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Mystic mountains

Mystic mountains

An account of a series of treks in the high Himalayas woven together with observations of the natural world, Himalayan history, folklore and mythology

Mohit Satyanand
February 04 , 2015
03 Min Read

“Man was given a face so that he might turn his eyes towards the stars.” My first visit to Kedarnath defined the stars for me, sharp points of electric intensity in a velvet sky. Decades later, in a meadow strewn with monsoon flowers, I waited for the infant moon to set, so I could bathe myself in starlight; instead, the pyrotechnics of a meteor shower were the closest I ever came to cosmic revelation.

Millions of Indians journey to the Himalaya in piety and deep faith. Like Stephen Alter, I profess to be a non-believer. Like him, I cannot live away from our mountains: my cottage in the foothills is my heart’s true home, the paths into Himalayan heights are where my feet most gladly tread. To experience the mountains is to experience what moves you and to wonder why. There are no easy answers. Easy it is to reject the organised reli­gion that conjures the squalor of a Kedarnath or the “laundromat hit by a hurricane,” a spot on the Kailash circumambulation where pilgrims discard an item of clothing as an article of faith.

It is less easy to explain why Alter’s “ vision blurs with tears and my throat constricts,” on his journey to Kailash and Mansar­ovar. He explains this as a sense of arrival, but that begs the ques­tion why that particular arrival was more significant than the hundreds of others our peripa­tetic lives take for granted. No such questions for a woman he saw throw herself to the ground and lie with her face in the dust. Faith has its icons, the pantheon its hierarchy, and Kailash ranks way up there.

As an atheist, Stephen explains his wonder as being evoked by the “material reality of Kailash,” by the magnitude of time and space that brought the landmass of the Indian peninsula into collision with the Asian continent, a violent upheaval that continues to thrust the Himalaya above any other point on earth. I wish I could explain away so easily my sense of wonder.

Indeed, just as he says, the mountains “symbolise so much that we fail to understand, an­other dimension that lies beyond those paths where our feet can­not take us.” Are seekers of the truth drawn to the mountains by their mystique, hoping to resolve the puzzle of life in the enigma of the mountains, or by the silence of their depths? Near Mount Kailash, Alter visited the Zutrul Phuk monastery, built around the cave where the Buddhist mystic Milarepa had meditated. “Whatever solitude and stoic simplicity the saint encountered is now encased in an elaborate shrine,” he writes.

Such is the nature of follow­ers, to cloak the truth in ritual and symbol. Even worse is the fate of those who turn to the followers for guidance, to their mumbled cant, or their printed words. Even to the words that question, such as Alter’s. There is a delicious irony when he writes, “the most important step towards becoming a mountain is to close the books that others have written and read only those texts imprinted upon rock or in the forest and streams that cascade from above.”

My heart ached as I read the book. The bonds of family and duty have kept me tied to the city for too long, and in the read­ing, I resolved to seek soon the transport of the path and the trail. Peter Matthiessen said it best: “I know that this transcen­dence will be fleeting, but while it lasts, I spring along the path as if set free.”


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