It was an early start to the day as we had to have breakfast and be on the bus ready to go by 6. The previous day had been a long one with the drive from Rishikesh to Guptakashi taking all day. The roads in this part of India are very narrow and very bumpy with numerous delays due to road works, so while it was an incredibly beautiful and enjoyable journey it was very tiring.However, the food and accommodation at Guptakashi was great and despite a little bit of nervous anticipation, I slept well and was ready for the day’s challenge..
The first part of the Yatra in Rishikesh was amazing. The opportunity to practice with my Paramaguru, Sharath on the banks of the Ganges was a dream come true. The walk to Kedarnath seemed to me to be the heart of the “Yatra/Pilgrimage” part of the trip and I was really excited to be doing this. We were going to be walking up into Shiva’s back yard! We would be following in the footsteps of countless pilgrims who have been making the journey for thousands of years. We would have the chance to have darshan and do puja in an ancient temple dedicated to Shiva in the form of a bull.This all seemed a little surreal and dream like to me, and yet as we boarded the bus in darkness it was happening!
Travel plans in India are necessarily fluid and the decision had been made to make the pilgrimage to Kedarnath a day earlier. This meant that we would be climbing from 372 m in Rishikesh to 1319 m in Guptakashi and then walking 14 km up to 3583 m the next day. Not a lot of time to get used to the altitude! I have never been this high before and had no idea how I would cope. It proved to be incredibly challenging for me but not the only challenge.
It was never my intention to reach Kedarnath by helicopter. I felt physically capable of walking and felt that steadfastness in the face of difficulty was integral to the “yatra”experience. I had thought about hiring a pony to walk along side and to ride if I needed to, but found out that the ponies travel much faster than it was possible to walk. In any case, though you could get on a pony at pretty much any stage of the walk, Thankfully I made it the whole way on foot.
Given the devastation of the 2013 flood I was expecting quite a rough path, but this was not the case at all. In fact the trail has to be the best footpath I have walked on anywhere in India! The company was good and the first part of the trail easy walking. The sun was hot on our backs and the layers of clothing were soon taken off. We gradually climbed, following the course of the Mandakini, River with snow covered Kedarnath peak in the background until about a third of the way up when we crossed the river.
The next third of the trail was considerably steeper. As we climbed I could see some heavy dark clouds up behind the peaks and wondered if we were going to experience the famed rapid change in the weather. The stops for rest got more frequent. The conversation dried up a little. We stopped for chai that seemed the best ever. Friends who had started walking but switched to riding waved cheerily to us as they went on by. The temptation was there to join them, but with more time to be introspective I began to feel the energy of the small group we were and also the energy of the hundreds of thousands of yatris who had gone before us. It felt a little as if they were walking with me.
The final third of the path levels out a little.There are even a few downhill stretches. The weather changed. It got bitterly cold and sleet and snow began to fall. The altitude began to really affect me. For the last 3 km of the climb I could only walk for about 50 to 80 steps before needing to rest. I had been told to really focus on keeping my breath steady and calm and was doing this,but my muscles would start to shake and I would feel weak and faint.As soon as I stopped to rest I would recover quickly, so Muni’s advice around the breath was invaluable. The support I received from my walking mates, Grace and Jashmine helped me through as I helped them. When I stopped, they stopped. When I needed encouragement they gave it. The Yatri spirit, the camaraderie of pilgrims shone strong! And we made it, but boy was I glad to see that we had arrived at our accommodation and there was a hot cup of chai ready. India runs on this sweet, milky tea and I totally get it.
I had some time to rest before we were to be at the temple for arati (an offering of song and fire to the god) so lay down and rested. All too soon the time came to go. I was still feeling weak and slightly nauseous but nothing was going to keep me from Kedarnath. We were still about 1.5 km from the temple. It was very cold so we slowly made our way along the path.
The first sight of Kedarnath temple is something that I will never forget. For me it was as close to a direct experience of God as I have ever had. My tiredness and nausea dropped away and I could feel a magnetic pull up the steps and long courtyard to the temple itself. I have never felt a place as powerful as this and once inside the temple with shoes off I followed the crowd around past the images of the Pandavas, the brothers who had finally caught up with Shiva in this very spot. At first sight of the lingam, the representation of Shiva, I could no longer control the surge of emotion and burst into tears. My roomie for the trip, John, wrapped me in his arms. I wept in wonderment, in joy, in sorrow, with a depth of emotion that still surprises me.
I have been back at home for almost 2 months now and have had the chance to reflect. I can understand that calling a trip a pilgrimage and combining that with the power of India, with 6 days of practice with Sharathji at Rishikesh, with rituals performed and stories told, with dips in Mama Ganga, a bit of hardship, a beautiful group of people and the location that is Kedarnath is bound to break down some of the barriers we build up in our ordinary Western lives.This opens us to experiences of an intensely spiritual nature.Knowing this doesn’t lessen the power of this experience. The only regret, if you can call it that, I have is that the pull to Kedarnath remains strong. I have not finished with that place, or it has not finished with me.