end was gripping me. I wished time stopped and stagnated. Slowly, very slowly emotions took over. I told everyone how much I enjoyed their company and how much I was going to miss them. There was a final meeting in the train. There were birthday celebrations of people whose birthdays were during the trip.

The train reached Coimbatore and out on the platform, there were farewell scenes: People hugging each other, people crying, people Hi-5ing and hooting. Such an emotional scene it was. We bade Goodbye and parted ways, going back to our mundane routines. We parted ways hoping we would meet again. The Himalayan Yatra 2016 came to end.

It’s amazing how your life changes in a week’s time. I have changed as a person. And I’m happy about it. I’m more confident. I understand the value of helping others, I value friendships, I value people. I can adjust to any situation now. I can adapt and abide. I owe it all to the people around me. Knowingly or unknowingly they molded me. I have also learnt to appreciate what I have. I have zero complaints now. I’m absolutely content with what I have and I’m truly grateful about it. My prayers in the temples weren’t really prayers. I travelled all that way up and down only to thank the gods for what I have today.

From the bottom of my heart, I’m really grateful for every moment of my life spent during the Yatra. Those were undeniably the best days of my life. Unforgettable experiences, amazing people, some very close friends and a gazillion load of memories.

Here’s raising a toast to this enchanting tale of friendship, love, affection, sacrifice, chai, parantha,trekking, Namah Shivaya and Himalayas.

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