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”.
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. 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.
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.
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.
“I like him the best of all the old gurus but I don’t need him”, bellows an old American man to a young German girl at the chai shop opposite the Ashram. At Shanti Café, a bearded man dressed like a rabbi is giving a sermon to a group of faithful backpackers about the beauty of mundanity and the triumph of positivity over negativity. One young boy with beaded dreadlocks has the temerity to point out the poverty and garbage that he saw everywhere in India and the “rabbi” cuts him short vehemently saying, “Beauty! It’s all beauty! You are ugly, everything else is beauty! Look at the garbage like you would look at rose petals and smell it thinking you’re smelling expensive perfume and you’ll know it’s all beautiful! It’s all in your head!” At the Mango Tree café, a young Japanese woman is clutching a book by Paul Brunton called “Inner Reality” and explaining her newfound spiritual connections to a tall Indian man with curly hair who’s dressed like a Rasta. “I feel like, I’m reborn, you know? In Yoga, guruji says…” In the table next to them, there’s a raging debate going on about materialism, “At the end of the day, isn’t money just a piece of paper with numbers on it?”
Thiruvannamalai, the chaotic temple town with its holy hill (they call it Mount Arunachala but since it’s only 800 meters high, calling it a “mountain” seems a stretch), a massive temple complex and the renowned Ramana Ashram was guru-made for these new-agey neo-spiritual scenes. I hadn’t planned to come here. After 7 days of croissants and hot coffee at Pondicherry, I knew I wanted to leave but didn’t know where to go. I decided to go to the bus-stand and take the first bus that went anywhere. That bus went to Thiruvannamalai.
After wandering for a bit, I found a room at the Arunachala Inn, which was right next to the big temple. For a pilgrim lodge, it was surprisingly clean and well-appointed. The speakers in the hallway sang the Tibetan Buddhist hymn “Om Mani Padme Hum” which made me go WTF every time I entered or left my room. It also brought back nostalgic memories of Spiti, Ladakh, Sikkim and Tawang. In the blistering heat and choking traffic of the Tamilian plains, a part of me wished I was up in the mountains of the North staring at endless spaces at high altitudes.
I wasn’t allowed inside the big temple because of irrational rules that don’t let people wearing shorts go inside (when asked to point out where such rules are stated in Hinduism’s labyrinthine scriptures, I only received befuddled, angry reactions and I knew I had to leave when both a watchman and a priest pointed wrathfully at the exit and yelled “Get out!”) So I went to the Ramana Ashram, run by the same religion as the temple, where I was allowed to walk around wearing the same clothes that so scandalized the people at the temple.
The area around the Ramana Ashram was a little bubble of peace and quiet amidst the chaos of the rest of Thiruvannamalai. With its sea of white faces, a peaceful vibe that feels a world away from the India most Indians live in and all the religious paraphernalia and the orientalism that go with these, it was a no-brainer that a backpacker scene was expanding here. There’s yoga, organic café’s, spiritual bookshops, Western-oriented menu’s serving everything from pancakes to pastas, Indian dishes with their spice quotient tuned down to zero, an ashram that’s internationally renowned and all the utopian and idealistic conversations that go with these. It’s no different from the scenes I had encountered in Rishikesh or Pushkar or Varanasi and after just a couple of hot and sweaty days here, attacked by the hostile, narrow-minded people of the temple on one side and the fake Western-style infatuated spiritualism on the other, I knew I had enough. It was time to leave for the hills where the pleasures are simpler, the altitude is higher, the air is cooler and life, easier to cherish.