My Pilgrimmage: Chapter 1

It’s yatra season here in India when a chunk of the billion plus population flocks to holy cities, temples, and rivers to make their annual pilgrimmage. On a whim, I decided to join the yatra and boarded a bus crammed with 60 chanting pilgrims sitting, standing, squatting, sweating, smelling, squished like sardines on a rattling public bus, falling on top of each other with every hairpin turn, that would take 15 hours to climb 280 km of dizzying mountain roads to the village of Gangotri, where I would proceed on a 38 km trek to gaumukh glaciar, the source of the holy month ganga river. I spent the first 6 hours of the ride stifling vomit. I’ve never felt so suicidal- I had to remind myself that at least this torture was better than being drawn and quatered. Even the high spirited pilgrims chant faded into silence after a few hours. I finally survived by zoning out to the Himalayas and meditating. Foreigners come to India seeking gurus, assuming lotus position, and taking classes to practice meditation, when really all you have to do is take an Indian public bus.
One man's pilgrimmage

One man's pilgrimmage

The mighty Himalayas

The mighty Himalayas

The Great Ganga river

The Great Ganga river

In Gangotri and throught my three day pilgrimmage to the glacia I stayed at ashrams buried high in the Himalayas with sadhus and gurus, swamiji’s and babaji’s clad in beautiful tunics and trousers and robes- me in my Patagonia and EMS. To say I stood out as the only foreigner would be an understatement. I received ubiquitous stares, but out of bewilderment and curiosity as opposed to aggressive machismo. On my first night at the evening aarti ceremony, I was embarassed not to know the ritual as I knelt before the sadhu lighting candles, and what was I supposed to do with the water he poured in my hands? I was like a high school kid visiting his big brother’s college dorm party, unsure of what to do when the bong was passed my way. Then the half hour chanting in Hindi, where I moved my mouth in approximate shapes as if I knew what the words meant. The next day I buried my head in books to learn what everything meant and what it was about and to gain a new respect from these enlightenment-seekers.

All it takes is a smile and one night in Bhojbasa, 2 Babaji’s, one that looked like Don Cheadle, the other like Moses, invited me to smoke their chillum as they bickered and philosophised to the stars. They spoke as much English as I Hindi, but after a few hits of charas, all language barriers ceased to exist and we were laughing like amigos. I had so many questions. Who were they? Where did they come from? Did they have family? Did they spend their whole lives as wandering nomads, with all their possessions on their back seeking enlightenment? I wondered what they thought of me, if anything at all. I realized how 20-something-year-old-girl-brought-up-in-the-Western-world of me it was to care about how they might perceive me, and stopped to just enjoy the unexpected, unique and kind of weird moment at the ashram.

Ashram dining hall

Ashram dining hall

The trek to Gaumukh Glaciar

The trek to Gaumukh Glaciar

smoking charas with the babajis

smoking charas with the babajis

Y ou might have a romanticized view of an ashram if you read Eat Pray Love (the bestseller by Elizabeth Gilbert that will probably be a major motion picture and probably star the likes of Diane Lane). But unless you are staying at a multi million dollar institution geared toward foreigners (there are many esp. after the Beatles stayed at one here) most ashrams are austere shelters for those on a spiritual journey, subsisting only on small donations. Simple meals of rice and lentil stew are taken sitting on the ground and eaten with the right hand. Bedrooms are dark, damp, mothbally cement cells that reek of ancient men. Electricity and running water (and sometimes water at all) are nonexistent. Just my style.

In Rishikesh I had wandered into some Lonely Planet listing to find a slovenly sadhu, slack-jawed and sleepy-eyed by a computer, complete with a girl complaining about a dirty room. I was out of there like Janet Reno in a beauty contest. I wanted the authentic ashram experience, discomfort and all, to spend a few days living as these baba’s spent their lives. And beside these lean-bodied, long dreaded, face painted chanting nomads, overlooking the rushing rushing Ganga river filled with so much life and spirit in the Himalayas, I almost began to feel like one of them. Smiling and fully content with nothing, compassionate, letting my anger (see previous blog post to Santa) melt away.

The Beatles wrote the White Album at this ashram
The Beatles wrote the White Album at this ashram
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~ by ceciliabien on July 20, 2009.

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