My Silent Ascetic
We ran into him on the bank of Satopanth Tal – a small triangular shaped glacial lake in the deep of the Himalaya at an altitude of 14320 feet. Satopanth, literally meaning the way to the truth, a sacred lake, described in the Skanda Puran said to be guarded by the Holy Trinity—Bramha, Bishnu and Maheswar (Shiva) . At the foot of Chaukhamba group of peaks, the lake is very difficult to accessible and well protected from the casual forays of the naïve travelers. High ridges and treacherous glaciers surround it leaving only one route of access that too over razor-sharp ridges and perilous broken glaciers. Every time the trekker had a fall or is faced with a landslide and there is no escape from those, he would desperately want to run back to the safety of the Badrinath valley – amidst familiar sights and sounds, into the warmth and safety of a bed. But after traversing a considerable distance and spending one night under an overhang (a jutting rock from the mountain wall), when ultimately we comprehended the danger fully; there were simply no point in returning. To do so, we had to cross that killing field again. So we simply marched on.
Naturally, at such a godforsaken place, in the middle of nowhere, miles away from the nearest habitation, in the lap of legends and harsh reality, we least expected anyone and definitely not a half naked ascetic.
Walking for around ten hours per day over the most difficult and dangerous terrain that too for two full days and in the process almost killing ourselves, we had reached the lake. As we dragged our half dead body over the last ridge and descended on to the bank of the lake, he came out of a nearby cave with a reassuring welcome smile as if he was expecting us for a long time; holding two steaming cup (actually two coconut shells) of scented tea. He must have seen us coming down the ridge and rightly guessed; we need some hot beverage badly. The first thing that strikes one about him was his average demeanor. He was of average height, average built — with a common face. Apart from the unkempt long beard and the moustache, there was nothing striking about him. But instinctively one feels, there were more to that deceptive appearance, as if, he was deliberately trying to keep an ordinary and low profile.
I looked closely and realized that I am looking at the most striking pair of eyes that I have ever seen. It is not the eyes itself, which were rather small but the gaze that was coming out of those eyes– full of so much compassion. It caressed me so gently and some thing ruptured inside me. I felt like crying.
Though the temperature around here was near freezing point, he was wearing a small dhoti that only fell up to his knees; the torso was exposed to the elements and his skin was burnt deep brown (at this height sunrays plays havoc with the skin). Through the long beard and moustache his white teeth flashes every time he smiles and he smiles a lot. His small and lithe body looked exceptionally fit. I had so many questions for him wailing to burst out that I was momentarily lost for word. Seeing my amazement, which must have been dangling like a red flag, he gesticulated to let me know that he would not speak; he had taken a vow of silence. That must be the proverbial last straw on the camels’ back. Seeing me crest fallen, he gave me that dazzling smile again and signaled me to rest for a while. Yes, we badly needed some rest.
As we took possession of the two nearby vacant caves– the big one for us and the small one for our guide and the porter, he went into his cave to prepare our meal. Silently, he has taken the control by allowing us to stay and by accepting us as his guest. But where from he gets his ration! The thought haunted me for the rest of the day. The Shepard of Mana (last village near Badrinath on the Indo-Tibet border) must have been supplying him with the ration on their forays into the valleys around the lake but that’s must be very occasional. Nobody would take the huge risk to come here regularly. Food is the most precious commodity here and he offering to feed us, four healthy young men, from his precious store without even batting an eyelid!
It is so frustrating when one has so many questions and no answers.
We had no prior plan to visit Satopanth Lake. We came to Badrinath for the relatively easy and well- known trek to the Valley of Flower and Hemkunda Saheb – the pilgrim centre of the Sikh. But fate had something else for us. In Badrinth we were staying in Balananda Ashram where we met Swami Darshanananda, the in-charge of the Ashram – a sort of hotel in the guise of a Dharamshala. One evening sitting snugly in his room, we were discussing the commercialization of religion and the profusion of Dosa and Chana Batora shops in Badrinath and lamenting the loss of those quiet and peaceful religiously significant places where one can spend some time meditating or just chilling; Darshananandaji gave me a long searching look and suggested that I visit Satopanth. Though I have read about the Satopanth Lake but had not the foggiest idea how to reach it or how many days it will take us to reach, where were the paraos(the places for night rest)– these are a ‘must- know’ on any trekking expedition. Darshananandaji assured us that he would take care of everything and he did. He arranged the guide and a porter. Our newly appointed guide and porter bought our ration arranged a stove, kerosene and other essentials.
The lake, 25kms from Badrinath, could be reached after a difficult trek of two-day with night rest at Lakshmiban and Chakratirtha. Caves in those stopovers are used as the night shelter. Around Badrinath every place is steeped in legends so are Lakshmiban and Chakratirtha. It is said that goddess Lakshmi ( goddess of wealth)and her husband Narayan ( the preserver) meditated in Lakshmiban and Chakratirtha respectively and while meditating Narayan kept his famous Sudarshan Chraka on the valley which depressed by the weight of that Chakra to form a beautiful round shaped meadow surrounded by lofty mountains.
I really feel that the whole of Himalaya is not only made of stone and ice but also of legends and hearsays.
The route initially goes along the true right bank of the fiercely flowing Alakanada River. But instead of the right bank we mistakenly took the left bank – not that there are well defined ‘asphalt roads’ in this part of the world but boulders and scree with no sign of any distinct path. We paid the price of the mistake by bivouacking (open encampment) at an altitude of 13000feet. It was such a freezing experience!
Madan Sing Bist, our guide, tried his best to dissuade us from taking the left bank trail but the ITBP constables, posted at Mana – the last village on the Indian side (we were on the Indo-Tibet border) stopped us from proceeding further. They wanted to see our permission for visiting Satopanth. We were supposed to take permission from the Sub-Divisional Magistrate of Joshimath. We did not know that and pleaded ignorance. But ignorance is ‘no plea in eyes of Law’ and we were told to go back. Finding no way out, I had a talk with the in-charge of the ITBP camp and showed him my official identity card. Thus convinced that we were no Chinese spy and no threat to the national security, we were mere humble government servant who could be traced easily, we were allowed to proceed.
Though lowly paid, but the government servants had some advantages!
The ITBP soldiers who were supposed to know this place like the back of their hand “enlightened (!)” us on the forthcoming broken glacier along the right bank route. They said ‘it would be very risky to cross that broken glacier’. Feeling superior on our theoretical knowledge and paying no heed to the sage advice of our guide, we marched on along the left bank. So at the end of the first days’ trek of ten hours, we found ourselves lost amidst an ocean of rocks, boulders — without a shelter and more importantly without a source of water. We had a princely dinner with a handful of nuts and raisin.
Fortunately, we could find an overhang under which we could manage to spread our ‘royal bed’ on the rocks and could somehow squeeze together. In a way that was good, because our body-warmth would give us some heat and when your night shelter is at more than 13000ft with three sides open, you need all the warmth that you could generate. We could also identify the direction towards which to proceed. But that would be another day and we were too tired to think straight.
It was still dark, around 5 in the morning, when I woke up. As I fell asleep around 8 in the night, an early rise was obvious. Even dog-tired souls just cannot sleep more than 9 hours. As I looked with some trepidation towards the dangerous trail that lay ahead that we have to traverse, the first few sunrays touched the snow crested peak of Nilkantha West Ridge and the peak erupted into a blaze. Stunned, I devour the sight — a prodigious fire on a snow peak. All of yesterdays’ hassles and hardships have turned into a beautiful gift.
Himalaya takes a lot but gives back plenty; one could not hold it in ones palm, it always overflows.
The rest of the journey till we reached Chakratirtha, was somewhat boring! Clambering up the loose moraine, going two steps forward and sliding one step down, with a few water falls and snow peaks giving company; it is laborious and event less except a few land slides and rock falls that nearly killed us. But by that time, such happenings were ‘all in a days’ work’!
On the way Madan Sing showed us a valley, high up on the mountain and said, “Sir, O dekhiye Alakapuri”( See there is Alakapuri)”! Alakapuri, the abode of Kuber, the god of wealth, was immortalized by Kalidas – the great ancient poet, in his book of verse “Meghdutam.”
Eventually, on the verge of collapse, we reached our destination. As we collapsed on the last ridge – the valley laying under us, Asim, my companion uttered a full sentence of the day, he was too busy to save his life. He said wearily, “Well, we are saved.”
Surrounded by lofty snow peaks, Chakratirtha, a well shaped circular green meadow, around 2 kms in length and 1.5 kms in breath, was a relief amidst the harsh environment. A small rivulet of about three feet wide divided the meadow in two halves. We took shelter in the only cave which fortunately was wide enough to accommodate all of us but to enter in it; we had to walk on our knees.
Next day we were on to Satopanth glacier. After three hours of hard trekking on the treacherous glacier we reached under the last ridge and could see the red flag flying on top of the ridge indicating the site of the lake. We simply dragged ourselves to the top.
The first thing that struck me squarely was the strange ethereal ambience of the lake. It had such calm and soothing effect; probably because it’s an achievement of hard labour or may be the legends, ultimately got me! But I had to admit, our suicidal efforts were amply rewarded. The perfectly triangle shaped lake at the base of the snow crested Chaukhamba I peak, surrounded by lofty mountains reflected an azure sky. A small green field in its eastern side, dotted with alpine flowers accentuates the harsh surrounding. As I feasted on the spellbinding scenery, for the first time I became aware of the complete lack of sound around it. It’s eerie! Except the sound of occasional avalanches that were coming down the Chaukhamba peak, as it is already mid-day and the snow on the peak has started to melt, coming down as huge avalanches, the silence was all encompassing. In fact the sound of the avalanches – alike the sound of a thunder, only accentuates this all-embracing, all-pervading silences. The emerald green water of triangular lake mirrors the snow crested Chaukhamba I peak. The image has been repeatedly broken by the waves of the lake forming due to the pleasantly cold gentle breeze that wafted from the snow crested Chaukhamba peak. The broken image re-forms immediately only to be broken again.
I was resting on the grassy bank of the lake when Madan Singh showed me a path towards the Chaukhamba I peak and told me, that was the path traversed by the Pancha Pandavs on their last journey to the heaven. He said, even today, ascetics who want to leave this painful world to enter the other world of supreme bliss, often take that path never to return.
This practice was very much in vogue just some three hundred years ago. Then the King of Tehri used to give this permission to those ascetics who wanted to take that last journey. But before giving permission, the aspirant was provided with all the luxuries of life — well fed, well dressed, company of beautiful maids and so forth. After few days of living in utter luxury he was commanded to leave all and to return to his former ascetic-life of abstinence. If he succeeded to return, only then the permission was granted. Later, the British government stopped that practice.
But nobody is there to keep an eye to prevent ascetics from this suicidal effort. So even today ascetics do take this last journey on this path towards the peak of Chaukhamba never to return. That’s why Chaukhamba is called ‘Swargarohini’(path to heaven) by the locals.
From the bank of the lake, I could see a clear path like trail leading to the peak of Chaukhamba. But as the sun rose high, avalanches after avalanches started to roll down that path. It’s definitely a sure path to the other world; whether that path goes to heaven or hell that I am not very sure.
The clearness of the lake-water was surprising. It’s crystal clear. Standing on its bank, I could see almost its bottom. Legends has it, whenever something falls in the water, small birds would come flying and pick it up from the water. I have heard the same story on other sacred lakes of Himalaya, Khecheopalri in Sikkim being one.
Some small grey birds were hopping around me on the bank of the Satopanth Lake. I made a small paper ball and threw it in the lake. My paper ball remained floating till the afternoon turned into the evening and I could not see it any longer. But no bird came to pick it up.
As the evening descended, my silent ascetic came and sat beside me. It seemed that he is in a mood to talk. Immediately, I started to fire my questions. Smilingly he took up a pen and started to write down his answers in my diary.
I asked, ‘why did he come to this god forsaken place?’
He simply replied, ‘to meditate’.
‘But that can be done in ones home.’
He said, ‘yes. But you know, milk comes out only from the nipples of the cow and not from its horn or hoop.’
We talked about god, religion, spirituality, laws of nature, almost on every thing under the sun except on his person. He refused to answer any personal query; not even from where he came from. He had magnificent clarity of though, deep insight, strong opinion – a bit religious may be, but nevertheless strong belief backed by logical argument.
At the end of it he asked me, ‘why did you come?’
I said, ‘to see and to experience this fantastic world of myth and reality; to see this breathtaking beauty.’
He said, ‘me too. But to see the mountain within the mountain; to see the tal
within the tal; to experience the world within this world of myth.’
The evening passed into a starry night, I have never seen so many stars in the night sky before and the night into a glorious dawn. It was time to depart from this world of splendor and legend. As we clambered up the ridge, our silent ascetic stood on the bank of lake biding us farewell. I turned back to have a last look. I, certainly, will not be coming again. Seeing me turn back, he waived. I felt his gaze on me — full of compassion and tolerance, silently caressing me like the soft touch of a caring mother. Again something wailed inside me, and again I felt like crying aloud.
We did not know anything about him. Mortals like us are not comfortable with unanswered queries and unexplained phenomena. There were so many unanswered questions– thousands of it that were never going to be answered, smothered by the omnipotent silence. Perhaps he was right to take the vow of silence. This is certainly the right place for taking such a vow.
It is said, Bramha-Bishnu-Maheswar – the holiest of the gods, the Holy Trinity, are in perpetual meditation on the three vertices of the triangular shaped Satopanth Tal (Lake). That’s why its ambience is so ethereal. Nobody dares to break the all-pervading cloak of silence around here.
Off course, we have not seen any of the Holy Trinity; on second thought, perhaps we have seen one!