Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The serene lake and the mystic mountain

Journey of lifetime to the abode of lord Shiva

Kailash, abode of mahadev the god of gods. It felt like a dream come  true when I got the intimation from ministry of external affairs that I was selected among the luckiest few for the Kailash Manasarovar yatra.The intimation came on May 2014 and I would be one among  the 18th batch (the last batch of the year) of the yatris for Kailash Manasarovar yatra on 15 Aug 2014. All the instructions and the requirements of the yatra were  clearly mentioned in the website of ministry of external affairs and the advices of former yatris from VSSC, Shri. Raghunatha Pillai (gsLVM3) and Shri. Vikram (SOG) helped me a lot in  prepararing  for the yatra. In addition to getting a long leave for a month sanctioned and the clearance formalities of foreign travel, I  had to carefully pick the items needed for the yatra  and  prepare  my mind and body  for the journey.

As instructed, I reported at Delhi on 15th August 2014 at Gujarathi Samaj Sadan where accommodation and sumptuous Gujarati food  were arranged for all the yatris for 4 days. The Kailash Tirth Yatra Vikassamithi at Delhi arranges all the facilities for the yatris and the satsang organized by them helps  to create a team spirit among the members. The next day was dedicated for detailed medical tests at the Delhi Heart and Lungs Institute and I underwent a series of  medical checks. The results were reviewed by the medical team of Indo Tibetan Border Police on the following day. I was relieved when my name was announced among the 40 members declared fit for the yatra. We stayed in Delhi for one more day for a  briefing on  the yatra at Ministry of external affairs and for completing the visa formalities. The payment was made to Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam Limited (KMVN) who arranges the food and accommodation for yatris on Indian side and also acquired the necessary US dollars and Chinese Yuvan required for the journey in Tibet region. On 19th Aug early morning, after receiving a warm sent off from the Delhi Nivasis with prayers, we set off for the Kailash Manasarovar Parikrama.

The kailash yatris are treated with reverence wherever they  go.   From the beginning of the journey itself warm receptions were given by various organisations. At Kathagodam we had our lunch and  switched our Volvo bus for a 27 seater bus to Almora where halt for the night was arranged at KMVN guest house. The bus ride continued the next day and we visited a few temples on the way through Almora. By evening we reached Dharchula, an ancient city on the banks of Kali river sharing the border with Nepal. The arrangement of the ponies and porters were made at Dharchula. Due to shortage of ponies I got only a porter to assist me, Mr. Devendra Singh Ghuniyal. Mr Devendra Singh is a first year BA student who provides his services to the Kailash yatris to earn money for his studies.

Next day we were taken to Pangla, a village 40 km from Dharchula in Jeep as the traditional route from Narayan Ashram was closed due to landslides. All the mobile communication with the outside world ends at  Dharchula as no networks are  available beyond . From Pangla our trekking commenced. The baggages were transported by ponies and I carried only an overnight bag with provisions for a night halt at the next destination. The destination for the day was  Sirkha, 7 kms from Pangla. The route is steady climb up through the mesmerizing Himalayalan Mountains filled with greenery and exotic flowers. By lunch time we reached Sirkha. After lunch the liason officer of our batch, Mr. Prem Singh a veteran in mountaineering who conquered the mount Everest 2 times and now working as DIG, ITBP, Chandigarh assessed the fitness of the yatris and was happy at everybody’s performance.

Next day, early morning at 5 O’clock, the trek commenced after consuming tea and biscuits. The destination was Gala a remote village in Indo Nepal Border 14 kms away from Sirkha. Though it was drizzling when the trek commenced, the sky became clear as we progressed the journey. By lunch time we reached Gala and rested for the day at the camp there. Destination for the following day was Budhi, 18 kms from Gala. One has to climb down 4444 steps near the banks of a roaring kali river in this route and there are many water falls that will drench you in this route. The Malpa village where a land slide took the lives of all the Kailash yatris including Protima Bedi (a famous Odissi dancer) and the porters in 1988 is in this route. I came to know from my porter that his father Devendra Singh  was also among them. Fourth day trek started from Budhi as usual at 5 O’clock. After a 3 km steep climb we reached the plains of Chilalekh a wonderful valley full of flowers. Further 7kms trek took us to the sinking village of Garbiang famous for hot samosas. From Garbiang, Border Road Organisation(BRO) has constructed a fairly motorable road for defense purposes and ITBP was kind enough to spare us their truck to cover the 7 km stretch to Gunji.

 At Gunji we reached an altitude of 12000 feet from mean sea level. The climate was very chilly and I had to wear 3 layers of warm clothes to protect myself from the chill . Medical tests are conducted to find out if any of the yatris are vulnerable to acute mountain sickness (AMS) and hence there is an extended day’s camping at Gunji. At Gunji, one gets a mesmerizing sight of the peaks of Annapoorna Mountain range in Nepal . We participated in the Bhajan at the ITBP camp temple there and also took part  in planting deodars as part of reforestation programme in the region. The Chinese border is just 22kms away and the last village Kuti on Indian side is 5 kms away from Gunji. Luckily all the members of our group were declared fit for the further yatra. On third day (From Gunji), we started in the morning to Nabhidhang which is 14 kms far from Gunji. We were dropped by the BRO trucks at Kalapani which is the source of Kali river where an ancient temple of goddess Kali is also situated. 

After breakfast at Kalapani camp the trek started towards Nabhidhang. The lush green forests and deodar trees gave way to barren terrain with a few cactus plants.. We could see the mighty Mount Sheshnag from there . By afternoon we reached Nabhidhang camp at the foot of the Nabhidhang mountain which is revered as a shakthipeet of Devi Parvathi (The mountain resembles the nabhi (naval) of goddess Parvathi).  From Nabhidhang the Om parvat is visible. Though the sky is always cloudy in these parts we were lucky to see  Om parvat and Mt. Seshnag. Nabhidhang situated at 15000 feet altitude is the last Indian army base near to Chinese border which is only 8 kms away from there . The base operates only 4 months in a year due to harsh environment. We were to reach the border next day by 05.30 hrs IST to match the Chinese timing of 08.00 hrs in the morning. The supper was served early by 6 pm itself and after a short nap we woke  up by 1’O clock to get ready for the trek. The trek started by 2 am in the morning with the help of torch lights. The night was very chilly and the cold wind penetrated even four layers of thick sweaters and jacket. Though the climb was difficult in the rarified atmosphere we reached the Lipu la (Lipulekh pass at 18000 feet altitude– Indi Chinese border) by 05.00 hrs IST.  At Nabhidhang itself we had deposited our memory cards and mobile phones containing the pictures taken at Indian side as a matter  of National security as advised the ITBP officials and loaded the cameras with fresh memory cards.                   

By 08.30 hrs Chinese time the Chinese convoy reached and the yatris from the 16th batch of yatris were seen coming back up the path. The Chinese foreign ministry official and soldiers arrived at the spot and exchanged greetings and we started the climb down the pass. A 5 km trek through steep downhill was  required to reach the motorable road at the Chinese side where buses were  awaiting to take us to the nearest town, an old trade hub, Taklakot (12000 feet altitude) 11 kms away. Our passports were verified at Lipulekh and were briefed about the Kailash Manasarvar Parikrama programme in Chinese territory. All yatris were  told to stick to the scheduled programme and visit to any other place other than those included in the programme were  prohibited. They also informed that photography in Taklakot city and Chinese military establishments are prohibited and if someone was found violating this they will have to face the consequences.

At Taklakot we were taken to the Chinese emigration office for customs checks and passport verification. We had one more day stay at Taklakot to complete the visa formalities and for acclimatization. Taklakot is a fast growing small city. Everywhere construction  was  progressing. The roads are all well paved and all the nooks and corners are  fitted with surveillance cameras. We spent the 2 days at Talkalot  roaming around the city and doing some shopping. Most of the vendors are Chinese at Talkalot, however a lot of Nepalis are working here and a market selling Nepali goods is also there. The next day we set for the Kailash parikarman after morning prayers. Two buses were arranged by the Chinese authorities for the yatra and we were taken to another small city called Darchen at the Southern side of Kailash. The road to Darchen passes through the small stretch between RakshasTaal and Manasarovar Lakes. We stopped at the permitted view points at both the Lake sides to enjoy the view.

We checked into the hotel at Darchen and went for a stroll after lunch. Since it is year of Kumbh a lot of Budhist and Jain believers had  come for the parikrama and to avoid the crowd and due to landslide the route to Ashtapaad (Southern view point of Kailash 5 kms from Darchen) was closed.  (Mt. Kailash is holy place for Budhist and Jains and is also called as Kang Rimpoche). Next day after breakfast the buses dropped us at Yamadwar from where the Parikrama (circumbulation) of Kailash starts. At Yamadwar there is a gompa and the view of southern facet of kailash is also visible from there. The selection of the porters and ponies were at Yamadwar. Smt. Peyma and Smt. Serene (hope that’s her correct name, anyways she was answering to my calling her Serene ;)) was selected as my Porter and pony handler.

The 9 km trek from Yamadwar leads to Deraphuk camp from where the north face of Mt. Kailash is visible. The trek path is through barren plane land between many hills on left side and Kailash on the right side. Many streams originating from Kailash is flowing near to the trek path. (Mt. Kailash is the source of many holi rivers like Sindhu, Bhrahmaputra, Sutlej and Karnali a tributary to Ganga)  At Deraphuk we can go as close as 2 km to the mountain and the spot is called Charansparsh. After lunch we spent rest of the day enjoying the scenic beauty of northern facet of Kailash and though we were hit by a small hail storm we could reach the Charansparsh and perform prayers. Mt.Kailash, pleased by our prayers provided us with its shining scenic views.
Next day’s trek started at early morning as we had  to cover nearly 19 kms and had to cross Dolma la enroute (Dolma pass – 18000 feet altitude).  The climb was at slow pace as  breathing was difficult and as we reached the highest point snow fall started with a freezing wind. Prayers and offerings were made to  Dolma (goddess Parvathi) and without wasting time we started to climb down the steep pass. At the foot of the steep is Parvathikund, a small pond (though small in comparison to other water bodies, it is as big as a football ground) which is believed to be the bathing place of Parvathi at Kailash. The water in Parvathi kund is considered holy and many pilgrims collect a sample of the water from the pond. Due to adverse weather conditions many porters were not willing to go down and collect water, luckily my pony handler Serene went down and brought the holy water for me.

The hail storm was terrific and walking became more and more difficult. A local Tibetan’s camp shed was on the path and we rushed inside. Luckily they were serving hot tea, soup and other Chinese foods. The hot Chinese green tea proved to be a good medicine against the freezing cold and all felt better after consuming  few bowls of noodles. When the intensity of hail storm reduced we resumed walking.  As we moved along, the snow fall stopped and the sky became clear. The camp for the night halt was at Zunzhuipu.

An unfortunate incident happened at Dolma pass. One of the yatri Smt. Annapoorna Devangan was affected by AMS while crossing the Dolma-la. The porters had carried her to Zunzhuipu camp. Since there was no improvement in her health condition, it was decided to evacute her to Delhi at the earliest. She was sent to Lipu-la in a land rover, ITBP soldiers carried her in stretcher to cross the pass. Due to bad weather helicopter could not be made available at the pass. ITBP soldiers again proved their efficiency. They carried her in the stretcher up to Gunji and from there  air lifted her to Pithoragargh where she was admitted to  a hospital. Later she was taken to her home  in Bilaspur, Chatishgarh and as per the latest news her health is improving though she is still in ICU.

After the stay at Zunzhuipu, the next day early morning we started our journey back to Darchen. The sky was cloudy and it was drizzling; however we resumed our trek through the slippery track. After 7 kms we reached the motorable road and waited there for the buses to pick us. We went back to Darchen in bus (5 kms), had light breakfast in the hotel and proceeded for Manasarovar parikrama as per the programme.  After 90 kms travel in bus we reached Qugu camp in the shores of Manasarovar lake. The camp at Qugu was a wonderful place with windows opening towards the serene lake. Themonastry of Qugu was   nearby. Two nights stay was  planned at Qugu camp.  After a hearty brunch everyone was busy washing the soiled clothes and drying it. In the afternoon we went for a stroll along the stretches of the Manasarovar and also had a dip in the holy lake. The atmosphere at Manasarovar lake was quite calm and energizing and many went into deep meditation at the shores of Manasarovar where the shining south face of Mt. Kailash was  visible as clouds permitted. Group prayers and havan were conducted at the Manasarovar lake during the two days stay at Qugu camp. On third day morning at Qugu camp the buses took us to hotel in Taklakot and we visited the memorial of Zorawar singh and Karchak monastery on the way. The Chinese authorities organized a farewell party at Taklakot and the party was delightful with many members from China and our group engaged in singing and dancing. Next day early morning at 5 am Chinese time (02.30 IST) we started our journey back to Lipu pass. The Director of Chinese external affairs and the Chinese army chief of the region came to see us off and then we bid adieu to the Chinese guides and porters.

Though the 5 km climb at Lipulekh pass was difficult we were happy to be back in the home land and was delighted to see the ITBP soldiers and porters waiting at the peak to welcome us. The return trek was tiresome as the camp at Nabhidhang was omitted. We had our breakfast at Nabhidhang and reached Gunji by evening. ITBP soldiers organized a farewell dinner for us. After the Bhajan with ITBP soldiers at the camp temple, we had dinner and the dinner party turned out in to a dance party soon. Next day early morning the trek resumed to Budhi. After night halt at Budhi the trek continued and we took a diversion from the path to Gala after climbing up the 4444 steps near Bindakoti and reached Garbadhar a small village where Jeeps to Dharchula  were awaiting  us . At Dharchula we said good bye to the dear porters who were of great help throughout the journey. Next day trip was to Almora by bus and a welcome back party was organized at the ITBP head quarters at Meerthiand. We also visited the Jageswar temple complex on the way. From Almora the journey resumed next day with warm receptions at Kathagodam by Uttarkhand Govt and reached Delhi by mid night on 9 September 2014. After the night stay at Gujarat Samaj Sadan, the next day we bid adieu to each other  and I started for Trivandrum.

The KailashManasarovaryatra is organized by Ministry of External Affairs, Govt. of India and the yatra is conducted as 18 batched during June – September. The yatra is approved by Indian Mountaneering Foundation as a high altitude trek and Central Govt employees are eligible for 30 days of special casual leave. Any Indian citizen below 70 years old holding a valid passport can apply for the yatra and the applications are invited by April through the website. The selection is based on luck draw and the medical test results at Delhi. The details about the yatra is given in the following link.


Monday, September 22, 2014

Enchanting Yercaud

The Christmas holidays had arrived, and we planned a trip to the picturesque hill station Yercaud, about 35kms from Salem. We- uncles, aunts and cousins, embarked on our sojourn from my uncle’s place in Coimbatore by car in the evening and reached Salem by nightfall, around 3 hours later. After a sumptuous supper, amidst excited chatter and GPS in smart phones switched on for ready reference, we continued the journey to our destination. Leaving behind the noisy roads of Salem, the first hairpin bend and a noticeable fall in temperature heralded the commencement of the winding road to the quaint hill town. As we continued our ascent, the hustle and bustle in the city of Salem, illuminated by lights of various hues and colours, presented a pleasing canvas for the eyes. The narrow road curved up constantly and 20 hairpin bends later, Yercaud town came into view. As it was 10pm, the roads were deserted and the shops closed; the resort where accommodation was arranged was situated 2kms away from the town.
The subsequent morning, we awoke at dawn and broke our fast at a restaurant in the town. A 2-day temple festival and an ongoing flower show saw the town bedecked with flowers, arches and statues and music of diverse genre blared from speakers. Tribal dancers in colourful attires were displaying their traditional dance forms on the street, to the accompaniment of drum beats, surrounded by a large throng of tourists and locals. We strolled leisurely around the Yercaud lake to the boat club. The boating in the pristine lake was a memorable experience. The vivid blue sky, the clear lake water and the lush greenery around the banks made a captivating scene.
Our next destination was the Killiyur waterfalls, about 3 kms from the lake. Munching fruits, we began descending the 300 steps leading to the waterfalls. The majestic hills capped with misty clouds and dense flora made it an enjoyable trek. We paused frequently, to drink in the scenery and to capture it in cameras. At the bottom, the clear water gushing down the steep rocks was a beautiful sight to behold. We clambered over the rocks carefully and ventured close to the water; the chill in the water was refreshing and pleasant. The beautiful scenery all around made the arduous ascent from the waterfalls less taxing.
After an elaborate buffet lunch, we relaxed for an hour, enjoying the view from a skywalk, watching the mists drift slowly across the hillocks. We then proceeded to visit the Shevarayon temple, situated 8kms from the town. It is a cave temple, built from the rocks and the deity is dedicated to the erstwhile ruler of the region. We had to bend almost double to reach the idol. The priest pointed out a tunnel, hewn into the rocks and extending nearly a kilometer into the darkness, behind the idol. The view from the Shevaroy hills surrounding the temple was panoramic, the cool breeze and the descending darkness signalling a long night. After gazing at the scenery from the highest point in Yercaud to our hearts’ content, we returned to the town and had a delicious dinner.
Early next morning, we began our return journey, bidding adieu to the tiny hill town. The swirling, thick fog obstructed clear vision and made driving precarious, for a while. As we left the ghat road and set out for Coimbatore, memories of the glorious trip lifted our spirits and we vowed to return to the charming town again.


“Freedom is not always about breaking free from chains”

I woke up to the persistent ringing of the telephone. Rubbing my eyes groggily, I gazed around in semi stupor, trying to get a grip over my slow senses. By the time I was fully awake, the person at the other end of the phone had given up. Something odd about this set me thinking- and then it hit me like a flash- I was alone in the apartment!  
It has been four years since I have rented this apartment. Along with the apartment, came Kamala- the maid. Over the course of these four years, every day has been the same- starting with a hot cup of masala tea brought to the bedside by Kamala. She had complete freedom over the running of my homestead- she moved around the furniture, decided when and what the meals were and even the clothes that I wear. Being a writer, and a temperamental one, it was imperative that I am not disturbed by these trifling matters- Kamala gave me the luxury of never having to attend to trivial household matters and, in return, I never pried into her domain.
My friends were jealous of my find- a jewel in the competitive world of house maids, and did their best to lure her away from me- but she stayed on. Imagine my chagrin when all of a sudden, she vanishes from my life. I felt like a toddler taking his first steps without anyone to hold on to. Thus began a new part of my life.
I had started with an attempt to make my morning cup of tea, but I had to search for everything, from sugar to spoons. I lost the entire morning trying to make breakfast.
I realised that I was over dependent on Kamala and that my daily routine was built with her as the core. I, who boasted of being a free bird, was actually a tame pet of an inconsequential house maid! I decided that it was high time I broke free from the invisible shackles of domesticity that bound me and became a master of myself, and made up my mind to terminate the services of Kamala if she returns.
I started out with moving the furniture around. I reorganised everything in the kitchen, from the cupboards to the racks. Once I was done with cleaning the entire house, I felt I had accomplished something. Several days passed in this manner, with no sight of Kamala and I grew more and more accomplished day by day. I was enjoying my freedom to choose my life- revelling in my successes, determined in my failures and the warrior in me rose to the challenge of redesigning my life in my own terms.  After a week or so, Kamala had vanished entirely from my life and my thoughts. One day, when I went out to empty the dustbin, my neighbour- a natural in the field of gossip mongering- signalled to me indicating that she had vital information to pass on.
She knew that Kamala had been absent- in fact she knew even why! Kamala had gone insane! I gulped down the retort that it was she who had gone insane, merely nodded, and went back.
I may not be much of a conversationalist but I prided myself on being a good judge of character and in my opinion, Kamala was perfectly sane – she had absolutely no tendency of falling over to the other side. Since I was rather free that day, I decided to enquire into the matter. I got her address from my landlord and set my steps to her home.
Kamala lived in a tumbledown shack with her husband and four children. When I reached her place, it was crowded – people usually flock to a place of tragedy like insects attracted to the light. From the bits and pieces of conversation around me, I gathered that my inquisitive neighbour was right- Kamala’s mind had indeed gone astray.
After some conversations I could gather the full story, rather the same old story. Kamala had married young and even though her husband was loving, he was a drunkard. He barely spent any time at home, spending all his income on drinks, leaving her to fend for the family. Even while she went about her duties in my house with a stolid demeanour, her mind might have been heavy with worries over her home- piling debts, increasing expenditure and growing kids- each held their share of space in her thoughts. When the weight was too much to bear, and her mind couldn’t keep pace with her thoughts, her mind had got deranged.
One fine morning, she sat on bed, intensely staring in front of her, as if concentrating on something – putting all her mind to it. Even the kids crying for food did not awaken her from her meditation. It was when her husband came home- drunk and late as usual- and found the tired and hungry kids sitting pooled around their mother, that he realised something was wrong. Several local doctors were called in, but none succeeded in waking Kamala from her meditation. It seemed like her entire world had shrunk into the tiny square of floor tile in front of her.
She was initially labelled as a patient of chronic depression, but after a week the verdict was delivered that she was officially insane – the diagnosis coinciding with the one that the localites had derived since day one. I went inside to support them in their tragedy- or rather to see the sight of the day.  She was sitting in the same pose, oblivious to the stares and chatter of the people around her. One of her kids got up and attempted to walk towards her father- but she stumbled and fell. I was still looking at Kamala, and I caught the sudden look that she darted in the direction of the kid. That look – the concerned look of a mother- belied her sanity and at that instant I knew- she was as sane as you or me. However, nobody else seemed to have noticed her momentary lapse. I walked out slowly, wondering about why she would forsake her life, earning and family and act insane.
I spent a whole day and night thinking about Kamala, and then my thoughts were replaced by more pressing matters. I no longer required the services of a housemaid- Kamala had in fact taught me dependence and independence. My life went along the new lines for a month or so, when one of my ramblings brought me face to face with Kamala’s husband. He seemed to have undergone a transition. I enquired after Kamala’s health.
“She is much the same. Since we are not able to support her in this condition, she has been shifted to a home for the mentally challenged. A week after she was admitted, she grew rather violent and vindictive and consequently was shifted to the isolation ward. We rarely go to see her now, as we do not know when her mood might change and cannot bear to see her in one of her tempers. I have heard rumours that they use chains to keep her checked during her violent days.”
He seems to have gotten over his old ways and looks after the family now. They had got some financial help from the government and were able to live a better life. Except for the fact that Kamala is not with them, they seemed to be doing rather well. Like me, they too have grown accustomed to a life without her.
I thought about that one look of intelligence that came from her and wondered if she was acting insane for this very end. Call it a writer’s imagination, but I believe her to be perfectly sane. She might have forsaken her life, family and freedom so that her family can lead a better life.
People have changing views of freedom- it is the absence of responsibility to some, the choice to mould their own life for some others. For me, freedom was a life devoid of meagre tasks- a free mind, infinite time and engaging work. Kamala made me realise that freedom is also about choosing the way one lives, making small yet significant decisions every day. Freedom is not about independence- it is more about the luxury of being able to choose your dependences.
I believe, in her isolation, bound in shackles and branded insane, she had found her freedom- worlds apart from her worrisome life- with weighing thoughts of her family and the mechanical and frustrating job of a house maid. I realised that one could find freedom even in chains- Freedom is not always breaking free of chains; sometimes freedom might be better when fettered than free.

The End