Friday, May 24, 2013

In search of Mata Ji, Part Two

Who are you?...                                                                                  

      The next morning my porter, a grinning young man named Ragu, hair neatly parted, clothes immaculate, shouldered my pack. In it were a sleeping bag, mat, sweater, rain gear, water bottle, flashlight, Sierra cup, Buck knife, medicine, power bars, wool trousers and assorted other advantages of the technological trekker; in addition to all this I wore the latest in light-weight foot gear, and carried a walking staff. Sharma wore only his robe and plastic lounge boots without laces, and in a cloth bag over his shoulder carried a toothbrush and extra undershirt.
     We took the trail east from Gangotri, past the mule drovers' bivouac and the naked baba's. Already women bathing in the river had spread their saris on the stones - bright swaths in glorious, angled sunlight - and ahead of us the mountains revealed massive granite corridors above the line of deodars and birches, a uniquely Himalayan landscape. Some pilgrims teetered on mule-back, bound for the glacier at Gaumukh, about 20 kilometers distant and 2,500 feet higher.
     Two half-naked sadhus with their metal tridents sat with a plump sannyasi in an orange robe, on a level spot below the trail. They waved us down. "Chilam babas," said Ram Sharma, a reference to the pipes - chilams - used by the Shaivites. These wore beads and pendants; their hair was wrapped in soiled white cloth and their eyes glassy. They had mixed ganja - pot - with tobacco and wrapped a wet cloth around the mouthpiece, as a filter. One lay on his side, the chilam pointed toward the sky, and took great lungs-full of smoke. He passed the pipe along to the other one, who chuffed and offered it to us.
     We declined did not seem to bother them. Small amounts of drugs were seen as an aid to meditation, although none of that was going on at the moment. Leaves of the same plant were mixed with milk in a drink called bong, used in some religious ceremonies. One chilam baba asked to see my binoculars and then held them inches from his face; I don't think he saw what I had seen.
     Sharma estimated that there were 250 sadhus in and around Gangotri. Almost all of them took free food from the ashrams, begged, and sold a few items when possible. India's religious institutions, with cooperation of the government, supported a vast contingent of such holy and less-than-holy, in what admirers cited as proof of the country's spirituality and what critics considered an unprecedented drain on resources and productivity.
     Later, we stopped for parathas and ginger tea at a canteen - canvas and sticks - set up beside the trail, in a place called Chirbasa, "place of pines." I asked Sharma about the authorities' tolerance of drugs in the land of the pilgrim, where even the boy squatting over the wood fire, next to stacks of biscuits and containers of mango juice - Frooti - had a twist of hand-rolled hashish in his shirt pocket. "In India," said Sharma, "there are no laws, and no accidents." By accidents he meant violent crimes. "In America, there are many laws, and so many accidents."
     That afternoon the valley broadened, and the sky, alternately blue and gun-metal gray, spat rain. We hiked under the Kedarnath range and Shivling, a striking, claw-like up-thrust reminiscent of the Matterhorn, with a crest of snow smoothly sculpted by light and distance. Like most everything else, the mountain was sacred, intimately bound up with the god of destruction and rebirth, graphic in both religious and carnal associations. Shivling was symbolic of Shiva's penis, and maybe more than symbolic, the lingham revered all over India.
     From our slope we looked down at Bhujbasa ("place of birches"), a government-run way station and a neighboring ashram, backed by bare, tilled earth. Stones held down the corrugated metal roof, and white mattresses aired in the thin light of early evening. An old man in glasses with thick, scarred lenses sat on a stone wall reading the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit, an episode in the ancient legend, the Mahabharata.
     We drank sweet tea from metal glasses and then passed under the low eaves of the kitchen where huge brass pots hung over a cooking fire. A dozen sannyasin in turbans sat against the wall, their ringed fingers dipping into mounds of steaming rice, the whites of their eyes illuminated by the flames. We walked on to the government dormitory, where we chose beds from a dozen lining the wall, under wooden shutters that opened onto a courtyard full of mules and their owners. Pilgrims and porters sat in a room at the end of the dark hall, the lanterns barely penetrating the depths of a kitchen where men in filthy clothes labored over the wood stove.
     Sharma, Ragu and I ate dal and curried vegetables, the eternal combination of Garhwal, grateful for the warmth and the ballast. It was a medieval scene:  bundled pilgrims at communal tables, in the gloom of candlelight, none relishing the night ahead, tough old crones resting their chins on their metal-tipped walking staffs, determined men resisting fatigue and the cold, a pretty young Indian woman covering her mouth with a corner of shawl and wiping away tears with another.
     Back in the dormitory, I burrowed under a coverlet redolent of someone else's feet. Sharma, the Brahmin, talked softly with two engineers from balmy, southern Mysore, members of the Kshatriyas caste, one level below his own. Until this trip these men had never even put on sweaters; now they were wrapped in everything they had, including garbage bags, speaking English because they knew no Hindi and Sharma knew no Kannada. "We practiced walking on a hill behind our house," said one, daunted by real mountains.
     I awoke before dawn to see Sharma sitting up in bed, cacooned in his coverlet, meditating. I got up while the mules were being harnessed in the courtyard and went for tea; when I returned, Sharma was standing on his head, in his underwear.
     We took the trail to Gaumukh and the Ganges glacier, a mass of ice and up-heaved earth indistinguishable from the mountain itself, under a bright sun. At almost 13,000 feet a few entrepreneurs still sold Frooti; pilgrims bathed in just-thawed water that contained the first blush of what would become the awesome sedimental load of the Ganges. Then they headed back toward Gangotri.                                   
      We kept climbing. The ground looked solid but was in fact ice and dirt, scored by crevasses. The retreating glacier had left a towering moraine, and we paused often in the long, near-vertical ascent, blowing in the rarified air and gazing back at broad, dun-colored valleys and scree slopes like mile-long tendrils of broken rock; the people below dwindled to invisibility.
     Near the top, Ram Sharma said, "I am about to go to heaven."
     Tapovan means "valley of meditation" but was in fact a high, grassy plateau at the edge of which stood a stone house built into over-hanging rock, with paneless windows and a low doorway. Empty rice and lentil sacks were spread on the dirt porch like welcome mats, and on them sat four blanketed sadhus, not Shaivites but followers of Vishnu. A dark figure emerged from the house, woolen cap pulled down over a mass of hair: it was Mata Ji, the woman I had come thousands of miles to see, carrying a blackened pot in one hand and a rag in the other, wearing a blanket coat with holes at the knees, red wool socks and floppy, high-topped sneakers.
     She hugged Sharma, who presented her with mangoes and cucumbers purchased in Gangotri. She pressed her hands together in the traditional Hindu greeting when we had been introduced, her eyes quickly taking in my western clothes and, I suspected, all my limitations. Then she went back inside, urging us in Hindi to relax and take some chi - tea - before lunch.
     It arrived on metal plates: rice, dal, clarified butter, more rice, more dal, more chi, all dispensed by Mata Ji, with the help of two resident sadhus. Her name meant, roughly translated, "respected mother," and the maternal aspects of hermitry became increasingly apparent. Another group of sadhus came and dumped their bundles unceremoniously, expecting chow; Mata Ji fed them and then swept the porch, fetched water, washed clothes and spread them on rocks to dry. This was, for all practical purposes, a high Himalayan hostel for which Mata Ji charged nothing, but she did accept donations. "You just come here for sleeping," she told Sharma, who was gazing up at lenticular clouds whipping past the beacon of Shivling. Her gap-toothed laugh resonated like the swami's.
     She eyed my notebook with skepticism. Her natural reticence auguring against the traditional interview, but gradually some facts emerged: she was 65, an orphan who had grown up in an ashram in the south of India devoted to Krishna, one of the nine incarnations of Vishnu. Krishna had been raised by peasants and had special appeal for the working classes of India. Mata Ji had come to the Himalayas - as had the naked baba, and Ram Sharma - because a guru advised it, sufficient motivation in India, a journey made 13 years before. She had spent the last six winters alone in Tapovan with her Gita and kerosene stove.
     What I had imagined as a remote, empty place supported a steady stream of traffic: more sadhus carrying bundles with head straps from Bhujbasa to temporary encampments up-valley, where white flags flew; a Nepalese climbing party bristling with equipment; two western women in beads and blowzy skirts, sun-burned, walking barefoot over the plateau with shoes in hand. "Hey," said one, recognizing Sharma, "can you change a traveler's check?"
     She was American, her friend British, both formerly of the ashram at Pura, still in search of the proper guru. They were for the moment chilam baba hopping, taking advantage of India's cheapness, its broad acceptance of the unconventional, its respect for the religious quest, and the ready availability of chemical substances.
     I asked, when they had strolled on, what Mata Ji thought of the increasing number of western swami wanna-bes seeking pleasure and high-priced holy men in India. She said, "It is bad for the country," a bit of conservative logic from a celibate, abstemious Vishnuite living in the massive shadow of Shiva's reproductive organ. But she was a Vishnuite, and Vishnu was the preserver, an aspect of Hinduism that inspired Mata Ji's devotion to the people around her, whatever their proclivities, proven by the arrival of a party of young professionals from Delhi.
     They crowded into Mata Ji's little house and sat with their resplendent gear bunched around them, like children, not sadhus or even casual seekers after the truth but the Indian equivalent of yuppies - an advertising executive, a computer salesperson, a bank clerk suffering from altitude sickness, and three others, plus porters - and they clearly expected to be provided for.
     The sun was setting. The air felt charged with the bleak promise of the Himalayan night. One of Mata Ji's assistants prayed in the adjoining cave, his gaunt frame silhouetted against the candlelight. By my count there were 19 people in space equivalent to the inside of a Airstream trailer, with smoke emanating from incense sticks and the cooking nook. I rued the absence of a tent.
     The respected mother barked out a single order in Hindi that drove her guests backs against the walls. A sadhu rolled black plastic sheeting down the middle of the floor: our table cloth. Soon it was crowded with tin plates full of streaming rice and vegetables, and cups of chi, all whipped up on the single-burner kerosene stove and a smoldering pile of charcoal. Then Mata Ji dispensed blankets. The bank clerk disappeared beneath his ration, and the rest of us stretched out, shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip, all shyness mitigated by the frigid air that soon filled with coughs, snores, and the mutterings of troubled dreamers.
     At 2 a.m., worried about the oxygen supply, I crawled outside and lay on the stone porch, piled with everything I owned. Overhead was a southern, star-pierced sky I didn't know, scored with meteors seemingly falling out of Tibet. Shivling, back-lit by the moon, trailed cloud across broad, luminous snowfields. At dawn the tip lit up like a light bulb, the knife's edge of the descending warmth etching vertical lines between ice and rock.
     The bank clerk miraculously recovered and he and his party left, full of chi and goodwill. I and Ram Sharma were unexpectedly invited into Mata Ji's cave, which served as her temple, and Sharma confided, "I told her your daughter studied the Hindu religion."
     The little altar supported a framed painting of Krishna, a conch shell - symbol of Vishnu - a kerosene lantern and a basket of scarves, Mata Ji's only sartorial variant. She rarely had heat even in winter, when the rarified air made fires, and breathing, incompatible. Then the temperature could descend far below zero; sheets of ice often covered the front of the house. Hallucinations tended to precede spring thaw.
     A malla hung on the wall, the wooden beads turned dark by the touch of her fingers. Prayer, and chanting, helped her endure what was to me unimaginable. "If the soul is satisfied," she said matter-of-factly, "the body doesn't matter."
     She lit two incense sticks and prepared an offering: scented paraffin in a metal cup, set atop the lantern to melt. She twisted a wick from cotton strands and lit that, too, and opened a notebook so battered it barely hung together. With a ballpoint pen from a carefully husbanded stash she recorded the date, a daily ritual that allowed her to keep track of religious holidays. Then she took a mirror from an ancient wooden case, dipped a fingertip into a tin of sandlewood paste and, studying her dark reflection surmounted by the ragged wool cap, made two bright orange streaks from eyebrows to hairline - the color of chrysanthemums floating on the Ganges.
     I asked if there was anything Mata Ji desired. She thought for a moment. "To have no desires, and nothing to break the rhythm of life."
     I could think of only one really appropriate question, sophomoric perhaps in the world at large but quite natural, asked in a smoke-scumbled cave at 14,000 feet, in one of the most beautiful valleys on earth. "Life," she answered, putting away her mirror, "is for discovering who you are."

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