Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Go: In search of a woman named Mata Ji

Tapovan, they said, was my gateway to the Himalayas...

     I slept badly on the night train from Delhi, one of those great, swaying, monochromatic monsters that ceaselessly prowl the sub-continent, and got off in the morning in Haridwar. The name means "gateway to the gods" in Hindustani, a reference to the Himalayas, but this was still the baked plain of northern India, the mountains no more than distant shadows under the haze of the building monsoon.
     The Ganges, the color of cafe au lait, brimmed with Hindus renewing themselves in water that had descended from a glacier almost three hundred kilometers away, near a place called Tapovan. That was my destination, and already I was exhausted by the heat, dust and low-grade hysteria that is daily existence in the most colorful, clamorous of countries.
     I had come to India in search of an extraordinary woman who reportedly lived in a cave at 14,000 feet, a 20th-century Hindu anchoress known as Mata Ji, the only one of many Himalayan hermits to endure the winters there. I wanted to know how and why she did this, and to take the measure of her mountains, but I had begun to regret the whole enterprise.
     That night, in an airless hotel room in nearby Rishikesh, I dreamed of violence on a mountainside, and of blood welling up from the bottom of a deep blue sea. Six hours later, in the back seat of a hired jalopy plying relentlessly dangerous roads, I came upon a battered blue bus that had been side-swiped by a truck. The driver appeared, wiping blood from his face, a profoundly unsettling coincidence.
      Hindus put more faith in instinct than in reason. To them dreams are prophetic, with little distinction made between the conscious and the unconscious. Both aspects of life are as varied as the terraced rice paddies in the foothills reflecting almost infinite shadings of green and blue, a vivid mosaic of the external world through which I carried the memories of the dream and its painful realization.
     I stopped in Uttarkashi, the last town of any size before the road assaulted the mountains in earnest. I wanted to rent trekking equipment for the walk to Tapovan from Gangotri, at the end of the road. But Mount Support, the outfitters, contained only a faded backpack standing in the corner. While negotiating for it I watched young men try to piece together mis-matched poles and greasy canvas, until finally the owner told me, "I think you don't need a tent."
     I had read of fierce winds in the mountains in June, of snow. I had no stove or pots, just a dozen high-protein "power bars" and a bottle of halazone tablets. On impulse I held up my flimsy rain shell for assessment.
     "No!No!No!No!" they all chorused.
     I held up my Patagonia sinchilla.
      India may be the only country in the world where hermitry is a viable career option. A century ago Rudyard Kipling wrote in his fine, neglected novel, Kim, much of it set here in Uttar Pradesh, "All India is full of holy men stammering gospels in strange tongues; shaken and consumed in the fires of their own zeal; dreamers, babblers, and visionaries: as it has been from the beginning and will continue to the end." Not a word, however, about holy women.
     India nurtures more religions and sects than any other country, having incubated two of the leading contenders, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as Zoroastrianism and India's very own Jainism. Hindus comprise about 80 per cent of the populace, more than half a billion people; their pantheon is appropriately crowded with a staggering array of gods and demi-gods, their plump, pretty, androgynous and sometimes bestial faces gazing from beneath the eaves of temples and shrines, out of shop windows, from rickshaw dashboards, postcards and necklace pendants.
     Intimately bound up in daily life, Hinduism involves the belief that a series of re-births lead eventually to salvation, known as moksha. The determining element is karma, that term so abused in the West; the relationship between people and karma is strictly causal. Behave badly and you will have corresponding karma and consequently a lower level of reincarnation - as, say, a cobra, or a dung beetle. Behave well and your karma improves. Meditating enhances one's understanding of one's karma, and this and other benevolent actions eventually liberate one from the cycle of rebirth that is moksha.
     Roots of Hinduism arose in the Indus Valley at least 1000 years before the birth of Christ. (The southern Dravidians also exerted influence.) The Vedic hymns and scriptures that gave Hinduism structure were  brought south by the Aryans; today their descendants look more like inhabitants of northern Europe and North America than most other races of Asia. I kept seeing old classmates and celebrities along the road, deeply sun-tanned, inexplicably involved in the steep idyll of the Indian Himal - Larry Byrd sitting cross-legged on a straw mat, a skinny Al Gore sharpening a scythe on a grindstone, Jodi Foster in a bright green sari, bent double under a load of firewood.
     These mountains, as imbued with spirituality as with tectonic drama, are the ultimate goal for what amounts to a nation of pilgrims. I saw them in battered busses spewing black smoke, bound for the shrines of Badrinath, one of the four famous dhamas of India. Bare toes pressed against cracked windshields like petals in grubby floral arrangements, their impassive faces marked with red or yellow daubs of sandlewood paste, sign of the devout, they hung calmly out over frightening thousand-foot drops to the Ganges while their drivers backed up to accommodate other busses on the narrow corniche or threaded the spaces between the mountainside and  tumbled boulders.
     Near Jhala Chatti the dirt track switch-backed and the valley opened up to reveal the mass of the Himalayas rising straight out of the earth: strung stone bows younger than the Rockies, streaked with green where the pines - Ponderosa and the stately deodars - had taken hold, cut at the base by the straight-arrow ferocity of rapids wild beyond classifying.
     It began to rain. By the time I reached Gangotri, at more than 10,000 feet, I had changed from shorts to trousers and a sweater. Mist rose in waves from cataracts that had eaten deeply into the marly stone of Kedar Gorge. The Bhagirathi River, the main tributary of the Ganges, flowed northwest, hence the name of the town, Gangotri, which means "Ganges turned north." According to myth it was here that King Bhagirath meditated to propitiate the god Shiva who kept the Ganges suspended in the coils of his hair. Satisfied, Shiva released it as three streams, one of which touched down here and immediately resurrected 60,000 people from their ashes.
     Gangotri was also the site of the temple of the goddess Ganga, built in the previous century by a Gurka commander in the Garhwal. Busses jammed the one narrow street on the precipitous slope, disgorging pilgrims, bundles on their heads and backs, the women wrapped in saris, the Punjabi sikhs wearing creased Nehru hats, collars turned up to the cold. Others had come from as far away as Madras and Calcutta, and the mountain states beyond India's borders. White dhotis - pantaloons - marked the progress of old men; the turbans of the Rajasthanis bobbed in the human current, past stalls of incense, bead mallas, bottles for taking away some water of the Ganges, flowers for floating prayers on it, staffs for climbing to the glacier at Gaumukh, brass castings of the syllable, Om, mystical affirmation intoned during the mantras, and every staple from matches to mangoes.
     Mixed with the Aryan were Mongoloid features of some locals, animated by the hustle of mountain commerce: carters piled with suitcases, mule drovers wearing their ropes, hawkers and bearded sadhus, poor spiritual seekers and/or beggars under black plastic sheets, and overall the roar of the plunging Ganges and the intermingled smells of the incense, dung, and the unmistakable skunkiness of smoldering cannabis.
     Most Hindus are followers either of the god Vishnu, the preserver, or of Shiva, the destroyer and reproducer, whose seat, and that of his consrt, Parvati, is in the Himalayas. Some Shaivites believe their god passes the time blowing dope and so base their lives on that, like the half-naked sadhus, smeared with ash, their hair in serpentine dreadlocks, their tridents, symbol of Shiva, planted at the edges of their squalid little camps. There people were expected to drop alms - paise, fractions of a rupee - as they passed, on their way to the temple.
     On impulse I approached a pilgrim in jogging shoes and a Windbreaker and asked if he spoke English. He asked, "Where are you going?"
     He was a diamond merchant from Bombay named Sunil, on pilgrimage with his family, and he took me in hand, found me a room in the Tourist Rest Home across the river - kerosene lanterns, communal baths and toilet stalls, hot water in buckets extra - advised me not to get involved with the Shaivite beggars, and said, "Come with us to arti."
     Hindu practice centers on three activities: worship, known as puja, cremation of the dead, and the observance of the caste system. Arti is morning and evening worship of the vastly complicated tripartite godhead. Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. All are associated with animals that provide them with celestial transport, and with powerful consorts and almost infinite incarnations and representations reflecting on the harmony of things spiritual and material - part of the natural laws of dharma.
     Sunil and his wife, a plump, pleasant woman in a white sari, a large diamond in her nose pierce, led me through town. We bought little leaf boats containing chrysanthemums and went down to the river's edge. They scooped up water and sprinkled it over their heads, said prayers, and set their flowers adrift. I was an observer, not a believer, but felt drawn into the pervasive embrace of Hinduism, touched by the sight of men and women dousing themselves with tumultuous glacier-melt, the sounds of children playing and the ceaseless tolling of the brass bell above the steps struck by ascending pilgrims.
     As I launched my flower boat I thought of my daughter, Jess, a student of Asian religions and reader of classical Tibetan who had planned to accompany me to India, before life intervened. I missed and needed her, to explain things and to absorb some of the daunting intensity of this place, enhanced by altitude and fatigue, the scent of wood smoke, the sight of saris, cerulean, carnelian, spread in the twilight, and lamps coming on in the windows of the ashrams across the river, all under the high, sun-lit hugeness of the Himalayan snow mass.
     Already the faithful were sitting on the stone terrace outside the temple, shoes off, chanting and squirming, a medley of ages, racial affinities and styles: shawls and saffron turbans, bright cottons and synthetics, drab woolen jackets and the orange robes of the sannyasin, the mendicant holy men, Indian tourists and their porters, the shaven and unshaven, clean and dusty. A cry went up as the doors were swung open. Sunil joined in the shouted praise of the goddess, a silver figurine on an altar amidst radiant cloth and tinsel, while a young priest on the temple porch held up a brass dish in which seven flames guttered in the cold night breeze. He began to chant, a repetitious call to faith.
     Afterward, we ate at the Tourist Rest Home - curried vegetables, roti, dal and tea - while the generator gasped in the stairwell, the electrical current lost somewhere along the line and the darkness barely alleviated by candles and lanterns. "That is where you are going," said Sunil, of the silvery black peaks visible far up-valley, under a fingernail moon. "And you don't speak a word of Hindi," said his wife.

     "While traveling in these hills," lectured my little guidebook, Call of Uttrakhand, bought at a stall in Gangotri, "please never try to divert your attention towards any seenery (sic) or howsoever sublime beauty, charm or attraction, as the practice may prove harmful and you may tumble down or perhaps loose (sic) your life even..."
     I needed a guide and found one in a room built into the face of a rock, one of the gentrified caves popular with sadhus in the Himalayas, fitted with a door and rugs. His name was Ram Sharma and he was given to meditation as well as to mediating the affairs of some of the many westerners drawn to India. He told me, in a sing-song voice through which his university education showed like elbows in a tattered sweater, that he had rejected the purely intellectual approach to enlightenment. "People talk about soul, and person. What is that? Book study! I want to get into self-knowledge, life experience - not gurus, not ashrams, but self."
      He escorted me through town, his blue robe - Shiva's color - draping a diminuative, animated figure that seemed to glide rather than to walk. Raised in Bombay, a former disciple of the late Rashneesh who founded the famous ashram at Pura, Ram Sharma was a Brahmin, the priests' caste that included India's cultural and religious arbiters. He had agreed to accompany me to Tapovan, but first he wanted to introduce me to Gangotri's celebrated "baba" - the affectionate term for Indian swamis.
     We found the swami seated under a tree, in the lotus position. I had expected him to be copiously bearded, burnished by the sun in these high altitudes; I had not expected the swami to be naked. He and Sharma conversed in Hindi, and then I was invited to join the conversation. I asked why he had come to the Himalayas, and he laughing out loud when Sharma translated. It was the "vibrations," he said, that had for millennia drawn both Buddhists and Hindus. Then he asked, “Why did you come to the Himalayas?”
Next: Tapovan and Beyond

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