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Journey to Badrinath, Source of the Ganges

In past Connexions I have written articles about personal health and some fascinating individuals involved in healing work around the world. As the snows melt in the mountains and flowers pop up everywhere, a story comes to mind that took place in a distant mountain valley one May many years ago. It is a rather unusual story about the healing of a community.


The well worn wood sign to the side of the road read “On this very spot Jim Corbett killed the man eating leopard of Rudra Pryag”. Decades had passed since the splendid and glorious days of Kipling, wealthy maharajas and heroic big game hunters, but none the less the feeling of excitement and adventure was intense as we made our way slowly up the narrow winding mountain road through forest, terraced fields and tiny villages. We were on pilgrimage to the holy shrine at Badrinath, one of the most sacred sites in the Indian Himalayas. Thousands of pilgrims from all over India were focused on an ancient stone temple located in a village straddling the banks of the Ganges River near the source of the Alakananda fork at over ten thousand feet elevation in the mountains. The Himalayas, meaning ‘abode of the snows’ in Sanskrit, are the world’s highest mountains and, in my experience, the most magical and sacred.


The pilgrimage is an important aspect of the religious experience for people in different traditions all around the world. Moslems make a one time journey to Mecca, Christians trace Christ’s steps along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, Basho is famous for his Haiku poetry written during his travels as a Buddhist monk in northern Japan, and I stumbled through the Brazilian mountains in the black of night with a group of drunken students en route to a shrine commemorating the appearance of some holy person in the Catholic religion. In India, however, the pilgrimage seems to be more a part of the daily lives of many people in some way, whether feeding wandering holy men called sadhus who spend their lives journeying from one festival or temple to another, making an occasional pilgrimage themselves or renouncing the material world and becoming ascetics and wanderers themselves. After several years on the road in search of the magical and wonderful, I often felt like a full time pilgrim myself, and on the way to Badrinath I was truly in my element.


Pilgrims from near and far first concentrate in the cites of Haridwar and Rishikesh, where the Ganges exits the Himalayan foothills, before beginning their three hundred kilometer ascent to Badrinath. ‘Rishikesh’, meaning ‘city of the rishis’, or holy men, entered our shared cultural consciousness in the 1960’s when the Beatles and Mia Farrow traveled there to meditate with the Maharishi (great rishi) Mahesh Yogi. For centuries it has been a gathering place for pilgrims en route to the temples at Kedarnath, Gangotri and Hemkund in the fabled Valley of Flowers in addition to Badrinath. Here the streets are filled with sadhus, most barefoot, dressed in the traditional orange cotton robes, carrying a few possessions including coconut shell begging bowl or metal pot, and sometimes walking stick, stool, or musical instrument.


Somewhere along the way I paired up with a young sadhu from the south who had been walking north for months. His feet were thickly calloused from countless miles on hot pavement, but I recall giving him a pair of rubber boots I had bought but could not fit into, as they were size eight, the largest in the town, while I wear a ten or eleven. Seeing him again somewhere months later still wearing the boots but without the blanket I gave him left me feeling both pleased and disappointed, as he obviously needed the extra warmth but had apparently given the blanket away to another traveler.


Details of the journey now escape me, with the exception of the leopard sign, until reaching my destination late one cold and windy night. I passed a night reminiscent of Jack London’s story “To Build A Fire” in which melting snow from an overhead branch drops onto his tiny campfire, ensuring his death by freezing in the remote arctic wilderness. Unable to find any lodging or shelter, I reluctantly broke into a tiny hut used by souvenir vendors later during the busy tourist season. Finding three matches in the rubble, I held out great hope for starting a fire to ward off the biting cold wind howling down from the glaciers higher up the valley. First match sputter… fizzle… poof. Second match… sputter… dud. Third match last chance tension mounts……..sputter…… and out. I continued to ponder the ‘what ifs’ ‘if onlys’ as I settled down for the night on a large slab of rock, the only flat surface I could locate in the dark, serenaded by an incessant clanging sound which daylight revealed to be a piece of sheet metal banging against rocks in the river beside me.


Entering the village the next morning just after daybreak I went to the temple, meeting Sri Karan Das Baba, an ex-police officer and now the resident caretaker and yogi. He was most impressive to behold, with long matted hair, strands of beads around his neck and holding a copy of the Bok of Manu, said to be the oldest written book inexistence. I enjoyed a soak in the natural hot pools as he explained that the snow that had buried the town for six months had just melted and no supplies had yet arrived from the outside. As such, he could offer me a cup of tea and bowl foul tasting brown powdered stuff, but then I must leave the village. I could return later in the season with other pilgrims when food was available. Walking back over the bridge that afternoon I felt just like the bad guy in a Western movie ordered by the sheriff to get out of town by sunset. I resolved to return later, and in fact did, when I encountered the vampire of Joshimat and the floating Lebanese couple, but that story will have to wait until a later time.


Jim Martin, LAc






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