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2023 - The Year That Was

Places impact you for a variety of reasons. And the same place impacts different people in different ways. This is especially true when it comes to spiritual experiences, where every single person’s experience is unique. And personally, every spiritual experience is unique, the same person can have different deeply spiritual experiences at different places, at different times. This thought has emerged because of my own experiences over the years, but especially so this year, with different and unique experiences at various places I have visited recently. I began this year with a visit to Baroda (Vadodara) with friends. It was meant to be a relaxed trip, a touristy trip, with our sons. We enjoyed ourselves to the hilt, but the highlight of that trip was a visit to the Lakulisha temple at Pavagadh. It was the iconography of the temple that I connected with, and I spent a few hours simply lost in the details of the figures carved around the temple. There was an indefinable connect with


It was May 1990. I had just written my10th Std exams, and my mother had promised me a trip somewhere interesting as a treat for all the hours I had put in all year for studying. The place we were to go remained uncertain, until my grandfather suddenly announced that a group from his temple was going to Badrinath and Kedarnath, and he had booked us for the trip. Badri and Kedar were interesting, no doubt, but a 15 year old girl with a whole busload of 60 plus people! I was aghast! “There goes all the fun from my vacation”, I thought. I couldn’t excuse myself out of the trip without hurting my grandfather, so I resigned myself to my fate and busied myself getting everything I needed for the journey. When the D-day dawned, I was happy to see that there were 4 teenage boys in the group-some change from all the others, who, as I had expected were 65 plus.
The first few days were not really exciting….Hardwar and Rishikesh, I had seen earlier, and the boys treated me like a kid. I was bored. Then we reached Dev Prayag. That was when things really got interesting. This was the first “sangam” or confluence of rivers that I had seen, and the first sight of the furious Alakananda and the clear Bhagirathi merging to form the beautiful river Ganga was really inspiring. Some of my enthusiasm must have touched the others, for, after that, we became friends. We sat together, and enjoyed the scenic mountainside while we cracked jokes and teased everybody else. The elders left us to ourselves, saying “they are children. Let them enjoy themselves”. While the others looked at the Himalayas for spiritual attainment, for us, it was simply the sheer beauty of nature that we admired. Every stream, every rock, every tree seemed beautiful to us.
The Rudra prayag, where the Alakananda meets the Mandakini and the subterranean Saraswati, the river was so furious that we were not allowed to even climb down the steps to have a closer view. That nature could be so tumultuous, and yet so beautiful, was itself a revelation to us.
I don’t remember much of the journey from Rudra Prayag to Gauri Kund, where there are hot springs, but the journey from Gauri Kund to Kedarnath and back remains my most indelible memory till date.
One has to climb a distance of 14 Kms from Gauri Kund to reach Kedarnath. Since most of the people from our group were elderly, they elected to go on horseback, or on a ‘doli’, a sort of chair/palanquin carried by 2/4 people. The only people who decided to walk were the young teenage boys in our group, my grandfather, mother, myself, and a friend who was about the same age as my mom. The boys, of course, were the fastest of the lot, and they soon were far ahead of us. The four of us plodded on, at our own pace, enjoying the scenery.
I, as a student of physics, had studied about how only the uppermost layer of a lake froze over in winter, leaving water flowing as usual underneath, though I had never seen anything like it. Now, for the very first time in my life, I saw water flowing under, what I thought to be solid ice. The whole place was frozen. Only the path which had been made on the mountain was ice free, and that too only because of the thousands of feet and hooves treading it, all day long, for about 6 months in the year. 7 kms passed without any particular incident, but it was obviously getting late, as the locals we passed kept telling us. Then we reached the mid point of the climb, called Rampada, where a local vendor sold puris and potato bhaji. After a strenuous climb, it was the most delicious food I had ever had in my life. After the snack, on the advice of the locals, we decided to take a horse for the remaining journey, as it was getting quite late. However, we soon ran into problems, as there was only one horse available there. So, as is expected of any Indian family, it was decided that as the youngest, I was the one to take the privilege of riding the horse to the temple. I protested in vain, and then under compulsion, got on to the horse, praying that the others would manage to reach safe.
Riding horseback was something I had never done before, and never want to do again. I feel much surer on my own two feet, rather than on the 4 (stronger) feet of an animal. The horse and his trainer obviously knew the route very well, and in a short while, we managed to reach the temple where the rest of the group was waiting for us. I can’t describe much of my hose back journey, as I was concentrating only on staying in the saddle, not on the beautiful scenes around me.
If I thought that reaching the temple would be a relief, I was wrong. The rest of my group was shocked to see me alone, and they managed to scare me even more that I already was, regarding what would happen to my family, now that it was getting dark. I don’t know what I would have done, if it hadn’t been for those 4 boys in our group. They distracted me and took me to the temple where I prayed for the safe return of my family, and then we started doing ‘pradakshinas’ (circumambulations) of the temple. All along the way, the boys kept talking to me, teasing me, showing me interesting things, and in general keeping me busy. An hour passed and then two, but there was no sign of my family. It was quite dark by then, and someone said that in some time, the bridge connecting the temple to the walking path would get covered by snow. My socks were wet because of the snow, and I was freezing, but I didn’t want to go inside the room where all the others were waiting. I stood outside the lodge and my four friends stood by me. Finally, when I had almost given up hope, we small 3 small figures trudging towards us across the bridge. It was them!
When we were all safe and warm inside our room, they told us how they hadn’t managed to get a horse and had continued to walk slowly, losing hope of ever reaching the temple with every step they took, when a stranger, a local, had joined them and taken them along a short cut, helping each of them walk over the frozen surface, offering a helping hand and words of hope, until they reached the bridge, and then pointing to our waiting group, told them that they had reached their destination, turned and walked away. We don’t know who he was, but whoever he was, he was a godsend, maybe, really sent by God!
After a little sleep, more like a nap, we were ready for darshan the next day. It was impossible to have a bath under those freezing conditions, and so was brushing one’s teeth, but we decided to rinse our mouth and wash our face before we started. Little did I know of the problems that I was going to face soon!
We had an excellent nirmalya darshan of Lord Kedarnath, which satisfied my family and the other elders immensely. They had, after all, come all the way, just for this darshan. For us youngsters however, the deep satisfaction we felt was outside the temple, in being so close to, and feeling so much in awe of nature, and her beauty. The atmosphere there, we felt was so spiritual, one felt so close to God, one did not need any temples to emphasize it. This is a feeling that remains with me till this day. I feel much closer to God, when I am in the midst of nature, than I do in a big and beautiful temple.
Anyway, after the darshan, we all started climbing down the mountain. This time, there were many people with us, since climbing down was easier than climbing up. Feeling secure with so many people, this time around, we youngsters raced down the snow covered hills, and reached the halfway point really fast. Of course, euphoria is always followed by depression, and so was I, with a toothache. We later realized that my gums had been weak, and rinsing them with ice cold water had made them even more so, and there was some kind of infection. Since I had to make do with some homemade remedies till I reached back home, the dentist, when I finally went to him, told me that I had to get a tooth removed. But that didn’t really solve the problem. I carry a reminder of it till today, so that, whenever I brush in very cold water, my gums swell up. In any case, with the elders suggesting some short term remedies, and my friends succeeding in making me forget the pain, we reached Gauri Kund again, thus completing a memorable journey.
Of course, this wasn’t the end of the road yet. We then continued towards Badrinath, halting for a while at the temple of Triyugi Narayan, where Lord Vishnu is supposed to have officiated at the wedding of Shiva and Parvati. We also visited the temple and the Mutt at Joshimath, established by Adi Shankaracharya. Here, the sight of the crystal Shivling installed by the Shankaracharya is an awesome sight!
Finally we reached Badrinath, the road to which is well maintained because it is near the China border and forms part of the army base. This was one place where we saw snow moving and snow blowing machines which we had only heard of and read about. Badrinath is almost like a normal town on the foothills, compared to Kedarnath, which is, at most a small village, sparsely populated. Badrinath, being more easily accessible, is more populated, and hence looks and feels like a typical temple town anywhere in India. This, in my opinion, spoils the atmosphere of the temple, which has much to say for itself. Among the most interesting things about the temple is that the temple priests are Namboodris, hailing from Kerala, deep down south. That this has been maintained since the days of the Shankaracharya is indeed amazing!
Again, outside the temple, the beauty of nature was there, for all to see. We had been told that the twin peaks, called Nar and Narayan, shine like gold and silver when the first rays of the sun fall on them. So, there we were, early in the morning, wrapped in shawls and sweaters, waiting in the freezing cold, for the sun. Lo and Behold! There were the first rays, and, what a surprise! Not just the twin peaks, but every single snow capped peak seemed to shine like gold and silver, as every ray of sunshine falls on them! When one stands amidst those high mountains, which one knows are covered with snow and must, therefore be white, but which shine with hues of white, gold and silver, which one didn’t know existed, that is when one realizes how small one really is, how much one doesn’t know, and that there is really someone up there who knows what he is doing, and who makes us do all that we do.
I don’t think my experiences are in any way unique, for many people have written about even more moving experiences, but to every person, their experiences are special, especially those which are turning points in their lives, and for me this was a kind of spiritual awakening

It has been almost 18 years since I returned from that memorable trip. Many of the elderly people who accompanied me are no more. My grandfather and mother are still very much with me, which I consider God’s gift to me, and I have lost touch with those 4 boys who stood by me and helped me. I don’t even remember their names today, but I hope someday they read this article and remember me.
Today I am married and have a 5 year old child, and I hope someday to take him to the same places and open his mind to what I consider true spirituality. I just hope that people who believe in commercialization of all places leave us some places untouched so that I can take my child there some 10 years later, and show him how beautiful nature is, and how beautifully God has made everything.


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