In search of her Indian roots, Sandhya Sharma treks to Kedarnath and finds God in a spa!
Like so many of my family and friends, I've always harboured a desire to 'return' to India and see the homeland for myself. The opportunity came up so suddenly that when I finally set foot in the place I had to vigorously pinch myself.
My Australian husband, Rod, received a three week travel writing assignment and he thought it would be an interesting twist to get me along. And because I was a classic "pilgrim" rediscovering my ethnic and spiritual roots, India Tourism devised a challenging itinerary that featured two of the holiest of holy shrines at Badrinath and Kedarnath.
Our first few days were spent in Delhi, then on to the so-called "Golden Triangle" of Agra (Taj Mahal) and magnificent Jaipur (Amber Fort). This "prologue" introduced us to the Indian road system, which I never really got used to. Rod and I competed in numerous car rallies before the kids came along so I was sort-of pre-conditioned to scary driving, but this was something else again. Try and imagine overloaded trucks, camels, mule buggies, tractors, cyclists, suicidal pedestrians, lumbering buses and maniacal motorists all thrown together in a wild highway cocktail. Rod gave me some stats on the Indian roads, but you don't want to hear them.
After some last minute adjustments to our itinerary and transport arrangements, we set off and were soon back in the hurly burly en route to our first stop at Haridwar, some 200 kilometres (and five hours!) north. After the luxury and service of the Hyatt, the state-run hotel was a very different affair. Think country pub. It certainly had the location though, nestled neatly on the eastern bank of the Ganges.
The next leg was supposed to see us comfortably tucked in at Kedarnath after a leisurely 240 km drive through the scenic lower Himalayas. Scenic it certainly was! Our view was not interrupted by any unsightly guardrails or fences as we wound our way up (and up) into the Uttaranchal alps. I also hoped the ever-present TATAs were watching the road and not the lush green valleys and frothing Ganges hundreds of metres below.
By the time we arrived at Gauri Kund, we had reached nearly 2000 metres during our all-day drive and it was way past bedtime. It seemed like a much better idea to complete the final leg to Kedarnath in the morning. So on sun-up and after several hastily consumed porathas, we parked the Toyota and met our new travelling companions, two sturdy Himalayan mules. The holy Jyotirlinga of Kedarnath is 14 kilometres northeast of Gauri Kund and another 1.6 kilometres up!
The trek up that mountain passage is a memory that will stay with me forever. After my initial terror, I gradually settled in to the wobbly motions of my trusty stead. The path is fully paved, but the hard stone cobbles often cause the animals to slip briefly and my heart often skipped a beat as I imagined myself bouncing off the pathway and down into the raging Mandakini below.
By now we were in something of a convoy. More committed pilgrims determined to make the journey by foot were passed by others in sedan chairs carried by two pairs of lean Nepalese mountain men. I couldn't help smirking at the regal air these often plump voyagers carried with them. At one stage a helicopter passed overhead. Clearly some were in a hurry to kneel at the alter.
The range of aromas varied as we passed the convenience stops for the animals and the little village stalls with their various steamed offerings. Ragged vendors with well-used utensils ladled out pungent vegetarian broths while stylish hikers and furrowed-browed Sadhus alike ambled past in both directions. Unfortunately sanitation and rubbish disposal was not a particularly high priority.
It was early afternoon before we finally sited the village of Kedarnath and we arrived looking, feeling and smelling like pilgrims. Again, the state-run guesthouse was basic and I couldn't help thinking hot water and heating would have been a nice touch.
After check-in, it was time for a late lunch. Our host cheerfully offered me a comprehensive menu. After thoughtfully perusing the long list I was informed, with trademark nob of the head, only the chapatti and dahl were available.
Lunch aside, it was time to see this temple. The narrow lane leading up to the holy site is lined with trinket and food stalls, patrolled by opportunistic Sadhu look-alikes ready to pounce on the over-generous worshippers. This aspect of Kedarnath began to wear me down. You couldn't even look at one of these shabby, bearded types without getting an instant approach for a "blessing" - at a cost. Rod was much less charitable in his description of them.
I'll admit that I'm not the most devout of Hindus, but I know in my heart what Hinduism teaches. Rod respects my beliefs, but has little time for those he calls "conspicuous worshippers" more in pursuit of dinner party points than holy redemption. Clearly there were more than a few of those about as well as an entourage for a noted Swami that carried themselves with a certain aloofness. The genuine pilgrims were quietly praying in a corner of the temple courtyard, keeping to themselves and not making a divine spectacle while some loud American tourists were trying to work out which way the energy went around the temple.
After a shivering night in the icy hotel, it was time to say a quick prayer before making the return journey. The early morning throng had cleared and we filed silently inside for a moment of meditation. I'd only just placed my hands together when a sharp jab to my arm from an impatient old woman moved me on. Clearly her prayers were more urgent. Apparently ten seconds is about all you get in front of Lord Shiva.
Kedarnath, as the spiritual abode of Lord Shiva, is a spiritual focal point (Dham) for all Hindus, and although my own experience was a trying one, I'd never attempt to talk anybody out of doing it themselves. I was proud to have stood there and prayed (just) and it was a true once-in-a-lifetime event and privilege. Just brace yourself for some of the unfortunate distractions that have taken root in the shadow of the shrine.
During the return leg and the lengthy drive back from Gauri Kund, there was much discussion about the balance of our itinerary. We were due at Badrinath that night, but Rod easily convinced me that we should make a beeline for the lavish Ananda Spa just outside of Rishikesh. Our overworked driver, likewise, offered little resistance and we all agreed to sever the Mussoorie leg too.
the time we arrived at The Palace Estate, we were ready for some divine
intervention. The Ananda Spa is an unabashed luxury health resort and
we spent two wonderful nights in five star comfort. Built on the grounds
of the Maharaja's palace, Ananda Spa offers ayurveda and holistic treatments
in an air of "pleasure and serenity". During the day, I treated
myself to some serious hands-on therapy in the health club which had
a benefit at least as effective as our arduous undertaking to Kedarnath.
My Tibetan masseuse worked me over head to foot while Himalayan chants
and aromatic oils wafted around the room. I said my deferred prayer,
selfishly wallowing in the comfort and serenity being inflicted on me.
If God is all around us, as many believe, it's sure easier to commune
with him here!