When a Tourist Hikes a Sacred Indian Pilgrimage
A series of odd life decisions left me working at a pilgrim’s campsite on the banks on the river Yamuna, hidden in the Himalayas. From May to July, thousands of Hindus flock through this village on route to Yamunotri – the source of the Yamanu River and a very holy site. The reason for this is complex and hard to chow down on, but in simple terms, it’s believed the river is the daughter of the sun … so I decided to go too.
I drank a bunch of chai with the right people and wrangled a spot on one of the tour buses coming through our camp. We left the campsite bright and early and cruised through the mountains towards Jankichatti village. During the bus ride, tourists were singing an impressive collection of holy songs related to worshipping the river and Shiva. Everyone was very excited. This particular tour I found myself on was 14 days long and was heading to one of the most famous holy sites in northern India: a trip that anyone closely following Hinduism must make at least once in their lives.
We arrived at the site to find at least 80 other buses, and as I stepped off ours, I was bombarded by men shouting three words: “horse”, “dolly” and “basket”. I was clueless; no one at the campsite spoke much English.
I soon figured out that screaming the word “dolly” translated to, “Would you like to be carried up the mountain by 4 strong men in a cart?” Err, no – I’m not a princess and it’s only 5km. Easy to walk your own body up a height like that. The word “basket” meant, “Would you like to sit in a basket and be carried on one man’s back up and down the mountain?” Again, a strong no on that front. And “horse”? I was promised strong horses, but I know the strength of my own legs, so declined. I was amongst just a few out of the thousands that had chosen to walk up the mountain, though I soon found out that every option was dangerous.
The paths were narrow in points and everyone was constantly shouting “side” at me, as horses scrambled by and the wooden dollies smashed me in the arm. On the journey, I witnessed two horses fall down and two petrified passengers slam to the ground. I, too, was bashed around, mainly by the dollies, and had a few horses knocked me sideways. Every so often, I felt the warmth of a horse breathing on my hand. For the first few kilometres, everyone I saw enquired of me, “Horse?” I exchanged the word “horse” for “ketamine” in my head to stop it pissing me off. It was pretty funny, because sometimes they asked me with really mad wide eyes, sort of under their breath – it worked really well.
I found the basket mechanism of transport the most entertaining. It just looked fairly barbaric: grown men and women hanging out in a basket on some poor dude’s back. I’d understand if these people were old and desperate to worship the temple, but many of them were just lazy and apparently guilt-free. I would struggle to allow another person to carry my bags up a flight of stairs, let alone my entire body weight up a mountain.
The hike was absolutely bonkers. I was in awe the whole time, sometimes laughing, sometimes picking injured people up from the floor and sometimes just staring and declaring out loud the madness of India. On reaching the top, I found a lot of men bathing in the hot springs next to the temple and had some guy sprinkle some holy water on my head. There were many beggars around the temple, some in the form of babas (shadus) and some sweeping the paths. It was a bit anticlimactic really.
Often when I enter a holy place, I feel something, be it slight unease or mild peace, but upon reaching this famous temple, I felt only exasperation. And I think my feelings were mirrored by the believers as well: I sensed no real joy from anyone, just a mutual understanding of the chaos we had each experienced on route to the site.
The way back down was equally as traumatising, and by this point, the crowds had thickened. I was dodging stumbling horses and stressed out sweaty dolly carriers. I didn’t catch sight of another white person, and everyone I saw was excited to shout “Hello!” and “Welcome”! and “Namaste!” at me, so I think it’s a rather rare thing for us white folk to be joining Indian Hindus on these pilgrimages.
So what did I like about it? The place itself was stunning: snow-capped mountains, waterfalls, tea stalls on every corner and rice terraces for days. There were fleeting moments of calm deeply infested with mild fear. I would catch sight of a stunning view and then I would narrowly avoid a horse shitting on me and a plank of wood being thrust in my face. There was no time to take the view in before the next mishap took shape in some obscure manner. Quite honestly, I think I would find more peace and tranquillity performing in a circus on an Indian highway at rush hour.
Cover by Leena