Studies from an eastern home
The northern pilgrimage
To Indians themselves, if they have never before been on pilgrimage, the life of the pilgrim-roads is likely to be a revelation. Who uttered a doubt that India had a place and a life for women? Certainly none who had ever seen a pilgrimage. Marching along we meet them, singly or in couples, or maybe in long strings of tens and twenties, old and young mingled together. There is neither fear nor exaggerated shyness in their demeanour. Sometimes one will be separated by a few yards from her party, telling her beads, or lost in solitary thought. Sometimes, again, we meet an old woman who seems to belong to none. But almost everyone is cheerful, and almost all, from the custom of wearing their jewels all the time, have an air of festivity and brightness. All pilgrims know one another. Here none of the stiffness of a meaner world prevails. We all speak to one another as we pass. Jai! Kedar Nath Swami ki Jai! or Jai! Badri Bissai lal ki Jai! we say to each whom we meet, whether man or woman. And no words can describe the flash of sweetness
and brightness that lights up the reply. We are all out on a holiday together, and an air of gentle innocence and hilarity prevails in face of difficulties and creates a sort of freemasonry amongst all who seek the common goal. One has the chance here of studying the refinement of Eastern salutations, Sometimes a wayfarer passes who is telling her beads, or who, for some reason or another, does not care to break her silence: but oh, the dignity and charm of the bow that answers the pilgrim's salutation in such a case! Even here, in an environment which is in some ways one of intensified practicality, we meet now and again with the inveterate dreamer, living in that world upon whose shores no wave can break. It was turning into the wedge-shaped ravine of Garurganga that we came upon one such. She was a little old woman, and we caught her just as she had stepped out of her prim little shoes, placed neatly behind her, and with rapt look prostrated herself. Two people who were coming forward drew back at this, that she might not know herself interrupted, and then as again we stepped forward and came face to face with her, we saw that for the moment she was lost in the world of her own reverence. In her eyes was the look of one who saw not the earth. It was a sudden glimpse of the snow mountains to which she had paid involuntary homage.
Climbing over some peculiarly difficult boulders in the dry bed of a torrent, we met two old women, both almost blind, and bent half-double with age and infirmity. They were coming back from Badri Narayan. The place was terrible, and as we came up to them one of them stumbled. But to an ejaculation of concern, they replied, between themselves, with an air of triumph in their gaiety, "What! Is not Narayan leading? And since He has given darsana, what does this matter?"
I.--HARDWAR AND HRISHIKESH
Happy they whose pilgrimage can begin at Hardwar! Never surely was there a place so beautiful. It is like Benares on a very small scale. But as one of our party remarked, people go to Benares to die, and to Hardwar as the beginning of a high undertaking. This of itself confers on the town an air of brightness. In the moonlight nights the jatris set out with their pandas, singing, as they go, along the roads. And oh, the evening worship of the Ganges! In the very middle of the lowest step of the semicircular ghâts of the Brahma Kund a priest stands waving what looks like a small brass tree of flame. Behind him crowd the worshippers, chiefly women, and on the bridge and island that stretch across
the little bay in front of him, forming the chord of the semicircle, stand and sit other worshippers, obviously, to judge by differences of dress and type, travellers from many and various provinces. All is rapt silence while the public worship is proceeding, but as it ends the whole multitude breaks out into chanting. Choir upon choir they sing the glories of the Ganges, answering each other in the manner of an antiphon. And away beyond them stretch green islands and wooded heights, about which the blue veil of the evening mists has just begun to fall. The very scene in itself is the perfection of praise. "O ye mountains and hills, bless ye the Lord! Praise Him and magnify Him for ever! O ye rivers and streams, bless ye the Lord! Praise Him and magnify Him for ever!"
It is the railway, we are told, that has popularised Hardwar. Until a few years ago, Kankhal had been long the recognised centre, and people made pilgrimage only to Hardwar for bathing and praying, being exceedingly careful to be back before nightfall, so probable was the experience of a tiger on the road between the two places. But the fact that the habit of pilgrimage could persist at all under such circumstances is eloquent testimony to the age of the place. Kankhal itself, a couple of miles away, is the seat of Shiva as Daksheshwar, and therefore, we cannot doubt, one
of the most ancient sites of Hinduism. Here we are shown the very place where Sati fell, and that where Daksha offered sacrifice. Suddenly a whole chapter of pre-Hindu Hinduism--perhaps ages long--becomes visible to us. We see that there was a time when people were familiar with the image of the goat-headed Lord of Creation. We remember the Great God Pan of the Greeks, with his one goat-foot. And we do not wonder that there should have been a struggle between this old nature-god Daksha, who may have been a personification of the Polar Star, and the new Shiva, Lord of the consciences of men.
Hrishikesh, twelve miles away from Hardwar, is a university of an ancient type. Here, amongst some of the most beautiful scenery of the Himalayas, just at the rapids of the Ganges, are hundreds of straw huts in which live sadhus. Amongst these it is doubtless possible to realise the ideal of the Vedic ashramas, in a life of simplicity, order, and learning. The first duty of the new arrival is, as I have heard, to build his own hut. Within, these men live alone or in couples, according to the merciful custom that usually carries the begging friars forth, not alone, but by twos. But when evening comes, at any rate in the winter, the great meditation fires are lighted here and there, in the open air, and seated round them the monks discourse "of settled things."
[paragraph continues] Then they relapse by degrees into the depths of thought, and when darkness has fallen and all is quiet, one after another each man slips quietly away to his own hut. It is an extraordinary combination of freedom and society, of the ideals of the hermitage and of the monastery. It may be that it gives us a glimpse of the monastic conditions of the Thebaid, but in modern times it could certainly be paralleled nowhere outside India. The sadabratas in the little town close by are another institution corresponding to nothing in foreign countries. Here the sadhus daily receive their rations of food, some cooked and some uncooked. For it is a mistake to think that those who have taken up the life of the sannyasin can study and think without a certain amount of bodily nourishment. Our selfishness may make us eager to preach such an ideal, but it will always be for others to realise! At the same time the sadabratas relieve the monks of the dishonour of becoming beggars, and the community of the scandal of a disorderly burden. These, in their present high organisation and development, owe a great deal to the life and work of Kambliwálá Bábá, one of the national heroes whose name is known too little outside monastic ranks. By his labours the Northern Pilgrimage has been rendered available for the thousands of pilgrims who now pass along it, and it is to be hoped
that in the movement now going on for the recovery of biographies, his will not be forgotten. The present road from Hardwar to Hrishikesh, with its new temple and bazaar of Satya Narayan, is of Kambliwálá Bábá's making, as are all the good dharmsalas along the road. The old way to Hrishikesh lay along the Ganges-bank. In the desert-like country about Hrishikesh, one of the characteristic charities is the little water-and-mat stations, where a gerua-turbaned servant lives in a little hut, serving out water to each passer-by who asks for it, and keeping a clean space swept where anyone can lie down on a mat in the shade of a tree.
How old is Hrishikesh? In its very nature it is impermanent. The materials of which it is built this winter will not remain after next summer's rains. And how long the site has been used in this way, who shall say? Maybe the history of Hardwar would give us some clue to this. Maybe the Kumbh Mela would help us to calculate its age. The very fleetingness of its buildings must have lengthened its days, for political convulsions that would sweep clean the caves of Ajanta or Ellora would leave this winter-resort of the learned and pious entirely unaffected. As the waters of a lake close over a stone, so would Hrishikesh recover from catastrophe and grow out of its very memory. And the tradition
goes, we must remember, that one of the earliest literary undertakings of the people--the division of the Vedas by Vyasa into four--was carried out in this place.
We reached Srinagar five days after leaving Hardwar. The present town stands near the centre of a wide flat vale, in which the cactus and the bo-tree proclaim a sub-tropical climate. It is obviously new, having been rebuilt on a slightly different site so lately as the time of the Gohonna flood about fifteen years ago. This event was a great epoch-maker throughout the valleys leading up to Badri Narayan. It swept away ancient temples and images, and necessitated the rebuilding of many a town and village. One cannot but mourn the loss of historic remains of priceless interest, but at the same time one suspects that, from a sanitary and cleansing point of view, the flood may have done more good than harm. Like the great fire of London in 1666, it seems to have wiped out the past and banished disease-germs as well as carvings.
Srinagar has been rebuilt, as already said, since the flood, but the site of the older city is still evident enough, as one enters from the south, by the clustering of temples and shrines among the
cactus hedges and peepul-trees of the wide open plain. There are many still older temples to be seen from the road, of a ponderous and severe beauty, in a type immediately preceding that of mediæval Orissa. They are comparatively small but marvellously perfect. The style must have persisted long in the Himalayas. There are examples of it, in more developed and slender form, here at Srinagar, as modern as two hundred years old; but the earliest examples must be very old indeed, dating from the days of the Hindu Revival under the Guptas, that is to say from about A.D. 400 or even earlier. Even the town of Srinagar, as it was at the time of the flood, was only founded, it is said, by Raja Ajaipal in the year 1446, so that it could not be regarded as old from an Indian point of view. But the fact is there must always have been a city here, ever since the Himalayas began to be inhabited, and certainly ever since the coming of the Asokan missions.
The geographical situation, in the midst of a valley that is almost a plain, forces the formation of an organic centre. The height is only about sixteen hundred feet above the sea, so it supports a sub-tropical vegetation and at the same time is accessible to all the cooler airs of the higher mountains. We can well imagine how the first colony of Buddhistic monks would gradually
settle down, and live their monastic life, with its regular worship, preaching, and study, contented in the main to become an organic part of the life about them. Actual traces of their occupation have all been obliterated long long ago, but wherever we find a very old religious dedication, which has been a sheet-anchor of worship for century after century, we may infer with some certainty that it was established by them. Such centres exist at Srinagar in the Temples of Komoleswar and of the Five Pandavas. Of the two, Komoleswar is probably the older. The story told in the Puranas of the Mother, is here appropriated to Shiva, and he appears as the god to whom Rama made the offering of blue lotuses. There is a Shiva here of pre-Sankaracharyan type, and the temple stands in a large and ancient enclosure round which are houses and other buildings. Vaishnavism also has flowed over Komoleswar in its time, for there are scores of votive tablets carved with the feet of the Lord. But the place has never forgotten its Shaivite origin, and claims to have been visited by Sankaracharya, which we should certainly expect to have been the case. The old temple of the Five Pandavas stands on the roadway into Srinagar.
Was there once an intention of laying out the whole country with temples dedicated in order
to the heroes and munis of the national epic? One shrinks from the thought of a task so gigantic, but there seems some reason to think it may have been contemplated, and the fact that most of these must since have disappeared is no real argument against it. The Himalayan kingdom has always been in such vital contact with the Hinduism of the plains, through sadhus and pilgrims and merchants, that it has shared to the full in each period as it rose, and each wave has been followed by another striving to efface the traces of that which preceded it. In this particular temple of the Five Pandavas, the Vaishnavism of Ramanuja has left its mark. There is a grotesque image of Narada worshipped here which is said to commemorate the primeval swayambara, where Narayana chose Lakshmi to be his spouse. The bride shrank from the appearance of Narada, who sat immediately in front of his master, and looked at Narayana himself instead. This was indeed the end to be attained, for she was the destined bride of God. But the method involved a wound to Narada's self-love, and for this he cursed Vishnu--the devotee cursed God!--saying that in a future birth as Rama he would have trouble with this wife. This is evidently a late and corrupt tale, intended to appropriate an image said to be Narada's, and to synthetise all the developments through which Vaishnavism had
already passed, claiming them as historic phases of the mediæval form preached by Ramanuja.
Vaishnavism made a strong impression at Srinagar. It seems to have been held meritorious to make a pilgrimage there, and give offerings at the shrine of Lakshmi-Narayan, in lieu of going all the way to Badri Narayan. There is one grand old temple erected for this purpose four hundred years ago. Unfortunately it is now surrounded by a cactus-hedge, and is therefore
inaccessible. It was superseded two hundred years later by a building of much poorer architecture. But the traditions are interesting. The Garur in front of the later temple is believed to be inferior to that which originally stood there. This, it is said, was so beautiful that it flew away! "Even this," the guide will add, with pardonable pride in local gods, "is such as you will not often see." Alas, I could not share his high opinion of the present Garur as a work of art.
There have been many Srinagars, and one of them at least would seem to have been connected with the consecration of a great rock altar to Devi. If the tradition is to be trusted, human sacrifice was practised here, and there is a story of the splendid indignation of Sankaracharya, who hurled the stone of sacrifice upside down into the river, and left to the sight of future generations only its bottom. If that was so, Sankaracharya would
appear not only as the enemy of Tantrikism, but also as the reformer of Mother-worship in this matter. The rock is some miles out of the present town, and stands near a great deodar cedar on the opposite bank.
The final stage of the road to Kedar Nath is terrible, especially the last four miles of steep ascent. About the beauty of the scenery one could not say enough, but the difficulties of the climb ought not to be forgotten. It is a dolorous stairway, as hard as life itself; in very truth, as the panda ruefully said to me, "the way to Heaven!" All this is forgotten, however, when at last we reach the uplands and begin to feel ourselves within measurable distance of Kedar Nath. We are now amongst the wide turf-covered tablelands, and the flowers begin to abound, as in some paradise of Moghul painters. At every step we pass or are passed by other pilgrims. The eagerness round and about us is indescribable. Then comes the moment when the temple is visible for the first time. A shout goes up from our carriers and others, and many prostrate themselves. We press forward more rapidly than before. It is even now a mile or so to the village. But at last we arrive, and entering find
that the shrine itself stands at the end of the long avenue-like street, with the mountain and glacier rising sheer behind it, as if all India converged upon Kedar Nath as its northern point, and all roads met at the sacred feet of the Lord of Mountains. Probably, when first the temple was built in this spot, it was actually on the edge of the glacier, which in all these centuries has retreated only to a distance of less than a mile. We had made great efforts to reach our goal on a Monday, for this is held a great benison in visiting a shrine of Shiva. But when we arrived it was the middle of the day, and the temple was closed till the evening arati. As the afternoon ended, the cold blue mists came down from the mountains, enwrapping everything; and one sat out in the village street, watching cowled forms, in their brown kombols, pacing back and forth through the mist before the tight-shut doors. Suddenly we were called to see the arati. Darkness had fallen but the mists had gone, and the stars and the snows were clear and bright. Lights were blazing and bells clanging within the temple and we stood without, among the watching people. As the lights ceased to swing and the arati ended, a shout of rapture went up from the waiting crowd. Then the cry went out to clear the road, and the rush of the pilgrims up the steep steps began. What a sight was this! On and on, up and up, they came, crowding, breathless, almost
struggling, in their mad anxiety to enter the shrine, reach the image, and at the last, by way of worship, to bend forward and touch with the heart the sacred point of the mountain! For this half-embrace is what the worship consists of at Kedar Nath. They poured in at the great south door, out by the east. On and on, up and up; one had not dreamed the place contained so many people as now panted forward to obtain entrance. Suddenly, from one of the doorkeepers I heard an exclamation of pity, and then he stooped and tenderly lifted a little bent old woman, bowed down under the weight of years, who had lost her footing in the crowd and might have fallen and been trodden under foot. It was one of the sights of a lifetime to stand there, in the black darkness at the top of the steps, and watch the pilgrims streaming in. It seemed as if all India lay stretched before one, and Kedar Nath were its apex, while from all parts everywhere, by every road, one could see the people streaming onward, battling forward, climbing their way up, all for what?--for nothing else than to touch God!
We had a wonderful walk next day, to the glaciers and the heights, and some of us rested on a hillside, listening to the perpetual muffled boom of the avalanches, as they broke and fell
from some part or other of the great ice-mass to the north. "Yes," said the peasant who guided us, thoughtfully, as he stood gazing with us at the glacier. "It looks as if it stood perfectly still. But really it is moving, like any other river." The great temple looked small and distant now, like a village church, and only the towering heights seemed grand enough for the worship of God. We felt this still more when we stood and looked up at the vast snowy expanse that they call the Mahaprasthan, the Great Release. For the Pandava story culminates at Kedar Nath, and we are shown the very road by which Yudhisthira and his brothers and the Lady Draupadi went, on that last great journey by which they reached the end. Others since then have followed them, it is said, and have signed their names at the last on a great rock-face that stands on the way. We made our way there: and sure enough we found numbers of trisuls drawn in white and black and red, in wavering lines some of them, as if by hands that shook with age, and some of them strong and firm: but all, if the country-folk are to be believed, the autographs of those who felt that desire was ended and the supreme renunciation now theirs to make. For the Shastras, say those who know, make man free of society at two places, Kedar Nath and Allahabad.
The site of Kedar Nath is very old. There is
a temple of Satya-Narayana built over a spring, in the village-street. There is also a tiny chapel containing the nine forms of Devi. There are pre-Sankaracharyan Shivas also, and square watercourses, dotted about the central shrine. On the whole it would seem as if, at the period commonly referred to as the visit of Sankaracharya, Satya-Narayana had been superseded by Shiva as the principal deity. And the Devi-worship which was probably still older than Satya-Narayana remained henceforth side by side with it, in a similar subordination. The question of the order in which its pre-Sankaracharyan phases succeeded one another is the great crux of the story of Hinduism.
The carving round the doorway of the temple is evidently ancient, and the ornament consists of Hinduistic figures of gods and kings contained in niches, not unlike those which contain Buddhas in the last of the art-periods at Ajanta. This would predispose us to assign a date between the expulsion from Gandhara, A.D. 751, and the year 1000, leaning somewhat to the latter because of the very manifest decadence in style. We must remember that the importance of Kedar Nath as a place of pilgrimage has always kept it in touch with the plains, and that at the same time there seems never to have been any Mohammedan invasion of these Himalayan valleys. These
facts explain why it is possible to find in this remote spot an important link between older Buddhistic and later Hindu sculpture.
Above all, Kedar Nath is the shrine of the sadhus. As in the days of Buddhism, so in those of Sankaracharya, and as then so also now, the yellow robe gleams and glistens in all directions. There is no begging, for the sadabratas supply all the wants of monastic visitors. But there is a world of enthusiasm, and still the tradition goes amongst them that Kedar Nath is a place of good omen for sannyasins, for here came Sankaracharya and falling into samadhi died.
It was the second day of our stay when an old man who had been seriously ill for many months reached the place and made his darsana. He had ended his journey, and hastened to fulfil his vow within the hour. But scarcely had he done so, barely had he ceased from prayer, not yet was the rapture of achievement abated, when the battle was declared for him to be finished, and in the bright morning air, with long sighing breaths, his soul went forth. Such is the benediction with which the Lord of Mountains lays His hand upon His own!
- www.vivekananda.net edited by Frank Parlato Jr.