Disclaimer – “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.”
“Kedarnath: a tale of travel and love” (Part I)
— Day 1 —
“Wake up, its 4 AM.” Rang the alarm.
I kicked Aditya lying next to me.
“Wake up man; we are going to be late.”
Excitement running high, both of us jumped out of our bed, looked at each other, and exclaimed,
“Five day trip to Kedarnath.” Aditya and I were organising a trip to Kedarnath and had posted flyers all over Panjab University, Chandigarh. Kedarnath is an abode of Lord Shiva in the Uttrakhand state of India. The flyers failed to attract as many girls as we desperately single guys expected. Anyhow, we were able to form a group of seven. Four boys and three girls.
No bath, no face wash, we just picked our bags, locked our room, and left. We rented an XUV 500 for self-drive and had reached the pickup spot when the first problem of our trip hit us bang on! “Where do we keep our luggage?” XUV has a minimal boot space and it had no load carrier on the top. People here had packed up a month’s luggage.
“Let’s try if we can adjust,” Aditya suggested.
“I knew this trip was a bad idea.” Cribbed Rohini.
“If we are to get going then let’s start packing up into the car.” Intervened Deepika.
Ananya had already taken to the front seat with her luggage. Thinles and Farhan just toed the line.
We divided the luggage into smaller wholes and adjusted it, under and over the seats, anywhere we found space. We hit the road by about 6 AM. You know the best thing about having girls on your trip? Snacks. Lots of them.
I was the sole driver and the route was supposed to be simple. Chandigarh-Dehradun-Rishikesh-Srinagar-Rudraprayag-Kedarnath and back. But fate had other plans. The seven of us didn’t know each other, except for Adi and me. It was a silent cabin, with Adi cracking a joke occasionally, to which nobody laughed. Of course, given his pathetic jokes. Patient-impatient hearts looking outside the windows, complaining about space and luggage, and thinking how the upcoming days were going to be.
The old man selling Chakodra
We hadn’t made a halt in three hours. Somebody had to break the ice. At around 9 AM, Farhan proposed we have breakfast and everybody agreed. Ice was finally broken over a large orange-like fruit called Chakodra that was being served by an old man opposite to the restaurant that we stopped at. Having had some time to sit in peace on the Charpaai (a bed made of bamboo and jute), we all finally got talking to each other, know about each other.
Aditya (Adi); from my hometown Jammu, my best friend, enrolled in MBA with me, adventurous, a great planner, thinks he is always right, humorous but cracks lame jokes sometimes. Deepika; enrolled in B.Tech, from Chandigarh, wise, Gunther of the group, accommodating, and adventurous. Rohini; from Jodhpur, enrolled in pharmaceutical sciences, a pampered child, entitled, fragile ego, but kind. Farhan; from Ladakh, enrolled in Ph.D., patient, studious, didn’t talk much, and kept to his own. Thinles; from Arunachal Pradesh, also enrolled in Ph.D., quiet, down to earth, and learned. Ananya; from Panchkula, enrolled in a grad course in economics, always calm, expressive face, a wanderluster, and a staunch feminist. And then Me, Anukalp.
This is when I noticed Ananya. Wheatish, tall, lean, aquiline nose, a black mole on the right cheek, silky ponytail hair, dark deep eyes, prominent clavicles, small steps, wiggling hips, she would be a dream come true for any man. I was brought back to reality with Adi whispering into my ear,
“If you are done staring at her waist, shall we leave?”
“I was not staring at her…” I resented, knowing inside that I had been caught.
By the time we left, it had started to drizzle. The road we took from Dehradun to Rishikesh was a road through paradise. On one side of the road was a dense forest, on the other was the river Song. Elephants and deer were crossing the road at various places, light music was playing in the background, rain wipers were in motion and I was stealing occasional glances at Ananya.
“Concentrate on the road,” I told myself.
“If you tell yourself you don’t want to think a certain thought, that is precisely the first thing your mind will produce! That is the nature of the human mind.” (Inner Engineering: A Yogi’s guide to joy)
Our second halt didn’t come until we had hit the hills of Rishikesh. There was traffic ahead and our car was crawling inch by inch. We were taken aback when small stones started rolling onto the road from the hill beside us. The car ahead of us started pushing back slowly. I honked but there was no way the car was stopping. I put the car into reverse and pressed the acceleration, only to realise that in panic I had pushed the car into sixth gear. Everything was happening in time-lapse, I was gripped by fear.
Just then, Ananya who was sitting on the front seat reassured;
“Relax, take two seconds, think, and then act.”
I don’t know how her words worked so magically. I felt things slow down and found myself regain control over myself and then on the car. I took a sharp U-turn and in no time, we were in the other lane, a hundred metres away from the falling stones. It was at this moment that Ananya became my muse.
To the local drivers, these falling stones were a usual sight, for me, it was a state of crisis.
“Happiness comes through good judgement, good judgement comes through experience, and experience comes through bad judgment.” (The Monk who sold his Ferrari)
The thought that going into an unfamiliar terrain was not a good idea was writ large over everybody’s face. I decided to halt for a break by the roadside before going further. There we were, gazing into the gorge in front of us, visualising scenarios of what could have happened, a growing appreciation for life’s basic experiences emerging inside us; the pleasures of simple friendship, creating something, helping a person in need, reading a book, laughing with someone you care about. We took some time to gather ourselves, thanks to our wise companion Deepika who was talking to everybody and motivating them. We cannot control the events that befall us, but we can control how we react to them. We clicked some pictures and started afresh.
It was 8 PM and we made our third halt, a longer one. Not because we wanted to, but because we had to. While we all had stepped out of the car to have some snacks, Ananya accidentally locked the key inside the car. We were locked outside our own car, in the middle of nowhere. It was dark and the temperature was dropping. We googled every possible car mechanic in the area but to no avail. People either didn’t pick up calls or refused to come to our help. It was getting late, the clock had hit 9 PM and we had all gathered around the car having exhausted all our options.
As a final resort before we would find a place to stay for the night, I called the rental agency for help, and thanks to their satellite technology, they could remotely unlock the car.
“Yayyy!”, all of us said in unison. Ananya was the happiest.
We thanked the Almighty and in no time, we had zoomed off in a state of ecstasy.
What was supposed to be a twelve-thirteen hour journey had already stretched to over sixteen hours and we were nowhere near the place where we had booked our hotel, Sonprayag. Google Maps was still showing a time of three hours to destination. Coupled with the torrential rain, the ongoing road widening work had made the road muddy and slushy. It felt as if the car was drifting and didn’t have any grip on the ground. Since I was the only one driving, I had started showing signs of exhaustion and asked Adi on the co-driver seat to keep talking to me. I was agitated but confident that I could make it safely.
About one hour from Sonprayag, there was a roadblock. A big boulder had come to fall on the road. I stopped the car about a hundred metres from the block. Ours was the only vehicle in sight. I asked Adi to come with me to gauge our options and asked others to stay inside the car.
Well, this time we were lucky. Just when we were about to try and push the boulder, which we had realised we couldn’t move an inch, we heard a human voice call out to us;
“Heyy! What are you doing here at this hour?”
They were a bunch of construction workers working on the site. We informed them of our situation. These guys were amazingly helpful. They came over to help move the boulder but when we couldn’t, one of them called for an excavator working nearby. The excavator came and in about fifteen minutes, we were good to go. After our car was across the block, all of us came out to thank the workers, and then we continued.
We finally made it to our hotel. Time? 1 AM. Besides being thankful to each other for the company, we kept telling each other what could have been done right. The infamous statement ‘I told you so’, was being thrown from all directions. Thinles and Farhan were the most patient and silent. They had struggled with us in every situation but were calm nonetheless.
I was probably the most terrified among the lot. Recalling the moments when I didn’t feel control over the car, wavering about the responsibility that I had taken up by organising the trip, thinking about the trust that the others had posed in me. I was petrified, sitting on the stairs, staring into the oblivion. I also had luck to thank, for it didn’t betray us into the deep gorges.
“A major key to happiness and internal peace is knowing you have done whatever it took to earn your rewards and passionately invested the effortful audacity to become your best.”(The 5AM Club)
I had done the best I could. And we were safe.
“Heyy! Anukalp. Everything OK?” Asked Ananya from across the corridor.
“Yeah, I think so.” I smiled.
“I’m sorry about the car key incident. I could see how much it got you worried.” She came and sat by me.
“You don’t have to be sorry, not to me at least. It was a mistake and we all make mistakes. The good thing is, it’s over now. Cheer up.”
“The pleasure is all mine.”
“Let’s go get some sleep.”
We bade good night and went to our rooms. I was still blushing over my chat with Ananya. Papon’s song was playing in my head.
“…..na raat ki nashili bye,
se neend mein jagaoge…..
gye tum gye ho kyun,
raat baaki hai…..”
By 2 AM, everybody was sleeping over their apprehensions.
— Day 2 —
“Good morning!” Cheerfully exclaimed Rohini knocking at our door.
Adi unlocked the door. “Good morning!”
The disquietude of last night had disappeared from her face. I checked the time. It was 10 AM. I got out of my room rubbing my eyes, only to find everyone awake; ready with bags by their side to trek uphill towards the shrine. Happy faces.
“Oh! Everybody is up and ready”, I exclaimed.
I was astounded; too bewildered to have noticed the beauty of the place that circumscribed me. The serene hills, the hissing of the river gently drizzling nearby, and the flowers on the hill that could be seen from the balcony, some white, some violet. While in the room, I was mistaking the sound of the river to be that of falling rain.
I realised what must have cheered them up and put them in high spirits. Those splendid foothills had such a soothing charm, the feeling that fills you with cosmic commitment, ultimately giving your worries a backseat.
Deepika said pointing to a nearby hill,
“The first thing that came to my mind when I looked at this hill was that I can’t reach the highest point. Neither can I imagine going down the same hill into the gorge. I still feel happy at being able to imagine those two points. No regrets for the difficulties of last night. Life is always beautiful. We just ignore it sometimes.”
In about ten minutes, we were getting our biometric tickets for the journey.
“So, ready for the trek?” I asked Ananya outside the ticket counter.
“Yes! Absolutely.” She replied.
“Great! Let’s get going.”
“We can trek together if you would like to.” She suggested.
“Why wouldn’t I…… Yeah, sure why not.” I said smiling sheepishly.
The seven of us embarked on our sixteen kilometres trek towards the Kedarnath shrine at about noon. It was not a very good start as intermittent light showers forced us to purchase polythene raincoats. An hour later, we had to buy more of those raincoats. Why? All deep uncertainty brings with it a glorious opportunity to grow your creativity massively. We tore some of the raincoats into pieces to protect our feet from soggy socks inside our drenched shoes and some to protect our backpacks. After all, we Indians are renowned for our ‘jugaad’ ways.
The beauty of the hills reminded me of Rabindranath Tagore’s words.
“The morning sea of silence broke into ripples of bird songs; and the flowers were all merry by the roadside; and the wealth of gold was scattered through the rift of the clouds while we busily went on our way and paid no heed.” (Gitanjali)
Taking a break roughly every three to four kilometers, we continued our hike talking about politics, the conditions of Pitthus (people who carry luggage and people on their back), the movie ‘Kedarnath’, and looking for similar landscapes. By 5 PM, having trekked eight kilometers at a snail’s pace, we reached the place called Rambara. This was the place that bore the brunt of the infamous 2013 flash floods. Deepika enquired from a Pitthuabout the tragedy. Pointing towards the disappeared portion of a hill, the man said,
“That is where Rambara was.”
We were appalled looking at the spot where the man pointed. The name of the place is all that is left in the place of over a hundred shops and five multi-storey hotels that were washed away. No force can defeat the fury of nature.
From this place on, a new alternate route has been constructed. The new route could be seen treading uphill across a bridge on the Mandakini River. The sight gave us chills. It was a steep climb, almost thirty degrees throughout, stretching for two to three kilometers. Deepika fainted midway this steep climb.
“Deepika…Deepika! Wake up! See we are all here.”
Rohini was sprinkling water on her face while I supported her back.
She was unconscious for a couple of minutes, before regaining consciousness. This left all of us very concerned. It was dusk and we still had about six kilometers stretch left. Adi was requesting a Pitthu to carry Deepika to the nearest medical facility, but none of them was ready to go uphill at that hour. We put our team to work and held each other’s hands and continued climbing one step at a time on the broken swampy track.
After about two kilometers, we reached a site with a few shops and opted to have dinner and decide whether to continue further or find a shelter to spend the night. This is when we realized that the bargain that we made for the raincoats had failed. Our clothes were wet even inside the raincoat. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. We reassured ourselves; at least our clothes are not drenched in water. Two other things diverted our attention away from our wet clothes. One, we got network on our mobiles to connect with our families and two, we got served home-like Roti with Dal. Peace.
Regaining our strengths after dinner, we decided to continue uphill. It was getting frosty as the temperature dropped to three degrees Celsius. Our warmers were proving to be insufficient, including our bomber jackets. Most of all, I was worried about Deepika’s health. She was barely walking but was headstrong enough to keep pushing.
“What should we do Deepika?” I asked.
“Look, if we halt now, we would freeze and risk becoming hypothermic. So we will have to keep walking, till we reach the base camp.” She suggested, and rightly so.
Mentally, everyone dreaded the thought of continuing, but since we had no other option, we put on a brave face and marched forward holding hands together in groups of two to three. I was with Deepika one moment, with Ananya another, and sometimes alone. I was with Ananya when she said smiling,
“That was some good work bringing Deepika to consciousness.”
“Anyone of us would have done the same,” I said, smiling back.
She was a vibe, an energy, a mystery, a goddess; whose soul sings with the light and dances with the dark. I could keep looking at her and adoring her; which was exactly what I was doing right then. “Savdhaani hati, durghatna ghati.” I tripped.
“Whoa! Whoa! Attention on the track.” Ananya quipped. We laughed.
Close to 10 PM, we were relieved to see a small lit hearth under a tin shed, which was probably abandoned. We decided to give ourselves a break. Fire boosted our energies and also made us cozy. We got some respite from the drizzling and the freezing temperature. Rohini sang us a Rajasthani folk song about Mumal (a girl) and her lover:
“Kali kali kajaliye ri rekh jyu,
kali kali kajaliye ri rekh jyu,
koi bhurode ri badal ri chamke dhola bijli,
dhole ri e Mumal halo,
ni le chalu, marudhar desh.”
We did not understand it but could still feel the emotions. She explained the lyrics thus;
“With black eyes like a stroke of collyrium,
with black eyes like a stroke of collyrium,
shining like lightning among dark clouds.
My beloved Mumal, if you say,
I shall take you to my land of deserts.”
I was looking at Ananya, feeling the song. She was stealing glances too, or maybe it was just my mind playing games. Our eyes welled up. The cozy fire, the drizzle, freezing temperature, wet clothes, but this folk song stole the show.
“Heyy, Farhan. What’s the temperature like in Ladakh at this time?” Enquired Ananya inquisitively.
“Minus thirty, minus fourty degree Celsius.”
“Then this three degrees must be warm for you”, chuckled Ananya.
“We would want to visit Ladakh sometime”, said Rohini.
“Sure. You are welcome to Ladakh, to my home, but not as a tourist”, Farhan replied.
He meant to reflect on the damage that tourists do the landscape of Ladakh. He then told us about the culture and traditions of Ladakh. One thing we all remember to this day is their way to say hi. “Juley!”
Adi initiated a new discussion.
“Why does Lord Shiva chose all the difficult places to dwell?”
“Maybe he didn’t want to be found,” Rohini replied.
“He underestimated us, humans, I guess.” Deepika jested and we had a hearty laugh.
A dog was standing nearby as if it was listening to our chat and enjoying some human company at that hour. Black fluffy hair, bulky, wiggling tail, expectant eyes. Thinles started rubbing its back with the stick he was using to climb. Well, it turned out the dog was enjoying it. When he rubbed on the left side, the dog would lift his left leg, when he switched sides, the dog switched legs too. We were laughing at the sight, realising we hadn’t had a good laugh since we checked out of our hotel that morning. We hugged each other, shoulder to shoulder in a circular formation, like a boosted team going for a game. We resumed our trek again by 10:30 PM.
“Obstacles are nothing more than tests designed to measure how seriously you want the rewards that your ambitions seek.”(The 5 AM Club)
Around midnight, we were intercepted by a man at a place where a few tents had been put up.
“I am from the Uttrakhand tourism department. Travelling uphill is prohibited during the night. How did you make it this far on the badly lit roads?” Enquired the man.
We had an eerie realization just then. Ever since we had had dinner, we had not met a single person going uphill or downhill.
“You are still five kilometers from the base camp. You will not be allowed to advance and will have to spend the night here. Moreover, you won’t find any place to stay there at this hour.”
I had a hunch that he was lying and only wanted to make some money by giving his tents on rent. We had not been stopped at any check post on our way. I had a word with the group and according to our calculations; we could not have been more than a kilometre from the base camp. I put up a bold face and told the man,
“We want to continue nonetheless on our risk.”
“Okay, then give it in writing that you were stopped but did not agree to stay.” The man demanded.
He had to prove a point. I did what he asked and we moved on. In about an hour, we could see a place at a distance with some tents set up.
“It must be the base camp.” Said Adi. Everybody nodded.
But alas! Nobody was present there to rent the tents out. I checked out a few tents but all except one had been locked. When I inspected the tent, it was muddy on the inside and all the mattresses had been piled up on one side. The tent wasn’t leaking. The water must have seeped in from the sides. We could stay there, but if we had to, we would need to pile up two mattresses each for every person to sleep and also pay for the damages when the owner showed up. Having found a place to sleep, everyone wanted to drop dead.
“Guys, I think we should move further, we could find a better place.” I proposed.
“I think you are right,” Rohini responded.
“I don’t want to move an inch now. We should have listened to the man downhill.” Resented Ananya.
“Okay, how about this? I will go check for another half a kilometre or so, and if I find a place I will wave my torch to signal you guys to come up.” I said enthusiastically.
“Okay, makes sense. But take Thinles along. He is in a better condition. We will wait for your signal.” Agreed Deepika.
I and Thinles continued for about half a kilometer, but there were no tents in sight. Just when I was about to turn back, Thinles said,
“Look, that light bulb over there. It just turned on. It wasn’t there before.”
“Are you sure?” I confirmed; elated.
“Yes I am sure”, said Thinles.
We sprinted in ecstasy and a couple of hundred metres; we were at the base camp. This was a clean place with a large number of tents set up and also an open office. We laughed out in joy. I started making a booking for a tent and asked Thinles to signal the others to come. In about thirty minutes, we were all inside our allotted tent.
By 2 AM we were inside our sleeping bags. Relieved and cozy, we fell into a peaceful slumber
— Day 3 —
“Good morning sleepyhead!” cheered Deepika.
We had been woken up by the loud chattering outside our tents and the helicopters whizzing over every five minutes.
“Good morning” I replied.
The Base Camp
I jumped out of my sleeping bag and went outside. It was 10 AM and man, what a view it was! The base camp is at an altitude of 11000 feet and located on the sides of a deep gorge. We had not realized this in the dark of the night. Standing outside the tent, I was staring at the gorge and the lush evergreen hills across it. The drizzling continued from last night. We ordered some tea. The kind of high we felt while sipping on tea, sitting in the portico of our tent is inexpressible. One moment, there was dense fog covering the base camp, reducing the visibility to as much as five meters, and in the next moment, it was crystal clear as one could see white clouds floating around the gorge at a level below where we were. We were literally on cloud nine!
By about noon, all of us had taken hot showers, had breakfast, and were ready with our backpacks to leave for the shrine. It was not more than half a kilometer now. We had barely walked a hundred meters when we had the first view of the majestic shrine which we had only seen in pictures and on TV. The sight was so overwhelming that my eyes welled up. I looked at everybody and said,
“We made it!”
“Yayyy!!” cheered the rest.
The final stairs
In the next fifteen minutes, while we were climbing the final hundred metres in stairs to the shrine. Chants of “Om Namah Shivaay” and “Bam Bam Bhole” filled us with immense energy. When I stood before the temple, I couldn’t help but stare at it. It was pure bliss. The rain didn’t bother me anymore. The rings of the temple replenished the sacred site with enchanting sounds. The snow-clad hills behind the temple, serene! Occasionally covered with white clouds, they were adding a divine aura to the place.
I was brought out of my trance by Adi tapping on my shoulder.
“Come on. Let’s find cover from the rain.”
I still couldn’t move. I was immersed in the colossal energy of the place and it was overwhelming me. It was so euphoric that Rohini dropped the idea of going back by helicopter, a decision she had made last night. By 1 PM we were inside the temple, paying obeisance to a multitude of deities before we reached the final deity, Lord Shiva in His divine natural grace.
Lead me, my Lord, “From untruth to truth, from darkness to light, from death to immortality.” (Brihadaranayak Upanishad)
The Kedarnath Shrine
According to Hindu mythology, the temple was initially built by the Pandavas of the Kuru clan. It is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas,the holiest shrines of Lord Shiva, and the highest of them all. During the flash floods of 2013, the temple complex suffered severe damages but the temple itself remained intact. It is believed to have been protected by the Bhima Shila (the stone of Bhima of the Kuru clan), a large boulder that stuck to the back of the temple absorbing the brute force of water.
We all sat inside for about ten minutes to let all the heavenly joy sink in while making our wishes. None of us had felt this way ever since we started. We were not exhausted; there were no leg cramps, only a longing to spend as much time as we can at the shrine and visit it again and again. It was an unimaginable experience. Something which words cannot come close to describing. It has to be felt.
The divinity and vitality of the place were also affecting our emotional energies towards each other in the group. Our quibbles and cavils were fading away. Our bond, no older than two days was strengthened to last forever.
After coming out, Farhan and Ananya were looking for the ‘Modi cave’ (if you know you know) and they also danced. That place fills you with overwhelming emotions. Adi and I were hatching a fantasy plan to buy some land there to retire at the fag end of our life. One day we might.
By about 3 PM, we had had our lunch and decided to trek downhill which was going to be easier. Not because it was downhill, but because of the energy that had filled us within.
I was trekking down with Ananya. We had taken off our wet shoes and were treading barefoot. Papon was playing in my head again.
“Kyun, na hum tum, chalein tedhe medhe se raste pe nange paon re,
Chal bhatak le na baawre.
Kyun, na hum tum, phire jaake almast pehchaani raahon ke pare,
Chal bhatak le na baawre.
Inn timtimati nigaahon mein, Inn chamchamati adaaon mein
Luke huey, chhupe huey, Hain kya khayaal baawre.”
Swaying to the music of the song and the chants of ‘Bam Bam Bhole’, we continued.
A waterfall downhill
We did not halt at more than two stops downhill and trekked the whole way down in about six hours, which was half the time we took to climb up. Everyone was in the XUV by 10 PM, ready to leave for a different hotel. We made it to the hotel at around midnight. Relieved, thrilled, and reminiscing about all the good and not-so-good incidents that had happened in the last seventy-two hours, we were equally adamant to visit this place afresh and anew.
We had dinner and by 1 AM, we were in our beds.
— Day 4 —
“Today is a glorious day and I’ll live it at excellence, with boundless enthusiasm and limitless integrity, true to my visions and with a heart full of love.” (Inner Engineering: A Yogi’s guide to joy)
Being the early one to rise, at around 7 AM I texted in the WhatsApp group informing that I was going outside for a stroll to explore the place we were currently residing in; Ukhimath.
I wandered down the road in front of our hotel and after about half a kilometre, I noticed a trail diverting off from the road into a forest. The adventurous side to me kicked in and I decided to follow the untrodden path. “The road not taken” led deeper and deeper into the dark forest, and after some distance, I was feeling as if I were in the Amazon rainforest. It was so obscure that I wouldn’t know if the sun were overhead. But everything felt so fresh and new, especially after yesterday’s rain. Wild flowers of various colours and sizes, epiphytes climbing up on tree trunks, prop roots dropping on the ground from branches like the ones Tarzan used to swing upon. I was captivated.
I was startled when out of nowhere; somebody tapped on my shoulder from behind, giving out a loud scream.
Hey there! I'm a PhD scholar by day and an author by the night. This website is my mind spill. I live in Chandigarh, India and I like to read and travel, big time. In my writings, I like to mix romance with genres like travel, self-help, social issues, and life-writing.