The father son duo in the above photograph walked all the way from Hadsar to Manimahesh Lake in this posture only. 13 Kilometers that is. Next to them is Babaji from Udhampur.
Babaji is 70+. He is a married man, keeps coming here alone, with his son, and sometimes with his grandson too. Babaji is wearing Relaxo bathroom chappals. I saw him going to the Kelang Wajir – Kartik Swami Mandir barefoot. 10KMs that is at 11000 feet. I am told that he will walk barefoot once he crosses the 15400 feet high Jotnu Pass. That means he will walk barefoot for another 5 KMs.
This is perhaps for the 10th time Babaji is doing his Manimahesh Kailash Parikrama.
A school teacher from Punjab is on his first Parikrama Yatra. He has kidney stone problem. Stone size 5cm perhaps, I don’t remember. I am hopeful that he will make it through. Having seen my good friend Jaipal suffering from stone problem, I can only imagine what it takes to walk with stones dancing in your kidneys.
And when we talk about tourists in India, not to include Gujaratis’ would be a crime.
There was a 49 year old Gujarati lady who couldn’t walk properly even on the mule track. And the pass she was supposed to cross was 15400 feet high. With no trail marks at all. It was her first time in the Himalayas and she chose Kailash Parikrama.
‘All of them successfully completed their journey’
On your way back via the conventional route, you see hundreds of disabled men and women walking towards the holy lake. And they too make it to the top. Some do it in a couple of days, some take a week or so. But they do make it to the top. Some of them visit every year. A celebrity status they have acquired.
Crazy Indians. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s all I can say.
Chamba Kailash Yatra is one of the most popular pilgrimages of Himachal Pradesh. Every year during the ‘Saavan Ka Mahina’ people from across the globe rush to catch a glimpse of the 5656 Meter high Kailash Peak. Conventionally, the 13KM long Hadsar trail is followed.
Those coming from Lahaul, Bada Bhangal take the unconventional yet amazingly beautiful Parikrama route, which includes crossing the 4710 meters high Jotnu Pass. In July 2013, I went twice in 10 days to the Chamba Kailash but not once I could see the Kailash Peak because of bad weather. I had a gut feeling that I will definitely get a crystal clear view this time.
However I saw much more than that. I witnessed the Great Indian Traveler Spirit on this expedition.
As usual, I and my companion had no guide and any food or stay arrangements. We were told that we will find a gaddi below the pass. That’s all we knew. The first stop was at Kugti Village, which surprisingly is a huge village. 75 families in Kugti Village. While one trail from Kugti leads to the Kugti Pass, connecting Chamba to Lahaul over the Kugti Pass, the other one is the Parikrama trail.
It is advisable to pay a visit to the Kelang Wajir – Kartik Swami Temple because a) the local customs say so, and b) the temple is located at a height which gives you an astounding view of the valley. Moreover, you get to hear stories from the temple pujari. There is one bell installed at the gate of the temple which has inscriptions in Tankri Scirpt.
Tankri is was an indigenous Pahadi script but we lost it. However, there are people who are working on translating and deciphering this language. We will talk about that in a separate blog post.
Early morning, next day when we were about to leave, we met a group of Punjabi’s on their very first Parikrama Yatra. They invited us and we gladly accepted. Our food problem was now solved. There we got to know about Babaji. A 70+ old man, on his 10th journey to the Chamba Kailash. He was a married man, a grihasth as we know it. He didn’t have many warm clothes, neither a pair of shoes nor any headgear except for a towel, gamcha as we call it. He belonged to the state of J&K and he expertly spoke the gaddi language.
There was Mr Sukhdeep, Mr. Avtaar, and the schoolteacher who was explaining to his friend about the right way to inject a syringe. Except for babaji, they didn’t know anything about mountain passes, mountain sickness, or anything else. I guess they didn’t even care.
All they knew was this, ‘ Bhole ne bula liya hai, wahi pahunchaega ab.’ [Lord Shiva has called us, he will see us through]
You may call it faith or superstition or madness or foolishness or whatever. They wouldn’t care. They didn’t care.
After walking 8-10 km in 9 hours, we reached at the base camp, Hanuman Mandir as we call it. The Punjabi group barring babaji was tired and exhausted. The base camp was at 3860 meters and they all were gasping for breath. They didn’t eat their dinner. They slept like docile animals in their sleeping bags, if only they got any sleep.
Because the Punjabi’s had planned to stay at the Hanuman Mandir camp for a day, me and my friend were all set to leave alone the next morning. Then we met another group already camping at the site. Gujarati tourists they were. A young couple (35-40), an old couple (45-50), and a 56 year old man.
The kind of shoes and clothes they were wearing, I am sure the touring agency didn’t brief them about the difficulty of this trek. Yet they marched on. One step at a time, that’s all they knew and understood. Six of them had only three or perhaps two water bottles between them. And they had consumed all of it before they entered the waterless zone.
This pass doesn’t have any water source once you leave the Hanuman Mandir campsite. That means you have to walk at least 5 kilometers without water. For those first timer Gujarati’s, it was a complicated situation. And the treacherous boulder zone made it absolutely brutal.
The last 300 meter climb to the top of the pass is very slippery. You don’t find even an inch of space to hold your feet. You take one step forward and go two steps back. Even the trek guides had given up on the entire group. They were doubtful if any of them would make it across. They were mentally prepared to abort the trek and go back.
Yet they all managed to complete the Parikrama Yatra. Each one of them made it across the treacherous Jotnu Pass.
I had to leave the entire group because of my shoes. I actually walked on one foot on this trek because my left shoe was torn.
After Three Days
I met the trek guides associated with both the groups; Punjabi and Gujarati groups. They told me that both the groups made it successfully across the pass. The Gujarati group took a little more than 15 hours. The Punjabi group made it across easily.
While we were discussing the herculean endeavor of these Punjabi and Gujarati people, I spotted a group of devotees walking barefoot. I knew who they were.
Thousands of devotees (no exaggerations) from Bhaderwah walk all the way on foot to holy Chamba Kailash every year. It is believed that Gauri (Parvati) belonged to the Bhaderwah region and they all visit Kailash just the way our parents visit our sister’s sasural occasionally. I could see kids, women, and aged people alike in the group. Bandaged feet were a common sight. The Bhaderwah natives come via the Padhri Gali Pass. And perhaps that’s the only time this abandoned road opens up for commuters.
Until I had walked these trails in the Himalayas, I used to call such traditions as superstitions. Then I learned that walking in the Himalayas doesn’t take you far away but brings you closer to yourself.
Because it’s walking and not talking that will lead us to the heavens.
Since childhood, we were told that foreigners enjoy their lives. They live it to the fullest. They travel, do what they want, and we Indians are just good for nothing. This post is my humble effort to bust that myth. A stone patient, a 70 year old walking barefoot at 11000 feet, kids as young as 12 years walking barefoot for more than 100 kilometers; if this is not craziness, then I don’t know what is.
Comparisons are bad and so is underestimating yourselves. Every peak, lake, and forest is considered sacred in India. Our pilgrimages go as high as 7000 meters up in the Himalayas. Because for us, traveling is not an extra-curricular activity. Travelling, Yatra–Ghumakkari as we call it is an integral part of Indian lifestyle.
And then there is an old Hindi saying,” bhraman karne se bhram mitta hai”
Travel dispels illusions. Go travel. Find yourself.
P.S. My friend Arvind too successfully completed his journey. In wet clothes, without any sleeping bag. All he was carrying in the name of body cover was a wet towel.