Wednesday, August 22, 2012

SABARIMALAI-A Tropical Jewel

At Erumeli
Sabarimala is in the Western Ghat Mountain (Sahyadri Mountains) range of ‘God’s own Country’, Kerala. This fascinating, mountainous forest, as the mythology goes, happens to be a region, once trodden by Sabari, the tribal woman who offered berries to Lord Rama after tasting each of them for its sweetness. Today it happens to be a World Heritage Site, possessing one of the world’s most biologically diverse flora and fauna including Tiger reserves. Let us follow the fifty two km trail of the celibate Lord Ayyappa to explore the beauty with thrill in the most pleasant season from November to January when around fifty million devotees throng there from all over India. The journey shall definitely be more fulfilling, memorable and colorful as to most of the other exciting places in the world, with the participation of better halves and ladies of all age groups in general, as a version of Ayyappa’s depiction is with two consorts Sridevi and Bhudevi.

What a Gait!
The Peda Padam(52 km route) from Erumely is the busiest in the first fortnight of January when the denizens of the forests of Sabarimalai ( elephants, tigers, leopards, deer and gaurs ) make room for the pilgrims  wearing Mala, a garland of Rudraksha or Tulsi beads, and blue or black dress. They have practiced forty one days Vratam (penance and austerities) during which they refrain from non-vegetarian food, alcohol, tobacco, sex and use of fowl language. During this period they walk barefoot, do not shave or have a hair cut, take bath twice a day, visit a nearby temple everyday and sleep on the hard floor at night! All this toughens them up for the bare foot trek through the thirteen hills, carrying the Irumudikettu( package of offerings to Ayyappa and their own provisions) on their heads. Every one becomes a Swamy (one with God) with strengthened physical and spiritual capacities.

Having developed a keen interest, with the help of a friend, I also join a group of Swamies and reach Erumely from Kochi by bus in the evening of 10th January; but without the dress code and the 41 day penance! This is the place (Erumakolli: killed the buffalo) where Lord Ayyappa is said to have killed demoness Mahishi in his pursuit of tiger’s milk! We all have tea and then a refreshing bath. This small town, with river Koratty (originally called river Manimala: I like this name!) is abuzz with fun and fanfare of different groups of Swamies with drums and trumpets to perform the colorful Pettathullai (dance in the market). With colors smeared on their faces, carrying wooden bows and arrows, they go to the Nainar Mosque first dancing to the melodious tune of, “Ayyappan thinthakathom,swamiye thinthakthom”, to honor Vavar swamy, the companion of Ayyappa in the fight against Mahishi  and then proceed to the Valiyambalan temple of Ayyappa.                                                                                         
Vavar Masjid and Temple
                                                      Next day enthusiastically I also part with my foot wear and start the trek with the Swamies, bare foot. But the gravel surface of the path is too harsh for my feet, as they start aching and burning within some time due to lack of any 41-day practice like others! But I have to carry on for 7 km till we reach Poonkavanam, the blooming grove of Ayyappa in Irrumpoonikkara full of dense, lush tropical forests (rubber, teak, sesame, sandalwood and a variety of flowers and creepers) extending to the banks Of river Pampa after Erumely; here the high canopies create an exhilarating path for the pilgrims, preventing even the sunlight to enter most of the time.
Even Sunlight is Prevented
 I have to move on for 3 km more till we reach Arasamudikotta where, with great relief, I let my hurting feet in the crystal clear stream of river Parthode and relax, laid on my back. Here, Ayyappa and his soldiers had taken rest for some time!
Next, trekking two hills and then a plain for another 4km, we reach the Shiva temple in  Kalaketti. Here also I have an opportunity to lie down and relax my aching and burning feet for a while as the giant trees, crowded above me, sympathize! Three km further we reach the banks of river Azutha at 2 pm, I still with very bad feet. There is a very big functional restaurant with tin sheds; slowly, I walk to the river, take a refreshing bath in the cool, flowing water. Come back and order a plate of Idli-Sambar  and Dosa; after eating them gulp two analgesic tablets with lots of water, ask my friends to carry on with the journey leaving me behind as I am feeling quite at home with the surroundings, people and the journey by now. I lie down on my back on the wooden plank, and fall asleep for two hours.
River Azutha in the Background

At 5 pm in the evening I wade through the knee deep waters and move towards Azuthamedu, a steep climb of 3 km. From here onwards the earth becomes very soft and slowly my feet also start getting back to normal, making me extremely joyous that I shall be comfortable rest of the trek! “Kallum mullum kaalukku methai” (the stones and thorns are like a carpet to the feet,) I start singing the local folk verse! Further, I leave my, cumbersome-to-carry, broad brimmed straw-hat on a stone for some one to pick up, as I don’t find much use of it on the shaded paths ahead. I steadily move ahead, having tea in a place or two; stalls selling tea, snacks like banana chips, sweet succulent pineapple slices, and plantains are spread through out the way. I reach the peak Kallidumkunnu and then Inchippara nearby.
Tops of Giant Trees
Very Dense Forests
 Here the pilgrims take rest and at 9:30 pm. I steadily climb down the steep, dusty slope from Inchippara, with the hardened roots of huge trees, all the way. We reach Mukkuzi in the night where the much revered temple of the Divine Mother is; here I have dinner of  boiled tapioca and salad and find a place to sleep among friendly people chitchatting about the remaining journey. Next morning, 12th of Jan. we start for Kariyilaamthodu, eleven km through thick foothill forests  with the Azutha and Karimala hills on each side. This is a happiness giving, lush area with gigantic, gentle trees standing there for ages like sages showering blessings on the passers by, as we some times sight the droppings of wild elephants in some places! Three km further, we reach the foot of lofty Karimala ( elevation 1440 meters),the most arduous climb of the trek! It has to be climbed in seven stages and at each stage one thinks that he has reached the peak! At last I reach the top gasping for breath; there are two ancient wells here, where Ayyappa and his soldiers are said to have quenched their thirst. Resting here for some time, I start climbing down steadfastly, the adventurous zigzag slopes flanked by dense forests on the seemingly unending descent. On the way, I find some Swamies enjoying a smoke before they enter Sabarimala proper!

Finally, I step into Valyaanavattam, in the valley of Karimala where the special devotees carrying Thiruvaabharanam (ornaments to adorn Ayyappa during Sankranti Pooja) take rest. Further, I reach Cheriyaanvottam, and then walking along a tributary, I reach the enormous, soothingly picturesque river bed of Pampa, where Rajasekhara, the king of Pandalam, found the child Ayyappa! This place is alive with activity as I move about with a chopped tender coconut with a straw in it, sucking the sweet, thirst quenching water. The beautiful river emerging out of the woods and people bathing in it is a sight to behold; the 18th century poet, Ramanuja Ezuthachan, father of modern Malyalam literature, described the banks of Pampa as the most enchanting: Pampa sarathadam lokamanoharam.
The Cheriyaavattam side of Pampa has hundreds of temporary camps where pilgrims can stay even up to two or three days. I stay in a guest house on the banks of Pampa and after having a refreshing cold water bath late in the evening, move around in the festive atmosphere. “behold,” the festival of lights in the river Pampa where hundreds of  well-lit lamps placed on special floats move in the river to the accompaniment of rhythms with traditional instruments. The whole scene is so brilliant and colorful that I just get immersed in the fare for a long time! This is the victory celebration of Ayyappa over the brigand Udayanan.                                                                                                                                      
Early in the morning next day (14th Jan), I climb the steps   to the huge and artistic temple of Ganesha at the foot of Neelimala, take His customary blessings and begin the final steep climb to the destination. At dawn, the mountains and clouds and the mist together create beautiful, surrealistic views on one side!
A surrealistic View
 At the top, I reach Appaachimedu, which has deep gorges on both sides; and then Sabaripeetham, where Sabari offered berries to Lord Rama. Another kilometer further is the spot Saramkuthiyaal, where Ayyappa and his soldiers discarded their weapons after the liberation of Sabarimala temple. We are very close to the temple and the whole area vibrates with the melodious slogan, “Swamiye sharanam Ayyappa”, (unto the feet of Ayyappa) and sounds of fireworks.

Near tht Temple
The time is 10:30 am and I am walking through a high, very big, long shed (made for the pilgrims to form queues) with a dais on the other side for announcements and cultural programs. As I proceed, to my left I see the 18 holy steps, the golden staff and the shrine. The temple on the hillock is in the midst of a valley surrounded by picturesque, flourishing, green mountains.
The Temple with long Queues

 As I am not in the orthodox, rigorous dress code carrying Irumudikettu on my head, I go for the Darshan of the Lord from the other side; but when I reach the Sannidhanam,(sanctum sanctorum) Ayyappa in His unique Veerasana pose with Yogapatta (a girdle supporting circling the back and supporting the knees of a seated person) and delivers the same message, “Aham Brahmasmi, tat twam asi” (I am Brahman, that thou art) to me also!
Swamy Ayyappa Temple, Sabarimala, Kerala

Gathering for Makarjyoti
The delightful period of the journey culminates with millions of people sighting the Makar Jyothi in the evening. It is a pit of camphor lighted in honor of Ayyappa (as Aaratito Him) from the heights of Ponnambalmedu, a mountain range fifteen kilometers away!
Child Swamy!

  Raja Ram Atre

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

KAILASH-MANASAROVAR Celestial Beauty, 15th August 19Celest96

Pictures On the Indian Side
A person with good health and sufficient money qualifies for the journey but only his guts and mental make-up wade him through the deep Himalayan valleys and gorges with gushing waters, brilliantly cut by the confident strokes of Nature to elevate a rational human mind more and more into the kingdom of wisdom, where Shiva(Brahman: Nature personified) seems to say, “I am Brahman, that thou art”(Brahma-Sutra)!
But all this is not of the ilk of city rats like me; our kind generally goes there fortified with blind faith and fervor created by the chants of Har har Mahadev, Jai Bhole Nath, etc. and Bhajans(devotional songs). Returning back, we expect more selfish aggrandisement, prosperity and glory, being the select Punyatmas (blessed souls) amongst the redundant, pauper, Papi(wretched) Indian population!
At the outset I congratulate the Ministry of External Affairs for conducting this fantastic dream journey with meticulously planned stop-overs spread over the thrilling but feasible trekking routes, even for a fifty-year beginner like me! Our Liaison Officer, Mr. Somesh Goyal, a young and enthusiastic friendly guy, saw that we all ate well and had good time and harmony throughout. Thanks to him, who also yelled and created hell when necessary, that our batch of thirty five, happily and successfully completed the glorious Yatra.   Ten days of slow and steady journey through different ascending heights finally takes us to the 5100 meters high Lipu Lekh pass and by that time one is completely acclimatized to overcome the high altitude hazards and tread on the highest plateau of the world, Tibet. Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam is the competent organization which courteously and successfully manages the stay, food and transportation of our luggage by ponies throughout the journey in the Indian side. After every trek (with good and friendly government security) we used to be welcomed by,”Om Namah Shivaiah” and a refreshing cool drink of herbal flavors. Then we would rest for the remaining part of the day with a wholesome lunch, tea and dinner with plenty of soup, at appropriate times. We slept well in cozy, pucca, accommodations in most of the places with beds, warm quilts and blankets. Yes, it was around 0 degree C all nights!
Bidding good bye to stately New Delhi, we started at 4a.m. on 5th of Aug 1996! For Almorah, in a comfortable bus playing invigorating Bhajans of the colorful, Bhang addict Lord Shiva! Maintenance of time and schedule was absolutely necessary for the success of the unusual voyage through five different ranges of the Himalayas. Had breakfast at Gajraula guest house at 7a.m. and reached Rampur (of the Rampuri knife notoriety) at 10a.m. to be felicitated by the people with garlands, sweets, khara and tea! Slowly, the importance of the journey began to seep in my mind! I never new that every day henceforth would be a dream day of my life in the folds of lofty Himalayas where jubilant healthy clouds played like children holding Bal Mithai (a famous milk confection of Kumaon) in their hands, in the laps of the saintly looking unperturbed mountains surveying all directions. They seemed to deliver the message, “Let noble thoughts come unto us from all directions (Aano bhadrah rutvo yantu vishwatah….)”, to the humankind!
     Then we arrived at Bhimtal, at an elevation of 1370 meters; a lake larger than lake Nainital  22km away, existing since the days of  Maha Bharat. This huge, perennial lake with an island at its centre has a variety of marine life. This scenic tourist spot with some ancient temples is also a winter recess for fascinating Himalayan birds. Spending some pleasant time here, we moved on to Bhowali, a major fruit market and health resort (also has a T.B. sanatorium where Kamala Nehru, wife of late Jawaharlal Nehru, spent some time) at an elevation of 2050 meters and just had a healthy lunch of Rajma n Rice. Of course, Papad n North Indian style Mixed Vegetables Pickle in mustard oil, were a treat everywhere!
 We reached Almorah, 400km from Delhi and at an elevation of 1680meters. at 6p.m.; a handsome, horse saddle shaped hill surrounded densely by pines and firs, in the southern ridge of Kumaon Hills of the Himalayan range. After having a refreshing bath in our spacious guest house, we walked around in the Bazar in the cold late evening and returned to have a nice dinner of hot puris, steaming hot dal fry, curry and rice followed by the dessert, Gulab Jamun. Then we slip under warm quilts in cozy beds to slip into a heavenly sleep. In Delhi the night before, we barely managed to sleep, in the stuffy hotel rooms, with fans at full speed!
Yes, it was a promising beginning and morning as we started for Dharchula at 6:30 a.m., after a good breakfast, breathing in the beauty of the snow capped Himalayas from Almorah itself! We moved along giant but genial looking Deodars by the roadside, and soon reached the nastier and narrower road that led us to the Chaukori Road, vista of the great Himalayan peaks like Trishul, Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot, through ripening corn fields!. After a sumptuous lunch at 12 noon, we proceeded to Bageshwar, a holy temple town, with temples dating back to 10th century, at the confluence of Gomti and Sharyu. It is also the base for treks to world famous glaciers Pindari and Sundardhunga. Some of us developed vomiting sensation due to the very bad route and I soon realized that we were near the point from where the bus would bid us good bye! After visiting the ancient Byghreshwar (a form of Shiva) temple, on the way we were received by the gushing foamy white waters of the confluence of the rivers Kali and Gori near Jauljibi, a significant trading centre bordering Nepal. From this place onwards we followed the course (up) of the river Kali through lively, resounding valleys and gorges till Kalapani. On the right we had deep valleys and it started raining for some time and then rain with sunshine, and a beautiful rainbow in the valley! I could never imagine a rainbow for which I had to look down! We reached Dharchula(a stove with various peaks around) , a small valley resembling a stove, around 5 p.m., had tea in the guest house and then crossed a small bridge on the river Kali to get into Nepal, a pleasant surprise! Spent some time and money and came back as the bridge would be closed by 7:30 p.m. After a good dinner I tried to sleep, brooding over the fact that, next day, we would start our trek from Tawaghat, 26km. away, which was discussed while we were having soup. For a complete month, we moved at a snail’s pace through the most scenic, verdant, unpolluted, virgin places of the world; I think jet-setters must be already feeling like worms!
Next day, we had our tea at 4:30 a.m., the specified time of our program and we all came out of the guest house to pick up our sticks for the trek. The use of the stick was great once you know the technique; which you usually learned yourself. Using the sticks alternately with both hands exercises your chest and shoulders and perhaps that was the secret of Mahatma Gandhi’s good shape. After breakfast, I strolled around leisurely with my new stick, listening to Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma’s morning melodies played by my walkman. It was just like a connoisseur giving make-up to a beautiful woman: The beautiful, huge, green mountains belittling the clouds at dawn and the thunderous hum of river Kali at a distance.
 At 6:45 a.m. we reached Tawaghat  bridge (an elevation of 2220 meters.), from where we started our introductory trek of “Thanedar ki Chadhai”, a steep climb of 1000 meters through a distance of only 9km., mischievously welcoming us, laughing in its sleeves. In the south, the said-to-be-difficult well laid Tirumala trek is 2200ft high. Well, as a legend at the temple goes, His abode is just a small peak, blown by Vayu, the God of winds from the thousand peaked mythological Meru Parbat (present Mt. Kailash)!
“I’m the Same, made easy for you”, the Lord seemed to say to the people of Kali Yuga, repenting the deed!
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 Chanting the Gayatri mantra the universal Sanskrit prayer by a person for the benefit of all: ‘O Protector of all, Dearer than life, Destroyer of all sorrows, Joy personified, Begetter, worthy of worship, of pure scientific form making Thy abode in us; inspire us for noble actions”, and begin amidst the tranquil, awe inspiring altitudes of The Himalayas for the thrilling trek-journey of Kailash-Mansarovar! Our first trek from Tawaghat to Pangu(2210 meters)began on the 7th of August. Paths paved with cobblestones, wound up and up through mountains like  never ending  lazy pythons in succession. The width of the path varied from a comfortable 8ft to a dangerous 3fton curves; and the traffic of people with ponies, though scarce, from the opposite direction, also followed the same path. Sometimes, the slimmer curves seemed to threaten us, “If you err or misbehave, we will just jerk you into the valley.” Yes, we were already instructed by Mr. Gupte, the under secretary (to China) to respect the mountains with slow and steady climb throughout. When we moved up, we should concentrate on the unsteady path without looking around to devour the natural beauty, which perhaps, several of us were seeing for the first time! The lush green mountains and vibrant gorges and tall waterfalls here were simply breath taking and to devour such beauty, we better stopped and look around, taking our own time, to assure safety.
After climbing for an hour I started sweating profusely, breathing loudly like a blacksmith’s bellows and the person by my side, Vishwanath, a thin, bald headed chap in his early forties, who smoked Charminar(a very strong cigarette) a lot commented, “Something seems to be wrong with you”. But to my chagrin, he climbed very well! Later on we became good friends and once in a way he used to offer me a cigarette for fun with his charming smile. At a point I might have tripped into a valley as I lost balance; but the stick came to my rescue. Deepak, the young, flamboyant loudmouth, started broadcasting it and obviously getting angry with anyone mentioning it to me, I retorted, “Of course I was sure footed, that chap didn’t get me right.” After another ten minutes I tried to relax on a stone with green shrubs around; but a shrub brushed against my elbow, causing alarming inflammation and I panicked not knowing what went wrong? But the porter, understanding, assured me that,” Saab,fikr mat karo, ye to bicchu patta ha (sir, don’t worry this is the scorpion-leaf shrub).” The leaves that gave a scorpion-bite sensation for minutes would actually be good for health!
Moving further up for another thirty minutes, I met fourteen yr old Disha, the youngest member of our batch. “Hey, you shouldn’t keep your mouth open when you are exerting”, I advised her like a teacher that I was. Her father, giving me an apricot (all of us carried lots of dry fruits and candies to suck occasionally, as they were supposed to strengthen our knees and joints for trekking in the heights) good naturedly advised me back,”Mr. Atre, when you are in high, unpolluted altitudes, unlike in the cities; it is advantageous if you inhale plenty of air through the mouth but exhale slowly through the nose, thus gaining maximum oxygen”. He and his comely wife Dipti were already veterans with an earlier trip to their credit! I felt very happy the way he advised me and by the time I returned I was a hit trekker! Remember readers, Mr. Atre boasts a lot! Slowly and unsteadily I reached the post “Thanedar”, exhausted. Behind it was the ineffective family planning slogan, “kam Santaan, Sukhi Insaan”. We spent the evening and night in the high altitude Pangu valley, where huge clouds sometimes engulfed us causing excitement when there was rain also, along with them! Of course we had a warm shelter and a nutritious dinner of hot rotis,  soya nuggets curry,  dal fry and rice in the KMVN guest House.
Starting at 6a.m. next day, we moved on to Sirka (15km, 2450 meters) and I was feeling as fit as a fiddle as we reached Narayan Ashram, where we relaxed for some time with Suji Halwa and tea offered by the courteous ashramites . Then we smoothly reached Sirka around noon, as compared with the first day’s sapping  experience. Had a refreshing bath, lunch and then relaxed for the whole day. Good programming of the tour made us feel at ease and leisurely in every place.
  Next morning we started for Gala (14km, 2400 meters), with a strenuous climb to the Rungling Top (3140 meters) the highest point so far, from where a romantic British personality Mr. Rungling committed suicide, being in love, as we were told! I climbed slowly, breathing hard and jealous as the young porter Surjit sped past me with some luggage, singing a full blooded folk-lore of the mountains and also enjoying a cigarette! Yes, he was a native boy of the mountains with a liter or more blood in him, a physiological advantage! Again it was just exhausting for me due to the height and as I brooded over the knees buckling, more than 610 meters of uneven slope ahead, with unfriendly stones all the way; with a coffee-toffee in the mouth and a bottle of water in a hand! As I started climbing down after some time the feet were getting hurt even through the shoes, even with a much better use of stick. But the lush green environ all-round with huge pines and the local river Simkhola snaking through the dense forests with the usual gush soothed and comforted every one. Hmm…this was also a bear infested area. As we advanced, we came across enormous trunks of Deodars with moss on them, laid here and there, struck by lightning. No one has any say; even the world infesting human being is a scarcely spread lot here at times, at the mercy of the, unpredictable, ruthless vagaries of the beautiful, life giving, sublime Nature!
Next morning at 6:45 a.m. we started for Malpa (11km, 2060 meters); a fantastic, tense fiction like journey along a dreamland gorge with roaring waters of river Kali on one side and huge brown cliffs on the other, sometimes looking down at us as if to say, “Run fools, we don’t want to crush you with boulders and stones”. The security led us through the naturally artistic paths, with water streams in several places falling over us. We reached Malpa in the evening and though instructed to keep our bodies covered with weather proof jackets, we used to uncover ourselves sometimes, to cool down after the last fast lap of our trek in those heights of the Himalayas! As I come out carrying a refreshing herbal sherbet and move around in the nearby areas, the river thundered beside our guest house, making its presence felt as I watched the magical movement of the clouds against the mountains and the fading light.
The situation was ominous from Malpa to Budhi (12km, 2700 meters). It was raining heavily as we dressed; putting on our rain suits and within no time we set out, our shoes were soaked with water and heavy. To begin with, we climbed some distance, and then it was a level or a slope for some kilometers on the heavily mudded path, and then “Lo”, there was a heavy, threatening landslide from the upper levels on the left in front of us! The path was completely blocked and overflowing with chocolate colored thick, mud with stones and boulders still pouring in from the top! At that moment, even the dogs of the territory did not dare to cross it! We retreated 2km back to a small tea-house as the danger lurked over nearby distances. After three hours we returned to the spot as the rain had stopped and our L.O. took the decision of crossing the landslide area from a lower level, one at a time; with the help of agile, native porters. Struggling and focused, with shoes in one hand, , and the other hand in the hand of the porter, feet still sinking to knee levels in the thick mud and the danger of landslide from above, I crossed a distance of about 50 yards to the other side, with a sigh of immense relief as I saw the intact path ahead! Everyone, from 65yr old Mr Patel to Disha crossed the area safely. Around this area in Malpa, the international Kathak maestro Protima Bedi, perished with another 380 people two years later. I would like to point out to the enthusiasts that, after all accidents are accidents and the intelligent and the brave are the lucky either way, as their foot-prints lead the rest to greater heights! Then with another climb upwards we reached scenic Budhi with a variety of wild flowers where we happily and peacefully spent the night after dinner.
On the morning of 12th we started our trek for Gunji (15km, 3200 meters). To begin with, we climbed for three kilometers to reach the highest point so far at Chialekh Pass(3450 meters) from where we slowly moved into the pleasing, welcome  plains with a variety of  wild flowers and shrubs allover; This was another Valley of Flowers in the remote Himalayas! Kumar Gandharva added magic to the environ with Raag Basant Bahar on my walkman. Reached Gunji at 1:30 p.m. and each one of us had a brief medical check-up by a doctor of the Indo-Tibetan Border Security Force (ITBSF). Sugar or B.P. happened to be a good reason for a team mate to be sent back! From this place onwards the medical aid and security was provided by ITBSF, who also provided tea on the way sometimes.
Gunji to Kalapani (10km, 3600 meters) was an easy trek with verdant pine, Himalayan birch (bhojpatra) and juniper forests around and flocks of healthy, energetic sheep coming across, for us to pass through them merrily! Also known as Byans valley locally, it is said to be the place where the Great sage Veda Vyasa, the author of Mahabharata lived. Here, our long time companion Kali Nadi flowed with all its charming nuances and at a distance in the bed of the river, there was a hot sulphur spring by the side, where we all had a luxurious hot water bath in the tub like formation. Refreshed and invigorated, I walk back to our guest house singing, “Vo gori nadiyon ka chalna ucchal kar, ke jaise allhad chale pee se milkar…… (The bouncy flow of the fair rivers resembles the gait of a naughty girl after meeting her beloved…..)”. We have a nice dinner of Chhole puri, Rajma-rice with plenty of vegetable soup topped by Gulab Jamun as dessert; and then sleep well.

Om Parbat
Next day,at 7:30a.m. after a good breakfast we headed for Navidang(8km, 4200meters); reaching there at 11a.m. quite exhausted as we were moving in high altitude zones with oxygen becoming scarcer! I this higher level of Himalayas we find the rare musk deer and also monals( pheasants with brilliant colors) Most of us also had an aching head as we sat chatting in the open to watch the Om Parbat display the Hindu philosophical symbol OM in ice on its top. For some time it was visible but soon disappeared under the heavy, unpredictable clouds. Retiring to the guest house we had an early dinner, and prepared ourselves with woolens, wind-proof jackets, to leave for the Lipu Lekh Pass( 7km, 5334 meters ),early in the morning at 3a.m.; the next day!
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Under the expert guidance of ITBSF staff we slowly climbed in the darkness with torches to begin with and then as the day rose, steadily gained a height of another 3000ft. Though we had an experience of climbing sufficient heights by now, most of us were mildly affected by the high altitude causing headache and nausea. One of the lady members also fell unconscious at the Lipu Lekh pass for some minutes. Well, we were on the Roof of the world, Tibet! Surprise and curiosity prevailed  over my headache as I was welcomed by the sight of a small group of rugged, jolly Tibetans, one of them with a bottle of  liquor in his hands (pouring it to others) looking unearthly in their dirty clothes, eating, drinking and smoking(ganja?) in the most unusual place! Perhaps they were the living Bhoots (reckless, lively devils) with whom Lord Shiva lived in Kailash as the mythology goes! The whole description of Shiva tallies with the mountainous atmosphere, where the hermits lived (population density, less than two per sq. km) and allowed Him his addictions and pranks and unfathomable equations of Reality with full devotion. Peeping on the other side of the pass, I saw the ghastly sight of the descending pass with enormous chunks of ice here and there and gravel and rocks shrubs for miles together. Nobody could tell when a blizzard could zoom over and blow off a person into the abyss!
It was the 15th of August 1996, a memorable Indian Independence Day as we trek down the pass. Though the courteous Chinese government had arranged ponies, I liked to walk all the way to the bus, and being among the last, sat in the hind seat, unaware of the condition of the route and the bus! Within minutes after the bus started I was mesmerized by a huge, smooth hill with shining pink, blue, green, grey splashes, as if on a Chinese work of art on silk! My eyes got glued to it, unmindful of the seat by my side giving way, the person sitting by my side shifting to another seat and the heavy jolts! But soon, as the hill was fading into distance and the young Tibetan women in front began to sing folk songs, I was very much into the bus again, grumbling about the bus shaking me from head to toe in spite of holding the bars by the side! We were taken to the Purang Guest House in the only nearby township of Taklakot at 1p.m. Purang (meaning a ‘horse’s head’) is the Tibetan name of the county, very near to the Indian side. It is known as Taklakot by us and Nepalese; being an ancient trading town where the pilgrims to Mt. Kailash also stayed. We were received in a stately drawing room with spacious, leather-upholstered sofas, beautiful Chinese paintings all around and artistically painted wooden tables from Lhasa in the centre. Colorfully dressed Chinese girls wearing dainty hats served hot, nutritious Tibetan tea with flasks as we relaxed in the cozy sofas. Then the passport and customs formalities were completed by healthy, robust Chinese officers in olive greens and a tall, dashing Chinese girl, with soft, straight, dark brown hair on her shoulders. I envied their looks and confidence; of course, they belonged to the only other Super Power of the world, China due to their sincerity, hard work and brains!

We were accommodated in comfortable rooms with two beds each. All the rooms were provided with two huge thermos flasks which could keep the water hot for two days consistently; a requirement of the people n the cold region. In the evening and next day, we moved in the Nepali bazaar and around the river Karnali (a river from the ‘mouth of a pecock’!) trying to befriend the people verbally; but more with gesticulations We could also sight the dilapidated Tegla Kar( the Lying Tiger fort) on a ridge from Taklakot most of the time . Had good time drinking energizing Tibetan tea ( cha suma made with Chinese tea, barley, soda and yak butter churned in deep, decorative bamboo containers and stored in flasks  to be taken a number of times during the day). Returning to the guest house, we had a wonderful Chinese dinner, but only vegetarian and sans chopsticks!
We were divided into two groups for the Parikramas(circumambulation) of  Mt Kailash and Mansarovar. I was in the group going to Kailash first. We set out for Kailash(Gang Rimpoche’: meaning the precious jewel of snows) at 4 pm by   trucks due to the failure of the bus, dropping the other group at Hore for Mansarovar. Moving through the Gurla Pass(16200 ft)  near Gurla Mandhata, the highest peak of a Himalayan sub range  in Purang ( Lake Mansarovar is roughly between Kailash and Gurla Mandhata) we reach the beautiful Rakshas Tal where, as the mythology goes, ten-headed Ravana performed relentless penance on one of its four islands; offering one head each day in sacrifice  to gain the blessings and favors from Lord Shiva. Rakshas Tal, said to be created by Ravana, happens to be a salt water lake without aquatic life though it is connected to ManasTal(lake Mansarovar) by a short river Ganga Chhu. The mighty river Satluj originates at the eastern tip of Rakshas Tal! From here we sighted Mt Kailash(representing Shiva) in all its glory. Perhaps Shiva could not escape giving Darshan(to appear) to the adamant demon king Ravana; I humorously thought. Then we moved on to Darchen (110 km,16200 ft) at 2 a.m. next day, crossing two flooded streams and a very bad route. This was the starting point of our Parikrama. Getting up late in the morning due to the tedious, tiring journey; we had tea and then soup prepared by our group mates as we had to manage our own food during the Parikrama. Then we leisurely resumed for Dhirebu 22km away by truck, reaching there at 11:30 a.m. and waited for the porters with yaks, at the starting point where severally colored stripes of cloth were tied by the visitors to the slanting ropes with a flagpole (Tarboche in Tibetan) in the centre, to ward off evil spirits. All of us were to do the 50 km Parikrama riding yaks; as the porters arrived, we saw the long haired, domesticated Tibetan oxen possessing great stamina and strength. It proved to be a boon as one could look around sitting on the normally mild animal, minding its own business of regular movement, whosoever was on the back. Our L.O. had a dialogue with the porters through the interpreter Tensing, and then we slowly walked into the Parikrama and within sometime, unbelievably, Mt Kailash( meaning crystal: from Sanskrit) in all its glory was before us!
Mt Kailash
The Affable Yak
 The resplendent, rounded peak standing at 7394 meters was a part of the brown mountain resembling a Shiv Ling in the Hindu religion. The enthralling peak had different effects on our minds as heavenly clouds passed over and around cuddling it. Most of us ran here and there to have different possible views of the peak as the porters settled for a leisurely lunch and decided to start our trek on yaks at 3 pm.; I found their lazy indifference comic! At last I mounted the yak which started moving with its head down, nose almost touching the ground! It was first time I was riding an animal myself, of course under the guidance of the porter, and I cautiously held the wooden support on its back. The yak moved, stopped to graze grass and shrubs, again moved for a distance. That was the way it usually moved and I was comfortable within no time. The mountainous terrain with river Lham Chu led us slowly to Direbu by 7 p.m., where we stayed at night.

Next day at 8 pm we continued for Zonzerbu (17km), the toughest section of the circumambulation. Around us we could see the snow clad peaks of Gurla Mandhata The eight km trek to the Dolma Pass (5800meters), the highest point of the whole journey was arduous, even on yaks.

With Our L.O. Somesh Goyal
 Most of us felt tense, aching and slippery as the yaks too seemed to helplessly climb towards the steep unapproachable top in the atmosphere with paucity of oxygen. Everyone developed a vice like gripping headache, dryness of lips and face. Towards the end, the colorful Tarboche appeared again, registering the religious significance of the place.

 Here, even the yaks seemed to lose their surefootedness and seemed very much irritated with us, on their backs! Near the top, I just slipped down my yak and inched to the top. It was 12 noon and incidentally the place was calm without the anticipated high velocity winds and suddenly a festive mood developed amongst us with the colorful flagpole adding jubilance. As many of us performed Puja at the site further down with frozen Gauri Kund nearby, I moved around as I saw a charming holy Buddhist monk sitting in saffrons without any woolens in the biting cold; it seemed as if he would be there forever unmindful of rain or storm! Unexpectedly spending an hour at the hazardous top, we descended by feet to the other side, and after the steep slope again mounted the yaks, again becoming aware of our headaches! I also enjoyed a fall from the yak as we moved, as it gave a mild shock to my whole body without any hurt! We reached Zongzerbu by evening and had dinner at 9 pm, made by extremely helpful ladies of our group.
Gauri Kund
Next day at 10 am we started back for Darchen (12 km), trekking all along the river Lham Chu, with ice clad mountains behind and by the sides. Reached Darchen at 2 pm after a nice yak-ride and coming to lower altitudes, we ate happily and fell asleep as sleep was long over due! In the evening we went to the small bazaar and I bought a 3litre can to carry the holy water of Mansarovar for friends and relatives in Hyderabad! Surely, our exceptional journey was worth talking about with the appreciated token water.
Descending over a Glacier

Started leisurely in an open truck for Hore on the 21st of August for the dream lake Mansarovar. As we sped ahead, it was a feast of beautiful mountains and streams of water, all the way. All of us were in high spirits, singing and making jokes as we reached Hore at 3 pm.; immediately ponies were arranged for the next day. We moved around the place, came back and went to sleep early.
Next morning at 7 am when it was still very dark and cloudy, we started for Chugu(40 km) with torches in hand. We mounted the ponies at 8 am when the sun rose, presenting us with one of the most beautiful lakes in the world on our right. A huge lake, rather rounded from all sides, has a circumference of 88 km, maximum depth of 90 meters and a surface area of 320 sq. km.!
The Mighty Sweet water Lake
 But the distance being long and monotonous, we moved on listlessly except at the three streams of water which we crossed on ponies with some excitement, but without much difficulty, unlike our friends of the other group for whom the waters in the streams were very high and rapid due to heavy rains.
Porter Thondup
 I had some lively moments with the lively, hunchback porter Thondup before we reached Chugu at 6:30 pm. Next day I was on the same pony with Thondup as we started for Zaidi (37 km). The day was colorful with the energetic porter singing folk tunes most of the way. Golden boulders of rock on hills of gravel to our left and the lake’s golden shores spread with shrubs of various colors to our right made good variety with some birds (not swans) in the water. At different places we get different magnificent views of the blue, clear, lake with backgrounds of different sections of mountain ranges.
Golden Boulders, colorful Vegetation, Lake
Reached the destination Manas Tal at Zaidi, and occupied our rooms in the guest house; in the evening had a dip in the fresh water Dream Lake for millions. The cold water was shockingly benumbing as I entered the waters, but as the whole body with the head dipped in water, it was bearable for some minutes. Having several fun filled dips I came out, feeling fresh, active and hungry; ate well and slept at 10 pm. In the midnight I woke up, opened the door into the front open area to face a stormy wind which had uprooted the tent of a western group of tourists, who were enjoying a nice meal there in the evening! I shut the door back to escape the biting cold punch of the whizzing blow of the wind; yes, the eccentric all time weather of the Himalayas is awesome with all its vagaries!
A View of the Lake
 After having a bath in the lake the next day, I relaxed for some time and strolled to a nearby golden hill at different times. From the hill, the chaotic beauty of the lake was most expressive as the forms of the mountains around and color of the water change from azure to deep blue to emerald green to grayish green with the advancing day as the clouds and the atmosphere play different filters. The lake surrounded by a range of ice capped mountains with Mt. Kailash in the north and Mt Gurla Mandhata in the south is a celestial symphony where gods and goddesses bathed and Brahma swam in the form of a swan as the mythology goes!
Beautful Hues
The night was nippy and calm as I again went to the hill, with my jacket with hood completely zipped up and hands in the pockets of my only tough jeans, to watch the stars in the clearest of the skies from the roof of the world! They looked so near and over me as if I could extend my hand and get one with a magic jump!  It was a dream with an ocean of bright stars and galaxies in the clear void of space which gave the universal message, “I am Brahman that thou art”!

With A Foreign Visitor
                                                                                                                  Raja Ram Atre
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