My journeys date back to very early in my childhood… perhaps to the times when I was a toddler in my mother’s arms. Like most Indian families rooted in traditions, I would tag along my pilgrim parents wherever they went. Knowing little or nothing what this activity meant.
To the senses of a little kid, the essence of ‘a pilgrimage’ was wrapped and yet, the joy was always there…
One such journey that I have a clear memory of is the 14 km trek to Vaishno Devi in Jammu, a time when I was still untouched by the ‘What will people say’ syndrome. With a spring in my step and a bundle of enthusiasm in my heart, I would shout ‘Jai Mata Di’ egging on all fellow trekkers huffing and panting along the way. They responded back with a wide smile and a loud faithful cry, I guess the gargantuan zeal of a 7 year old was somehow too hard to ignore.
They say life’s ways are mysterious and sometimes you just need to go with the flow… you never know what it might lead you to.
River and boat… my metaphor for life and living.
Fast forward around 15 years later, life pushed me by a strong urge to document my journeys, now that I had quite a few under my belt. Never the one to take any interest in writing, here I was, writing blogs – my travel blog – My Yatra Diary!
Little did I know then, that with this turn, my life would change, and all for the better.
As for travel, let’s just say, I was mighty blessed with travel in my genes. So the love for travel was always there. It was my writing that I had to work on. So now, I started observing more. The sensitivity to the surroundings increased and I started looking at things from a perspective I had never seen before. Once the perspective broadened, curiosity augmented and questions started coming naturally. The answers, I realized, were everywhere – in the free flowing sacred river, in the stillness of the banyan grove, in the unwavering faith of the crowd, in the age-old stories, myths and legends passed down since generations, in the friendliness and helpfulness of the locals and in the mystical antiquity of the temples and places – constructive in so many ways and yet uncertain in so many other… that it left me completely liberated to think over them and draw conclusions in the ways I wanted to.
Armed with my little diary, my yatras became personal and I started evolving in the process, uncovering a new me to my own self.
The outward journeys soon became a companion to my inner journeys.
Flipping back the pages of my yatra diary, I recall.
It was in Rishikesh that I actually felt Her (I had already seen her many times before!) – in the radiance of the rising sun, She gleamed… like a stately lady studded in white diamond pearls. She looked beautiful. There was something very soothing about her. And divine. The Ganga. I sat down on one of the benches and stared and stared at Her until the sun was fierce enough to break my reverie.
It was impossible to take my eyes off Her…
Enchanted by the love of River Ganga… at Rishikesh
The meeting was brief but I wanted to know more,
Who was she? What was Her nature like?
Was She the filthy Ganga that the media keeps talking about or was She something else?
I parted with a strong wish to meet Her again and fortunately, I got my chance during the char dham yatra in Harsil, a small village hamlet in the Himalayas. And, this time, my jaw dropped, literally –
Childlike and youthful – River Ganga at Harsil, Char Dham, Himalayas
She was so full of life, zest and childlike – rushing past the craggy boulders and bouncing forth in an indescribable joy. And, She was pure. Her innate being – that this avaricious man can never touch – that radiated with pureness of the highest degree. She moved me with Her purity.
It was sometime in the winters of 2010 that my mom took me along to experience the ‘Magh Mela Yatra’ during the festival of Makar Sankranti. It was freezing cold and it was tough to leave the comfort of the blanket for the mela but she was insisting; I relented. The intensity of the crowds was maddening and suffocating.
But once I started walking, I couldn’t quite gather exactly when and how it happened – we merged – me and the crowd. Suddenly, the sea of people did not look daunting anymore. How could they? We had become one!
Who was I? Nothing… but a tiny speck of the whole
I lost sense of myself. The equations ran out of balance. The sum of parts became greater than the value of the whole. The experience was overwhelming and humbling to say the least; the mammoth faith of the believers totally swept me in.
The same sense of faith drew me to Varanasi – one of the oldest living pilgrimages in India and it was here, during one of the boat rides along the River Ganga that I was taken aback by sights I had never been allowed to witness before: The burning of bodies in a funeral. On the banks called ghats, were flaming logs of wood piled up in layers one after another. Bodies lay on the pyre, lifeless, on their way back to where they came from; turning the ghat to an open cremation ground. The Manikarnika ghat as it is called, as the boatman explained, is ‘the final resting place of the body before the soul makes its way to Param dham – Moksha’.
Death rising up in fumes… at Manikarnika Ghat, Varanasi
The sights numbed me – the deep intensity of the truth and the profusion of reality… it was as if we were paying homage to the very cycle of life. The incessant rising fumes drew hazy images on the canvas of the air revealing hidden truths about life and living. On one hand, there was this body, burning into ashes blending into dust and on the other hand, there was River Ganga, flowing persistently, singing the song of eternity.
Sandwiched somewhere in between these contrasts, was life… unaffected, unaltered, uninfluenced… battling its own business.
Life blessed me when I won an opportunity to travel to Japan. My first international trip and there was something so likeable about the place that I instantly felt home. An air of serenity enveloped that part of the globe. I realized the people there carried no dogmas and weren’t particular on a specific religion yet they were humans – in the real sense – they clearly excelled in the art of living a zen-like life.
Smiles that sprung from hearts and blossomed in their eyes… in Tokyo, Japan
Just interacting with the locals was like attending a therapeutic course: speed with service, life with love, progress with purpose and utility with universal appeal were just some of the characteristics of Japanese dealings with people. It was one country where the beauty of the core human values was for all to see; values which were not only talked about but were ingrained in the very ways of everyday life.
If it were human values in Japan, it was the art of Melbourne, in my next international trip, which pierced my soul. The city was chaotic and the people busy, and yet what I really loved about this place was that they found a space and time to create, to give birth to something out of nothing.
Graffiti creations added a unique depth to the character of the city of Melbourne, Australia
So there were street graffiti all around, people drawing on the streets, the art trams in motion, symbolic love locks hanging by the side of the Yarra River and adorable butterflies sticking out from one of the most iconic of landmarks, the Eureka sky deck. In all those moments when I stood admiring these artworks, I felt the real beauty of Melbourne shining on me.
Years and years have rolled on and many such yatras have continued in between… from the unfiltered village life in Kerala to the earthy aromas of Rajasthan, from the ancient havelis of Mathura to the peace under the Bodhi tree at Sarnath and so many more – and each time, there has been a sense of deep personal satisfaction, of a joyous connect, of unwrapping life’s little gifts strewn along the pilgrim trail…
… every step helping me grow, evolve, experience and explore not only the world outside… but also, a little part of the world within.
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