THE HOLY TRAIL
‘Hello… Mr. Pai?’
‘Yes… May I know who is on the line?’
‘Sir… It’s me… Premji,’ I replied happily, listening to the soft voice from the other end.
‘Premji? O! What a pleasant surprise!’ He couldn’t control the exhilaration
‘Sir… I am in Bangalore… to be very precise, at Lal-Bagh!’
I had been there in Bangalore for the past two days as I was accompanying the annual tour program of our Automobile Engineering Department students. Being head of the department, I never used to accompany a student’s tours. The vigorous students, in their violent teens, vanished into the greenish expanse of ‘Lal-Bagh -- The Red Garden,’ a well-known botanical garden in Southern Bangalore, India.
Annual flower-show was going on in the famous glass house and as a result there was heavy rush in and around the garden.
‘The garden was originally commissioned by Hyder Ali, the ruler of Mysore, in 1760 and later finished by his son Tipu Sultan. Lal-Bagh, spanning almost a square km, houses India\'s largest collection of tropical plants and the rarest plants, has an aquarium and a lake,’ a guide started explaining the history of the garden to the tourists standing near the main entrance.
A Maruti Ritz Car stopped next to me and Mr. Pai, a man in the beginning of his fifties, got down. He looked exactly the same as I had met him in the last time. More gray were there in his nearly bald head. He was my Boss, during a short span of three years, when I was working as a sales engineer. We used to travel a lot for the promotion of heavy equipment, especially cranes. He was the first reader and critic of my poems… To be very frank, I am free from his influence in life so far… He is my great friend and philosopher!
‘Hello Mr. Premji,’ he shook hands with me… ‘It has been almost thirteen years since we had met for the last time… Am I correct?’
‘You are absolutely right…Sir’
I got into the car and it sped away to the nearest pub.
‘From where did you get my number?’ He started the conversation over a mug of chilled beer.
‘I searched for the people who deal with the products of ‘Escorts construction equipment Ltd.’ In Bangalore,’
‘That’s interesting…You are still a salesman!’ he laughed.
‘You are right, Sir,’ I stopped for a second… ‘You know… desperately, I needed a change... and that’s why I thought of accompanying the students’
‘Me too… Premji… Even I like to be away from the business pressures… at least for ten days… You know… I would love to go the Himalayas’
‘To the Himalayas?’
‘Yes… to the abode of snow… to the largest mountain range in Asia separating the plains of India from the Tibetan Plateau... I love to feel the clouds as explained by Kalidasa, the great poet… Premji… Will you please join me?’
‘I would love to… but, unfortunately, I cannot afford the expenses right now,’ I replied desperately.
‘Expenses? Don’t worry about that’ Mr. Pai promised firmly… ‘Let’s go to Gomukh,’
It was a word of honour!
It was a fine morning in the middle of May… We hired a jeep from Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun and headed towards Gangotri, 265 km away. Silence encompassed us throughout the journey as we were busy enjoying the scenic beauty of the Himalayan terrains for the first time.
Gangotri, one of the four Hindu religious sites in Utharakhand state of India known as ‘Char-Dham,’ is dedicated to the Goddess Ganga. Lots of devotees, tourists and Hindu Sanyasins with matted hair were seen everywhere. It is a sleepy town, situated on the banks of the river Bhagirathi, the upper portion of river Ganges on the Greater Himalayan Range at a height of 10,000 feet. We checked in to the hotel where we had our reservations.
It was nearing five thirty in the evening… We took bath in River Bhagirathi as a part of holy ritual of the Hindus … A single dip was more than enough to convert anyone to an ice-pillar!
I could offer three handfuls of water to the flowing river for the redemption of my beloved grandma… She too had the same name as the river: ‘Bhagirathi’. She brought the Ganges of happiness to my childhood life, not from the upper heavens, but from her selfless love…
‘Premji… According to the Hindu myths, King Bhagirath did penance here,’ said Mr. Pai.
‘And after which, heavenly river Ganges came down on Earth as per the wish of Lord Mahadeva…
‘To save earth from the fierce impact, Lord Shiva held her in his locks… Gangadhara… There is no end for the myths’ Mr. Pai laughed.
After visiting the Gangotri Temple, later in the evening; we performed Gangaji’s arti…offering lights to river Ganga…
‘O! Holy Mother… please dispel darkness from the universe!’ We too prayed along with the large number of devotees coming from all over the world…
‘O! Holy Mother… please take away our sins…and enlighten our lives’
The trail to Gomukh starts from Gangotri and the trek starts by entering Gangotri-Gaumukh forest range. It was nearing nine’o clock in the next day morning and there were only a few trekkers on that day… Virendar Thapa, our guide in his thirties, arranged permission from the entrance at Kankhu post, 2 Km from Gangotri. He was a very dynamic chap… a dare-devil! There were around ten members in our group.
‘Earlier, the Gangotri glacier used to start from here… Due to melting, now it has gone till Gaumukh,’ Virendar Thapa said painfully.
Soon we entered into the rough terrain of horrifying wilderness in the forest area… We were so fascinated by the scenic beauty of lush green…
‘Chidbasa is 9 km ahead of Gangotri,’ said our guide.
‘Sir…Chidbasa is the abode of Chid trees,’ he told us… ‘Pines’
Though the dusty trail was quite troublesome, we didn’t feel any sort of tiredness at all… A special variety of Chid trees were seen in mass on the fall in the valley… The beauty and intoxicating smell of Himalayan flora is exceptional… And at last we reached Chidbasa…
We were lucky enough to have tea and some snacks from a small shop in Chirbasa… The steaming tea soon turned cold due to the freezing breeze coming out from the faraway glacier… And we started heading towards Bhujbasa under the mild Sun…
It was nearing two’o clock in the afternoon and we entered into a very difficult trekking zone, approximately three kilometers away from Chidbasa.
‘Premji… See that..,’ Mr. Pai pointed at something.
It was a \'Bharal\', a wild antelope, grazing at the lower-downs and I thought of taking a snap. But… I was shocked to see something… A loose rock… a huge boulder… It was on the way down towards us from higher altitudes with massive velocity… might be from a height more than 12000 feet…
Like two stationary boulders, we both were transfixed there… two boulders made of fear! I was so terrified that I couldn’t even remember the first line of my daily prayer!
In a quick move, we were pulled back by Richard, a Canadian trekker and we took refuge behind another boulder as per his instruction…The fast coming boulder disappeared within seconds to the lower downs! It took away the antelope instead of us! A wild sacrifice!
‘Thank you Ric,’ I shook hands with Richard… ‘God’s own hands’ I pressed his hands tightly out of immense gratitude. The snowy breeze started piercing my panicked lungs without any kindness…
‘Do you know which place is this?’ asked Richard.
‘No,’ replied Mr. Pai.
‘This is Gila Pahar… the most dangerous zone in Gangotri – Gomukh trail… notorious for the loose rocks falling from the heights and extremely dangerous landslides… You know… there was a massive landslide on the upper-heights two days back,’ said the seasoned trekker in him.
We crossed many shallow streams and wooden bridges… By around half past four in the evening, we reached Bhujbasa, 12440 feet above the sea-level …
Bhujbasa is the abode of Bhuj trees… In the olden times, people used to write on the leaves of Bhuj like present day’s paper… Kalidasa, the greatest of all poets, wrote his great epics and dramas upon it!
Gomukh, our final destination was only four kilometers away. It could be seen as if in a wide long-shot.
Virendra Thapa quickly established tents for the night stay and soon we could feel the glimmer on the abode of snow… It was very difficult for me to adjust with the sleeping bags and other equipment to safeguard oneself from the merciless cold…
We got out of the tent as sat upon a boulder… O! The lonely Moon, in his majestic brilliance, stood above us like an eternal sentinel…and his golden rays added brilliance to the nearby peaks…
‘Sir… sitting outside could be dangerous… please take rest inside,’ cautioned Virendra Thapa, the guide.
‘No problem young man… If I am destined to die here, be it so,’ replied Mr.Pai while playing a beautiful song from his mobile phone…
‘Chand jaise mughde pe bindiya sitaraa…..O sitaaraa…’
Early in the next day morning, we started trekking towards Gomukh, closely following Richard, the Canadian trekker.
‘This is a very rough trekking rout,’ opined Richard… ‘Very dangerous boulder zone,’
Soon, we were entreated by the majestic view of ‘Mt. Shivling,’ holy symbol of Shivji, in the western gateway of the lower Gangotri glacier … The mighty rays of the morning Sun started sprinkling Gold upon the snow-clad mountain peak… And opposite to that majestic ‘linga,’ stood the triple peaked Bhagirathi Massif… The holy peaks were named after King Bhagiratha from time immemorial! We continued our trek paying respect to the serene nature!
‘We have trekked almost 18 km from Gangotri’ said Mr.Richard.
‘Yes…we are now at a height of 4255m... Sir… please watch the wild topography… see those boulders and the scattered broken snow…O! That’s Gomukh!’ I cried out.
‘Premji…just feel the hard clayey snow of the glacier,’ Mr.Pai said…
Triple peaked Bhagirathi Massif stood behind the terminus like the glittering trident of Lord Shiva… The purest water upon earth gushes out from Gomukh, the terminus of Gangotri glacier. It was surrounded by boulders and the sound of water resonated like Omkaar, the all-encompassing primordial sound! River Bhageerathi, the main tributary of Holy Ganges, starts her painful journey from there…
‘Shivoham… Shivoham… Shivoham’ someone cried out…
Gomukh is the holiest place to every devout Hindu.
We walked near the terminus carefully… The cold breeze coming out from the glacier was unbearable… Mr. Pai collected a handful of water from the turbulent stream and washed his face… He sprinkled some drops upon his nearly bald head as if he was in a trance…
‘Aum Nama: Shivaya’… Have mercy upon us…O! Lord Shiva…
The temperature was less than twelve degrees even in the presence of mild Sun light…
We had completed our trek from Bhujbasa to Gomukh just ten minutes back and my lungs were craving for fresh air from the high altitudes, but they were frozen in the multitude of damn-chilled air. I felt somewhat uneasy due to the pressure drop at Gomukh…
‘Sir… I am freezing!’
‘Then, what about that guy?’ Mr.Pai pointed a man, around seventy, taking bath near the terminus of the Gangotri glacier…Gomukh…
He was wearing only a loin cloth and I was shocked to watch him taking more dips in the same stream…
None can take a dip twice in the same river… especially at Gomukh!
Soon, we were befriended by Major Ashok serving in the Indo-Tibetan Border Force. India shares borders with China nearby… Himalayas are the divine sentinels of India. Still, we need more protection. He was of my age with family roots in Bangalore. He was so happy to talk with us in Kannada, his mother-tongue.
‘That’s Naga Swaroopa Baba… He won’t leave Gomukh even in the toughest of all winters… He lives in the nearby caves during rain’ said the Major.
‘That sounds really strange,’ I said.
‘He doesn’t wander a lot or ask for anything from the tourists… And he doesn’t even pluck a ripe apple to kill his hunger’
‘If somebody gives him something to eat, he eats… If a fruit falls from a tree, he eats… He sleeps somewhere here on a rock during the nights, that too only in his loin clothes…Naga Swaroopa Baba is a man of great spiritual powers,’ said the Major with deep admiration towards him as the undertone… ‘Sab Maa deti hein… Holy Mother will provide me everything! That’s his unchanged belief!’
I felt really ashamed of watching my Timberland trekking shoes, full sleeved jerkins, monkey caps and every other sort of equipment to protect myself from the cold.
‘Is he not afraid of wild animals?’ I asked.
‘Even I have asked the same question many times! ‘I am not the body, but the spirit’… That was his simple answer’ replied the Major.
‘He must be a very happy man,’ I said.
‘See…Major,’ Mr. Pai started speaking… ‘There are thousands of people, like him, living in the Himalayas… They call themselves as Sanyasins… People doing penance! And the most important thing which I cannot understand is: just by sitting idle like this, what do they contribute to the modern society?’
‘Mr.Pai… You better ask him directly, the illiterate Baba… He is basically a Mauni-Baba – a Sanyasin who observes silence… still you can ask him… If he likes to answer, he will’ The Major walked away swiftly to the nearby Army barracks
Naga Swaroopa Baba was sitting on a rock adjacent to the stream with his body completely covered with ashes, enjoying the one and only luxury of his life: the morning Sunlight! His matted hair and the loin cloth were still dripping wet and his eyes were fixed upon the brilliance of the morning Sun. Might be, he was absorbing energy from the Sun. His frame had the least amount of fat.
‘Namaskar Baba,’ Mr Pai greeted him politely.
‘Namaskar Betaa (son),’ replied the Baba in a kinder voice.
‘How are you?’
‘Because of his mercy, I am fine Betaa,’
‘Shall I ask you something?’
‘Sure… You can… Betaa,’ the old man encouraged him.
‘Baba… You are sitting idle always... Just by sitting idle, how do you contribute to the modern society?’ Mr.Pai asked.
Baba looked into his eyes for a moment and later upon me. His eyes pierced my soul like another trident…
‘Betaa…what is your name?’ asked Baba
‘I am Mr. Pai from Bangalore and he is Mr. Premji from Kerala’
I could feel the humble pride behind his voice.
‘Well… well… Come and sit here,’ Baba invited us… ‘What do you do, Bete?’
‘I am selling very expensive machines’ replied Mr.Pai while settling upon the rough rock as if he was trying to glorify himself.
‘Very good Betaa … Why do you make machines?’
‘If you need electricity, you have to make dams. You need machines for the construction of dams…. You need machines like excavators and cranes for constructing factories, roads, etc and etc, buses, trains, air-crafts… everything is a machine… we need new machines… new inventions to improve the quality of human life,’ Mr.Pai poured out his knowledge.
‘Betaa… How do you construct these machines?’
‘Baba… we construct the machines using metals’
‘Very good Betaa… And these metals, where do they come from?’
‘Baba… these metals… they come from the earth’
‘Very good… And your machines, how do they run?’
‘Baba… They run on oil and gas’
‘Very good Betaa… tell me… from where does the oil come?’
‘Baba… Oil also comes from the earth’
‘Is it so?’ Baba remained silent for a moment… ‘So, everything comes from the earth! Am I correct, Betaa?’
‘You are absolutely right… Baba,’ replied Mr. Pai.
Soon silence encompassed us. I couldn’t avoid looking on to glowing face of Naga Swaroopa Baba in the morning Sun. It was just another brilliant Sun!
‘Bete… Are you capable of creating a little earth?’ Baba broke the silence mercilessly.
We both were shocked to the core!
‘No… Baba...no… that’s not possible!’ replied Mr. Pai, very politely.
‘Then, what do you make? What do you invent? Answer me, beloved sons’
Tongue-tied, we sat there like two inert statues made of Ice, before the ‘so-called’ illiterate man. We were transformed into two amoebas with null ego!
Soon, Baba started talking aloud.
‘Bete...You didn’t invent anything new… And you are not going to invent anything newer... Everything, that you think – you have invented - were already here... And just to make life easier, you construct new machines... And ultimately, what do they contribute?’
We both remained silent again.
‘They contribute deadly pollution... You people are raping the Holy Mother… the mother Earth… every moment... And, by sitting idle here, I am not creating any sort of pollution… I am not raping her… See… What have you done to the river Ganges? How serene is she here’ Baba plunged his hand into the holy waters… ‘You spend billions to clean her…every year… to make her free from pollution! She knows how to clean herself without even spending a single paisa (penny)! Just a single flood is more than enough… But, what is the use? You won’t leave her again! The rape continues!’
Silently, I looked into the eyes of Mr. Pai. He sat there as if he was in a trance. Baba could puncture our ego with a needle-sharp question forever!
‘Bete… When you buy a new cloth, you add on to pollution,’ Baba continued… ‘The dyes used for colouring your clothes pollute the soil… pollute the water… The detergents used for cleaning them, again continue the pollution… I own nothing and I am not creating any sort of pollution… Bete… Whatever Ma… the holy Mother… gives, I am contended with that... If she drops me a fruit, I will eat… I am happy with that… By sitting idle, I am not creating any sort of pollution! And that is my humble contribution to the modern society... And that is my humble contribution to humanity,’ Baba stopped talking.
I felt an everlasting lotus bloom within my soul!
‘Bete… Now also, if you think…that I am wasting my life by sitting idle, let it be so,’ Baba stopped talking.
We looked into his painful eyes. All I could see was the supreme divine bliss... We touched his feet seeking his blessings…
‘Have peace… Bete… Do you know what the meaning of Gomukh is?’
‘The mouth of a cow,’ replied Mr. Pai.
‘Earlier… might be some hundred years back… this snout resembled the mouth of a cow… but, What do you see now…? Bete… Does it resemble the mouth of a cow?’
We didn’t have any answer…
‘Now, it resembles the mouth of a dragon… Earlier the snout was at Gangotri… Now it has receded almost eighteen kilometers… It was there some hundred years back,’ Baba pointed at a little distance – might be around one kilometer… ‘Everything is getting hotter and hotter… you are melting the world away,’ he raised his eyes up against the Sun.
‘Got the answer?’ asked the Major Ashok.
‘Yes,’ Mr. Pai replied.
‘But, that’s incomplete!’ said the Major Ashok.
‘Why do you say so?’ asked Mr. Pai.
‘Please follow him today,’ the Major walked away.
A seventeen year old boy was aiming at rock with plastic bottle in his hand. Unfortunately, the rock was wet by the turbulent stream from the snout of Gomukh.
‘Betaa,’ Baba called him from behind and the boy lost his aim.
Baba collected the bottle with the least hesitation upon his face.
‘Please do not taint the holy mother… Bete… especially with plastic...’ Baba walked away.
The boy was literally ashamed to the core…
‘Bete… you are nothing but water’
Baba was busy cleaning Gomukh the whole day… The most serene place on Earth should be kept serene… The teenage boy too joined him, might be out of remorse. Huge gunny-bags full of waste plastic and empty bottles were kept behind some huge boulders, unnoticed.
‘They will be disposed in Gangotri for recycling… Tourism is the worst foe of nature,’ Major Ashok said… ‘But, one man can make a difference’
‘Today, we are going to stay here,’ Mr. Richard announced.
Soon, tents were erected near to Gomukh.
We took bath in the stream and collected the purest water ever in two small plastic cans - the pristine waters melting out from an estimated volume of over 27 cubic kilometers of Ice of the Gangotri glacier, about 30 kilometers long and 2 to 4 km wide!
‘Baba, we are about to leave’ I told him in the next day morning… ‘We are going to Tapovan height Ashram’
‘You are welcome again, Bete,’ he blessed us with open arms.
There must be some specific goal in his life… might be something like protecting the holy river Ganges till his last breath… What is that?
I felt bit hesitant to walk away… and Baba could sense that easily.
‘Any more questions, Bete?’
‘Baba… Everybody has a specific belief or goal to lead his or her life successfully… What is your goal in life?’
‘Bete… I have no specific goals in life… I have no craving for money, glory, recognition, food or anything… whatever I need to survive, she provides everything… Sab Maa deti hein’
‘Only those who are not afraid of death can visit Gomukh… Be fearless Bete… Be free from the fear of death...’ he walked away…
What\'s your real name Babaji?
* A story dedicated to the victims of recent Himalayan Tzunami.