By Cara Tejpal
Seeking Shiva, Shakti and sustainability at Manimahesh.
“Bholey ki Fauj, kareygi Mauj”
A band of young men, shove past me as I get off the bus at Bharmour, Himachal Pradesh. On any other day I would callously label them vandals, but today they are pilgrims. Saffron bandanas tied tightly around their foreheads, miniature trishuls swinging at their necks and mouths feverishly chanting Shiva’s name. The Manimahesh Yatra is at its peak, and over the next few days lakhs of Hindus make the arduous 14km hike to the high altitude Manimahesh Lake, located 13,390 feet above sea level. The barefoot, crippled, young and old, all equally determined to take a dip in the lake, driven by a faith that is alien to me.
Conspicuously out of place amongst the devoted, I’m here as a volunteer with a small, Dharamshala based, non-profit called Mountain Cleaners. A motely crew of 10 people trying to educate pilgrims on sustainability and sort through the mountains of garbage left behind on the otherwise pristine peak. A daunting task to say the least, with a set up that is informal at best. An email exchange with a woman named Jodie, one train, a rickshaw and two local buses are all it took to get me here.
Over the next 4 weeks, I indulge in the unusual– eat free food at langars, share sleeping quarters with strangers, discuss philosophy with babas, wade through other people’s trash and make friends to last a lifetime.
The Manimahesh Lake may be the pilgrim site, but Bharmour is where the buzz is. A sleepy, ordinary town for most months of the year, it undergoes a magical transformation as the Yatra draws close. The main town square, known as ‘chaurasi’ lies amid ancient, stone temples, featuring 84 lingas and hosts a spectacular mela for the duration of the Yatra. Akhada pits, local dances, food stalls, games and a sea of people either on their way to or from the Lake. Paper streamers train for miles over head and every half hour the bustle of the square is drowned by the drone of a helicopter carting the rich to Manimahesh. Leave envy for another day, as there is plenty in Bharmour for us plebeians. Gorge on pakodas and aloo tikki burgers, haggle loudly for Shiva themed trinkets, watch pehalwans from across Himachal and Punjab wrestle it out in the akhada and convince a baba to tell you the legend behind this Shiva Bhumi. The more adventurous or religiously inclined can hike the 4 odd kilometers to the Brahmani Devi Mandir. It is said that Shiva granted a boon to the Devi that no pilgrimage to Manimahesh would be successful without first visiting and taking a dip in the spring at her shrine. The holy dip may or may not cleanse your soul, but the halwa doled out by sevaks on the way down is absolutely sinful and worth the 3-hour hike.
Bharmour is where the party’s at, but things get a little more placid up in Dhancho. Dhancho is the campsite, halfway to Manimahesh and a good 7km from Hadsar, the point from where the pilgrimage truly begins. Langars for the last 2 km of the trail keep you well fed and jovial babas generously offer you a pull from their perpetually lit chillums every time you stop for a breather. Nestled between tall, barren mountains and overlooking a fast flowing river, Dhancho makes for a pretty picture.
Tents are only available to the police, mountaineers and us of the NGO variety, and our crew settles in quite happily. The temperature drops suddenly at night, and though we’re zipped in to our puffy sleeping bags, the chill creeps through. To battle the bitter weather, we slowly huddle in to the same tent till there’s no room to move – 7 people and a wildly farting dog. The toilets at Dhancho require special mention for they are so vile that the stench remains with you for days. Four tin sheds placed over cement platforms with Indian style toilets and shared by over two hundred people. Each one of us, throws several buckets of river water through open bathroom doors, before daring to venture in, and on return slather ourselves in hand sanitizer.
At Dhancho, you can sit in a mellow mood and watch dozens of pilgrims plod past you, only getting up to go to the nearest Langar for a quick snack and a cup of sickeningly sweet, masala chai.
The Manimahesh peak that towers over the Manimahesh Lake is widely considered the abode of Shiva. We set out for the last leg of the pilgrimage on a dismal day. The rain hinders our movement and we are forced to take numerous breaks as the heavens pour forth their fury. It’s a steep climb and ever so often someone slips alarmingly on the wet stones. The only respite we find is at a small plateau called Gaurikund where a lone dhaba doles out massive plates of momos. These, we fall upon like a pack of hungry wolves, decimating 8 plates between us. The vistas get starker and more breath taking as we continue our journey.
I feel truly blessed, for while we struggle for the last 300 meters of our pilgrimage, the sun begins to set and we see the peak in all its glory reflected serenely in the waters of the lake. For days, a slight mist had obliterated all views of the mountain, but for us (or so it feels) the haze clears. Here, the air is thin and each breath you draw is a slight effort. We have come towards the end of the Yatra and the atmosphere is quiet. Only a few babas and one tent remain. The toilets have long since been dismantled, the sevaks have packed up their equipment, loaded their donkeys and gone home. We spend the evening by a fire, humming softly as one of the guitar wielding volunteers strums gentle melodies and arguing mildly about who has to sleep nearest to the tent opening.
In the morning, I understand why people consider the Lake sacred. Though its waters are far from pristine, having swallowed the filth of several thousand pilgrims, there is a tangible magic in the air. I circle the lake once, twice and for a moment can hear the echoing voices of the devoted…
“Har har Mahadev”
All you need to know about getting to Manimahesh and then some…
The Yatra takes place annually in the months of August and September. Your best bet would be to go as a volunteer with Mountain Cleaners. Not only will you meet great people from across the world, you will also curb your carbon footprint. Get in touch with them at www.mountaincleaners.org . Don’t worry, if you’re not comfortable dealing with other people’s trash. There’re other ways in which you can help.
Getting There & Around |
Bharmour is located in the Chamba district of Himachal Pradesh and getting there is a bit of a task. I took the train from Delhi to Pathankot and then a local bus to Chamba where I hopped on to yet another bus that took me to Bharmour.
Shared sumos run from Bharmour to Hadsar (the starting point of the pilgrimage) for a mere 30 odd rupees. At Hadsar, eat a quick meal at one of the langars before starting your hike. Porters or mules can be hired to carry your bags if you don’t feel up to it.
The weather is pretty erratic and it gets very cold at the Lake, so be sure to carry a raincoat and enough woolens. Lugging along your own sleeping bag is also a good idea. Other essentials include – torch, hand sanitizer, soap and hiking shoes. (Though you’re welcome to do the Yatra barefoot, like many of the babas.)
If the pictures strike a chord and you’re feeling the Shakti, head up this summer. It’s no good to ignore Shiva’s call.
Cara Tejpal is a student of nature, a wildlife conservationist, and a compulsive traveller based out of New Delhi. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org