Monday, December 26, 2016

You are the light of the world

I was fortunate enough to attend a faith appreciation workshop at the Heartfulness mediation center this Christmas and I am so glad that I got this opportunity. Though I grew up in a predominant brahminical environment, I have always "known" Lord Jesus thanks to my early schooling when my headmistress "Ms. Rose" served as a huge example of inspiration, generosity, and 'public figure of respect' (though of course the school never ever did try to convert us or anything like that!). I have had some wonderful wonderful friends and neighbors who follow the Christian faith who have been the very epitome of joy, love and grace along the course of my life. I've also celebrated Christmas in my own way many times. One particular instance stands out in my mind....I must have been about 10 or so when I decided that I am being greatly deprived of celebrating the best festival of the year and that I must do something about it. So up I came up with a secret Christmas celebration plan - gathered all my friends in the garden, hung some nice hand made stars on the trees, pleaded mom to buy us some plum cake from the store, and lo, we had the best Christmas party in town set amidst some lovely greenery, wonderful smell of flowers, and a feeling of deep happiness. Oh, what joy that was - to finally have my own stars and celebrate Christmas (though I doubt if I really knew what Christmas was back then!!). I have also heard and read stories of Jesus, his many miracles and in recent times parallels of his life with Lord Krishna.

But I have always balked at reading the Bible. I have been very wary of words such as 'satan', 'sin', 'temptation', and 'evil'. They conjured up feelings of fear, suffering and negativity rather than the one of joy, abundance and positivity that I am used to in my own faith (or rather the way my faith was introduced and instilled in me by my grand parents, parents and my society through the beautiful and joyful stories of Krishna and Rama). I have also been witness to the scare and 'shared opinions' on mass conversions. So while Lord Jesus was someone I highly respected and 'believed in' (as in I kind of instinctively 'knew' him to be 'true' as much as my own Krishna or Rama), the Christian faith itself is something I viewed with suspicion and caution. So whenever I came across copies of Bibles in hotel night stands, or read the quotes outside churches or saw them on car rear glasses, I  did not pay much attention to them. For, I thought, that they after all will be filled with words meant to 'caution' and 'scare' than 'encourage' and 'enlighten'. But all that changed this weekend when were given this quote to interpret and understand in our workshop.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."

When I read these lines, I felt a profound sense of truth and an instinctive understanding, a sort of  'familiarity', a realization that indeed the Divine is in all of us and it is but just waiting to be given an opportunity to shine through. Just a few days back, I had read this blog on "Total Giving, Total Living" by Sadhguru and it had struck a chord with me. As human beings, we are always calculating, measuring, wondering - either the materials, our emotions or our responses - how much am I giving, how much am I receiving, am I receiving less, are people loving me less, am I getting enough attention, am I doing too much, so on and so forth. Where is the grace? Where is the 'expectation less' giving? Even if we give 'without expectation', aren't we mentally patting ourselves on the back and feeling 'good' for being a 'do-gooder'? Is that bad? Who is the 'one' actually giving and who is the 'one' feeling good? If I give you what you desperately need, and I say not one word in acknowledgement of that act lest you feel indebted, but I secretly appreciate myself in the deep recess of my mind, and I feel soooo good, am I the one who "gave" you what you needed or are you the one who "gave" me what I needed? How do I give with a capacity where I do not even think 'I am giving' - the operative here being the "I". I guess that's the state one needs to work towards - to remove the I, to dissolve the I and to let the pure light of divine shine through. How does one "let our light shine"?

So many questions to ponder and so many thoughts to work through.

But coming back to the quote from the bible, I felt kind of startled - to know that such pearls of wisdom have been masked amidst words such as the one I mentioned above (which obviously I have taken a deep dislike towards!). Then I realized, perhaps it's the language and the time. It's the language that was used when Jesus lived and the idioms and generalizations of his time. Maybe those are the ones I am not liking and perhaps I should set aside my reservations with it and read the Bible. And as for Jesus, I think I should get to know him better - to give and to give so unconditionally, what must it have taken him (when I see him as a human, just like one of us, who walked and talked hundred of years ago) and what must he have done to let the light shine forth. Jesus has become an inspiration in my mind today - not as a Lord, God, or someone up there in heaven, but as someone who I can strive to be like, much like my Shirdi Sai and his life. Or the Adiguru Shiva.

And by some quirk of destiny, in the evening, I came upon a copy of the Bhagavad Gita which was opened to this exact page and verse that went
buddhir jnanam asammohah ksama satyam damah samah
sukham duhkam bhava bhutanam matta eva prthag-vidhah
ahimsa samata tustis tapo danam yaso yasah
bhavanti bhava bhutanam matta eva prthag-vidhah
In essence, what the above words state is that everything arises from him and manifests in individuals as per their actions and merits.

There seems to be a connection here somewhere - between my understanding of the quote from the Bible and this verse from Bhagavad Gita though I am not exactly sure what it is right now.

In any case, let us strive to let our lights shine through - whether it is Jesus, Krishna, Rama or Shiva who inspires you. Let us seek the highest that we know.

A wonderful holiday season to you all! 

Friday, December 16, 2016

A lesson in Surrender

A few months before I began planning my Mount Kailash trip, a thought came to me (or someone must have told me)  that I must undertake a similar Parikrama (or a Girivalam as we call it) of the mighty Arunachala. A Girivalam before going to Kailash and a Girivalam after coming back from Kailash - this came as an almost clear cut instruction for me. I decided I must do this and off we went to Tiruvannamalai in July. The plan was to start the Girivalam early in the morning so that we could complete it well before mid-day since we were doing it barefoot. But as luck would have it, we could start off only by 6.30 or so. Everything happens for a reason as they say (and I firmly believe) and so there was a reason for our delay in the morning that day too which we wouldn't realize until later in the day.

The Girivalam outer path is about 14 kilometres and winds around the Arunachala hill. As per the Ramana Maharishi's guide to Girivalam AND this site on Agasthiar, one could start the Girivalam from either the Ramanashram or the Brahma Linga shrine that's inside the main Arunachala temple, exit the temple from the south gopuram entrance and thence forth go around the hill in a clock wise direction, stopping at all the eight lingams. The eight lingams are built in each of the eight directions by the dikpalakas (i.e. guardian deities who guard the directions) and are named after them - Indra Lingam in the east, Agni in the southeast, Yama in the south, Niruthi in the southwest, Varuna in the west, Vayu in the northwest, Kubera in  the north, and the Esanya lingam in the northeast (Source: Guide to Giripradakshina) - that's also the order in which you will come up on their shrines during the Girivalam. One must do the Girivalam with a single mind focused on devotion, constantly keeping his or her gaze on the Arunachala, and be silent and meditative as much as possible. As Ramanamaharishi had said, one must also not hurry through this entire sadhana as if one simply needs to accomplish a goal - one must walk as if one were a nine month long pregnant lady holding an oil lamp in her hands - such must be one's pace and care while doing the Girivalam.

Arunachala darshan from Isanya Ashram
Photo & title Credit: http://arunachalagrace.blogspot.in/ 


Overall, the Girivalam is designed and meant to be an exercise in withdrawing into oneself to enable the possibility of going deeper into our consciousness and experiencing the 'Brahman'. It is a sadhana that can help us realize the true reality of nature, our connectedness with it (the cosmos/creation), and our oneness with it while keeping the Arunachala as one's axis or anchor. The Kailash parikrama is also pretty much done with the same intention - the only difference being here in Tiruvannamalai, one uses the Arunachala as our focal point while at Kailash, it is the Mount Kailash. You will also know that Tiruvannamalai is one of the "Bhuta Lingams" (i.e. places where the Divine/Shiva has manifested itself as one of the five elements) and represents the Fire element. In line with that, the entire geography/area is also one where the temperatures soar and heat is a constant companion. In contrast, Kailash is exactly the opposite - with temperatures dipping below zero degree Celsius. Having born in the Dravidian land, it is only right that I pay my respects to the Fire before I can get the strength to embrace the cold. So there I was, on that fine day in July, in Tiruvannamalai to do my Girivalam and seek his blessings to help me experience the 'oneness' at Kailash.

View of the main Arunachala Temple as seen from the way to Virupaksha Caves


We had been to Tiruvannamalai just a few months before this trip, perhaps sometime in last December, when we had taken the longest time ever to complete the Girivalam. We had started again early in the morning (5.45ish) and had hoped to complete the Girivalam well before the noon Sun hits our head. But alas, that plan was not to be then too. Right at the beginning of our Girivalam, we had the wonderful experience of seeing the Mookupodi Siddhar at Seshadri Ashram. Though we had no idea about this particular Siddhar then, when we entered the Seshadri Ashram, we saw a huge group of people gathered around an old man who seemed to be behaving a bit eccentricly (I am sorry to use this word but not able to describe it in any other way!). As anyone would do in such circumstances, we also joined the group of people and started watching this senior who made his way to the front of the Seshadri Ashram and sat down right in the middle of the front courtyard to have his breakfast. Post that, he flung the empty plate and tumbler a little violently and rose to disappear in the direction of the inner portions of the ashram - perhaps to a resting area.

The entire episode was a little nerve wrecking for me as his violent behavior was a little scary. Yet, people seemed to be pushing themselves towards him while still keeping a respectful distance. Wondering why, I found out that people were hoping to be beaten by him (he carries a walking stick of sorts) - his beating is supposed to herald good luck (as that would mean he takes away some of your bad karma for himself or something like that - I do not know about it fully to write the correct explanation here). In spite of my fear, I simply couldn't tear myself away from that crowd, overcome by a morbid kind of curiosity and hope - I have no clue for what! Thankfully, he did not beat anyone (or me!!) that day during that hour or so that we spent gathered around him. Strangely though, we were left with a beautiful feeling of elation (maybe all that adrenaline rush from the fear says my logical brain!). In retrospect, now that I think about it, the elation seemed to have stayed with us the rest of the day!! I think I was quiet drunk with happiness almost the entire day - in spite of the tiring walk of 14 km, a hot sun overhead, and the burning tar road underneath our bare feet (it was past 1 in the afternoon by the time we completed the Girivalam as we lost quiet sometime in this episode!). At one point, we were singing joyously totally unmindful of the aching legs and back! I even rushed back to the market after we completed the Girivalam and came back to our hotel - to buy some native seeds for my gardening friends back home - to the shock of my mother in law who wondered where I am getting all that energy and enthusiasm from! Strange, indeed.

So, with this memory of my immediate past experience of the Girivalam, I was supremely confident that I can very well once again undertake the parikrama in barefoot and come back none the worse. Well, well, the day had something else in store for me - least did I know! As they say about the best laid plans of men and mice, yadah, yadah!!

Due to the delay in getting some things done in the morning, on that day in July, we could start our Girivalam only by 6.15 or so. Mindful of the fact that one must try to be in a meditative mode and not hurry through the exercise, I did not let myself set a fast pace initially however otherwise my logical mind urged me to (not my body though - it seemed to want the opposite!). We lingered for a few minutes in Seshadri Ashram hoping for a repeat darshan of Mr. Mookupodi Siddhar but well obviously not as he is a wandering ascetic! The rest of the Girivalam was quiet uneventful so to speak - i.e. until about the time we came to the Vayu Lingam. It must have been about 11.30 or nearing 12 by then I think and by that time the late Summer Sun was out in his full radiating glory. The tar road underneath glistened with a "I-seem-like-am-melting-but-am-not" look and the trees that were giving shade till then seemed to be becoming more and more sparse as we approached the last of the two lingams. The hot road seemed to stretch ahead into a vast expanse of barrenness devoid of any shade as far as the eyes could see - the sidewalks lined with tiles were no better, broken in places and as hot as the tar road if not more.

Where must one step, where can this by-now-rubbed-raw feet find some respite, where is there shade - my entire mind was filled with thoughts of only these questions. Arunachala disappeared (save for the by-now-habit chanting), the intent of Girivalam disappeared, all other thoughts disappeared - it was just the Sun, the road and my screaming feet. I started picking up my pace hoping the speed will help lessen the time my feet rests on the hot road, I started trying to fantasize about Kailash hoping the mind can be fooled into thinking the road is not so hot, I kept looking up at the Sun hoping that he will shine a little less to provide some respite - alas, not to be. It only seemed to be getting hotter and hotter. I started running - never mind the protest of my stiff back and joints and raw feet - and the thought of funny looks people were throwing at me. But I couldn't keep at it. I decided to slow down but where do I step - where are the trees, where are the trees, where are the trees, screamed my body. I then started throwing my shawl on the ground, stepping on it for a second's respite, then picking it up, and running another 4 - 5 feet, throwing it down again, and repeat. But that was not happening too. It wasn't this difficult last time, I remembered thinking, I was barefoot then too. It wasn't summer, said someone in my mind.

What do I do, I cried - I must complete the Girivalam at any cost - I cannot afford to quit - my entire Kailash sankalpa depends on this, my crooked, stupid mind came up with a dumb reasoning - if I am able to complete this Girivalam successfully, I will not have any problems in doing the Kailash trip, it bemoaned. Oh, lord, what have you in store for me? Somehow managing to come out of the Kubera Lingam and it's wonderful shade, I dragged myself to the Esanya Lingam. Just keep walking, just keep walking became my chant - remember Dory of Finding Nemo? Just keep swimming, just keep walking - my mind was in chaos, trying desperately to distract itself but helplessly finding itself back on the road however much I tried. I can't, no I must, how can I, no you must, I will die, no you might just faint, can I sit and drag myself? The bum might not feel as much heat as the feet?

Oh, what a kaleidoscope of useless thoughts. Just keep walking, just keep walking, Arunachala! Arunachala, where are you one needs you?! Just keep walking.....no, I can't. I just can't. Not anymore. By then, I must have been just some 700-800 metres short of the Esanya Lingam,the last of the shrines in the Girivalam path though of course one still needs to come to the main Arunachala temple to complete the Girivalam. I wasn't sure if my body gave up first or my mind. The next thing I know, an auto appears out of nowhere, my husband rushes me into it, and zoom, I seem to have been transported to the coolest place on Earth - I am inside the Esanya Lingam. Fully conscious yes but utterly dejected, beaten and disappointed immensely in myself. How could I have given up? What happened to my will power? Where was "I"? What was "I" thinking? How can "I" give up? "I" was strong, "I" could do it last time, "I" gave up this time. I sat down and closed my eyes in the pretext of prayer and I had no other go than to let it all go. I tried to control myself, conscious of the others around me but not to be. I sobbed, I cried, I beseeched. Why, why, why? Why couldn't "I"? Tears flowed uncontrolled as I went so deep inside myself in misery and desolation that I lost consciousness of my surroundings. A strange peace filled me - the calm that comes after the storm - all is over, give up the "I" - then "you" need no more feel desolate. "You" need no more feel disappointed. "You" need no more feel like a failure. Give up the "I" and surrender. Find the joy, find the happiness in dissolving the "I" and feel the inevitability of life.

That day, I got the closest to "I" ever was to God I think. Broken, I felt complete in him. Defeated, I felt victorious in hearing his voice. Lost, I found myself consoled. A lesson in surrender it was. Short lived but the memory offers me hope. I yearn for more and more of it. Arunachala has become my hope, to find myself, loose 'myself'.

Since then, many wonderful things have happened. My Kailash trip happened (and boy, was it the best thing that happened to me or what?). I also returned to Tiruvannamalai early this month to complete my 'after Kailash' parikrama, did the outer Girivalam (sans the egoistic confidence) and also got the fortune to do the inner Girivalam (oh, what a blessing that really was and what a miracle). While that day in Arunachala in July was one day of surrender and loosing myself, the entire Kailash parikrama was also 15 days full of surrender, loosing myself in the love of devotion, and floating in a sea of happiness. I am eternally grateful to whatever happened this year as I keep hoping to surrender the "I" completely.

Here, let me leave you with a few pictures of Arunachala (and its foothills) that I took from the inner Girivalam:

A beautiful plant enroute Tiruvannamalai that captured my heart

Inner Path - Girivalam

Rough, Thorny and Peaceful

Marks made by benevolent souls to guide the pilgrims on the Inner Path

The Nandi darshan from Inner Path

Beautiful, pure white shells littered on the Inner Path - I didn't want to touch it for some reason for a closer shot! Strange, the presence of these here. 

Some sort of worship site - though I couldn't find out whose

I think this must be the Kalyani (Pond) behind the Kaatu Shiva Temple

The marks on the Inner Path :)

The end of the Inner Path leads straight to Pachaiammal Temple - Oh, I felt so blessed chancing upon her

Beautiful Temple Courtyard and its Guardians at the Pachaiammal Temple

Note: Girivalam through the Inner Path is banned by the Forest Department and for good reason at that. We found so much litter and plastic spoiling the beautiful and serene landscape - the heart cried at the insensitivity and apathy of human beings - calling themselves pilgrims. God save them!

My once in a lifetime trip to Kailash!

I had the opportunity to visit Nepal (Muktinath) and Tibet (Mount Kailash) in August 2016 and it has been the best trip of my life so far.

At the foothills of Mount Kailash @ Dirapuk

Here's my experience through it all:


I hope I would be able to write more about how I planned the trip, how much it cost me, my itinerary, my packing list and so on and so forth - so that it may help someone who wants to undertake a similar trip. Till then, take a look at my blogs and shoot me an email to a drop of wisdom at g mail if you have any specific questions!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Kailash, Kailash, Kailash!

“Send your heart to Kailash and the rest of you will follow naturally” said Sadhguru. These were the exact words and the belief in them that carried me through the many turmoils and doubts that raged inside me during the course of my yatra to Kailash. Of course, in hindsight, I realize my fears were baseless, my health just fine and his grace limitless. Shambho! 

Unlike what I hear from most others, Kailash wasn’t really my long held dream or aspiration. I must have decided that I will attempt this journey only late last year or so when I chanced upon the Sacred Walks video on the Kailash Manasarovar yatra by Isha Foundation. One look at that video and I knew I must go to Kailash, and only with Sadhguru (Isha) at that and no one else. So it is really surprising to me, in retrospect, that I have gone to Kailash and am back sitting in front of my laptop trying to capture my experiences and journey so that I can relive them time and again. It is with a kind of disbelief, a kind of amazement, that I must say all of it seems like a fantastic dream one wakes up from suddenly. A dream one wants to continue being in, a dream one doesn’t want to wake up from actually, a dream one wants to get lost in forever. 

Kailash! am not sure to what credit I deserve this grace, to what goodness that I got to experience this rebirth, to what joy that I got this all so easily (or so it seems to me). I feel like a lucky winner who got a last minute chance entry to the most important event of her life!

The other day, about a week or so after my return from Kathmandu, when I was still in the daze of Kailash, two words leapt at me from a hoarding – Cosmic Womb – and I realized that is exactly what Kailash and the journey to him has been for me. A rebirth or an incubation of sorts where one gets to enter her mother’s womb once more – to feel utterly secure, cushioned, and loved to bits, to feel light and free of all the worldly burdens and responsibilities that one carries, to feel oh so close to one’s creator, to feel one with the divine, to feel bliss. The 7 day lead up journey to Kailash, the day trekking up to the North face, and finally the day spent gazing at wonder at his feet. I remember myself, desperately trying to commit every single thing to my memory - the magnificent face of Kailash, the cold Himalayan air, the sound of water gently rushing down by the river, the red monastery on the opposite bank, the yellow flowers at my feet, the ease of meditation, the feeling of a million blessings, and Shambho. Oh Shambho!

I feel at a great inability to capture it all into words, especially the feelings. I can only wish for a similar experience for you so that you can understand and feel the same blessings as I did (or more). You must attempt this journey definitely without fail – this journey which is more internal than external really, this pilgrimage that will make you question everything you believe to be true, this discovery that will bring things to a higher perspective. Please do try to undertake this yatra and feel it for yourself – that is the only thing of any significance that I can share by way of my experience. However, let me try to note down whatever I can in case they help you in anyway to plan your trip. 

At the onset, few details about the overall trip:

  • I went with Isha Foundation as part of their Kailash Manasarovar Sacred Walks program. No, Sadhguru did not travel with us as much as I would have loved that and wished for it :) He, however, did spend about 30-45 minutes with us at Darchen (Kailash base camp) for a brief Satsang.
  • We went to Kailash through the Lhasa route; we fly from Kathmandu to Lhasa (in Tibet/China, about 1.5 hours flight), halt and acclimatize for a day next day, and then day after journey by bus to Shigatse (6-7 hours), halt the night and then next day again by bus to Saga (8-9 hours), halt for the night and then the next day via Manasarovar to Darchen (base of Kailash; one can view the South face of Kailash also called the Aghora mukha). And finally, on Day 8 of our trip (after one day halt at Darchan), we trek up to the North face (also called the Vamadeva at Dirapuk), stay the night and a large part of the next day at his feet. We returned the same way next day (instead of proceeding further to Dolma Pass and completing the full parikrama) and follow the same route back to Kathmandu. Only, we halted for two nights at Manasarovar for a beautiful and magical experience on the way. 
  • The trip was a total of 15 days - from Day 1 afternoon at Kathmandu to Day 15 noon back to Kathmandu. We stayed at the best of hotels wherever possible (that's the Isha way) and had all the material comforts up until Darchen. After that, the accommodations become quiet basic and nature calls are in true nature! Though initially a bit difficult, one can quickly get used (and addicted) to baring and doing it all right out in the open :P
  • The reason why we did not attempt a full parikrama, as is typical for any Kailash yatra, are many as explained by Sadhguru/Isha - one of them being that what's more important (and easier) is to meditate and soak in the energies of the Kailash where its visible (I understand one will loose sight of the great mountain as one treks past Dirapuk onto Dolma Pass and further until one reaches back to Darchen); the other reason being that we have been taught kriyas and sadhanas that will enable us to benefit more by staying a day at North face and performing our kriyas than doing a parikrama. Though initially perturbed, I was perfectly alright with this plan once I saw Kailash :)
  • The trek up is through a pretty nice albeit looooooong route though of course there were ups and downs and hard to climb slopes once in a while. To the most part, it is a flattish kind of terrain with a gradual climb in altitude. We must have trekked about 12 - 14 km from Yamadvar (starting point of trek from Darchen) to Dirapuk (North face camp). It took about 6 - 9 hours for our group (depending on how energetic/calm/rushing/pausing one was!). The trek down the next day afternoon took relatively less time and was easier!
  • This trek up is not really hard (the harder part is the second day of the parikrama yatra when one climbs up really high to Dolma Pass) - that has not been destined for me this year. I shall write about Day 2 and 3 of the parikrama in the years to come :) For now, for day 1, the only difficult part is towards the very end - the last 1-2 km when the air gets very thin and your lungs work extra hard to pump oxygen (here I had to halt every 10-15 steps to catch my breath!)
  • In terms of preparation, the only thing you need is a belief in the first line of this blog post and a moderate to good health condition. It helps if you are used to walking a lot - I did walk 3- 5 km a day for 2-3 months ahead of my trip in preparation for the yatra. And yes, practice of deep breathing and pranayama. But if you are not really sure of the latter, not to worry - i.e. if you go with Isha, they will ensure you learn and practice to perfection. And most importantly, do not rush and take the time to savour the journey as much as the destination :)
Now, let me try to recollect the most memorable 15 days of my life :)

Day 1: Our journey started at Kathmandu, Nepal, the land of the Buddha and Temples. We were pretty excited as we would be checking into a five star hotel (Radisson) and enjoying its luxuries after over 10 days of shifting from hotel to hotel in our trip across Nepal. Of course, the excitement and anticipation of actually kicking off the second part of our trip, i.e. to Kailash, was always on top of our mind too. A wonderful lunch spread later, the 55 of us in our A4 group gathered together for our first Satsang where Sadhguru addressed us through his videos on Kailash and how one should prepare for the journey ahead. He uttered the words that was to carry me through the entire trip - I am eternally grateful for that and that I had the sense to register and place my entire trust and belief on them. An early dinner and 'some socializing with the rest of the group to get to know each other' later, we heard the news that the Chinese Govt has prohibited any flights in and out of Lhasa for the next three days. A nervous few hours followed before we were told that we will indeed be flying out to Lhasa the next day ...hopefully! But the silver lining in the cloud? We would get to visit and take the darshan of Pasupathinath temple before we kick off our yatra.

Day 2: We woke up early morning for an awesome breakfast and a quick visit to the Pasupathinath Temple. Though, for me personally (and my two friends with me), it was the second visit to Pasupathinath within the last two days, it was a wonderful experience at the temple and we had the time to linger for a few seconds in front of the main lingam before being ushered off. That time enabled us to seek his blessings in peace, to help us all complete our yatra successfully. By 12 noon, we had to depart to the Kathmandu airport to catch our flight to Lhasa - lo and behold, the Chinese had changed their mind and are allowing flights into Lhasa after all. Hooray! But our rescheduled flight which was to depart by 2 got further delayed which resulted in a waiting time of about 3 hours at the airport lounge - but not to worry. Shiva Shiva Shiva Shiva Shiva Shiva Shivaya was there to keep us on a high - we danced to the Sounds of Isha (yes, right there in front of all the other passengers - we must have looked like zoned out shiva bhaktas or whatever - they were all busy taking videos of us!) and then to add more merry, we even played musical chair! Oh, what fun that was. It was also the last day when we were allowed to run and do anything fast - as after Lhasa, we will literally be out of our living depth - at high altitudes that none of us have been used to, with lesser oxygen that our lungs have to try hard to comprehend and quickfire changing situations! Our flight finally took off around 4 PM Kathmandu time and after an hour and half of flying time, we must have arrived at Lhasa around 8 PM China time (as they are 2.5 hours ahead of us). We all huddled into our jackets, caps and what not in anticipation of the "really cold weather" outside - only to find out it was only as cold as Bangalore's colder days and not any more :P

Day 3: A day at Lhasa, the "City of the Gods". It was a day meant for acclimitization where we were supposed to take things easy and light. Due to our excitement, I don't think it turned out that way! We visited the Sera Monastery after a light breakfast. The highlight of this monastery, for me, were the many Lhasa Aposo dogs there that steal your heart the very first sight - and the many beautiful doorways! The monasteries were lovely too that gave you a sense that all Buddhist gods resemble Hindu gods in some way or another! For instance, the buddhist god Rinponche sits on a Lotus - much like our Lakshminarayana! He is also called Padmashambhava - while his Hindu counterpart is called Padmanabha! Well, I do not know much about it so can't really comment in depth but that's what I felt that the Gods seem to have the same origin and but were just given different names in the two religions (this was later confirmed by Sadhguru but I will not go into it!). Post a simple lunch that had Potatoes playing the hero (which was to haunt us every day for the rest of the journey!), it was a visit to the famous Jokhang Temple (also called the Qoikang Monastery at Barkhor Square) where we also did a bit of shopping for last minute supplies (well, the other's did last minute shopping while I shopped for some nice Tibetian bracelets and a lock and key for my luggage which had a perfectly nice number lock that stopped working after going through the Lhasa security check!!). It became quiet tiring by dinner time - I guess the altitude caught up with us (what kind of phrase is that, altitude catching up :P ) so we retired to our rooms for an early bed time.

Day 4: This was the day when we spent most part of the day in the bus to Shigatse. This was also the day when my blood pressure started climbing up, up way up - right with the increase in altitude - causing me great worry that I might get rejected or told off not to attempt the parikrama and be left in the Kailash base camp or even worse be left at Saga itself. Isha has a team of volunteers and Doctor(s) that travel with us and are based out of major stopovers enroute who take our vitals every morning and evening - including Blood pressure and Oxygen Saturation levels in the blood. The latter is supposed to be above 90 (it was a fantastic 99% for me at Kathmandu (I love the plains!)) - it will tend to go down with the increasing altitude and subsequent decrease in Oxygen in the air. One needs to compensate this decrease in Oxygen by improving one's breathing by deep breathing and few other exercises - this is pretty manageable. The blood pressure though is not so easy to control (for me as I have a high tendency towards excitement and activity, phew! can't change one's personality overnight!). So if either of these parameters or other vitals are off, and you get an onset of the dreaded altitude sickness (only because of want of trying and you did not do Kriyas and breathing exercises properly), Isha might very well detain you at any point in the journey. This was a very scary thing for me - I just could not afford to even entertain a thought of "not going" to Kailash. So though till this day, I was putting off and not taking any Diamox (the diuretic allopathy medicine recommended to combat altitude sickness which also incidentally helps reduce BP), I bit the bullet so to speak as my worry increased as we got closer and closer to Shigatse. And that didn't help my BP either. The next two days, personally for me, were a blur of worry and stress - though the passing nature was so so beautiful - but my heart was in Kailash and I had no eyes for any scenery on the way.

Day 5: A long drive to Saga - also a day that will really test one's altitude tolerance or acclimatization as Saga is 14,400 feet or so; Kathmandu is at 4600 feet (same as Bangalore I think) - so you can imagine the hard work your body has to put in to get used to this sudden increase in altitude over the last two days (Lhasa is at 11,990 feet and Shigatse at 12600 feet). So everyone really did take it easy on this day as medical checkups became all important and all of us focused on keeping our bodies healthy and stress free while keeping our thoughts and heart at Kailash.

Day 6: From Saga, we were to set off to Manasarovar and spend a day there before staring to Kailash. But as our luck would have it, a bridge enroute from Saga to Manasarovar broke down and we were forced to go through a different route that took more than 12 hours on bus. We also got the news that Sadhguru was waiting for us at Darchen for a satsang that evening - so instead of going to Manasarovar, our group was asked to proceed directly to Darchen to meet with our guru. But again destiny had other plans - throughout the journey that day, we met with delays after delays as the road was pretty bad and vehicles were getting stuck in mud. A nice thing that we noticed here is the wonderful helping tendency of the Tibetian drivers and Sherpas that traveled with us from Nepal - instead of going past the stuck vehicles without bothereing, all the vehicles stop and help each other out. It felt very good to get down from our vehicles and observe our troupe of Sherpas help the others who are stuck. So due to the multiple halts enroute, we reached Darchen pretty late at night - and missed the scheduled Satsang with Sadhguru in the evening. While we were heavily disappointed with this turn of events, we were heartened to hear that Sadhguru will meet us early the next day morning at 5.30 before he leaves back to India.

Day 7: Meeting with Sadhguru - a great highlight of our trip. Though the time we spent with him was less, I felt as if I was meeting a long lost acquaintance or relative or someone I knew! I can't really explain! And before we knew it, it was time for him to go. Alas, a brief satsang it was. The rest of the day was spent taking a walk around Darchen and enjoying our first views of Kailash. One can view the South face of Kailash from Darchen - the face which is famous for its deep ridge in the middle and the horizontal lines that crisscross it resembling perhaps that of the Shiva's face.

Day 8: Finally, the day arrives - the day we trek up to the North face of Kailash at Dirapuk. The day we were all looking forward to in much anticipation (for some of us, it has been a decades long dream). By now, all my worries and concerns about my BP and health fell away like thin wisps of cloud in front of a summer sun. I was in front of Yamadwar and nothing could stop me! Oh, what a feeling that was - I literally wanted to run all the way up! But I also wanted to spend the maximum time climbing up and enjoying the journey :) So, while we (four of us formed mini teams to walk together) started off as one of the first teams to trek from Yamadwar at around 10.30 AM, we were also one of the last ones to reach the hotel at Dirapuk at around 7.30 PM!! We enjoyed the trek up immensely - we stopped frequently for breaks - nature call break, catching our breath break, meditation break, mantra chanting break, pranayama break, lunch break, nap break (yes! one of my team members even managed to catch a few quick winks to recover her energy, hahaha!), just sitting and seeing Kailash break, photo break, sit by the river break, oh that's a nice rock break, feeding birds break, and what not!

Oh, what a day that was - tiring but oh so so satisfactory on a deep deep soul level. Every bend in the path presented a different view of the surroundings - there were mountain streams, monasteries, buddhist flags, prayer spots, waterfalls in the distance, rivers, streams, and then there was Kailash standing tall amidst them all. If I could, I would love to vanish from wherever I am and reappear on that path - any day of my life! The last kilometer or so was very killing - but that was also the most beautiful part of the trip offering us a clear, unobstructed view of the North face of Kailash flanked by two mountains in the front. There was also a river or stream that seemed to be coming straight from the melting glaciers of Kailash - I was so tempted to take a sip but also remembered the warning by our group leader that mountain rivers are full of minerals that our urban bodies may not really take a liking to so I refrained (I did drink from the river while on the way back :) ) We were warmly welcomed by our Isha volunteer Mr. Padam as soon as we reached the hotel - he was so kind and even fetched us warm water and hot tea - God bless him! A cold night followed but no one minded - we were at Kailash!!

Day 9: The day started early at 5.30 or so with the excuse of Nature break - but it turned out to be a magical time for me as I got to sit in complete darkness and stare at Kailash in all his glory - with no one around for company. It was like the mountain was lit up though there was complete darkness around - perhaps the moonlight, perhaps the snow reflecting, perhaps the day was already breaking - whatever it was, it was a beautiful and sacred sight to behold. I did have to miss the actual sunrise and the sunlight that falls on Kailash turning it golden - as we had a scheduled satsang at around the same time. Oh, well next time then Golden Kailash! After the satsang and breakfast, off we went to the river side for a beautiful clearing from where one gets a clear view of Kailash - for our meditation and other practices of Isha. Shambho, it was so beautiful! I could slip into meditation so so easily. One wished to stay there forever and ever - but one had to trek back down the same day. I wish we had stayed for one or two more days there :(

After lunch, we set off on the trek back down to Yamadwar around 2 PM. It was also one eventful trek as me and a friend decided to take a different route (well, at places only not all the way through) than the one came by. We somehow thought that going by the riverside will be more fun than climbing up and down the mountain paths - however that turned out to be a bad decision - we ended up climbing more ups and downs (hahaha) to skirt the river water when it became too deep in places. But we did have loads of fun. While our trek up was kind of serious and we concentrated on chanting and our prayers, our trek down was all about playing with Mother Nature and what she threw at us! We came back to Yamadver pretty quickly (around 5.45 PM) and without any delay proceeded to Manasarovar after one longing gaze back at Kailash. Till we meet again, old man, till we meet again :)

So, that night, as is expected, I made sure I woke up two of my friends and set off on a secret midnight tryst to the lake side (so as not to wake the rest of the gang as we were warned not to attempt this and take rest on our first night at Manasarovar; we were asked to do this the second night but hey I was there and I could not take any chances of missing them even for one night!). Our desire was to witness the magical beings that were supposed to visit the lake everyday between 2.30 - 3.30 AM. But it was drizzling like crazy, cold like crazy, and the dogs were howling like crazy. All in all, it made for one eerie night but I wasn't perturbed. One of my friend commented that the dogs howling is a good sign - they are sensing the alien beings, she said. The other one wanted to huddle closer to me so that we can share our body warmth! And I had my eyes fixed to the horizon - and hooo, I think I hallucinated that they were there :P - before being pointed by the station doctor (who also joined us on our secret tryst) that the lights belonged to a hotel on the other side of the lake and not really to any alien beings. Some disappointment later, we decided to wait somemore and all three of us ladies huddled closer and closer together as the weather got more drizzly and cold. Lightning started striking and put a beautiful show on the horizon - in beautiful shades of Orange and Yellow. I fancied that they were not really regular lightning but the alien beings! My friends didn't agree :P After waiting for over two hours, we had to return to our room as it started raining in earnest and we decided there must have been interstellar traffic hold up on account of Krishna's birthday (yes! it was Krishna Janmastami which we celebrated at Manasarovar wonderfully - my friend had thoughtfully packed and got Butter all the way from Bangalore and I had some dry fruits I wanted to offer him). Okay, one more try the next day night then was our resolve.

Day 10: The previous evening, when we came to Manasarovar, it was a clear and beautiful evening - with the sky and clouds putting on multi-color presentations above a beautiful serene lake. But alas, it decided to remain ominously overcast and rain from the word go the next day. We were to go through our special Isha process and kriyas before taking bath in the lake - a ritual that involved working with our Surya nadi and chantings to make us receptive to the lake's blessings. While I had the most most magical experience during this session (can't really go into detail on that one!), by the end of the process, it started becoming really dark and the sky looked like it might start pouring any second. So the doctors and our group leader had no choice than to warn us not to venture into the lake and take a bath - instead we were asked to just get in and wet our hands and legs if we so wished. But after that powerful process, our bodies were literally jumping of their accord and was raring to get into the water - so no instruction or warning could stop us. So in inspite of the impending rain, all of us jumped into the lake one by one and had the best experience of our life. Though the water must have been freezing cold, I don't think any of us really felt the temperature beyond our skin. It was a beautiful experience  - for me, it was almost like taking bath in a river that my mom used to take bath - it felt so secure and sacred. It did start raining as soon as we stepped out of the lake - but hey who cares? The clouds did clear later in the day and gifted us a beautiful day - which we spent by the lake side. Again, one wished to stay there forever and ever. Sigh! That night, I was woken up at 1.30 AM by my friend (she mistook the time to be 2.30!) and both of us ventured out alone sans our other friend and the doctor - repeat of the same situation as last night - cold, drizzle, dogs, clouds! Sigh, we came back inside quickly and resigned ourselves to our destiny - we were not to see the divine beings after all. Next trip, then!

Day 11 - 15: Well, nothing really stands out - we followed the same route back to Saga, Shigatse, Lhasa and Kathmandu. Lhasa and Kathmandu felt literally hot like Chennai - after spending so many days in colder climates! I already missed Kailash :( Well, after a closing satsang and another visit to Pasupathinath temple later, we officially closed our yatra. This time around, I had a really magical (I know this word is getting repetitive but there's no other word I can use) experience at the Pasupathinath temple. By some luck or fate, I got into the outer premises of the inner sanctum sanctorum on the Eastern side (which opens only during the evening river aarti time - the aarti happens like that of Kashi/Haridwar/Rishikesh at the river Bagmati that runs next to the Pasupathinath temple) and got to spend close to an hour locked up inside (not literally but surrounded by the crowd inside). I witnessed one of the most beautiful aarti ever - and did not regret missing the supposedly grand aarti ritual that happens at the lake side for a single second. I felt really blessed and grateful. Thank you, dear Shiva, for everything.

So that brings me to the end of my trip - the grandest and the best ever I had undertaken so far in my life. I only wish all my near and dear ones (and you the reader) get this beautiful experience that I got. Blessings to you for the same. And I also wish he calls me again and again and again :) I am hooked now and can't wait to return already! I want to do the full parikrama next time - perhaps even go via the inner kora. Let's see - I hope his blessings will surely enable me to do that. 

Before I conclude, I must offer my heartfelt gratitude to Sadhguru and Isha Foundation without whom this rebirth wouldn’t have been possible for me. To the many volunteers and sherpas who sacrificed their life and sadhana during this time for us all yatris, for my fellow travellers and of course my family which let me take this break without one word of opposition. Thank you and may god bless you all.

If you have any specific questions about the trip, feel free to reach out to me.

And before I sign off, here's a poem that came to me right after we left Manasarovar. It about sums up my journey in as few a words as it can. 

Oh Shiva!

Drinking from the streams of the Kailash
Bathing in the waters of the Manasarovar
Oh almighty, I lost myself in your grace
Humbled and insignificant, I stand in front of you
And wonder, to what reason I deserve your benevolence
Here a moment, covered the next, Shiva, you are my eternal aspiration
Gazing at your magnificence and delighting in your beauty
I wish, I could spend eons at your feet, a day or two is just not enough
But am a mere mortal, and as I return to my dwelling far away from you
I carry with me, memories of hope and happiness and blessings
Shiva...oh Shiva

Oh Shiva.....

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Day 11: Trying traditional Newari food at Patan, Kathmandu

Patan is another mini kingdom that was ruled by one of the three sons of Anand Mala when he divided the greater Kathmandu valley into three parts (Patan for one son, Bhakatapur for one son and Kathmandu for one son). It is a collection of Durbar Square (King's palace, courtyard), Temples, Carvings, and other features that were needed in a town including a massive bell (made of seven metals, the ringing of the bell could be heard for 3 miles around, effectively informing people of important gatherings at the main courtyard), sacrifice centers (!) amongst modern day buildings and hotels & restaurants. While Kathmandu was known as the kingdom/town of business, Bhakatapur was known as the town of potters and devotees. Patan, however, captures one imagination  as it was or rather is known as the town of fine arts. Metal work, paintings, masonry, the list of creative workmanships are endless.... In our guide's words, everyone here is involved in some form or other of Art work. But today, it's pretty much like what we saw in Bhakatapur - nothing different as the same shops, same kind of paintings and other things were there too for attracting the tourists.

While we did the usual sightseeing and 'appreciation tour', the highlight of the day was tasting local Newari food. I just fell in love with it (though we had to stay in front of the cooking area to ensure no non vegetarian or egg gets into it) as it actually resembled our dosa and pesarattu! It was yummy - the 'chokamari' (also called Nepali pizza, where ground rice and lentil flour is made into a dosa topped with veggies or non veg as per one's choice)  and 'bara' (ground black lentil again made into dosa - this one was exactly like pesarattu) that we tasted to the accompaniment of some spicy tomato chutney. Loved the Newari food much better than the traditional Nepali thali (called Dal Bhat) which more resembled a regular Indian thali consisting of rice, dal, sag/greens, sabzi/vegetables and curd.

Day 10: Pasupathinath, the national diety of Nepal

Pasupathinath, meaning the lord of all pashus (living and non living beings), is the most famous and sacred temple in the Hindu nation of Nepal. The bigger temple area is actually a collection of old ashrams, mini temples, matts (religious philanthropic centers that travellers can use to freshen up amongst other purposes), and stone inscriptions. The temple, built on the banks of the Bagmati River, attracts devotees by the thousands (or even millions) during the month of August (shravan) and Shivaratri. The day we decided to visit Pasupathinath was the last Monday of shravan, a day that is considered highly auspicious and visited by women who fast the entire month for the well being of their husbands;  on the last shravan Monday they seek the darshan and blessings of Pasupathinath, dressed in the colours of Red and Green denoting prosperity and well being, before breaking their fast. You can imagine how serpentine the queue must have been. It was about 2 or so miles long. There was no way we could get in let alone have the darshan of Mr. Pasupathinath. But there's no harm in imploring him. And when he decides to listen, his grace knows no bounds.

By a strange twist of situation, we found ourselves being enquiried by a police officer who wanted to know what we are doing near the temple complex looking at the crowd (we had walked quiet a bit alongside the queue hoping there might be a paid ticket counter or something). After ascertaining that we are indeed Hindus and with good intentions and from India, he actually let us in to the temple prahar and allowed us to join the queue as it entered into the temple boundaries from the streets below. What weird luck is this? Is cutting into the line not an injustice to all the ones who have been standing for so long? Before we even had time to consider these questions and feel bad (we will certainly not accept it if anyone cuts the queue back home), we were herded ahead by the crowd with no one seeming to mind us jumping in between. But my conscious didn't let me to settle - I was totally unnerved all along but didn't quiet know how I can make amends. But no time for all that - within about 5 minutes, we were in front of the main sanctom sanatorium and Lord Pasupathinath was in front of us. And it started pouring at exactly the same moment scattering the crowd here and there. With a great feeling of blessing and having been a subject of divine mercy, we moved to the Shankaracharya matt that was outside the temple complex to take shelter from the rain and meditate for a bit. As my guru says, whatever happens happens for the good; every moment is inevitable and to be cherished. These moments at Pasupathinath were certainly to be cherished for a lifetime.