A journey into the Himalayas is a life-altering experience for many as we realise our place in this existence.
Geeta Ramanujam is a Veteran Trainer, Story Coach who has 22 years of experience in the field of storytelling. She is the founder of Kathalaya - The House of Stories that trains and encourages people in the art of storytelling. She has a Masters in Economics & also Education and is a faculty at The Azim Premji University & University of Gothenburg, Sweden
Before the beginning of time, a story was born. Her name was Shakti. There was initially nothing and we may call 'it' Shiva. From this Shakti there emerged movement, sound, light, elements and evolution. The Story merged with the trees, flowers, earth and the elements. Those who paused and listened could hear her stories. This story wandered about from place to place, was told from person to person in the form of folktales around the fire in every part of the Universe. In India, she also became the fire around which people felt warm listening to stories. She was part of the rivers on whose banks saints and people meditated and listened to her stories. She merged into the great Himalayan mountains and spread herself so that people could listen to her silence. She can never be forgotten, and she never will be as long as the mountains and rivers last. She has no death and the only immortal one who will remain long after the Earth is extinct - stories.
Once upon a time … such powerful words. Four words that make you sit up and pay attention; words that can call to order the unruliest of crowds, words that can pull you out of your reverie and make you listen. That’s the power of storytelling. Who instils this seed in us? Do our ancestors pass it down or is it their blessings and good deeds that take us on the right path? Do we have a chance to meet them? Are there coincidences? Do we believe in Celestine prophecies? I had a lot of questions in my mind?
The back story
Memories freeze as the images of the past create vivid pictures of the places travelled by. It is not the destinations but the landscapes you drive past on your journeys that remain. The ocean winds as I drove through the Monterey Bay in California, the climb up to Gangotri and the Himalayan sights and the Alakananda and Bhagirathi rivers playing hide and seek, the bridge between two rivers on each side at Kambadkone in Mangalore, a mountain suddenly emerging and becoming larger than heaven as you walk through the Alps in the Austrian border, the huge Bodensee lake in Ravensburg Germany with a flight of rare birds flying above and stretches and stretches of the waters, or just a route of wildflowers that look more beautiful than any botanical garden all along the garden route from East London to Cape Town in South Africa. Stretch of wild plants growing unevenly and yet supporting each other in the Garden Route of South Africa, a sudden twilight hue being supported by clouds and the different new moon shapes in each country. Close your eyes and now, here is a memory for you….
[Cape Town Garden route]
2007 - Not a miracle but a real story
My best friend Alamelu passed away on March 1st 2007. Her last wish was to travel to Rishikesh. I had been there just once before my father passed away on March 2nd, 1995.
March 20th 2007: I had a call from the organisation called Room to Read in Delhi to do a workshop for their global team. I was excited and happy. Where? The setting was the Dayananda Ashram along the Ganges in Rishikesh. Hmm! I thought I could offer prayers too for my friend and took the opportunity to facilitate the workshop. It was at the same time that a camp by Dayanandji himself was being conducted on the same campus.
One evening early in the week I sat by the Ganges where a devotee of His holiness Jagadguru Sri Chandrashekarendra Saraswathi of Kanchi - Kamakoti Shankaracharya (who had attained Mahasmadhi in 1994) approached me and began to speak about our rituals, Karmendiyas, Indriyas etc. I was not familiar with many of the terms and he stopped abruptly and asked me to return next early morning before 5 am to take a dip in the Ganges.
I was very scared of the water and its spate and also mortally scared of taking a complete dip in the cold waters. I ignored him but surprisingly woke up around 5 am the next morning and decided to go to the Ganges. As I stood looking at the dark cold mother Ganga, I was scared. I just then saw a devotee. He led me towards the water and asked me to take several dips thinking of my ancestors, my father and my friend. I felt supported and took the 13 dips. I then just sat on the banks of the Ganges as I noticed the stars fade one by one and the red scratch of the sunrise against the deep blue sky. I closed my eyes as the cold chill wind brushed past my wet body and meditated. My mind was fresh and the moment absorbing. I then took the prasad at the Ashram for it was the Ramnavmi festival.
“When you visit again in September, I will take you to Badri, Kedar and Gomukh,” said the devotee.
A lot of questions arose in my mind. My mind spoke to me – things do happen, don’t ask too many questions, just go with the flow – my conscience trying to speak to my mind. Within me … theism and atheism – religiousness- a battle within. I was also a person who was a little more practical, who always asked the reason behind practices.
This was March 2007 and September was nearly six months away. Next morning I was pondering about all these happenings. It was a very beautiful morning and I saw this little colourless and shapeless dewdrop trying to find its identity. I was also at the crossroads of my life, wondering I if should continue my journey with storytelling as a trainer or a performer or should I think of another career etc. I created the story of a Dew Drop. In this story, the dewdrop seeks for identity asking colours from the sunflower, scents from the rose and shape from the lotus. Finally, it finds its answer in the Jasmine flower that helps the dewdrop to look into its own self as it could not only reflect the full moon but could choose a shape, understanding that nothing was permanent. Acceptance of oneself was the answer. Feeling relieved and lighter within myself I returned to the ashram. The devotee later said that he was the disciple of Sri Shankaracharya of Kamakoti Kancheepuram and had come to Rishikesh to fetch the Ganga waters.
Time rolled by and I got back to my Storytelling courses training and travelling to Madurai, Rameshwaram, Pune, Mumbai with my workshops.
In August I received a call again from an organization from Bangalore to conduct another workshop at Uttarkashi. I suddenly remembered the devotee and called him. He responded that after the workshops he would pick me up and take me to Gangothri first. He had all the equipment for me but I had no idea as to what or where I was headed towards.
Trip to Gomukh
After the workshops, the devotee picked me up along with another devotee of Dayanandji’s and we proceeded towards Gangothri in a cab that took nearly 10 hours. The journey was exciting and at each bend, my stomach went through a lot of G’s and turns. Finally, we reached Gangothri and again settled in a little ashram at the foothills. After taking a dip in the Gowri Kund, early next morning we prepared for the climb up to Gaumukh. I had not taken the trouble to find out what I was in for and just blindly decided to follow the two devotees on their way up. I had not attempted to know the distance or the terrain up the mountain.
However, the devotees had already got the jacket and boots to climb. The climb was steep and the road was stony and rugged and uneven. It was cold and I began to feel the difference in the temperature as I ascended the mountain not knowing that it was nearly a 22 km trek all the way up.
After 4 hours of climbing, and without a stick nor water, I lost them. They had gone ahead. I noticed some people returning from Tapovan and they gave me a stick and some water. There was a man carrying some loads on his back, a local Sherpa, who told me to keep pulling the little grass from the sides of the mountain and to keep smelling them for they were the oxygen suppliers.
I had climbed for nearly 8 hours and suddenly saw an ashram and some people. I not only spotted them but knew we had reached Bhojwasa. An old Babaji washed my feet, fed me and gave me a little kutir to rest for the night. Legs ached to rest and soon I was in a trance. In the middle of the night, as I peeped out of the tent, I froze as I looked up the Universe above me. The astral lantern lit up the night sky. I felt I could touch the sky. A thousand stars seemed to descend upon me. The air was sparkling and just one bird soaring into that pristine and silent crystalline night. The silence was profound. I could hear my heartbeat loud and clear. The great rhythm of nature pervades everything, and I was woven into it with mind and body. Even my imagination was forced to recede as I could see this beautiful canopy of myriad stars and planets descend upon my Consciousness.
It was as if the curtain was suddenly drawn and one could directly experience the stars. The celestial bodies seem to govern the rhythm of life here. This is one moment which I recall was a self-renewing moment for me and I could sense existence.
Early the next morning after breakfast at 6, the three of us continued to trek for the next 6 hours. It was a bit flat but very unruly with no roads but just a steep climb up and down. I could hear the loud roar of the fresh new young river girl, the Ganga jumping and skipping along the route. The waters were blue-green with chunks of ice floating so close as we climbed and descended. And there she was…Ganga gushing out of the mouth of the cave covered with blue-green jaded rocks. It looked to me like I had reached heaven. The chill icy wind tried to get into me through my jacket and shoes which were quite wet by then.
I just sat on one of the rocks and closed my eyes to listen to the GUSHING WATERS OF THE GANGA. It looked like a womb from where Ganga was being delivered. I watched the cave and was mesmerised by its sight against the backdrop of the tall white snow-clad peaks of the Shivling, Thalay Sagar, Meru and Bhagirathi. I began to walk back. Oops! I had lost the devotees again. There was no one in the vicinity around and I found myself amidst these tall Gods of heaven like a little dwarf trying to find my bearings. The role of heaven and Earth seemed to be reversed. Where to move? How to return? On one side was the young Ganga jumping up and down in full spate with ice and frozen parts just rushing and gushing forth.
The side where one had to trek just had some stony hillocks and unshapely huge boulders. I just climbed and got down and again climbed and descended trying to find the route and suddenly before me was this huge hill and I was completely lost. I froze. I froze in such a way that I could such sense a little fear slowly grappling me. I had not eaten since 6 am and now it was nearly 2 in the afternoon. I felt dizzy, delirious and my head began to spin. I could not feel anything and then froze. I then mustered some courage and began to wail “Can you hear me?” I shouted out to my parents, husband, family Gods and finally the sage Ramana Maharshi in whom I have great faith. The fear of death slowly entered me as I watched something like a dust storm rise from above. I just sat on a boulder and looked up at this hill. There he was. About 6 meters above me a face that looked strong fierce and yet energetic. His long matted hair swept the snow in front as he looked down on me. He had abundant hair and beard. He had an ochre orange cloak torn and faded to cover his hip. He just held out his hand and shouted “Hold me now and instructed me to put my left foot in a hole at the side of the hill and to jump up with all my might, “I had no choice but to trust him at this juncture. I did my best and suddenly felt his hand was longer than usual stretching to hold me. The next thing I knew was that strong pull up towards him and falling on the ice above the hill. After that, it all happened in a trice. I was being pulled by him across those crevices and peaks. I could only see the long hair sweeping all the snow and his back towards me. That took nearly an hour.
He pushed me down on the route that led back to Bhojhwasa. Before I could collect myself, I could only see him disappearing into the snow again.
I relaxed after Babaji served me parathas in the Kutir, too tired to speak. That evening I narrated the incident to Babaji when he served me tea and he did not seem surprised at all. Instead, he took me to a cave about a km away from where I saw an old Sadhu meditating with no clothes at all. Of course, it was not the same person who had saved me. I saw the bare snow-clad mountains tower around me and the sun radiating its setting light on the mountain tops in red, yellow, pink and purple. The sky was turning a blue velvet colour. The mountains and the sun seem to compete here in these parts and here time is only about the sun, the moon, stars and mountains. Babaji or the devotees whom I later met that evening did not have watches.
The next morning Babaji decided to accompany me downhill as he was to go to Gangothri too.
The descent was quite slow and easy though it took nearly 8 hours to come down. I took time to mentally take pictures of the Himalayas changing its profile during each turn and watching the hues and shades of the sun playing with paints of orange, red-pink, pinkish-blue and purple as we reached downhill.
I realised that I had trekked for nearly 18 hours and my tired feet froze into the earthy bed of the Gangothri ashram that night.
The feeling of smallness and humility naturally come to you when you watch the vastness and grandeur of the mountain landscape here. I had never felt a sense of greater freedom or independence than when I stood helpless in front of that hill crying for help. This freedom is not about “being able to do what we want” but the capacity to be accepting the unexpected, with an open mind and to be able to adapt myself without losing confidence in the deeper connection between the inner and the outer world.
We then travelled to Gangothri again and to Kedarnath. Yes, I did trek there too and reached Shiva’s abode. And after that, we travelled to Badrinath. After completely surrendering to nature and her whims and fancies in all the places, I concluded my trip by going to Pandukeshwar Yogadyan which as the name suggests is from where the Pandavas had taken their last journey. It was quiet and was like a solo violinist playing on the last string in the clouds above. Serenity is the right word for I was surrounded only by mountains with the quiet statue of Badrinathji in the Yoga pose and the Himalayan peaks Nar Narayan rising on both sides.
I did not pray nor meditate for thoughts stood still and I allowed myself to be drawn in by Lord Vishnuji’s idol so peaceful and quiet.
….reluctantly I learned the lesson of silence. It wasn’t easy. Western awareness insists on things as the focus of sensation and attention. We find it very hard to think of NOTHING. Emptiness makes us uncomfortable. SILENCE IS, more often than not, interrupted by thoughtless applause from someone who thinks the symphony is over. We are all a little anxious about intervals, finding it very difficult to foster the art of the meaningful pause. We do our best to abolish empty space, dead air, filling it instead with clutter, forgetting that it is precisely the Nothingness between things that defines them, setting them apart from one another. We need to stop talking and Listen. Learn to listen to silence because the secrets often lie in the space between the sounds. The sounds of silence.
Oriental and African notions of time and music give equal value to object and interval. By accepting space as an area of change and expression; they create new rhythms. It doesn’t matter that intervals, by their very nature, are incomplete. This helps to invite participation, allowing us to immerse ourselves, not in notes of other concrete things, but in the silence in Between.
Anthropologist Lyell Watson, who wrote in his book Elephantoms.
Gaumukh is 18 km trek from Gangotri and is considered to be the origin of the holy river Ganges. After visiting Gaumukh, one generally retreats to Bhojwasa for night halt. Hence the trek actually worked out to 22 km. The return 14 km trek from Bhojwasa to Gangotri is performed on the next day.