The conversations with the monk from Yuksom continue as we walk to the Dubdi monastery

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As we climbed up the steep flight of stairs to the Dubdi gompa, our path became so thickly enveloped by fog that we could hardly see the steps ahead of us. I asked the monk if he ever feels lonely having lived a life of abstinence.

“I do,” he said, “But this is the path I’ve chosen. It’s a conscious choice too. Many of the people I studied with never became a monk. They married and lived a happy life. The worst are those who became a monk and began making money. At least the ones who left were honest.

“Because why does a monk need money? The reason you give yourself up to God is so that you give up all your material desires. My guru was a very pure human being. He wouldn’t even touch meat and would only eat what was offered to him. I’m his only disciple who seeks to follow that path.

“Once after meeting a friend who had come to visit with his wife, I told my guru that I wanted to live a normal life with a wife and some children. My guru told me, okay, live that life, but remember that you’re committing a grave sin. Tell me, what’s the biggest sin that you could commit in the world? I told him, sex? He said no. Disrespecting God? Again, no. Killing someone? No. Not saying your prayers sincerely? No. The biggest sin you could commit is money because that makes you do all of those things.

“It struck a deep chord. And then I began thinking, if I marry and have children, I’ll need to make money to help them survive. And how do you make money without negatively impacting the world around you? Nowadays, every kid has a phone. If my son goes to school, he will also want a phone. So I have to make decent money to afford it. Which means I would have to work for a company that makes a lot of money. Every company that makes a lot of money does evil in the world, in the form of corruption, cutting down forests, poisoning rivers, working with evil regimes. So how can I make any money without being wilfully part of that evil? Where do you begin doing evil and when does it end?

“So I decided I won’t have a family. I will live my life the way my guru lead his life. At least then, my conscience will be clear. It’s not been easy and people make fun of me all the time. This young lama I am about to meet in Dubdi is a very good boy and I’m trying to guide him along the right path. People make fun of me all the time but I’m used to it now. When you live the way I do, you also realize how much kindness and goodness there is in this world. Without that, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

Then I pointed out that everything he was telling me on this mossy stairway to the monastery contradicted what he told me earlier about the power of China, ruthlessness etc.

“Ah, but that’s because the world is doomed. What I’m doing requires a great deal of sacrifice and the vast majority of the world is neither capable of nor inclined towards it. Over the past many centuries, we have been consumed by greed and it’s only accelerating. Even the monks who have been trained in abstinence and compassion like I have don’t follow those principles. So what hope is there for the world at large?

“But if you have to survive in a greedy world, you have to be greedy yourself. You either have to follow the way of the world, which is that of a ruthless race for survival, or you follow mine. If you follow a middle way, like the Dalai Lama suggests, you will be crushed. So, say the world is going to end in the next 10 minutes, you might as well live well for those 10 minutes. You and I are both going to perish anyway. The only difference is I can die peacefully with a clean conscience while if you are a highly successful businessman in China, you don’t have to worry about conscience. It’s the people in between who are going to suffer. Which is why I don’t preach my way to anybody because it gives me peace. I only talk a lot hahaha.”

As if to confirm the truth of his words, we were showered with a thunderstorm. My slippers were ill-equipped to deal with the wet, cobbled stones on the trail and every time I stepped on a mossy section or one of the million leaves ornamenting our way, I slipped clumsily and fell. At one such embarrassing fall, two giggling girls from a village below passed by and one of them pointed at me, laughed and said, “You walk like a drunken man.” The monk howled with laughter too and said, “If you walk like that, no woman would marry you hahaha.” “Then I could be like you”, I said, with a tinge of anger in my voice. The monk laughed again and said, “No, no, don’t be like me. If you walk well, you can marry that girl also and start a family in Sikkim.”

He then gave me a crash course on walking in the wet mountains by demonstrating the many different ways to skip across the trail. The trick, he said, was to avoid any stones or foliage and hop between the earthy sections holding the stones together. And thus productively occupied with this elaborate tutorial, we reached the lonely stupas marking the way to Dubdi. It was an ethereal atmosphere, all mist and fog, scenes straight out of Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s brutal, misty adaptation of Macbeth. For a few moments there, I became genuinely excited by the idea of the monk’s life. Would I be able to live the way he lived? I was halfway there anyway, an eternal nomad roaming from place to place without a home to settle down. I had no wife or children to care for. I didn’t have a ton of friends either. The only material element I was clinging onto was money.

I began thinking of ways one could give up money, live the monastic life and roam infinitely. And then, like a flash, I got reminded of the beginning of the day when I exchanged my crummy dwelling in the basement of the hotel for a more plush, comfortable one. If I couldn’t live in a cheap hotel room, what chance did I have in the dharamsalas and monasteries of the world? I needed money as critically as I needed air and water.

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I was exhausted by the time we reached Dubdi. The late-night party of the previous night and the resulting sleeplessness made me dizzy and drowsy. One of the novice monks at the monastery cheerfully invited us into his room at the back of the monastery where we were treated to a bucketful of butter tea. When it stopped raining, the monk, the novice and I stepped out to sit on one of the benches as the mist wrapped around us. The ancient monastery had now assumed a ghostly sight resembling an apparition from centuries ago. While the two were chatting away in their native tongues, I passed out.

I wouldn’t wake up until the evening when an old German man shook me wildly to check if I was still alive. “Hey, are you okay? Do you need help?”, said the ancient, bearded face with a handycam hung across the neck. “Yeah,” I said, “What time is it?” “It’s 5 in the evening”, his wife said anxiously, “We’ve been here for 2 hours and you’ve been lying there all the time. We wondered if you were sick. Do you need any help? Where do you stay?”

As it turned out, we were staying in the same hotel. So off we went down to the Yak Café in the more material world of Yuksom to hang out over tongbas and conversation.

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Fuzzy conversations on politics, religion and literature with a monk in Yuksom

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I was woken up at 6 a.m. the next morning by the loud clattering of guides and porters packing up for another trek into the wilderness. My head was throbbing with a headache from all the drinking the previous night. I said a feeble goodbye to all the boys from the group and popped a paracetamol to numb the hangover. Then I went to the common squat toilet at one end of the basement to answer nature’s call but it had been rendered filthy and unusable by the trekking staff.

Normally, I would have “adjusted” to this situation by controlling the urge to take a dump and waiting for some of the cafes/restaurants to open to use the better-maintained toilets there. But these weren’t normal times. My body was crying for a rest after living on a shoestring for 7 months. I looked at my room whose dimensions were only a little larger than my body and this claustrophobia was only making my headache worse. If I was going to stay any longer in Yuksom, I had to upgrade. So I went upstairs and woke up the receptionist to ask if any of the good rooms were available.

The receptionist informed me in a drowsy drone that a German trekking group had checked out that morning. He charged me a 1000 Rs. for one of them (that was 900 more than my bargain basement room and more than I had ever paid for a room before) but I said yes in a heartbeat. The rooms hadn’t been cleaned and the cleaning staff wouldn’t be in for a few hours, he said, but I could use the toilet if I wanted to. It was just about perfect.

I wanted to take a walk but it was freezing outside. I didn’t have the layers to protect me from the cold. The only place to hang out was the desolate restaurant area. So I whipped out Robert Rankin’s Witches of Chiswick which had helped me kill many an hour in the last couple of days. Just as I was about to finish the first sentence, a voice crept from the chair opposite to mine saying, “Witches of… Kaunsa book hai yeh bhai?” (Which book is this?). It freaked me out as this entity had been invisible when I had opened my book. For a moment I wondered if I hadn’t stumbled off to sleep and was dreaming a lucid dream.

The voice belonged to a lama who was squinting at the book cover trying to get its title.

I put the book down and said, “Witches of Chiswick.”

“Is it a good book?”, he asked in a crude Hindi. (For the purposes of brevity, I’m recounting the conversation in English).

“Yes, it’s very good.”

He shrugged half-heartedly and said, “Ah, you must be from England.”

“No, sir. I’m from Mumbai”, I said with a mix of puzzlement and anger.

“Arre, Mumbai se? How are you reading books? I never see Indian boys reading books. You must be doing a course. Which college are you from?”

“I don’t go to college. I just like reading books. Anyway, this is not the sort of book they teach in Indian colleges.”

“Why not? What’s wrong with the book?”

“There’s nothing wrong with the book”, I said, testily, “it’s just not the sort of book they would teach as part of a syllabus.”

“Why? What is it about?”

I groaned inside. The last thing I wanted to do in the wee hours of dawn after a night of zero sleep was explain the convoluted and twisted plot of Witches of Chiswick and its mish-mash of characters to a complete stranger. So I told him I had just started the book and directed him to the plot summary at the back of the cover.

He read attentively, then laughed heartily and said, “I don’t understand this. But Sherlock Holmes! A man from England once came to my monastery and gifted me his book. Too much tension. Haha. What does he do in this story?”

I said, “I don’t know. I think he’s trying to find out who Jack the Ripper is.”

“Ah”, he said, “Good, good. It is good to read books. Keeps your mind fresh.”

I was feeling crabby and irritable and wished my room would get ready soon so I could get some sleep. I went back to reading my book in the hope that some anti-social behaviour would make the monk go away. But he pulled the chair opposite to mine and sat there staring at me reading the book. This was annoying and I felt like my reading skills were being judged by his squinty eyes. To add to this, I was also guilt-tripping myself for ignoring his presence so blatantly and all that conflict was making me lose track of what I was reading. So I kept the book down and stared back at the monk.

“I used to read a lot of books because my guru also liked to read books,” he said, as if the break in conversation never happened, “He always encouraged me to read more. I was the only student who listened hahaha. I read everything. Charles Dickens, Kipling, Mark Twain, Hemingway, all classic English authors.”

“Who was your favorite?”

“Mark Twain. His stories had a lot of morality and taught you how to be a good human being. The lessons you learnt from his books are applicable even today. Tom Sawyer makes his friends pay him to do his work and tricks them into thinking it’s fun! That’s what big companies try to do today. If you can do what Tom Sawyer did back then, you could be a very rich man. Charles Dickens wrote good stories but they are nothing more. I found them boring.”

“What about Kipling? How do you like the monk in Kim?”

“I don’t like that book. The monk was a very unrealistic character. All mumbo-jumbo about our Buddhism that Kipling knew nothing about. I like Jungle Book more. Mowgli and Bagheera and all those animals. It was more fun to read. Kim was telling lies about our people to the world and the world believed it without batting an eye-lid. Tibet in Western books is either some mystic land or some peaceful utopia. Nobody gave a thought to the idea that the people living there were as human as anyone else on this planet. I think books like Kim and Shangri-La did more harm to the Tibetan idea than the Chinese because they helped them use these ideas from the West to subjugate and conquer the land. Listen, I need a cup of tea. I know a good place down the road. Would you like to join me?”

So we strolled to the tea-shop in the crisp 7 a.m. Himalayan air of Yuksom. This was the first time I was looking at the village in daylight and my first impressions led me to believe that it was just a tiny one street hamlet. Guest houses and small wooden shacks were stacked on the sides of the road and the village was surrounded by thickly forested Himalayan hills on all sides. It felt like a peaceful slice of Himalayan heaven and a perfect place to wind down a long journey.

The tea stall was a cramped, wooden shack that looked like it had been assembled in an hour with the raw materials available at hand. There was a creaky wooden bench with space for 3 people to sit and it was already packed with three men who had covered themselves so thoroughly with all manner of woollens that all one could see was their weary eyes. The man making the tea barked at the people to get up and make space for the monk. The monk ordered them to remain seated and told the teamaker that we would rather have the tea standing outside. “They are labourers from Nepal and Bihar working on a house in the village. They need to rest their bones more than we do. In any case, the breeze outside makes the tea taste better”, he said with a smile.

Our discussion now veered to the Dalai Lama issue. “I admire the Chinese very much”, he said thoughtfully, “The Dalai Lama admires them too but I admire them in a different sense. The Dalai Lama likes the industrious, hard-working nature of the Chinese and he likes them in spite of the fact that Tibetans had to flee enmasse from Tibet because of their policies.

“But I like the Chinese because of their policies. China couldn’t have achieved what it did without gaining control of the Tibetan plateau, with its glaciers and its minerals. Today it’s challenging America to be the biggest power in the world and if it had given independence to Tibet, that would have been impossible. You have to be ruthless to get what you want in this material world.”

I was surprised to see an ordained Buddhist monk so openly contradicting the Dalai Lama’s word. So I said, “You’re the first monk I’ve met who disagrees with what the Dalai Lama says.”

The monk said, “Oh, but you’re allowed to disagree with the Dalai Lama. If I met him, I could tell him what I told you and he would have no problem with it. Some of his disciples may have an issue because they are as corrupt as some of our politicians but he himself would be fine with someone disagreeing with him.

“And that’s where his weakness lies. He’s not ruthless. He’s very wise and says a lot of wonderful things. He gives good advice to people. Everyone in the world should read his books because they tell you how to be happy while being a good person in simple words. But his wisdom only works on the smaller scale. This world is ruled by politics and money and he knows nothing about either. Yes, he’ll advice you to be selfless, donate money to charity, do a good job etc. but he’s not going to tell you how to crush people to do the job better and the world is ruled by people who crush other people under their foot for success.

“If the Dalai Lama had been dictatorial and cunning like the Chinese, he would be living in Tibet right now and his people would have faced fewer troubles. I could say what I did to the Dalai Lama himself but I shouldn’t be able to. He should crack down on monks like me who speak their mind openly but he won’t. He’s too democratic and too good a human being. Which is why his people are still suffering.”

“But don’t you think that’s the reason he’s respected all over the world?”, I said.

“That’s all a tamasha (circus). People make money off his books and his name while he begs for the freedom of his people. Do you think Obama (then President of America) is going to tell Hu Jintao (then premier of China) to get out of Tibet? And even if he does, all the Chinese are going to do is have a big laugh, drink a lot of wine and forget about it.”

“So you think the Dalai Lama should surrender and do what the Chinese tell him to do for the good of his people.”

“No, no, the time for that is over. If he surrenders, they will kill him just like they killed the Panchen Lama. If he had done it during Mao’s time, before he attacked Tibet, something good might have come off it. But Tibet was always weak. It thrived on spirituality and had no idea about politics. The Dalai Lama keeps telling us about the wisdom of his predecessors but they weren’t so wise in negotiating political deals. They made stupid demands on the Chinese leadership. It’s like an ant pleading with an elephant to please avoid squishing it but at the same time, being adamant that it won’t get out of its path.  The entire world knows about the Tibetan struggle but you tell me, what has come of it? They’re still in the same place they were when the Dalai Lama fled. They’re keeping it alive only because their entire economy depends on foreign donations and if they say they’re going to end it, that money will dry up too.“

After these cynical observations on Tibet, the monk elaborated more on Chinese progress vis a vis India, why he thought India was lagging behind in development, how shiny the roads and the villages looked across the border, why democracy and lethargy are dragging India down a slippery slope to failure, why the UPA government has been utterly useless in giving incentives to industries, why everything is Nehru’s fault and a litany of diatribe directed at Indira Gandhi.

By the time he was done with his clinical analysis of all the things that were wrong with India, we had spent an hour standing outside that chai stall. The monk now wanted to go visit an acquaintance at the Dubdi gompa and asked me if I would join him.

“It’ll be good for you. I’ll show you the way. Free guide, no money. Haha.”

So off we went to the Dubdi gompa.

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Lumbini

The sacred tank outside Mayadevi Temple
The sacred tank outside Mayadevi Temple

The manager at Hotel Mount Everest tried very hard to make me stay and do a day trip to Lumbini when I was checking out of his hotel. “Lumbini is just a village. You’ll get bored there.The hotels are very expensive. You can easily go, see the place and come back in a few hours.” He was desperate because he hadn’t had any customers for a couple of days and a shabby, transit town like Bhairahawa was a truly hard sell. I’d been to Bhairahawa before and if there’s any place I was going to get bored, it was here. So I bid him farewell, thanked him for letting me use his phone and promised I would return some other time.

Buses to Lumbini left from the Buddha Chowk, about a kilometer beyond Bank Road where all the hotels were. I was thrilled to find a bus for Lumbini waiting there ready for departure but my joy was shortlived when I hastily entered the bus and the driver stomped on the accelerator. The coach was packed to the gills and there was no space to breathe. I’m not particularly tall but the buses in Nepal are built for people much shorter and slimmer (and fitter) than I was. The conductor wasn’t happy that I was consuming an amount of space that could squeeze in 3 passengers, so I told him I’d like to get off and take another bus. He laughed, patted me on the back, said he was just kidding and told me I’d get a seat soon as people might get off at the next village. The next village arrived and nobody got off but plenty more got on. I was also irked by the fact that I was made to pay more money than my fellow passengers. Was I paying more because I was bigger than the others? No. This was the “Indian price” which was higher than “local price” and substantially lower than “Foreigner price”. After an hour of banging my head against the ceiling, testing the limits of spinal flexibility, getting stamped on the foot by young Nepali teenage girls in high heels and a crash course in conversational Nepali with a boy from Taulihawa, I got off at the Buddha’s birthplace, Lumbini.

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Lumbini was a two-street town whose only raison d’etre is to provide accommodation, food and basic necessities to people who come in droves from around the world to visit the UNESCO Heritage Site. I checked into the Lumbini Garden Lodge, one of the first few lodges in Lumbini Bazaar, the main backpacker lane and got myself a bright, sunny room with free wi-fi and a sparklingly clean shared bathroom with a western toilet and hot shower for 300 NR (roughly 200 Indian Rupees). That was the sort of deal I used to dream about during my early days of shoestring travel. The cross-ventilated windows in my room overlooked vast sugarcane fields and let in an ample supply of fresh air and sunlight. I resolved to stay here for a while to breathe fresh air and soak in the quasi rural pastoral setting.

I came to Lumbini to find peace, tranquility, time and space to read, write, idle and I found all of these wonderful boondocksian pleasures that eluded me in more urban settings. I also found a lot of mosquitoes. Thrilled to bits at having hit a jackpot on first attempt, I unwittingly left the windows open when I went out to take a stroll about Lumbini. By the time I was back, it was late in the evening and my room was swarming with mosquitoes. Ever paranoid about contracting Dengue/Malaria/Japanese Encephalitis/other mosquito related horrors, I closed the windows, dunked myself in Odomos and ran downstairs to ask the manager to spray my room with whatever poisonous repellant he had. He promptly did so but said I had to stay out for a couple of hours if I wished not to die with the mosquitoes.

So I went for an early dinner at Lotus Restaurant, one of the few copy-cat backpacker cafes on the street. This place, too, had a colony of mosquitoes baying for fresh blood but by now, I was positively reeking of Odomos and the little pests didn’t dare come anywhere near me. I ordered a bottle of beer and some bhatmas sandeko (roasted soyabeans) to go with. This was the end of February, certainly not low season but I was the only one eating there apart from a trio of American students rediscovering the power of free speech after a week of Vipassana. But when I ordered a main course of simple vegetarian curry with rice, it took them over two hours to bring it to my table. When needled about the delay, the manager apologized profusely saying they had a big order for 20 meals from an Indian group that could arrive anytime. “You know how some Indians are, they would like everything ready at once”, he said. I didn’t know if this was a sly reverse psychological tactic to make me feel ashamed of my countrymen and refrain from protesting but it worked. I quickly and quietly finished my meal without saying a word.

The eternal flame
The eternal flame

Lumbini’s UNESCO status is well deserved as here, in the 6th-5th Century BCE (depending on which historical records you believe), the Shakyan Queen Mayadevi, while resting under a sal tree, gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama, who would go on to become the Buddha. The entry to the massive site was flanked by many cycle rickshaws, all of whom banked on tourists wanting to do a whistle stop tour of all the monasteries and “points” within the site. They weren’t expensive and if one only had a day, it made sense to use one to take you around. But I had an infinite amount of time and I needed the exercise. So I marched in, behind a big group of cheerful Sri Lankan nuns from Kandy, all clad in white sarongs.

The first thing that impressed me about Lumbini was the sheer flatness of the terrain. To be in Nepal, the small yet overwhelmingly mountainous country, and able to see an unobstructed horizon in every direction felt magical to me. The mountains weren’t very far away with the mightly foothills of the Himalayas beginning 40 odd kilometers to the north. This was part of the Terai region, the scorching plains that extend from East to West, adjoining Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in India but with remarkably different ethnicities and identities compared to the Indian side.

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Within the confines of the work-in-progress “religious park”, there are the Sacred Garden, a monastic zone and a nature park. The Sacred Garden is the oldest and the most revered section of the complex. Its center-piece is the Mayadevi temple, a newer, whitewashed concrete structure built by the Japanese Buddhist Federation around the archaeological ruins of the original temple built during Emperor Ashoka’s time. There’s speculation that some of the lower foundations indicate the sort of architecture that might have existed during pre-Buddha times. There was a long queue of people wanting to have a look at the sculpture depicting Maya Devi and the Buddha, some devotedly lighting candles near an altar-like structure. I didn’t join the queue but spent a long time walking around the foundations stretching my mind imagining the significance of the site’s antiquity.

There was a beauty even in those deformed and decapitated structures, structures built by people who lived many millenia ago. When you remove the embellishments, the articulations, the complexities, all that remains is the foundations built by the simplest and the most uncomplicated of workers and it’s the foundations that survive the longest. Buddhism didn’t originate here but the Buddha did and the first seeds of thought were sowed here, which he would build upon, debate, revise and carry on to Bodhgaya, Sarnath and to his nirvana in Kushinagar, the seeds of a religion and a way of life that’s still expanding and evolving 2600 years later in myriad forms.

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Outside, a crowd of package tourists from China were huddled around the badly damaged Ashokan Pillar. I took a cursory look at it, not wanting to jostle for space with fellow tourists and took a walk around the grounds. There were monks everywhere, some giving sermons under a tree a la the Buddha himself, some sitting alone reading or meditating in an isolated corner, some cracking jokes and feeding turtles in the Shakya Tank. There were the obligatory Tibetan prayer flags fluttering everywhere. I spent many hours in the gardens, here talking to a monk from Amdo about Milarepa, there underneath a banyan tree reading some chapters of Nicolas Bouvier’s thrilling travelogue The Way of the World and somewhere near the pond watching people and updating notes. I visited the Maya Temple every afternoon for the next couple of days to either read, write or take a siesta because although it was undeniably a tourist site, its austere grounds offered me the peace and harmony I wasn’t quite getting in Lumbini Bazaar.

The monastic zone was a vast complex of monasteries built by the various sects of Buddhism and they all look depressingly concrete and new. What it didn’t have in antiquity, it made up for in variety with over 15 countries represented by their respective monasteries and plenty more under construction. The eternal flame that burns at the head of the reflecting canal was ignited in 1986 to commemorate what was then the International Year of Peace. The two rows around the canal were flanked by Japanese Buddhists dressed in yellow and topped with straw hats busy making colourful oil lamps for what they called “the floating lamp” festival. I was tremendously impressed by the amount space and the spotless cleanliness of the entire complex. It was quiet, serene, beautiful and spacious as any place of worship and contemplation ought to be.

Colourful lamps being readied for the Japanese festival
Colourful lamps being readied for the Japanese festival

It was late evening in Lumbini Bazaar and I was sitting in the open air café of Three-Vision Restaurant having beer with XL, a Chinese backpacker and GT, a long-term American traveler I’d met there. XL was an architect who was on a mission to visit every country in Asia and India was among the countries he absolutely loved traveling around. He strongly disagreed when GT told him he wished some of the Indian temple towns would learn from a place like Lumbini and clean up their act. He felt GT didn’t appreciate the true value of what India offered in its unselfconscious and naturalistic approach to devotion with the jagged and unconventional rhythms of chaotic towns, dirty alleys, cows on the roads and the blatant disregard for hygiene and sanitation that GT disapproved of. He was fascinated by the country and detested Lumbini for what he considered cold, sterile and manufactured spirituality, something that reminded him more of China than Nepal. When he learnt that this was my first stop in the country, he implored me to leave immediately and see the rest of Nepal, which he felt was more original and livelier than the “Buddhist Amusement Park”(his words) we were in at the moment.

When I arrived in Lumbini and snagged an inexpensive room, I thought I might stay here for a long time. My routine too, was set. Every morning, I would go for puri bhaji and chai to the grungy local dhaba on the road and chat with monks and pilgrims. Every afternoon, I would go for lunch to the restaurant opposite to the religious park and chat with the tall, pretty Nepali girl who worked there. Every evening, I would go for a walk around the water body in the park and do some bird-watching. But XL was right. The place was somewhat sterile and felt removed from the ordinary realities of everyday life in Nepal. This was a great spot to contemplate and clear out my head but after a point, the emptiness and the hollowness got to me. I was missing the markets, the hustle and bustle of a well-populated town and I was missing the cool air of the mountains in search of which I had come to Nepal in the first place. After 4 days in Lumbini, I packed my bags for Tansen, a hill town a couple of hours north of Lumbini, which promised everything I was looking for.

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Muktinath

View of Jharkot from Ranipauwa
View of Jharkot from Ranipauwa

Ever since I’d met R & B on a cold, drizzly night over whisky and chips in the village of Khati in Kumaon, Muktinath had been firmly plonked on a bucket-list of priorities. R especially was so enthusiastic , he wouldn’t stop raving about the Circuit, the trek, his children doing the trek, the pass, crossing the pass, his children crossing the pass, arriving at the incredible wonders of Mustang, a world apart from the other side and blah and blah. He was selling the trek and left me no choice but to buy it. I’ve been to Nepal twice since that cold, drizzly day in Khati and was thwarted both times, once by flash floods, the next by a terrible eye infection. I wasn’t going to be beat this time.

The walk from Jharkot to Ranipauwa, the lodge town below Muktinath, takes just 30 minutes. But it was a breathless 30 minutes as I took the short-cuts climbing up the hill trying to avoid the dusty jeep-infested road as much as I could. Everyone I had met on the way had warned me against staying in Ranipauwa. “It’s just big hotels built for Indian pilgrims”, “It’s dirty and charmless”, “Except for the temple, there’s nothing interesting there” and it’s all largely true. Ranipauwa is just a disorganized cluster of ugly buildings, bland lodges and over-priced shops but I didn’t want to have come this far and not stayed just steps away from the temple. C & T, the affable American Missionaries I’d met in Tirigaon, had highly recommended The Royal Mustang Hotel saying they had “friends” there. But when I spoke to the didi, she didn’t seem too happy that people recommended by C&T were knocking on her door. I wandered around for a bit, past trinket sellers who were trying to make a fortune by haggling fiercely with gullible Indian pilgrims over ammonites procured from the Kali Gandaki Valley, bypassed Hotel Bob Marley where there seemed to be a big party going on and went straight to one of the last places on the road, the enticingly named “Path of Dreams”.

Fierce haggling in Ranipauwa
Fierce haggling in Ranipauwa

The first thing you do when you “check out” a lodge on a trek in Nepal is not ask the price of a room but look at the menu. The price of an ensuite room with bathroom, wi-fi and hot shower is usually a miniscule 200 NPR (2 dollars) but it’s the food that could break your bank. Here dal bhat was 400 NPR, a very reasonable rate for this altitude, so I put my bags in my sunny room, took a hot shower and had a sumptuous meal of dal bhat while watching pilgrims from my country go about on horseback. The Indian pilgrim traffic to Muktinath has exploded recently after the “road” opened a few years ago. Till then, only the hardiest people made the trek all the way from Pokhara. Most people now fly to Jomsom and take a jeep to Ranipauwa and while the temple is hardly a 20 minute walk/gentle ascent away, they are too lazy to trouble their precious legs. A few years ago, motorbikes from the surrounding villages made a killing by ferrying them across to the temple. But thankfully, those have now been replaced by ponies. Many of the pilgrims were young and healthy and it was just embarrassing watching pot-bellied, double chinned 30-year old men, looking weary and exhausted, sitting lifelessly on top of a pony pulled by a pony man.

I met some hardy pilgrims on the way to the temple, huffing and puffing every now and then. After the obscene spectacle of fat people on horses, my admiration knew no bounds for these more genuine pilgrims, some who had walked from the jeep-stand, some all the way from Tatopani, all adorned with saffron robes and begging bowls. I generally ignore any request for alms but the contrast between the luxury tourists and these old pilgrims made such an impression on me that I treated some of them to chai. Then, realizing that they had finally laid hands on a suitably gullible victim, they started clamouring for my money. It was time to beat a retreat. IMG_7392 Muktinath was destined to be one of the premier pilgrim destinations in the Hindu/Buddhist world. One of the essential requirements for the establishment of a Vaishnavite temple is the presence of a shaligram (ammonites) or two. The Kali Gandaki Valley below Muktinath is littered with ammonites and that certainly must have played a part in its designation as a place of liberation or “moksha”. It also happens to be a sacred site for Buddhists as Guru Rinpoche aka Padmasambhava, one of the founding fathers of Tibetan Buddhism, had spent some of his time meditating here. It’s one of the 108 Divya Desams compiled by the Alwars from South India which explains the huge number of people who make it all the way here from Tamil Nadu and Andhra. And thanks to the eternal flame at the Jwala Devi Temple, it’s one of the very few places in the world where the five elements (fire, water, sky, earth, air) co-exist eternally. In short, it has some pretty impressive credentials for divinity.

Freezing dips in the pool
Freezing dips in the pool

And that’s probably why people choose to go through what should certainly count as one of the more “chilling” rituals in Hinduism. It requires people to take their clothes off in sub-zero weather, then a shower in each of the 108 fearsome fountains spouting glacier melt water from the Himalayas and then end the ordeal with three dips in two pools, also filled with freezing glacial waters. Some people, especially the very young Nepalis who come here in huge numbers, treat it as good old-fashioned fun. Some dip their toes, try to sneak out, then look around to see an assembly of tourists armed with cameras and lest they be taken for sissies, take the obligatory dips screaming in agony.

The fearsome fountains
The fearsome fountains

At the western end of the temple complex was a Buddhist monastery. It looked newish but it was a good place for some solitude and to take in the view of the region around. To my right were the old villages of Chongur and Jhong, with their own ancient monasteries, cults and traditions. Far below was Jharkot, where I came from that day. In the distance, the Dhaulagiris and above me the trail that ascends steeply to the Thorung La. It was 3 in the afternoon now and the weather was getting cloudy and stormy with gale force winds striking my face with much fury. I could see groups of trekkers limping their way down after the torturous walk from the other side of the pass. I wanted to stick around for the aarti at 6 but the weather was just getting too windy and cold. For all its pilgrim traffic, this temple was among the most peaceful and tranquil settings that I had spent any length of time in. With the mountains, the history, the mythology and the moving spectacle of people sacrifing comfort to shower in its fountains and dip in its pools, it was as genuine a spritual atmosphere as I have encountered. Having been to temples all my life and been appalled time and again by the filth, the corruption, the moneybagging, the swindler pandas, lack of hygiene, general unruliness and ugliness, Muktinath was like a breath of fresh air.

Back in “Path of Dreams”, it was now packed with people, particularly a large, loud, German group who had crossed the pass and were celebrating the achievement with many bottles of beer. It was around 5 and I ordered dinner, veg curry with rice, specifically mentioning that I wanted it at 7.30. It was on my table in half an hour and I was fuming with anger. I hate early dinners because I have always been afraid of waking up at midnight and getting hunger pangs. I gave the didi a gentle earful to which she smiled and said, I could always order something else later. But I was also afraid of running out of money because the nearest ATM was in Jomsom, 20 kms away. I grred and ate my delicious curry-rice very slowly hoping not to become hungry again.

Because of the large German group, I had to share a table with a Dutch couple and two Nepali boys, GG and MS, who were playing chess. GG and MS had initially mistaken me for a Nepali (it’s not funny the no. of times it’s happened to me in Nepal) and after having a loud laugh about it when they realised I didn’t speak a word of Nepali, returned to their game. The Dutch girl was reading “Burmese Days” which gave me a good conversation opener. “That’s a great book, isn’t it? A bit depressing but so beautifully written.” “Well, I think it’s disappointing,” she said, “We’re going to Myanmar and I thought I could get some tips about life there. It turns out it’s a novel. Do you know any good books about Myanmar?” That was a conversation ender. I said, “Not really”, a tad grumpily and started focussing on the chess game between GG and MS. It was a tough game and after GG beat MS, he wanted to play with me. An India vs. Nepal match. In no time, I had lost 4 pawns, 2 elephants, one horse and a queen. I had let my country down.

It was 7.30 and I was already feeling a bit hungry. I looked at the menu and the only affordable and light meal that wasn’t a salad was an apple pie. So I ordered apple pie. When it arrived, steaming loudly on its place, I already knew there was something wrong. But when I looked at it, it made me almost throw up with nausea. It was a small, fat, deep fried pakoda with apples stuffed inside. The Dutch couple, sitting opposite, had ordered fries and burritos, both of which looked delicious, and I wished I hadn’t grumpily ended the conversation earlier with these Orwell-haters just so I could borrow a bit of fries and burritos! GG and MS sympathised and I went back to my room to hopefully sleep without having to wake up hungry in the middle of the night.

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