It sounded like a spiritual adventure when my parents first mentioned the idea. During their annual trip to India, we would spend a week in the Himalayan mountains, starting off at the city of Rishikesh then visiting the mountain villages Kedarnath and Badrinath and stopping at Haridwar before going back to Rishikesh. Some of the holiest sights of the Hindu religion, all in one week. The most exciting part (to me) was the idea of climbing up an 11,000 foot high mountain to Kedarnath.
My parents were determined to make it to Kedarnath this year, “while we can still walk,” my father had said. The temples at Kedarnath and Badrinath are considered two of the holiest in the Hindu tradition, and my parents had been wanting to go for years. As soon as my mother booked our plane tickets, she started taking brisk walks in the evening to ready herself for the 12 kilometer steep climb up the mountain. This was going to be a real pilgrimage, down to the physical challenges.
When we get down at Gaurikund, the village at the base of the mountain, the first thing you notice are the ponies. Brightly decorated with colorful harnesses and bells, ponies of all shades wait to be ridden by pilgrims and tourists who find the climb too arduous. Despite the fact that she has been walking in preparation all summer, my father insists on my mother riding up the mountain on a pony. My aunt and my cousin follow suit. I decide to try and walk.
The beauty-the greenery, the waterfalls, the wildflowers-are completely lost as I struggle to keep up with my mother’s pony. Eventually, her guide recognizes someone and rents his pony for me. The trek gets easier on my lungs, but not a whole lot easier on my body. My thighs are getting bruised as the pony walks up the wide shallow steps cut into the mountain and my palms are starting to hurt as they rub against the saddle’s pommel. On the bright side, I can view and appreciate the river, the waterfalls, the bright orange clothes of the hardier pilgrims and the way that the litter-bearers walk in sync as they carry an old woman up to the top.
When we finally get to the top of the mountain and into our guest house, the first thing we notice is how incredibly cold it is. As I lie down to take a nap before dinner, I can’t help but notice that the comforter that is as thick as my mattress, is damp. It’s made of cotton, and everything made of natural fibers in the mountains is never dry, or if it is, it doesn’t stay dry for long.
After the food lodge brings us tea and we eat some of the protein bars and trail mix we packed, we make our way over to the temple. The Kedarnath temple at night is quite a sight: All the sales stalls, selling food, religious trinkets and the like, are strung with Christmas lights, as is the temple itself. Sadhus (renunciates, similar to monks) dressed in orange sit on the ground outside the temple. Musicians beat drums and play other instruments, some pilgrims sing and clap along. But the most amazing thing about the temple is its age: The temple is over 1,000 years old, and was built on the site of an older temple that was supposedly dated back to the time of the Hindu epic the Mahabharata (roughly the 4th century BCE). I feel slightly claustrophobic as I join the throng going through the temple, but also part of something bigger: I’m performing rituals and actions that have taken place in this space continuously for thousands of years.
Morning brings a bit more warmth, both in terms of the sun and the steaming buckets of hot water that the men from the lodge bring for us to bathe with (there is no running hot water). As we go out to the temple again, we suddenly see the majestic, snow-capped mountains, making me feel simultaneously powerful and insignificant. We also see how rain is made, as mists of water are sent up into the air from the surrounding Mandakini River and form clouds.
When I get back to Mumbai, I’m a few pounds lighter and have a few more more aches than I was before we started. But when I look at the video of the temple and the mountains, I believe it was all worth it. This is what people mean when they say that experiences are worth more than things, and I am so grateful for the experience.
Links: Government Travel Site for Kedarnath and surrounding districts: http://www.gmvnl.com/newgmvn/districts/rudraprayag/kedarnath.aspx