G&J (Great Journeys): Yamunotri: Divine and dangerous
The trek was arduous but it pulled back the curtains on a stunning landscape – milky waterfalls, mysterious dense forests that seemed to close in on us, and overhanging rocks polished and hammered by nature into weird shapes.
The gas cylinders rolled alarmingly on the roof of our over-laden jeep as it bounced on the pot-holed road. There were 14 of us packed into a single Mahindra jeep, essentially a motley crowd of pilgrims heading for the holy pilgrim site of Yamunotri, located at an altitude of 3,165 m in the Garhwal Himalayas
The driver announced gruffly that he would drop us all at Janki Chatti, at the base of Yamunotri. He then maintained a Sphinx-like silence, ignoring our initial gentle persuasion to jettison the gas cylinders, pitching and rolling like ships in a gale on the roof of his jeep. When we resorted to raising our voices, with a few high-pitched screams thrown in, he, in turn, switched on a gravelly radio that blared Bollywood music and started to rock back and forth to its dhak dhak beat. We were squished behind him with several others and could only see his unyielding back and shaved head which sported a lone choti (a braid) which swung around as though it had a life of its own.
Our fellow passengers sat silently, resembling a riveted audience at a rather noisy, emotional opera; their faces were calm and their faith intact in Ma Yamuna, the jade-green river gushing along in a gorge way below.
A hill settlement at Yamunotri
The driver, seemingly intent on self-destruction, careened across hairpin bends with inches to spare; we stared into gaping ravines across which the Yamuna flowed over seal-smooth rocks. Snarling cliffs, interspersed with the occasional patches of green of a terraced field, minuscule villages, blue skies, and a searing sun that popped the colours to Instagram-worthy intensity diverted our attention briefly.
Soon a fatalistic calm descended on us as we accepted the inevitability of meeting a violent fate at the hands of that speed demon; either the jeep would burst into a flaming inferno or careen into a deep gorge. Our fates were sealed.
After a hair-raising drive, we miraculously arrived at the base of Yamunotri, the westernmost shrine of the holy Char Dhams, said to be the most difficult of the four, in terms of accessibility.
As we started to clamber up along with a wave of pilgrims in saris, salwar kameezes, and flimsy slippers, we felt over-dressed in our waterproof track pants and trekking shoes. Elderly men in dhotis sat on ponies, their legs dangling outside the stirrups, resembling desi cowboys lurching in ungainly fashion even as the ponies stumbled over the rocky terrain. Women were being borne in conical basket chairs hoisted by porters on their backs – supremely uncomfortable for both the woman and the porter.
The trek was arduous but it pulled back the curtains on a stunning landscape – milky waterfalls, mysterious dense forests that seemed to close in on us, and overhanging rocks polished and hammered by nature into weird shapes. There were quintessential Indian sights – ash-smeared sadhus in dreadlocks meditating in dark caves, their rugged faces glowing in the light of small fires; tea vendors brewing tea for tired pilgrims whose faces were alight with an almost divine radiance. Our progress was slow because the path was mantled with mud and horse droppings and, at times, was a gooey mess.
Landslides are a common occurrence in these parts and as a gentle drizzle started, we feared the worst but soldiered on till we finally spied the yellow spire of the temple snuggling in a cleft of the Bandarpunch Mountain at the head of the Yamuna valley.
After negotiating a gauntlet of stalls selling hot jalebis, samosas, and tea, we arrived at the temple where a pandit importuned us to do a few pujas which would ensure eternal happiness in this troubled world. We declined his tempting offer and instead watched people cavorting in the hot springs nearby. We spent about half an hour at the summit and then started our descent as the mountains were mantled in a dark mysterious light and we figured it would be wise to descend.
Soon, we were back at Janki Chhatti from where, again packed like sardines in a local jeep, we hurtled to Hanuman Chhatti from where our car would fetch us.
As we waited at Hanuman Chhatti, we noticed a plastic lean-to where a man was calmly tending to the sick and the injured. We were told that it was the clinic of a Dr. R. B. Singh, who has been practising in this mountainous region for over two decades. The then 57-year-old doctor from Dehra Dun treats the poor in and around Yamunotri for six months of the year – from May to October – when the shrine at Yamunotri is open.
Fascinated by his air of sheer serenity, we stopped by his makeshift clinic to speak to him. “Life is about love; love is everything, money is inconsequential,” he said as he tenderly bandaged the head of a little lad who had fallen off the roof of his hut and tossed two painkillers to two sadhus who had walked all the way from Ayodhya. He invited us and them to have some tea which he prepared on a stove placed on the ground. “I derive great satisfaction from what I’m doing,” he said as he fired the stove to make tea. “It’s easy to love your children; it’s tough to love the poor and the needy but once you start, even that becomes easy.”
“In all these years, have you seen God?” we asked the good doctor. He turned around, his calm face aglow with tenderness and divine light. “Yes! In the faces of the poor and in the faces of these sants,” he said, pointing to the two holy men who sat on the floor, gratefully sipping the hot beverage that he had brewed for them.
And in that dusk full of feral spirits, a celestial light seemed to sweep across the visages of the three men, linked to each other by an indelible indiscernible bond, a bond that seemed to have been forged before time itself.
All images courtesy of Gustasp and Jeroo Irani