I wait in a comfortable hospital, trying to write this piece, while Girish goes through a series of extensive tests spread over 3 days for his medical review. It is one year since his without-any-explanation heart attack after Akshay left. In the past week, we were disturbed by Sangeeta’s recent bouts of weakness and thankfully, her test reports are fine. My mind also wanders to Neha, her lack of being expressive about Akshay, particularly when she becomes very quiet. I have seen her crying over his pictures and videos. That Pradish is by her side is hugely reassuring for us. Even as I worry about loved ones, Naina and elderly parents included, I count our blessings and the fact that I have been fit and fine to tackle my role as ‘family anchor’. A friend said ‘the universe is looking after you.’ I do know who in that universe is continuing to take his responsibilities so seriously.
Back home, relieved because the doctor is happy with Girish’s medical review, Sangeeta, Neha, Girish and I are trying to catch up with family chatter even as super excited Naina yells and runs around Neha, demanding all her attention. As always! I look around to see if something needs to be done, dusted or cleaned and think of Akshay’s chatter. He loved a well-kept, tastefully decorated home and multiple times, had tried to get his no-fuss mother to ‘put up some beautiful paintings, some classy artifacts and pictures on the walls’. I had always resisted. Today, Akshay beams at us from most of the walls of our home. Millions of memories in the many pictures and memorabilia. Flowers adorn the vases beside him and so many visitors have gifted lovely, meaningful framed tributes in his honour. Typical of my raja beta to have the last laugh at his mom!
Overwhelmed by life after Akshay, Shiva’s calling became stronger. In this one month, so much has happened and I still have so much to absorb, learn and grow. I do not know where this journey of mine will end and so, will only try and focus on the path as of now. How did Kailash Mansarovar yatra happen to me and what did I experience? Not sure anyone can do justice to this deeply felt experience through mere words. All I promise is to try to sort, sequence and share how, when and what it has been like for me.
When did the longing for Kailash seep into the heart? Way back in early 2015, we, a group of close friends who normally holiday together discussed the yatra. Unexpected events overtook our plans that year. Dearest friend Sanjeev who always led the friends brigade in vacation planning suddenly and shockingly left us. Next, the Nepal earthquake followed with thousands of precious lives lost, homes destroyed and Kailash yatra cancelled that year. When Akshay-Sangy-Naina came home on long leave for the Neha-Pradish wedding in October, we discussed our postponement of plans and he, always most excited about mountains and lakes, urged us to plan for 2016 and suggested we ‘make it to Sikkim if not Kailash, because Gurudongmar lake is a must see for its beauty and peace.’ With roads and infrastructure very badly hit, Kailash even in 2016 was not open by road. My old back injury had me in bed for almost 6 weeks mid-year, and before 2016 ended, Akshay had shockingly left us in pride and pain forever.
As they say, ‘Bulava nahin aaya, toh kaise jaate? (If the calling hasnt come, how can you go?)’ The next year and half, Girish and I suddenly found ourselves in altered roles – from empty-nest-parents to trying to be the main support system for Sangeeta and Naina in our most difficult times as a family. Then August last year, we learnt how grief can affect the most stoic fathers in ways we least expect. It hit us extremely hard and medically, not only grounded Girish from his flying, but also ruled him out for the high-altitude Kailash-Mansarovar trek.
As Girish made a slow but steady recovery, changed jobs, and the kids tried to get back on track with their lives and careers, something within me kept burning. The Kailash flame refused to dim and after speaking with Girish, a year plus after Akshay, I went ahead and registered alone for the yatra. I chose the Isha Foundation’s ‘Sacred Walks’ in February-March 2018 and submitted all documents, including the most comprehensive medical test reports which proved I was physically fit. Next, I completed the mandatory ‘Inner Engineering’ program in June, practiced the Yoga and ‘Shambhavi Maha Mudra’ taught to us, tried to brisk-walk each day, and soon, it was time to pack my bags for the two-week yatra, which I feel is a huge blessing for me in this lifetime.
Mansarovar and Kailash with Isha
There are different routes to Mansarovar and Kailash and we were taking the route via Kathmandu in Nepal to China-Tibet. As fellow Yatri’s of Isha’s A1 batch, we met in Kathmandu on 31st July and the buoyant feeling that raised my spirits from day one surprised me! Here I was, all alone and away from my family with my phone not working because I had not taken international roaming, and barely any ‘pangs’ of not being constantly connected to folks back home? Was this a sign? One that seemed to be telling me to focus on the experiences that were to follow? I managed to get a message across to Girish saying all was well and let go of my family for the next two weeks.
There was so much to look forward to, so much to experience, to learn, and to savour on this journey to Shiva’s abode. A wonderfully scenic, straight-out-of-picture-books passage, Sadhguru’s incomparable discourses that captivated us during daily ‘Satsang’s’, an extremely capable young coordinator and team of Isha volunteers guiding us, constant medical assistance and effective advice for wellness at high altitudes, Sherpa’s from the Trekkers Society of Nepal for all logistical arrangements, and our diverse-yet-united group of almost equal numbers of women and men, aged between 24 to 66.
After a day and night in pretty but crowded Kathmandu, we boarded a flight to Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet, now a part of China. Taking off from an elevation of about 4500 feet, flying over some awesome mountains, valleys and rivers, we landed at 12000 feet and felt the effects of cool, rarified atmosphere. During the hour’s bus ride from Lhasa airport to the ‘Lhasa Brahmaputra’ hotel, low oxygen levels had us take our deep breathing exercises seriously. At tea, we were told to take it easy and not walk much the first evening. So we tucked ourselves into bed early to help acclimatize better and be fit for sightseeing the next day.
Much higher then Leh in Ladakh of J&K, Lhasa is just as beautiful, with its serene high-altitude desert-landscape at the outskirts of the city. The city centre has excellent infrastructure, public transportation, eateries, markets and monuments that are well worth a visit. We spent the day visiting among other sights, the revered Jokham Temple with long queues of Tibetans waiting with ‘offerings’ in flasks and the beautiful Potala Palace, Dalai Lama’s former residence framed atop a hill. Since he lives in exile, the palace is now a museum. Back in the hotel after a nice long day, the doctor was kept busy with many complaints of breathlessness, headache, tingling in the limbs and such other symptoms expected at high altitudes.
After two nights in Lhasa, our long road journey with night stopovers took us all the way across the Tibetan plateau to Mansarovar. We traversed 1400 kms in small buses for the next 3 days, staying in small towns like Shigatse and Saga. While I could go on and on about the beautiful scenic route across rivers and mountains, brilliant blue skies and green slopes dotted with yaks, mountain goats and wild ponies, sighting lovely birds in flight, decorated homes of Tibetans and so on, Id prefer to share with you, the mystery of Mansarovar and the energy of Kailash.
At first sight of the huge expanse of Lake Mansarovar from the bus, we were floored and smitten. Also called Mapam Yumtso, Mansarovar is a high-altitude freshwater lake fed by the Kailash Glaciers. ‘Manasarovar’ is a combination of two Sanskrit words; “Mánas” meaning mind (in its widest sense as applied to all the mental powers- intellect, intelligence, understanding, perception, sense, conscience), while “sarovara” means a lake. Manasarovar is relatively round in shape with a circumference of about 88 km, its depths reaching a maximum of 300 ft and its surface area is 320 km2. Hindu’s believe that the lake was first ‘created in the mind of Lord Brahma’ after which it ‘manifested’ on Earth.
A personification of purity, the lake is clearer than a sapphire and one can see through dozens of meters into the lake. Set with mountains around its banks, It is connected to nearby Lake ‘Rakshastal’ by the natural ‘Ganga Chhu’ channel. Lake Manasarovar overflows into Lake Rakshastal which is a salt-water lake and yet, its own waters remain fresh and sweet! The two lakes they say used to be part of the Sutlej basin and were separated due to tectonic activity. Manasarovar is near the source of many rivers- the Sutlej, the Brahmaputra, the Indus, and the Ghaghara, an important tributary of the Ganges. The lake has a few monasteries on its shores, the most notable of which is the ancient ‘Chiu Monastery’ built on a steep hill, looking as if it has been carved right out of the rock.
Standing on the shores of Mansarovar, we got our first ‘darshan’ of Mount Kailash. It is unmistakably majestic, as you must have all seen in pictures. All by itself, standing tall and stunning in its white adornment of snow, beautiful beyond words, the south face of Kailash Parvat had most of us fold our hands at the first sight of Shiva himself. In his video discourses, Sadhguru had repeatedly urged us ‘not to be tourists’ and take ‘pictures and selfies’ but to experience the magic of going inwards around Shiva. I am glad most of us tried to resist pulling out our cameras. Even as some sat quietly meditating, I took a stroll all by myself, eyes glued to Mansarovar and everything around it.
As the Isha group, we had been well prepared for the cold and the spartan community living spaces- a few dormitory style rooms that accommodated us but no bathrooms. By now we were used to no-running water ‘pit bathrooms’ or taking ‘nature calls’ in small groups, so as to be safe from packs of wild dogs known to attack humans for food. Minus electricity, it was actually nice to get under double quilts and most of us never even got out of layered warm clothing that night. As I fell asleep, I dreamt of Akshay. He was wearing his light blue shimmery kurta from the day before their wedding, grinning and smiling as brightly as ever. Yes, he did seem to fit perfectly into the shining star scape that lights up the sky above mysterious Mansarovar like no where else.
Day two at Mansarovar had us all go through a 45-minute process on the lake shore. Led by Sadhguru’s mesmerizing voice, we chanted and meditated while celestial lights seemed to dip into the waters and shadowy shapes seemed to rise out of it. Suffice to say that all those who were not planning to take a bath in the icy-cold, crystal-clear waters of Mansarovar also capitulated. What we would never dream of doing back home, rejuvenated us and stirred something deep inside our hearts. The most spiritual part of our journey was unfolding and I was by now immersed in it.
Pilgrims, Not Tourists
After another unforgettable night at Mansarovar, we were raring to start the trek to Darchen to get closer to Mt Kailash. Sadhguru’s advice to be ‘a pilgrim and not a tourist, to not consider this a mountaineering expedition but a surrender to an inner journey’ resonated with many of us. The weather was cloudy and throughout our journey, rain and sun constantly played hide-and seek owing to the season and altitude. A short bus drive later, we started walking from Yamdwar, trekking up as it drizzled. While some of us kept with companions, many of us also walked up alone, lost in a world of our own. In an uphill trek of about 16 kms that day, through land that seems like heaven itself with its stunning waterfalls, gushing streams and rivers, tall ridged cliffs, grassy mountains dotted with yellow and purple flowers and pebbles of astonishing colours, I found myself enchanted. Breathlessness at high altitudes troubled many from our group and while some younger people could not walk up due to Acute Mountain Sickness(AMS) and other health issues, I was fine. Every time I seemed to be getting exhausted and closed my eyes to chant ‘Aum Namah Shivaya’ and ‘Shiva Shambho’, I could see Akshay sitting with his bare back in front of me, repeating the words with me. I really wish I could express what the terrain, the rain and the faith I put in Shiva and Akshay felt like but words fail me.
As we climbed higher, sighting first the south face, then the west face and finally reaching the base of the north face of Kailash, it was grateful surrender to a sublime energy at over 17000 feet. Face to face with the stunning magic of black rock face that seemed to have milk pouring down on it from the heavens, I sat on a rock for a long time, wept a little and smiled a lot. As one looks all around sacred landscape, it hits you that none of the other mountains there look anything like Mt. Kailash.
Standing tall at 22,000 feet, Mount Kailash—known to be the abode of Lord Shiva—is one of the world’s most revered holy places and only a few thousand pilgrims are able to do the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra every year. Apart from Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Bon also consider Mount Kailash most sacred land. If we believe Lord Shiva and Parvati reside at the peak of Mount Kailash in a state of meditation, for Jains, Kailash is the place where the first Jain Tirthankara attained Nirvana. In Buddhism, the belief goes that Kailash Parvat is where the Buddha, representing supreme bliss, resides. The Bon (a religion which predates Buddhism in Tibet), however, believe that the entire region is the seat of all spiritual power. Certainly feels like it.
After two whole days at the north face, a second soul-stirring process facing Shiva himself, more climbing to get even closer and collect Kailash Teerth from the gushing stream, a short walk to see the famous Milirepa Monastery and hot ‘khichdi meals’ served by the ever smiling and efficient Sherpas, it was time to trek down to Darchen. I wanted to stay on longer, never mind the cold, rain and snow. Akshay, I know you pushed me to get up here and that you will forever be with me.
A few days later, driving back in buses through the many Chinese check points, our return road travel delayed by monsoon rains and landslides, we got back to Lhasa for a night before flying back to Kathmandu. The flight couldn’t land in Kathmandu due to pouring rain and our little adventure continued with a fight diversion back to Lhasa. We were treated to an impromptu musical extravaganza in the aircraft’s aisle by talented co-passengers while it took time to refuel and return to Kathmandu a few hours later. Just in time for another fantastic experience- a long Satsang with Sadhguru himself! We rushed into the Gokarna Resort straight from the airport, to meet the Guru who has a huge fan following across all age groups. To be actually led by him, singing Shiva’s praise is something I will never forget. He definitely wears that halo of joy, calm and wit like none other. Many of us took up his ‘Instead of me speaking, why don’t you share your experiences of Kailash’ and he heard each one with interest and patience, answering many questions and adding gems from his own experiences. I too tried to explain my Kailash calling after Akshay and how, despite my fears of age and poor respiratory health, I had been among the fittest right though this incredibly tough journey.
At the very instant I mentioned Akshay’s martyrdom, Sadhguru folded his hands and closed his eyes for a moment. At the end of the Satsang, when everyone rushed for a group photograph with him, Sadhguru took a few steps towards me, his hands outstretched, eyes filled with kindness and understanding. I took his hand and held it against my eyes and felt his right hand on my head. He didn’t say a word and yet, comforted a mother with so much concern and empathy. This is one blessing that will stay with me forever. The many hugs, kind words and expressions of pride in Akshay that followed touched me deeply and I am hugely grateful to Sadhguru and thank all my co-yatri’s though this channel.
I know I will never be able to do justice to what the Kailash Mansarovar yatra has meant to me. You dear friends, demanded I write, and on my part, I have tried to share some experiences with all of you. I am sure that for each of us who has been to Kailash, the journey has been unique and that is how it should be. No two experiences to sacred land can be the same.
I however, am certain that this for me couldn’t not have happened, without the grace and will of a power way beyond us. So many pilgrims this year too fell ill, many died, some could not complete their yatra and others had to be evacuated because of weather and landslides and yet, the fact that I had sailed through without a single minute’s discomfort – this was not something I was capable of doing by myself!
Back home, I think back at what I have been blessed with and relive Akshay’s words from a clear-as-daylight dream. He had looked up from reading a newspaper to tell me something when I was extremely upset about a year ago. Sitting in his grey night suit near our kitchen, he had stated: ‘Interesting. When the path is right, winning and losing is not important. Giving it your all is.’ It does seem like ‘miles to go before I sleep’ and yes raja beta, ‘I too will try and give it my all’.
Thank you all for reading and for being part of our family’s difficult journey.
I will for sure do my best to answer your comments or questions on the Kailash experience so please feel free to ask.
May you all forever stay happy and blessed.