Most of us are born travelers in one way or the other. Whenever I have wondered about the purpose of this life, the source of true happiness, a trip to the Himalayas has helped me in more ways than one. I have reconciled with the idea that the physical journeys we make in a lifetime are metaphorical to a journey inward. Apart from the discovery of pristine landscapes and unchartered territories, they have led to a discovery and re-discovery of the self. As I made these travels, sometimes alone, other times with like-minded co-travelers, I have appreciated the fact that India had a lot to offer. One only needed to start the quest with the spirit of a true seeker.
I knew little about Swami Shankar Maharaj, except from devouring most of his travelogues on the mysterious valleys of Shangrila or Gyangunj hidden somewhere in the depths of the Himalayas. This place finds mention in century old texts where it is known as the valley of immortality. A place where time stands still and the laws of nature are suspended. Gyangunj is inaccessible to common man, except through the guidance of a spiritual Master. It is little wonder that I felt thrilled when I got an opportunity to visit the small abode of this Sanyasi atop the steep Varanavat Mountains and call it home for three days. Apart from the excitement of trekking all the way up to a place that is hidden from rest of the world, the mind is fueled by an insatiable desire to know the unkown. What kind of a life did ascetics live? What made them renounce the luxuries of the world so easily? Was there really something above and beyond this existence called life? Why was death inevitable? If there was a God what was he like?
Surrounded by tall pine, Burash and oak trees, Shikhar Varanavat or the topmost point of the Varanavat mountains, is almost invisible from the Mahidanda firing squad. This is the spot from where we start trekking upwards. Interestingly the whole of Uttarkashi is visible from Shikhar, along with its undulating ridges and the civilization that rests in its folds. The ITBP soldiers, who have their camp up here, are practising their evening shoot when I with my septuagenarian parents and younger brother arrive after a day long journey from Haridwar to Uttarkashi. We are touched by the genuine hospitality of the ITBP Commandant Rakesh Kumar who receives us with a lot of warmth and makes us feel at home.
Honestly, the 1000-feet uphill trek looks less welcoming and more intimidating to us, given our urban upbringing. There is no distinct pathway leading upwards, to make for a smooth climb. The mountains look intense in the evening light, a labyrinth of mysteries hidden in its bosom. Moreover, it is fraught with risks as we are informed that the forests abound in wild animals like the bear and a few leopards apart from poisonous snakes. We are strictly advised to complete the trek before dark. Considering our plight, we are given two donkeys to carry our luggage along with the small food reserve we brought with us. A pine scented breeze drifts over the hillside and without further ado we follow the beckoning of the hills, suspending all fears. It is the passionate urge to make a journey into the unknown that serves as the guiding force to move forward. We pant for breath and rest at every possible opportunity to get replenished.
It is almost dusk by the time we reach the top of the mountains which houses Maharaj’s humble abode. He welcomes us with outstretched arms and an ingenuous smile. A quick glance all around fills me with awe and wide eyed wonder. The beauty and serenity emanated by the little piece of paradise, surrounded by a chain of snowcapped mountains is breathtaking. If one is lucky and the sky is clear, mornings may unveil a 180-degree view of the majestic mountains across the horizon. Bandarpunch on the far left is followed by the Bhagirathi ranges, Kedar, Badri and the Neelkanth on the far right. This is a place where the Himalayas seem to have revealed itself in all its glory to the discerning eye. The heavenly sight can only be attributed to divine providence. The mountains always make me realize how insignificant I am in the vast canvas of nature. All of life’s obtrusive issues which leave one suffocated in the plains seem to dwindle away into obscurity in the face of this grandeur. I remember Kipling “Who goes to the hills, goes to his mother…”
There is no habitat for miles on end. The entire area is snuggled in the midst of a deep forest of pine trees amongst several other less familiar plantations. The small two room dwelling with a tin roof and mud floors has no fencing. The front door opens up into a clearing that leads to the forest.
Maharaj has been a recipient of the honorable title of Biddot Ballav from Asiatic society of India. He is well versed in Tibetan, Sanskrit and Buddhist ancient scripts and is a living encyclopedia of knowledge and wisdom. He recites fluently from Vidyapati or Kalidasa, often from the famous Abhignan Shakuntalam or Kadambari, and lives by the philosophies of Rabindranath Tagore. He emphasizes the fact that the true essence of life lies in the quest of knowing oneself—a process which ultimately leads to a permanent state of bliss. Every other pursuit is temporary and fraught with misery. During our stay we are showered with pearls of wisdom, literary and spiritual, worldly and metaphysical. He lives in a room stacked with books from ceiling to floor. The enthusiastic Sanyasi often elucidates a sutra from Panini or a sloka from The Vedas, drawing references from Sanskrit scriptures. Nestled in the middle of the hefty collection of almost yellowish brittle pages bounded by hard covers, is a beautiful idol of Goddess Kali which measures no more than a few inches. This is where Maharaj spends most of his time reading or performing Sadhana.
Sitting under a clear night sky dotted with innumerable sparkling stars, I ask Maharaj: “Why is it so peaceful here?”
“Because you are so close to the Himalayas”—the old man smiles as he tosses some dry twigs into the dying embers of the kitchen fire. Dinner is served and we speak while enjoying the sweet nutty flavor of chapatis made from the fibrous Himalayan wheat flour and a green tangy curry made with the roots of a Garwhali spinach.
“That is a bit clichéd,” I protest. Maharaj recites in his deep baritone voice: “Maharshinang bhrigurahang giramsmekamakshramam … yagnanang japojagmohasmi sthbaranang Himalaya.”
Lord Krishna says in The Gita: “Amongst the sages, I am the embodiment of Bhrigu. Amongst syllables, I symbolize the “Om.” Amongst Yajnas, I am Japa or chant and in the material world I am personified by the Himalayas.”
Maharaj continues, “You will be amused to know that the Himalayas are home for innumerable sages who are sitting in meditation from times immemorial. There are sages dating back to the Mughal era and there are others who are more than a thousand-year-old. They have acquired immense powers through the relentless practice of Sadhana and are capable of unimaginable feats. It might seem incredible to you, but they have the ability to control the laws of nature and are capable of “siddhas” like walking in thin air and being present in more than one place at the same time. But you should be careful to not get carried away by such supernatural facts as they will not give you anything more than bewilderment. The laws of nature are mysterious and complex, and one can get a taste of the truth only by looking inward.”
Looking at my puzzled expression the Sanyasi flashes a kind smile: “The Himalayas are not just another range of mountains. Perhaps you will get to see and feel for yourself a wee bit of its splendor if you stay on for a few days. You are tired from all the travel today. You need to rest.” Maharaj gets up and disappears into his room. It is time for his evening prayers.
I retire to the other room which I share with my family. My tired nerves give in to a deep slumber as I settle into the bed made from dried hay and cotton sheets, my mind a maze drifting between the rational and the bizarre.
The famous Byasa cave or Byasa gumpha is a short trek from Maharaj’s kuthia. There is a kunda or fresh water pool known as Byasa Kunda close to the cave. According to The Puranas, this is the place where Rishi Byasa had meditated for several years. He had composed the eighteen Puranas while he called this cave his home. The trek to Byasa kunda several feet down the stony ridges, is cathartic. The following morning, my brother and I start off for the trek to Byasa kunda. It is lined with giant trees on one side and deep furrows on the other. As we tread down the narrow winding path hemmed with wild bushes and unknown shrubs, it seems like the entire place is in meditation. We walk, barely uttering a word. There is no sound except for the occasional chirpings of diverse Himalayan birds. I have seen one too many in the last few days. Some are big and intimidating. They skim the entire area with their sharp ocular vision before swooping down on a target. Others hang in for minutes together in mid-air, fluttering their colored feathers as if to gain momentum for their next flight. This makes for a fascinating spectacle. They are of diverse colors and origins and have interesting flying styles. One can spend days together only bird watching. There are equally beautiful sights of butterflies, plants and insects of multifarious nomenclatures. Zillions of them interestingly roam about carefree even when humans are around…like this is their part of the world…we are only bystanders in time.
Byasa kunda is empty this year. Else it is usually filled to the brim by the sweet water from the adjacent spring. It serves as the only source of drinking water during the summer months. We rest for a while on a rock after walking downhill for almost half an hour. The forest is denser here. The trees look down upon us like giant sorcerers who are in charge of the forest. This place is almost noiseless and instantly brings to my mind the beautiful verses of Tagore: “Kar milon chao birohi, Tahare kotha khujicho bhobo oronne, kutil jotil gohone / Shanti sukhoheen ore mon…” (O mind…What is it that you seek relentlessly in the depths of nature, in the deep grooves of dense forests…you are restless and ever in search for the source of the one truth which forms the core of our very being.)
My mind lingers upon the last verse: “What is this one truth which is at the core of our existence?” There are strange happenings being reported from ancient times in this area. A lot of Garhwhalis living in the foothills have numerous experiences to recount. Experiences which would seem incredible to the modern scientific mind. They say, this place is home for fairies and Gandharvas, Kinnars and Vidyadhars, creatures which find abundant mention in Indian mythological texts. My imaginative and curious mind does not have me let go of the slightest opportunity to speak to the Garhwali villagers. Mungerilal supplies milk to the ITBP camp hospital and I meet him during one of my solo treks down the hill. He stays in a village called Uparikot which is a few miles from Shikhardham. He has to cross the hillside to reach the camp on the other end for conducting daily business. The jungle is quite dense at this point and I strain my ears in apprehension of a wild bear or some other beast on prowl. It is just then that I hear the crackling of dry pine leaves behind me. It is Mungeri and his friend who take this route probably three to four times a day to cross over to either side. They are going at a faster pace and seeing my disconcerted look, Mungeri gives me a wry smile. We sit down on a rock to catch our breaths. This is when I think of checking it out from the horse’s mouth. After some dilly dallies I pop the obtrusive question: “Are there fairies in your village? Have you seen any?” I have to look elsewhere to hide my abashed expression as I manage to make such an inane query. Mungeri surprises me with a matter of fact answer. “Yes,” he says, “There are fairies in our hometown. Many have seen them.” I gather my wits, “How do they look like? Have you seen any?” He still seems unruffled and responds: “It is pretty common in our village. They look like normal human beings but with supernatural powers”…He lowers down his voice and cups his mouth with both his hands…”There have been instances where they have seduced men to marry them and abducted little children. They are extremely beautiful but you won’t make out the difference with normal humans until they make you see their powers.” Mungeri gets up and starts walking as if he has given away way too many facts to a stranger. I follow him.
My logical mind wants to dismiss these assertions knowing that remote Himalayan villages are rife with such stories of urban legends, but something in me wants to explore further.
I summon up the courage and ask Maharaj. He replies saying, there are different kinds of “yonis” or wombs above and beyond human beings. These wombs can give birth to different other forms other than humans like devta, upadevta, pret, dakini, yogini, kinnar, kinnari, apsara, etc. These forms did exist in real, but one should not get carried away with their supernatural powers. He had to say that these supernatural beings were in awe and envied humans, as it was only the human body that had the privilege of undergoing evolution through intense Sadhana. By now, my preconceived ideas of the limits of what was possible, becomes a little shaky.
“You mean to say fairies are for real?” I cannot conceal the shade of disbelief from my voice. The Sanyasi bursts out in unfettered laughter: “Suspension of disbelief is the first step towards higher knowledge. You should have an open mind, albeit not be gullible at the same time.”
For a while I do not know what to say. Maharaj can read my mind from my blank expressions. He says, “India is a country of ancient wisdom and the Himalayas are a dwelling place of several mysterious forces that may seem incredible to the common man. With the correct practice of Yoga under the right Guru, one can understand and comprehend all the mysteries of nature, a process similar to the peeling of an onion in layers. The essence of Yoga is the development of will power and mental concentration on the part of the Yogi. There are several sciences above and beyond the material sciences that form our contemporary syllabus. These Eastern sciences comprise of the powers derived from the five elements of nature. The solar science is the most potent of them all. Through the mastery of this science one can use the etheric powers of the sun’s rays and learn the secret art of selecting them to create life forms. It is nothing magical and simply a branch of science which is yet to be explored by modern man.”
“Without a teacher it is almost impossible to be initiated into Yoga,” the hermit continues. Genuine teachers are hard to find. “When the seeker is ready, the master appears. It may take several births to attain the readiness that is required to be initiated into Yoga.” He goes on to regale us with fantastic stories from his journeys through Tibet and the discovery of several seats of highly evolved Yogic practices. We listen to him with a childlike wonder.
“I will teach you some simple exercises to train the mind which is essential if one wants to tap into the energy of the universe. Regular practice of the same while sitting in the correct posture, at a particular time of the day will eventually help put the mind at rest. Only a mind that is calm has the ability to delve into the depths of higher consciousness.”
Maharaj keeps his promise and imparts a few practical lessons on concentration or “Meditation” during our stay. He promises to introduce us to advanced levels during our next visit, provided we perfect the skill he has initiated us into.
Varanavat has been witness to a lot of history created over a few thousand centuries; thus contributing quite a few chapters to The Puranas, especially The Mahabharata. The infamous Jatugriha or Lakshagraha was built in the forest of Varanavat. This was supposedly a death trap for the Pandavas as it was built with highly inflammable Laksha or lacquer. Interestingly, there are significant remnants bearing close resemblance with the events depicted in the epics. Archaeological excavations carried out in different parts of the mountains under the supervision of Maharaj, have led to multiple discoveries of tunnels, coins and sculptures. They date back to some 2500 years. We are lucky to witness a few of these gold coins and beautiful works of art at his abode. These artifacts bear the seal of the Mughal emperors who ruled during that era. It is an enchanting sight to behold.
Maharaj always wears a smile and cracks up to witty exchanges in carefree soulful laughter. One can make out his lack of possessiveness for all things material, in the way he opens up his small home to all of us. There are no restrictions in any part. We cook our meals all together, sometimes over fire and wood, and at other times using the induction heater…the chopping, cleaning, and stirring being distributed evenly. Water is scarce. There is no other source of water than the few springs located downhill a few miles away. For bathing, we make use of turquoise colored rain water stored in a small tank during the monsoons. It is fun. Drinking water has to be carried uphill from the springs and has a remarkable taste. I hear several monks have frequented this place on their way to the Himalayas. Maharaj lives a Spartan existence, giving away everything. Be it the little reserve of food he possesses or the vast wealth of knowledge that he contains.
Interestingly, during my many solo treks through the mountainous slopes and lonely valleys, I meet Chaitanya. His presence is enchanting. Never did I feel so effortlessly happy and content. I ask Chaitanya where he disappears at times, and why do I not find him in the plains and he smiles mischievously. He holds my hand and takes me to the edge of the mountains. As I look down, I see the entire town of Uttarkashi. It is all there, ebbing and rising, with millions of movements all throughout its bare chest. The constant buzz of life, buses plying, horns screeching, vendors busy making business, school children boarding the morning bus, people coming home from work. It is a mad race. Where is the time to sit back and think upon the self?
The descent downwards from the hills to the plains is literal as well as figurative. The mind gets involved very soon in small pursuits of lesser significance… amassment of wealth and fulfillment of material desires. In this relentless pursuit the mind grows restless and the real nature of the soul which is peaceful, takes a backseat. Strangely I have these solemn realizations only when Chaitanya is around.
Maharaj teaches us “Neti” the next morning. It is the act of cleansing the respiratory tract and has other associated benefits at an advanced level. Medically it is hugely beneficial in relieving migraines, restoring heart blocks and any kind of blood clots primarily in the respiratory tract. He introduces us to several Himalayan flora and fauna that have remarkable medicinal benefits. I keep scribbling them down in my small notebook that I have carried with me.
The next day he reads out aloud from Shiv Purana and gives us a brief overview of the “Chayapurush” sadhana. It is said to be one of the most powerful masteries of nature where one can command the Chayapurush or shadow soul to fulfill one’s desires. To begin with, one has to concentrate by looking upwards at the clear blue sky, while chanting, “Om Hring Parabhrahmane Namaha.” Gradually the silhouette of the shadow man emerges on the face of the firmament. The scriptures claim that the seeker, through continuous practice can make the Chayapurush obey all his orders. No matter how difficult the task in hand is. Except that he is allowed to use it only for the good of mankind, else there can be dire consequences. Maharaj in his subtle ways passes on the message that these are not to be practiced at an early stage of the spiritual journey. He only wants to keep us informed about the various kinds of yogic practices.
One morning, while we sip tea sitting on our haunches alongside the small kitchen fire, I ask Maharaj, “What is the path to enlightenment? Is it something attainable by common people who lead an entire life in mortal pursuits and never really renounce the material world?”
Maharaj ponders over it briefly before answering: “My child, you need to know and believe that men are born again and again until the soul attains perfection. This cycle of birth and death continues till the point the soul evolves to be bereft of all impurities and realizes that it is only a part of the one all-encompassing existence called Brahman. The realization of this fact may take several births. Shanta, Dasya, Sakhya, Batsalya and Madhura are the five “bhavas” or emotions through which one can connect with the divine. Amongst these, the Batsalya bhava stands out as it equates with love for one’s child, one which is unconditional sans selfishness. Only pure love can conquer all constrictions between the self and the absolute. The path to the realization of the theory of non-duality or Aham Brahmhashmi starts with the acknowledgement of duality. It finally resolves with the acceptance that the “I” is no different from the Brahman or the absolute truth. This happens through a condition of sacred trance and through this trance man gets proof that he is in reality a soul. This realization frees himself from the outside world and a feeling of bliss, peace and power overwhelms him. Eventually he graduates to the next level where he sees the universe within himself and obtains the solemn realization of Sarvang Brahmamayang Jagat, which means, all things living is indeed an embodiment of Brahman. When he obtains proof that there is a divine within himself and there is a divine in all life around him, he achieves enlightenment.”
All throughout our stay in Shikhar dham I catch glimpses of a small structure located at the highest point of the same mountain which shelters us. I never quite make out what it is. So one day I ask about this to Maharaj and he says, “What is Varanavat without Madanmohan?”
The Mahabharata too has an account of Lord Krishna as he called these hills his home for quite some time during the period when the Pandavas wandered the adjacent forests. Hence, a small temple was built at the topmost point of Shikhardham in remembrance of Krishna. It was the Madanmohan Mandir. Evidently, our hearts and minds are all set to visit it at once.
We start to trek upwards early one evening and though it is not more than a few hundred feet, it is nevertheless a steep climb. It is difficult to keep the foot steady given the loose mud and rocky terrain. One wrong footstep means plummeting down with no distinct landing in sight.
As I struggle and start having second thoughts of whether I should continue with the climb or not, I see Chaitanya. He smiles mischievously from the small landing adjacent to the temple. A storm is brewing up and the sky is a pretty purple. The beautiful temple at the top along with the swaying branches of the mighty trees has a charming effect. The storm smells a certain way in the hills. It is way different compared to how it smells in the plains. I can hardly resist the pull and keep moving forward. The sheer longing of seeing Madanmohan who stays all alone at the top of the mountains overshadows all other uncertainties. Chaitanya signals once more: when in doubt and fear, surrender.
A few minutes later I find myself standing enthralled at the entrance of the little yellow shrine. It houses a very beautiful idol of Krishna or Madanmohan as he is lovingly called. It is not like any of the idols of Krishna I have seen before. He is clad in yellow silk with a blue sequined shawl that descends from the back of his deep long neck and curls around his slender arms. He holds a golden filigreed flute close to his lips and looks like he will start playing any moment now. He wears an enigmatic smile, one that is mischievous, yet conceding. As if he acknowledges all the sweat and toil we have put in order to reach this point and wants to say: “Who says the path leading to me is an easy one?”
The mountain breeze has almost the balminess of spring. Perhaps some hill flower is in full bloom filling the air with its hypnotic aroma. The Himalayas take you by surprise every now and then. There is a special charm in everything that inhabits its majestic lap.
Chaitanya smiles reassuringly and holds my hand. He gently leads me to the opposite side of the temple where there is a brief grassland followed by a steep slope leading to the foothills of the Mandar Mountains. In my mind I know he will show me something wonderful. The storm has stopped and a bright moon looks upon us from the night sky. The Mandar Mountains at a distance look enchanting. The moon rays softly wash the edges making them look brighter. From a distance the silver white light reflects from tiny cracks and crevices of the majestic structure giving it a mystic appearance. The giant oak and pine trees hang over the hills like an iron shawl. They are like sentinels who carefully guard century old secrets which often come alive in mythological text books. Some say that on moonlit nights as this one, the silhouette of a yogi is often spotted over the Mandar ranges. He lives at the top of the mountains and never speaks a word. The villagers call him “Nirahari Baba” as he lives without food and water.
This is a place which supposedly draws a shadow line between the very familiar human world and the magical realms inhabited by fairies, apsaras, Vidyadhars and Yakshas. There are legends galore to substantiate curious things happening in this part of the world which are beyond human comprehension.
We wake up to the holy man’s heavy voice chanting the slokas in the wee hours of the morning. After his morning prayers he comes to the kuthiya door and softly whispers my brother’s name and sometimes mine too. We have carried our urban habits to the mountains and seldom wake up at daybreak. Hence he gently wakes us up from sleep lest we miss out on the sheer beauty and magic that mornings at Shikhardham unfold. He calls my brother “Debo” which is a shorter form of his name and addresses me as “Debi” to rhyme. Most of the days he has already made breakfast for us by the time we manage to leave our beds. One morning, a huge pot of warm payesh or sweetened porridge stares us on the face with big bowlfuls of puffed rice to go with. Here in the midst of the Varanavat hills surrounded by dense forests and a spectacular view of Himalayas, munching puffed rice with payesh gratifies me like no other breakfast has ever done. By now I am probably able to fathom to some extent what must have motivated a young and bright scholar Ankobihari Mahato to leave his home and hearth and spend sixteen long years in this minimalist existence. This was the period that transformed him to Shankar Maharaj. He is better known as the Ayurveda doctor and social worker to local villagers rather than a self-realized Sadhu.
The story of Shikhar will probably not be complete without talking about a small incident that marks our final night. It shakes the very foundation of my scientific mind. After spending three remarkable days at the picturesque Shikhardham with an erudite and self-realized man, I think I am carrying enough richness with me to last a few years. However, I do not know that the best is yet to unfold.
Similar to the other nights in an unknown place, I lie awake on our last night fondly remembering the amazing memories I have made at this place. In between sleep and wakefulness, somewhere close to the wee morning hours, I hear a loud thud on the roof. Instantly I recollect this is not the first time I am hearing this sound. It has been happening every night, close to dawn, when someone or something alights on the corrugated tin roof overhead. Upon waking I forget all about it. This time I resolve to make inquiries and find out more about our nocturnal visitor.
I reveal my experiences to Maharaj the next morning and humbly enquire about his views on the same. It couldn’t have been a monkey as then it would have to weigh no less than a few tons. He surprises me by hushing it away with his quick laughter and change of subject. He is usually not the kind who discourages questions. On further prodding he observes in a matter of fact tone, “They have been visiting this place at the same time every morning”.
The locals believe that Shikhardham being the abode of Manokameswar Mahadev witnesses queer happenings from time to time. There are creatures that come to pay visit to Mahadev or Lord Shiva every night—creatures that can be different from the usual life forms that we are accustomed to seeing. But then, which Indian village does not have folklores?
Though I do not feel an inclination to believe in such fantastic stories, I have a strong urge to visit the Manokameswar temple all by myself when no one is around. This place also known as the “Kunti Taposthal,” has a reference in The Mahabharata, and is known to be the place where queen Kunti had prayed to Lord Shiva and got his blessings. The locals believe, any wish made at this holy place would come true by the grace of Manokameswar.
In one of the lonely afternoons I sneak into the small primitive temple structure situated in a hillock beside the hermit’s kuthiya. I sit in the lotus posture in front of the Shiva Lingam that protrudes from the depths of the earth and instinctively close my eyes. Instantly my mind is a strange vacuum and my heartbeat slows down. A wonderful silence prevails and I feel a particular sense of calm and serenity…may be something more, which I probably would not be able to articulate in words. I only know I have never felt this way in any of my earlier attempts to meditate. Perhaps the absolute stillness makes for an environment that is conducive to bring the mind to complete rest. I wonder if I would ever be able to evoke the same meditative state again.
I take leave of the Sadhu and walk downhill towards Uttarkashi the next morning. As I trek down, my eyes fall on the sleepy environs of Uttarkashi town below me. It seems mostly shrouded in mist and suddenly I’m assailed by a desire to relive my days in the hermitage. I am left to wonder whether I would ever be blessed again with the same tranquility and sense of peace once I return to the plains. I know better! This meditative state is going to desert me as soon as I get engulfed by the unwholesome cycles of pleasures and sorrows we have come to call life. Is it not easier to attain and maintain this spiritual serenity amidst forests and fountains which make for a spontaneous retreat? An inner voice chides me: Wait! This is only the beginning. You will need to come back again.”