It wouldn't be amiss if I say today has been in the making for the past thirty or so years. The wonder, the imagination and delight of a five year old as she heard the tales of her grandparents after they returned from their yatra to Nepal (and Muktinath, one of the 108 divyadesams considered sacred and must visit for Vaishnavaites) knew no bounds. Or so I imagine. Whiffs of memories from that decade compels me to think that perhaps I wanted to go to the yatra myself, just like my grandparents, after I grow up. But as time passed and I 'grew up', the dream went way way back in the memory stack. I am not sure what kindled it to the surface again or what made me plan this trip. Perhaps a blog that I visited a few months back. But seriously, if you had told me, even a year back, that I would undertake such a journey and sit staring at the mountains at what seems like the top of the world (at 3800 mtrs) with a totally blank mind unable to take in the vastness and wonders of creation any more, I wouldn't have believed you. But that's where I am today and words are insufficient to capture what the mind desperately tries to soak in.
Muktinath is a tiny Tibetan/Nepali settlement in the Mustang region of Nepal. It is also part of the famous Annapurna trekking circuit in Nepal. On an average year, over 100,000 million tourists visit the Annapurna in search of adventure, beauty, peace, and ultimately their own selves - whether to discover themselves in the hardships and challenges that are part of a trekking expedition or to dissolve themselves in the divine and evolve as better beings on a pilgrimage. For me, it was a bit of both.
After a restless night (perhaps due to the altitude, I didn't get much sleep), we set off from Kagbeni to hike up the steep slopes of the mountains leading to Muktinath. Within a few minutes, climbing up about 200 or so metres, the village becomes a tiny mark in a postcard. The mountains stretch in all directions as far as the eyes can see with the early morning sun shining off the snow clad peaks in the distance. There is no sign of inhabitation anywhere sans the village in the by now far off distance. As my breath gets more laboured and the body starts all kind of tricks to abandon the walk, the noisy roar of a Jeep pierces the air as we see it approaching us from the slopes below. In a moment of weakness, the body compels the mind to seek a ride up the mountain on the Jeep. When the child cries, how can the Mom keep quiet, hmm? Well, as luck would have it, the Jeep was going in the exact same direction as us (not that there's any place else to go!) and the driver gestured us to hop in. The only catch? We were to travel in the back of the open Jeep with a big diesel drum that was getting transported to the next village (to power the JCB that is used for clearing the roads of landslide debris/laying new toppings). As the Jeep took off towards Jharkot, it's destination, I held on for dear life as every stone and pebble on the path wanted to convey their greetings to me! And there were a million of them. No really, I am not exaggerating. Okay, only a bit though. But then of course one must take the necessary risk of letting their hands go once in a while as one remembers to capture the scenes for austerity. Click after click after click kept me occupied - hey, the peak there, hey the cloud there, hey the glacier there, hey the naturally formed caves there, hey hey hey! So in what seemed like barely 30 or so minutes we are at the outskirts of Jharkot. Time to walk up the last few miles to Muktinath which is near yet was so far.
Dory to the rescue! Dory of the Finding Nemo fame. Remember what she sings? Just keep walking, just keep walking (well she says swimming but hey considering that I do not know to swim upstream, uphill the Kali Gandaki, I can't very well follow that now, can I?). But nature is kind. More kind than anyone gives her credit for. Just as I was starting to feel the burning of my feet, she gave me a mountain stream to delight at and imagine dipping my feet into. Just as I was feeling the effects of the steep slopes on my knees, she showed me a beautiful plant ladden with berries in my favorite colour of Red. And just as I was starting to feel the heat of the Sun as he climbed up higher, she amazed me with natural pathways covered by trees and strewn with leaves. Wonder after wonder revealed themselves to me as I lost myself in the flora of the sub-alpine Himalayas. And the next thing I know? We are at the cute little village of Jharkot, having Tea, with a lady researcher from Punjab (but who lives in Norway) talking about the lost cause of countries getting invaded and natural resources getting captured for power and greed. For reasons obvious, I must refrain myself from writing more in detail of our highly charged conversation that left a definite mark in our minds as we realised the immensity of the happenings in our neighbourhood. A silent prayer was all one was able to offer at that moment before continuing on our journey towards our own salvation to get the darshan of Muktinath (Mukti meaning salvation). By the way, if you happen to visit this cute village anytime, do not miss the 500 year old monastery - I totally loved the path leading up to it!
Talking of paths, I have no recollection of what came next - except that it was a really steep climb and that only my inner strength and conviction saw me through. The 3 kilometres walk that I so desperately tried to do every day back in Bangalore was no preparation at all for the final climb to salvation. And oh I do remember that some kind souls had built a few 'view points' aka resting points where one could halt and catch their breaths while pretending to take photographs. God bless them!
Human beings are so...I don't know the words to use here! How on Earth do you build a village complete with WiFi and Bob Marley Cafes high up the mountains? I guess one must commune with fellow beings that are not so motivated to attain Mukti (via WiFi and Internet) before one reaches the Temple of Muktinath. I took firm control of my mind and sternly warned it to keep quiet when my eyes searched for the WiFi sign to halt for Tea. Enough. Mukti must come before WiFi. But before that some Tea and biscuit please as we had forgotten about breakfast in our eagerness to get to the temple before it closes for Lunch (not the God but the Buddhist priestesses who take care of the temple retire at around 11 AM until 1 for lunch and perhaps some meditation). Hey, hunger is a sign of well being - which can only mean one thing! I am fully acclimatised and the altitude seems to be having no effect at all on me. Hurray! The breath is normal, there's no headache, no nausea and I wanted Tea! Cool. So remember that. Take a day and have a sleepless night at Kagbeni to better enjoy your hike up to Muktinath.
The final walk up the 100 or more steps (sorry I didn't count) to the Temple was a daze. There were buddhist prayer wheels and bells, the Hindu sadhus with matted hair, and then my dear Kali. Or rather one of the mountain stream or tributaries of Kali that comes rushing down from the Glacier high up on the Thorung pass (5300 mtrs I think) from Muktinath. This same stream is what also flows through the 108 spouts of water one must take bath in along with the 'pappa kund' and 'punya kund' before surrendering in front of Muktinath (also worshipped as Rinponche or Padmashambhava by the Buddhists). The water was freezing cold but I forced myself to walk below them instead of running from one end to another - I am not going to be bathing in these temperatures anytime soon after all. A highly emotional meeting with Mr. Muktinath aka Rinponche later, I settled to gaze at the temple from the benches arranged directly in front of the main entrance. The scene was magical. The cotton like seed pods from the Cottonwood tree (?) were all over the place, falling like snow from a clear sky. There was peace and quiet and a feeling of great blessing. A wave of much gratitude washed over me as I realised that my dream had come through.
To be continued....