It was not until I left India that I realized how little of the country I had seen.
I did not know then that a short trip one summer to the Himalayas would be the beginning of a deep passion that would draw me back time and again. Was it peering down into the deepest river gorges from the roof of a bus where we had found the only available perch amongst hundreds of pilgrims? Was it the birch tree on whose bark were recorded the timeless myths and legends of my childhood?
One evening in Arizona, when I returned from work, my husband surprised me by pulling out the map of a Himalayan route that he had been researching for weeks. The trekking route began at the temple of Gangotri on the banks of the river Ganga, climbed up the 6,000-meter Kalindi pass, and down the Arwa Valley to the temple of Badrinath on the banks of the river Sarasvati.
We would need to find guides and porters and get inner-line permits. Experience had taught me that the details would sort themselves out. But this was no walk in the park. Was I ready?
I still don’t know what I was thinking when I agreed to walk on glaciers for two weeks. What I longed for was a sense of connection to my country of birth, something increasingly hard to find in the Indian cities I had visited on previous vacations—cities that looked nothing like the place I grew up in.
In my daily life, I felt little impact of the mountains and the glaciers. Maybe I thought that they would be gone too soon and I would not have seen at all. “It’s not too late,” my husband said as though he was reading my thoughts. And that was how our Himalayan adventure began.
On our first night in Gangotri under a canopy of stars, the twin peaks of the Bhagirathi sisters standing silent witness, we watched the priest walk out of the temple carrying a plate with flowers, lighted lamps, and incense. He made circular movements in the still air pointing towards a sacred spot a few miles upstream where the river goddess Ganga is believed to have descended upon earth. In Hindu mythology, Ganga’s downward rush from the heavens was considered an event so terrible to the earth that Lord Shiva received Ganga in the locks of his hair and slowly released her in several streams. The Shivling peak towering on the other side of the river valley represented Shiva, the Gangotri glacier symbolizing the tresses of his hair. As I watched the devotees chanting at the temple, eyes tightly closed and palms folded, swaying slightly to the rhythmic beats of the drum, I wondered if they held the ancient belief that just as the dew vanishes in the morning sun, all sins get washed away at the very sight of the Himalayas. Or perhaps, for them also, it was simply a journey, a chance to travel to a remote landscape, to come face-to-face with wonder and strangeness, to learn about our past and ourselves.
The next day we proceeded on the trail that led to the glacier. The glacier was a jumble of rocks, damaged by storm and rain, sharp edges jutting out of the earth like the bones of a decayed animal. Every now and then I dislodged a stone, revealing the black and slippery ice beneath the loose dirt and stones.
Woooomph! I looked up to see an immense slab of wind-packed snow, over five feet thick and two hundred feet across, calve off the slope of a mountain to the right side of the path that I was walking on. The slab seemed to move in slow motion at first, but as it freed itself from the confines of the vertical rocks and headed to the valley below, it began to accelerate at an alarming speed. I stood transfixed, my feet making no attempt to move or my body to get out of the way. The snow traveled several thousand feet after hitting the base of the cliff, finally coming to a halt about half-a-mile from where I stood. It was several minutes before my breathing returned to normal, the sound of a thousand screeching trucks on the highway still ringing in my ears.
Unsettled, tired, and cold, we made our way out of the glacier and on to a meadow at the base of Shivling peak to camp. Here I met a thin ascetic woman, Mataji, living in a cave formed by a slab of rock that jutted out from the base of the cliff. Stones heaped tightly against each other formed the sides. Inside the cave was a kitchen with shelves carved into the rock, and a tight space for sleeping.
Mataji put the kettle on the stove to offer us some tea and it got warm very quickly. She asked me where I was from.
“Oh, you speak Tamil? Just like me,” she exclaimed.
I learned that she lived in the meadow all year round, traveling back to Gangotri only when the winter became particularly severe and there was no food.
There was a constant stream of visitors to the hut and the conversation went something like this: “Oh, you speak Kannada? You know the Kuppali village in the Shimoga district? Five miles from the bus stop …”
She would mention the name of a place that would prompt tremendous head-nodding, an immediate connection made of people and places. I eavesdropped when she asked a blond, blue-eyed Nordic-looking young man where he was from.
“Colorado,” he said.
“I once had a doctor from Boulder, thin fellow. He stayed here for three months. He liked the herbs from my garden. Tasty and good, he said.”
Mataji was the welcome-party-of-one on the meadow. Living in her cave, she had managed not just to survive but also to teach herself some English, German, and French. She knew the medicinal properties of locally grown herbs. She could tell people what to drink to recover from a cold, or how to revive a failing marriage, or how to deal with a problem child. Wearing a long woolen blanket loosely draped about her body like a housecoat, she wandered around, dispensing comforting words in exchange for fuel and food that people offered her. It was the perfect barter system. I never saw money changing hands.
Mataji was the last resident that we encountered for the next 10 days. We descended to the glacier and continued our way around innumerable boulders lying around like the debris of a gigantic unfinished construction site. The air was getting thinner. We had watched herds of bharal (Himalayan sheep) on the meadows in the distant valleys behind us, but now there was no sign of life, not even an occasional crow. During the day it was interminably hot. The sun bore through cloth and skin, creating an urgent thirst that was never completely satisfied. At night it was cold, blocks of ice standing out in eerie contrast to dull grey rocks. Above all, the sound of the cracking glacier punctuated the silence of the night at regular intervals.
Among the many legends of these parts was that of the high priest of the temple at Badrinath who was believed to have held services at the temple of Kedarnath on the same day. The shortest known route between the two temples is over a hundred miles. One look at the valley unfolding in front of us suggested that this would have been an impossible feat, for separating the valleys were glaciers and massive peaks. The glaciers in turn had feeder glaciers, and each feeder glacier had several unnamed peaks along its walls. Every rock or pool or mountain corresponded to a story in Hindu mythology: Shivling (6,543 meters), where Shiva received Ganga; Thalay Sagar (6,904 meters), the churning rod of the cosmic ocean; Satopant (7,070 meters), the path to heaven; and Sudarshan Parvat (6,507 meters), Krishna’s chakra (discus). It was a default assumption that the Gods lived here, for this was no place for humans.
We were climbing steadily to higher elevations and my movements were getting slower though I didn’t notice it then. On the morning that we were to climb over the Kalindi pass, I sat in my tent trying to build up my energy reserves but gagging instead on a piece of chocolate. I did not know if I had it in me to climb the pass, but I dismissed the thought of turning back and walking for another week on the killer boulders otherwise known as the path to heaven.
As we climbed up the icy slope, I focused on just breathing. A deep breath in, one step, and then a pause. Another deep breath, another step, and repeat. After 10 steps I would give myself the luxury of a sip of water. After 20 steps I would glance down the slope to see where our tent had stood. Soon ice gave way to hard frozen snow. All my concentration was needed for the job, until finally we reached the top of the slope.
I found myself looking down a terrific drop to the bottom of yet another glacier, around us a sea of blinding white. In the distance, Kamet (7,756 meters), the second highest mountain in the Garhwal region, stood next to the region’s third highest peak, Abi Gamin (7,355 meters), which in turn were flanked on either side by 6,000-meter peaks. The glittering arrays of peaks were easier to admire than to identify. We sat there taking in the view for what seemed to be a long time. It was utterly quiet, the sky a cobalt blue, mountain ranges to the east, west, north, and south of us.
I thought I heard a young priest walking towards me, ringing a bell and holding the prasad from the evening service. The priest from the legend is for real, I thought for a moment. But I had only closed my eyes and this was a dream. I shook the snow off my legs and decided to keep moving—priest or no priest—for I was tempted to just lie down and sleep.
In the next few days we descended to the rapidly thickening air and denser vegetation of the Arwa Valley. New peaks danced in and out of sight, hiding behind thin, gray clouds.
We encountered no people until we finally reached an army barrack manned by the Indo-Tibetan Border Force (ITBF). For half a mile before the camp there were bright patches of yellow paint on the rocks proudly proclaiming the ITBF. At the head of the valley, on a piece of land the size of a football field, stood several rusty tin sheds protected by a fence of barbed wire. Sheets of metal lay piled around the camp along with pipes and tubes.
A few soldiers had spotted us coming down the valley and the news of our arrival had spread quickly through the camp. A welcome party of men gathered to greet us like soldiers returning from battle. The chief commander of the camp, Major Jaisingh, invited us to his cabin, a tin shack about 4-by-4 feet, dimly lit by a candle, insisting we have dinner with him.
As my eyes grew accustomed to the candle light, I was startled to discover that the cabin was covered from floor to ceiling with posters of actresses in a variety of sultry poses. Major Jaisingh was embarrassed when he caught my roving eye, and I realized that I was probably the first woman that had seen the inside of his cabin. An ancient-looking telegraph machine started whining and clacking in the middle of the conversation but the major ignored it, insisting on feeding us a special dish that was cooked in celebration of the Navaratri festival.
We were served a plate of rotis and a gelatinous stringy black stew called kaleja (liver). The rest of the meal was great, but the kaleja was revoltingly unappetizing, famished though we were. We tried a little bit so as to not offend him and then changed the topic to life at the camp.
“What can I tell you?” he said, sighing. “We live here seven months of the year and move down the valley for five months after the first winter snow.”
Major Jaisingh paused, signaling someone to serve us more kaleja, smacking his lips with great relish, mistaking our protests for shyness.
“We have no telephone or electricity. In winter, avalanches and landslides. No fa-ci-li-ties,” he enunciated.
Where was his family?
“My son is in Delhi going to school, he writes me letters. Once a week I take a horse and go down to the village and call him on the telephone.”
Had he been up any of the passes or mountains?
“No,” he said dismissively.
“Nothing happens there.” And after a pause, “Nothing happens here.”
Is that a bad thing? I was thinking of the last war in the 1960s along the India-China border, not too far from our present location.
“I could have been posted to Kargil on the Indo-Pak border,” he admitted. “My wife prefers I stay here.”
“All these places,” he was now looking out of his window to the distant mountains, shaking his head. “No place for humans.”
For Major Jaisingh the giant mountains with their rocky ledges and narrow precipices and the weather systems they created were an annoyance and an intrusion into the orderly life of camp he was trained to create. The smartly dressed soldiers with their shining rifles and polished mountain boots stood guarding the border on a timeless landscape that defied fences. I couldn’t help but feel that they were completely out of place.
In the next couple of days we returned to Badrinath. Our first act to celebrate our return to the land of humans was a dip in the hot springs (and hot sulfurous fumes) on the banks of the river Alaknanda. The sounds of hot bubbling water and temple bells felt surreal after what felt like weeks of the sounds of cracking ice.
In the lives of the people we met along the way I was reminded that one could live a rich life by having few wants.
I returned home sounding strange to myself, attentive to the details of this new world: blue glacial ice, rocks piled tightly next to the other, scrubs sticking bravely out of the snow, tin sheds and barbed wire, ascetics and soldiers, flowers and incense. Sure, I had stepped out of the boundaries of what I thought I was physically capable of. But there was more to it than just that. Along the way, the stories of my childhood had started to come alive. The myths and legends that I had grown up with had taken distinct shape and form. I understood now that the Himalayas inspired not just countless stories but journeys as well. It was in a strange way satisfying to know that there was still a world such as this, and this was in some way my world, my country of birth.
I tried to make sense of all the events that unfolded on the trip, but none of them tells the whole story of what I encountered. It’s strange how the stories that capture our imagination are the ones that won’t let us go. Our stories are our journeys. Who we are is in our stories.
Meera Desikamani lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and continues to travel to the Himalayas.