I met Zoltan at Dhanchoo inside a Chati (roadside eateries and resting place). Danchoo, a picture-perfect valley on the bank of Manimahesh Ganga, deep inside the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas, is the perfect place for a discussion on mysticism and God. For Zoltan- the Yugoslavian – is bent upon such a discussion. He was traveling in China, Thailand and India for the last two years in search of spiritualism or for a perfect guru. It was raining hard and inside the Chati, sitting cozily on a blanket with glassful hot tea in our hand, we were animatedly discussing various aspect of eastern mysticism. It’s only natural to discuss mysticism as the trail that we were trekking, leads to Manimahesh Lake (13500fts) – a sacred oval shaped glacial lake on the foot of a peak, called Manimahesh Kailash (5656mts) – said to be the summer bode of Lord Shiva and this period – Janma-astami to Radha-astami (end August to mid September), is said to be the most auspicious for the pilgrimage.
It was early morning when we reached Hadsar from Bharmour, traveling on a narrow asphalt road, bounded by hill on one side and a deep gorge on the other through which flows Buddhal River. Hadsar (7000fts) – the road head – is a small settlement and is usually buried under snow through out the winter.
After a breakfast of hot French toast washed down with steaming tea from a Langar (free eateries that spring during this Yatra period), we – my 68years old companion and myself- started to climb. The trail, leaving the bank of Buddhal River, soon became quite steep; but the stunning scenario, particularly the tortuous course of Buddhal amidst tall pine and deodar and the foaming colfluence of Buddhal and Manimahesh Ganga, was incentive enough for tramping ahead.
Accessible only from late June July to early October, the route is closed with deep snow for most of the year. From the very beginning, it is a steep climb with hardly any descent. This is tough; because while going up you yearn for a few patches of downward slope. Similarly, when coming back, the steep descent put in severe pressure on the knee. The result is an aching feet and wobbling knee. But the breathtaking scenery and the serenity that prevails around more than compensate the pain and the hardship.
After walking continuously for two hours, I came upon a log bridge over the swirling Manimahesh Ganga. The very thought of crossing that wobbling bridge without any hold to hang for dear life, forced me to take a rest and ponder over the dangerous situation that I am letting myself in ! But the beauty of a trek is that you can’t stop midway. There is no place to stay and from previous experience, I know spending a night on the open in such a freezing environment is not very funny. So balancing myself precariously and staring straight ahead, I took the first hesitant step and was able to cross. I was feeling great, like when a contestant won in the “Who Dares win” and looked back smugly to survey my just owned feet. Imagine my shock, when I saw a one legged man with a crutch crossing that bridge with ease, uttering loudly the name of the Lord Shiva ! With a badly bruised ego I started to climb again and within an hour reached Danchoo, the nights rest.
Danchoo (12000fts) surrounded by the mountain, is a small grassy valley through which flows the fiercely flowing Manimahesh Ganga. On its southeast corner, the entire flow of Manimahesh Ganga cascades downs a giant boulder. The setting sun draws a stunning rainbow over that cascading fall. The valley resplendent in colour slowly turns gray as dusk descend silently and the temporarily installed electric bulbs sprang into life bringing an end to my dreaming.
Next day from the very beginning the climb became steeper. We stared to climb towards ‘Bandarghati’ (a place for Monkey) —a most appropriate name, I must say. The 2 kms trek took one full hour due to its sheer steepness. The next stop, Sunrashi, ahead of another 2 kms trek is comparatively less steep. Since we have crossed the tree line (usually tree line finishes at 10,000fts), the pines and the deodars are replaced by blue, red and yellow Alpine flowers. Throughout the trek Manimahesh Ganga is my companion. I am trekking alone. My companion has fallen behind. The age has caught up with him.
I reached Gourikunda (another 3 kms from Sunrashi) around 12-30 hrs. Manimahesh Lake is only 1 km away on the other side of a ridge. But I had to wait here for Sonamama (my companion) and Maninder (my porter). They took another two hours to reach and by this time it started to rain. So Sonamana decided to stay in Gourikunda. Assisted by Maninder, I went ahead amidst torrential rain. So far, we were able to avoid rain by reaching our each days destination by early noon. But now, despite wearing a water proof suite and shielding myself with an umbrella, I was drenched. Some thoughtful (!) guy had paved the path from Gourikunda to the Lake with concrete and rain made it quite making it slippery. So the 1 kms trek took a full hour and at last I was standing on the bank of Manimahesh Lake (13500fts).
The big greenish lake in a depression amidst snow capped mountains, fed by a glacier that originates just below the Kailash peak, had an immediate soothing effect on my over worked muscles and nerves; one feels at ease with the nature. A concrete path and a guard wall encircle the lake. On the western side of the lake stands a trident—the symbol of Shiva along with a white marble stone image of the lord. To day is Janma-astami — the most sacred day for offering a Puja to the Lord; so hundreds of devotees are having an ablutary dip in the ice-cold water before offering Puja. A festive ambiance prevails. The rain has stopped. The sun came out of the cloud briefly to put the snow-crested peak of Kailash on fire, turning the greenish water of the lake flaming orange.
In the morning we were waiting for the sun to rise when Daniael- a French Canadian, who comes to India twice a year to research on mystic cults and with whom I was introduced yesterday – came up and we discussed the legend of Manimahesh.
When Shiva became fed up with the polluted environment of Amarnath, he came to hide in the pristine Manimahesh. A Gaddi (Shepherd), on course of tending his sheep, wandered into Manimahesh and discovered it. He was ordered by Shiva himself not to reveal this place to anyone and to keep his part of the deal he was rewarded with one thousand sheep (in my childhood, I was told Gods don’t bribe. It is us the mere mortals who are to offer bribe to please the Gods). But the shepherd disclosed his secret to a monk and agreed to lead him to that place. On reaching Manimahesh he heard a voice accusing him of the broken vow and he along with his sheep and the monk were turned into stone for their insolence. One crow that was accompanying them also turned into stone. But the secret of Manimahesh was unveiled. And the annual pilgrimage to the sacred lake began.
Fact file: The railhead is Pathankot. Direct bus and private taxi link is available to Hadsar-the road-head via Bharmour – the ancient capital of Gaderan(the land of the Gaddis). The trek starts from Hadsar. The first days stop is at Danchoo (7kms). One can reach Manimahesh (8kms) next day. The route is steep but stone paved. The best time is August end to middle of September when shelter and food are available throughout the route. But then the route becomes a bit crowded. Trek in July and October is lonesome. But then all provision including tent and ration need to be carried.