For hundreds of meters, the surface had been painstakingly tiled, and it ascended at a gentle gradient. I kept upwards, hauling my shadow up towards this first encounter with the Himalayan summits.
The summer had left; it was the autumn equinox.
Above Tungnath, in the Garwhal Himalaya, was Chandrashila, the Mountain of the Crescent Moon. My destination. The pilgrim's path led up from the road, in a state of ongoing construction. Small teams of men and animals hauled stones and tiles along the path. For hundreds of meters, the surface had been painstakingly tiled, and it ascended at a gentle gradient. I kept upwards, hauling my shadow up towards this first encounter with the Himalayan summits.
Feathery Khorsu-Oaks, their limbs aggressively chopped for firewood and fodder, grew over the grassy slopes. Shepherds tended their flocks on the hillsides, stoically awaiting the arrival of the next cloudburst of rain. At intervals along the trail, as on every other holy mountain I visited in India, tea merchants sat patiently, boiling water and displaying garishly packaged sugar-biscuits. Their wares were of the lowest conceivable quality, but the syrupy tea offered a fine excuse to stop and enjoy the view of the swirling clouds.
A pair of men, with corded muscles and concentrated gazes, stepped slowly up the mountain. Between them, and on their shoulders, lay a stout wooden pole, and midway on this pole hung a pyramidical basket. In this basket, serenely, sat an elderly woman, a pilgrim who could not climb the trail on her own. She had paid generously for this luxurious ride. She looked both dignified and ridiculous, but swaddled in her woolens, she wouldn’t have felt the sharp bite of the wind as it gusted over the hills. She focused on her pilgrim's trail, and trusted the strength of her porters.
As I approached the Tungnath Temple, I could feel my mood darkening in concert with the skies. I had been desperately hoping for a mountaintop ridge in its natural state, but the closer I came to the Temple, tucked into a share notch in the ridge, the more I discovered how ancient and inhabited the place was. A squat collection of buildings was presaged by plastic litter on the track, and the trampling of hooves and feet on the grassy tundra had left violent scars on the topsoil.
Mile after mile of perfectly spaced vines, cobalt blue rivers flowing between them and an imposing backdrop of rolling hills and jagged mountains.
Walking closer, the proprietors of the teahouses and lodges hollered at me to gain my attention, to tempt me with bottled water, biscuits, or chewing pan. I tried not to glower at the unwanted attention, and walked directly up to the temple gates. Beneath the rock cliffs of Chandrashila's summit, was the solid stone building marking one of the Panch Kedar- the five Kedar pilgrimage sites for Hindus. The temple was built where Shiva's hands fell to our world after an epic battle recounted in the story of Mahabharata. There was a bell to announce arrivals, but I did not ring it.
The old woman and the porters had arrived at the temple as well. The men looked as if they had scarcely exerted any effort, and the woman had adopted a look of reverent bliss.
I decided left these faithfuls to the temple, feeling my lack of religious sentiment would somehow take away from their experience. I turned to walk away- but realised I should pay some greater respect to this important place. I gracelessly offered, with my hands, a wave and a salute to the temple and the icons within. I was unable to completely forget the idol-smashing ethics of my monotheistic ancestors, and chose not to offer up an actual prayer, only to pay cursory respect.
The last section of the trail to Chandrashila's summit wound in a spiraling ascent from the walls of the temple compound. The grassy fields ended abruptly at jagged cliffs, which tumbled down the mountainside in a terrifying contrast to the inviting slopes as seen from below. The path, now a gouged line in the dirt, clung carefully to the side of these cliffs, and continued up towards the clouds drifting over the sky. Eventually, cairns of stacked stones sprouted from the landscape, and they surrounded me as I walked onto the very summit of Chandrashila, the Mountain of the Crescent Moon. The stones which composed the mountain itself flaked off into plates and shields, and hundreds of towers had been formed as an honour guard leading to a remarkably drab square building. Inside, a god lived, and treasures-rocks, coins, feathers, folded papers- had been placed.
Outside, plastic wrappers were scattered about the stacked stone towers, and the clouds stubbornly obscured the views of the High Himalaya. It was the first Himalayan peak I had ever visited. Emotionally, I was pulled in three ways. I could not quite balance awe, reverence, and disgust: sublime terrain, sacred religion, and human pollution.
Quietly, I picked my way down one of the ridges that radiated from the topographical summit, and unpacked the origami-tent that I had brought up this far. I would spend the night on the summit. Once, I had read, Chandra the Moon had spent a night in meditation here. I would stay awake, dreaming, and listen through the dark for the deep murmurs of the mountain's message.
A pair of ravens perched on rock piles and cawed their amusement at me. I stumbled around in the fog, seeing the care and devotion in the taller and larger of the cairns.
YD Bar-Ness is a conservation ecologist based in Fremantle, Western Australia, on a long-term quest searching for the Kalpavriksh, the Wish-Fulfilling Tree of ancient Indian myth. He hasn't found it yet, but will make sure to tell you when he does.
As a scientist, he specializes in climbing trees to explore the canopy biodiversity, and as a conservationist, he seeks to use geography and photography to create environmental education materials.
His writings and photos have been published or featured in Outlook Traveller, Australian Geographic, Jetwings, Bootsnall, The Indian Express, Times of India, GEO-India, Matador Network, and elsewhere. Please visit www.treeoctopus.net to learn more about his work.
A trekking pole served as a central support, and the meager contents of my pack were disgorged into this enclosed space. But I could not bear to wait out the hours inside this claustrophobic space; for all of the mist, the day was still bright. A pair of ravens perched on rock piles and cawed their amusement at me. I stumbled around in the fog, seeing the care and devotion in the taller and larger of the cairns. I visited the god.
Upon a metal archway before the shrine , a series of bells were hung. Some were hanging from the ringers of the ones above them; I had never seen this type of compound bell before. A red prayer flag thrust upwards, jauntily, and on a white wooden sign was written, in large English letters: LOVE. I rang the bells, distractedly, but the sound sank forlornly into the vaporous fog.
The afternoon passed lazily, mistily, and slowly. The clouds rolled in, and with them, my field of view shrank until I was in a small, chill world of stone cairns, grassy tufts. Soon, I was curled up in my tent, breathing the thin air slowly.
In the middle of the night, the first night of autumn, I awoke suddenly. The inky mists no longer dampened the sounds of the mountains - I could hear the insistent patter of heavy raindrops on the tent, and the consistent hammer of blowing winds. An energy filled the air. A bright light illuminated my nighttime existence. My thoughts of planetary equinoxes, lunar companions, and sacred mountains furiously danced in a circle around some divine understanding - and then they scattered, irrevocably, as the first thunderbolt screamed out in exultant pain.
I was on the very summit of a mountain, in a wet tent, curled up around a metal rod reaching to the sky. After an entire monsoon summer spent watching the lightning- bijlee-- from the hillsides, leaping on the plains below, I had supposed I was literally above such dangers. But now I was inside the cumulonimbus cloud, and my life was truly at risk.
Moments later, I had shivered into my rain gear, laced my boots, packed away my sleeping gear, and pushed over the trekking pole. The origami tent had to be untied from the rocks anchoring it, and refolded. Lightning splashed. Retreating, I looked for the path from the mountaintop. By torchlight and sky-flash, I hurried down the trail, passing by the archway of LOVE. I rang the bells, unheard in the rain-flecked wind, and got off the summit with as much quickness as the dark would allow.
The rain was unrelenting; and the tundra grassfields were slickly transformed into shining mud. The dirt path below the cliffs was mercifully sound under foot, and it was not long before I was at Tungnath temple.
Following the stairs down past the gate, I approached the first of the small hotels. With sharp knocks and a pleading holler, I was readmitted in to the warmth and safety of the candlelit indoors of the human world.
Before sunrise, I returned to the mountain. The clouds had drifted farther along, and there was now starlight and the narrow sickle the moon whispering down on the icy peaks. The snowfields held tight to the dark ridges of rock, and fantastic basins and valleys bowed down below the sparkling summits.
A golden flowering of eastern light in the clouds hanging distant painted my first glance at the uppermost lines of this highest of mountain ranges.
I staggered over to the archway painted LOVE. As the sun rose, the shadow of Chandrashila lay in a flat triangle laid down over the tortured terrain below. The green world of life gave way to the ice world here, and the ice world tried to touch the distant sky. Moon sliver, sunrise, shadow and rain; driftcloud and snow-peak, thunder and starlight; windshine and lightning. I rang the bells, and this time, the crystal note rang out across the horizon.
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