Spending a week in the Himalayas, visiting places of historic (I say historic, as I was convinced it is not mythical after WITNESSING the facts) significance, soaking oneself in the majestic beauty of the Himalayas, connecting with and appreciating the tranquility and abundance of nature, meeting interesting people who have got so much to enrich your experience for this lifetime – all this was part of “The Himalayan Yatra” – an organized experience given to us by Anaadi Foundation.
Anaadi Foundation needs to be introduced – as the name suggests, their outreach and scope is limitless (anaadi), when it comes to what the organization has to offer. It is a socio-spiritual organization started by two exceptional beings who are a huge inspiration unto others – Shri Adinarayanan and Smt Smrithi. Anaadi is a place of convergence for individuals who wish to experience the inner dimensions of reality and engage in selfless service to our nation and the world. The founders call it “homecoming”, a call they heard from Mother India, in a very similar way a devotee gets a call from his or her Ishta Devata (Beloved form of the Divine), such as “Mata ka boolawa” or “Bhole ki kripa” to visit them! Anaadi Foundation engages in diverse events, programs and activities with the objective of empowering youth, scholars and people from all walks of life. Their programs enable one to appreciate the roots that India once stood for in terms of her achievements in the field of science, mathematics, architecture, astronomy, medicine, philosophy and spirituality. Any attempts to revive that knowledge, according to Adi ji, is still scratching the surface of an iceberg, let alone getting to the roots. The ancient wisdom can be unlocked only with deep sadhana.
All the characters from our itihasas – Ramayana and Mahabharata – have a logical connection to each other in the course of history, and our own lives are a continuation of their history. The Himalayas and the temples around it, some of which are the places of tapasya of such characters, are “alive” with the stored knowledge that one has to experience under the guidance of an ideal yogi or a Guru. This yatra offered such an experience with a Guru in the form of Adi ji. Adi ji’s explanations are always logical, with the right blend of modern science (being a computer scientist and professor himself, who also teaches yogic neuroscience) and spiritual insight. He is well-versed with what artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and deep learning have to offer and how they can be linked to Indic sciences that existed thousands of years ago and yet were highly advanced. The ancient civilizations of the world had deep sciences that have not been documented, for the only evidence that has been taken into consideration to validate them are fossil-based. So Adi ji always ponders what could be the most common way of preserving the art, culture and science that would last the next ten thousand years (probably one has to think beyond cloud based storage)!
Coming back to the Himalayan trip, it was not a trip but a journey, which was about experiencing the Himalayas, its rich background, the significance of Ma Ganga, seeing the sheer beauty of the mountains in one’s own eyes, while being guided by someone whose sources are authentic, logical and free from bias. That way, I must say we were in good company. Our journey began when we assembled at the New Delhi railway station. The yatris consisted of a group of 56 people from different parts of India, across ages 12 to 65. We got to know our fellow yatris, with whom we were going to associate for the next eight days and would prepare to bond for a lifetime, at least with a few of them!
We visited places like Rishikesh, Ukhimath, Tungnath, Chandrashila, Guptkashi, Kedarnath, Haridwar etc. The itinerary was packed with travel across the Himalayas and treks to some of the mountainous Shiva shrines which are otherwise inaccessible by road transport. The spiritual and philosophical engagement not only makes one appreciate Indian Dharma but also inspires and guides one to follow the path of Truth, that has emanated from this part of the world thousands of years ago. It is just that the ancient terminologies, such as Rishis, Sadhakas, Vaidyas, Tapaswis, Gurus, etc. have been replaced by modern terms like researchers, scientists, historians, teachers, spiritual caretakers, etc.
Arriving at Rishikesh
We travelled by bus from Delhi to Rishikesh. I got to know many fellow passengers in the next few hours. We disembarked at the Ram Jhoola in Rishikesh, in the wee hours of the morning. It is a spectacular bridge across the mighty Ganges. Rishikesh is located at the foothills of the Himalayas in the Garhwal division of the Uttarakhand state. (Garhwal is a municipal concern under Dehradun district). Rishikesh is home to many Sadhus and Rishis who have embarked on an inner quest to realize the Divine.
The magnificent river can be observed from the Ram Jhoola. We walked across the bridge to the other side (which is a good 1 km) to Paramarth Niketan, an ashram along the banks where we were scheduled to stay that night.
Ram Jhoola in Rishikesh
Setup in 1942 by Pujya Swami Shukdevanandji Maharaj on the banks of the Ganges, it has a 14 feet Shiva statue overlooking the ashram. Paramarth Ashram is renowned for their spiritual work, scientific research, projects and global outreach, and their social work in terms of empowering people. It acts like a nucleus for the society, integrating all its dimensions. The ashram is home to Indians and foreigners alike, who come there in quest of spiritual enlightenment. The ashram undertakes several upscale projects based on wastewater recycling, solid waste management, agriculture, water management, energy, ecology management, etc.
We freshened up and went for a stroll by the banks of the Ganges to experience the presence of the Sadhus. We were told that the Sadhus (monks) have given up everything in life to lead a life of prayer and meditation. They accept only alms (bhiksha) to sustain their body. Their meditation balances the direction of flow of the collective consciousness on earth. They do the greatest service to all beings simply by being in God consciousness.
Our first visit for the day was to Vashishta Gufa, the cave where Rishi Vasishta did tapasya (meditation for the spiritual upliftment of all). The scorching heat reduced to a pleasant 20 degrees inside the cave. The cave held spiritual vibrations that made one naturally meditative. Around 20 people could be seated within it. The place has been protected and maintained by Swami Purushottamand since 1928, who has been fighting a legal battle with the land grabbing mafia which intended to convert the sacred place to a tourist hub. He has been successful thus far and it is now maintained by the Swami Purushottamanand society, after his Samadhi in 1982. We took a dip in Ganga and felt blessed by Ma.
We witnessed Ganga Aarati during sunset. It was indeed a very unique experience to offer prayers to Ma Ganga eulogizing her for all the good things she has bestowed to mankind. It was enthralling to watch the young scholars from the residential school of the ashram, offering prayers that mesmerized thousands present there. The atmosphere was filled with the sweetness of Bhakti. After the prayers, we were privileged to have a session with Sadhwi Bhagawati Saraswatiji, whose talk enlightened our intelligence.
Ganga Aarati in Rishikesh
Travel to Ukhimath
We retired early that night to start a day long journey towards Ukhimath. Here we spent the next 4-5 days. The drive was rather long on the narrow mountainous road. So we (group of 56) had to split into two smaller groups and board separate buses that could navigate the turns better. The district management had some issues due to which the transport was delayed. This gave us time to spend with Adi ji, and we listened to the importance of Manav dharma and how one resolves conflicts, while still keeping one’s cool. We arrived at Ukhimath late in the evening.
We halted by the Omkareshwar temple in Ukhimath, which is as famous as the Panch Kedar. The deity of Kedarnath is worshipped here between Diwali and Holi, as the Kedarnath temple remains closed due to heavy snowfall in winter, and the deity makes a visit to this temple in a palanquin carried by the priests. This temple is a witness to the historical marriage of Krishna’s grandson Aniruddha with Usha. It is also place of penance of King Mandhata, who was born from the womb of his father due to a turn of events and was a great ruler of his people.
Tungnath and Chandrashila
The next day we had our first trekking experience to the highest Shiva shrine on the earth. We started early to Chopta, which is the base site to trek up to Tungnath. The sun was just rising. We ate one aloo paratha each (as the recommendation was not to eat too little nor too much) to have the right amount of carbohydrates for a 4 km long hike that takes one from 1900 m to 3680 m above sea level. There were options of horse rides for those who were unsure of making the journey themselves.
Almost everyone in the group made the choice to challenge themselves and started trekking to Tungnath by foot. The weather was quite pleasant and supportive and the landscape around us was stunning! We began to know more about each other while journeying together. We encountered many local workers whose duty was to maintain the trekking path. We reached Tungnath in a couple of hours. Tungnath is one of the Panch Kedars – five holy places that have the presence of Shiva – that was created by the Pandavas. (Kedar is the local name for Shiva)
Men at work maintaining the path
Legend has it that when Pandavas killed billions of Kauravas in the dharma yudha (Kurukshetra war), Shiva was terribly upset with the loss of life. The Pandavas set out to please Lord Shiva and cleanse themselves of their sins but Shiva would not heed. He disguised himself in Guptkashi and turned himself into a bull and went southwards. Different parts of the bull appeared in five different places in the Himalayas, which was then located by the Pandavas. The Pandavas built temples in all those five places and are hence called Panch Kedars. The hump was found in Kedarnath and is worshipped there. The arms were found in Tungnath. The other three places are Rudranath, Madhyamaheshwar and Kalpeshwar, all present in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand. The Panch Kedar temples, except Tungnath, are worshipped by priests from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
We waited for the fellow yatris after our darshan. We had a breathtaking view of Nanda devi. Then we had Maggi for lunch! This is a standard diet in the trekking region due to limited food availability at the roadside restaurants. Our next stop was the highest point Chandrashila, which literally means “moonlit stones”. Lord Rama meditated here after defeating Ravana. A further trek of 1 km took us to a height of 4000 m above sea level and offered an amazing view of the Himalayan range glaciers in the backdrop, including Nandadevi, Trisul, Kedar Peak, Bandarpunch and Chaukhamba peaks. The trek demanded moderate effort, though the first part was relatively difficult for the beginners. It was not just the trek but the high-altitude sickness or palpitation that took a toll on yatris, even if they were physically fit otherwise. We had a brief session with Adi ji, whose knowledge of the historical significance of the places and the logical connection was mind blowing, given that our current history does not help us connect to our own story. I felt quite lucky to have come across Adi ji and Smrithi ji, who are powerhouses of profound knowledge and are amazing in connecting science, history and spirituality to offer a complete picture. According to them, all these three have a logical connection. Reality is multidimensional, but we are able to grasp only a few dimensions even with the best of our scientific ability. There is so much more to know and knowledge is vast. After a powerful meditation session on Chandrashila, we began our descent.
Chandrashila peak, 4000m above sea level
Littering was one of the worst sights that I came across. The lack of awareness was surprising, for even the educated people who knew about the pollution and toxicity of plastics did not take much action. We took a pledge and started collecting the plastics lying all around the road and tried to create a common spot for disposal. In my opinion, the government needs to be more proactive in setting up dustbins and perhaps create an awareness campaign for tourists to minimize usage of plastics and provide a means to recycle or dispose of them safely. A minimal toll at the entry point of Chopta for trekking could be a good initiative to make the garbage collection and maintenance financially sustainable without burdening the government.
We reached Chopta by evening and fed ourselves well at the base site before heading back to Ukhimath, which was a good two-hour drive.
Gupt kashi and Kali Math
The next day was relatively easy. We headed to Kali Math, which is a temple in the village Kalimath (in Uttarakhand). There is no deity in Kali Math. Legend has it that Goddess Kali killed Rakta bija by gulping every drop of blood that transformed into an asura itself and thereafter churned each piece into fire exploding herself and thus appearing in different Kali pithas around India. The series of bells hanging in the premises each resonate differently giving one a sense of belongingness.
Kali Math, bells, joyous local school kids returning from schools
Before departing from Kali Math, Hema, a fellow yatri started an conversation with a local shop owner. The locals were very welcoming and offered us lunch! Such was the simplicity and warmth of those people; there is a lot to learn from them!
We moved on to Gupt Kashi, which is a relatively bigger town and home to the disguised Lord Shiva. It is the place of confluence of Ganga and Yamuna and is considered holy, since it is believed that one can be free from one’s sins by taking a dip at such common points of rivers. Adi ji shared a profound experience of why and how he made a conscious decision to move back from US to do something more meaningful in life and touch as many souls as possible. It was heartening to see a few individuals’ inclination to do something that elevates and expands oneself for the benefit of all!
The talk of the yatra was about visiting Kedarnath, one of the powerful shrines that remains open only during summer and monsoon. This trip is quite weather dependent since the path to the shrine is not motorable at a height of 3583 m. Therefore, the mode of travel is restricted to foot or horses and of course helicopters are commercially deployed to be availed by the yatris. The experience of making the yatra by foot for a distance of 16 odd kms, is actually a challenge but if one succeeds in completing the yatra, it becomes a fulfilling experience which gives one a sense of accomplishment.
The last point of entry for the public/private vehicles is Sonprayag, where one needs to make a biometric data entry to visit Kedarnath. A huge queue awaits the pilgrims, and I felt that time could be saved by introducing multiple counters to register the biometric data entries. After a couple of hours, we managed to register our entries. From Sonprayag, it is possible to use the shuttle transport to the base trekking point, called Gowrikund, a distance of 5 kms. However, there was another long queue waiting to avail the shuttle facility! We decided to skip the shuttle and instead trek the entire distance of 21 kms.
The trek was difficult in two ways, one – due to the road being shared by the horses, one has to constantly navigate the horses, and two, due to the dust that was generated on the way. There is a possibility of dust allergy if one’s immune system is not strong enough.
Due to the constantly changing weather, even slight rain could lead to a landslide, temporarily blocking the path. Kedarnath had a cloudburst and flash flood that washed away the entire habitat killing more than 3000 – 6000 people and many went missing in the year 2013. The Indian army has done a commendable job in building the roads and restoring access to the shrines. It reopened to the public after two years. The rising altitude took a toll on our speed and stamina which was needed to reach the top. However, after brief stop overs, we managed to reach the base camp of Kedarnath after trekking for 21 kms and after 8.5 hours since we started the journey. This was an achievement in itself as we managed to defy many odds on the way. The temperature started dropping suddenly with the approaching sunset. (Kedarnath recorded a lowest of -1 degrees Celsius in the middle of the night.) We pushed ourselves into the sleeping bags after a brief dinner, while welcoming the fellow yatris now and then as they continued to arrive till late evening. It was an amazing achievement for some to scale against all odds and finally make it. They sounded triumphant!
We dropped the idea of visiting the temple that night to give ourselves a break. The temple is open between 4 am and 8 pm. So we started around 4.30 am in the morning the next day towards the temple after calling it a day in the tents. The temple stood against the backdrop of the Himalayan glaciers and welcomed all. The temple was filled with the sound of Bholenath bhajans and the visitors were arriving as early as 3 am to line up for the darshan, braving the cold. Some old gangs could be seen in very high spirits waiting for the darshan. As we waited, the sun rose, touching the tip of the highest visible Himalayan range from the temple, a rare and spectacular sight that needs to be experienced. We finally made our turn into the magnificent temple, which is a stone edifice on the shore of Mandakini river. The darshan was rather short as every devotee wanted a sight of their Lord. This required manual intervention to maintain steady flow of visitors in the temple; a common sight at any famous temple.
After a short breakfast, we were on our way back to Gowrikund. The downhill trek was not that difficult since the oxygen levels were rising. It took considerably less time to reach the base. We had successfully completed the yatra, braving all odds. Adi ji explained that this is a successful attainment for many who had doubts about their own capability. It also highlighted team work and how we supported each other morally and physically to overcome what seemed impossible to begin with! The Kedarnath experience could be replicated in many occasions in life, when there is a constant struggle between mind and body to overcome the physical odds.
Back to Haridwar and Delhi
This was without a doubt an interesting and memorable experience to reckon with for the rest of my life. We were virtually signing off and coming to the end of the yatra. We paid a last visit to the Omkareshwar temple on our way back from Kedarnath to Ukhimath, which stands as a symbol of love, compassion and forgiveness. The next morning, we started for Haridwar and had a brief stop over to witness Devprayag, the confluence of the rivers Alakananda and Bhagirathi, from where the river takes the name “Ganga”. This was a sight to capture in our minds as much as it was to capture in the camera.
We had to depart with Adi ji and Smrithi ji in Rishikesh at this point but with a lot of great memories that were to be treasured for a lifetime. It was indeed out of sheer selflessness that these two beings left behind their comfort to empower many such yatris year after year, giving them a glimpse of the Divine within. I am sure that all their efforts will come to fruition, as they have the support and goodwill of everybody around them.
We had a brief stopover in Haridwar to visit Hari ki Pauri, the major attraction for Ganga Aarati. This is the place where Ma Ganga leaves the Himalayan foothills and starts flowing in the plains. We reached Delhi in the morning after an eight day long trip which began with 56 strangers but which ended with all of them becoming a big family!
The Himalayan yatra made me feel stronger, healthier, better as a person, and more importantly, I delved into the world of spirituality, understanding the connection between science and philosophy thus completing the picture. I appreciated my past better and acknowledged the rich heritage that once belonged to my ancestors. I pledged to do more about expanding the Bharatiya (Indian) consciousness in public life.
My sincere thanks to all the fellow yatris, whose presence, interactions, love and memory would stay with me always.
Heartfelt thanks to Adi ji and Smrithi ji.
Special thanks to Tushar for keeping the tempo high of the whole group, Prem and Shail for their loving companionship and not to forget all the khakra and thepra.
Tejaswi, the youngest yet the most energetic person in the group, needs a special mention for his unending spirit despite his poor health towards the end of the trip.
Thanks J for a quick edit.
Looking forward to more association with Anaadi Foundation.
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