by Emanuele Confortin
The Tapovan plateau gazes upon the tongue of the Gangotri glacier, in the heart of the Garhwal Himalaya, in India. The vast grassy stretch is interrupted irregularly by massive boulders, hurled towards the valley by the bulk of the Shivling, its 6543 metres stretched between the sky and the earth.
This is Uttarakhand, in the Uttarkashi district to be precise, a unique and wild territory, bearing a profound religious significance since the time of the Veda. This is the centre of the universe, where sky, earth and the underworld meet. The axis mundi towards which the Hindu, the Jain and the Buddhists direct their worshipping energy. The centre of the universe criss-crosses the labyrinth of granite, seracs and the turquoise lakes of the nearby Mount Meru, cut in half by the infamous Shark Finn, first climbed by the American mountaineers Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk.
It is in 2001 when my feet brush against the turf of Tapovan for the first time. We set out in the early morning hours for the approaching trek from Gangotri, a sanctuary-city at 3400 metres above sea level, a necessary stopover on the pilgrimage to Gaumukh, the crevasse in the glacier pouring out the first waters of the Ganges. The most important sacred river of India begins here its 2500 km journey to the gulf of Bengala. According to myth, the “descent” of the Gange originates with the goddess Gaṅgā who fell from the Himalayan sky in the shape of three furious rivers, destined to submerge the earth. Destruction is avoided by Shiva, able to contain the fury of the waters thanks to his intricate hair. Here, at the edge of the Gangotri glacier, the symbolism of the myth is evident in the majestic and motionless ice cap of the Shivling, a representation of Shiva’s head, stretched out as if to tame the force of the river.
With me is Shivendr, a real “garhwali guide” who will follow me with religious devotion. He’s wearing a woolly cap, a frayed jacket not exactly high-tech, and a pair of old sneakers completely worn out on the sides so as to reveal both his little toes. He doesn’t wear socks,
but is nonetheless well equipped compared to the cheaper porters, particularly the immigrants of Nepalese background, able to push themselves to high altitudes heavily loaded and with a pair of sandals on their feet. We walk briskly, on a clear day in unparalleled scenery. The route towards Gaumukh stretches for 20km in the valley, constantly within sight of the three enormous peaks of the Bhagirathi which give the name to the initial section of the Ganges. These are the first days of October and autumn has started painting in hues of yellow, brown and ochre the sparse vegetation consisting mostly of bushes and the occasional tree. Hundreds of people come and go in the same direction. Many are devout Hindus, taking on the Char Dam, the pilgrimage to the four most important sanctuaries of the Indian Himalaya: Yamoutri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. They advance in a line, deliberately, although only few have the mountain experience or the physical fitness to face such a long course, reaching a height of almost 4000 metres. Those with sufficient energy trudge forwards on foot, others sit on the backs of the donkeys that in dozens spend their existence in the presence of Shiva’s abode.
The climb to Tapovan commences at Bhojbasa – where we found a place for the night in a room shared with other people –, something like an advance-camp for the pilgrims en route to the Ganges headwaters. “The path bypasses the glacier to the left, it crosses it aiming to the right until it reaches the plateau”, Shivendr explains, adding that the direction of the route also depends on the movement of the moraine, as it shifts from season to season. There are six hundred metres between the ashram of Bhojbasa and Tapovan, a reasonable climb despite the final altitude of 4.400 metres. A couple of hours later, late morning, we finally gaze upon that long-sought reward, stretching on the vast expanse of grassland, closed on the opposite side by the Shivling. The view is indeed enchanting. The labyrinth of ice and boulders we left behind leads to a high-altitude meadow, populated by herds of deer grazing freely and undisturbed. The only intruders are a handful of saṃnyāsin, the Hindu renunciates who devote most of the year to meditation and the worship of Shiva.
Here I meet Narayan, a young lad not yet thirty years old with a black beard and his hair tidily combed to one side. He is from Benares, an ancient city on the path of the Ganges, considered one of the most sacred sites in the whole of India. His dwelling in Tapovan is in a cell dug beneath the ground, under a massive boulder of red granite, the same type visible on the immense side of the Shivling. Narayan lives alone, devoting himself to self-searching and the worship of Shiva, here personified by the mountain. He has chosen the difficult path of asceticism, of detachment from material reality and of self-searching, necessary conditions to attain mokṣa, liberation from the inconclusive and painful cycle of rebirth, the saṁsāra. The young ascetic has lived enough, experiencing the three goals of human existence. One is kāma, the pleasure and satisfaction of sexual desire, followed by artha, success, wealth and political experience. Finally dharma, the pursuit of moral values including ritual and religious duties. By becoming saṃnyāsin he has decided with firm resolution – saṁkalpa – to pursue the fourth and final goal known as mokṣa – nirvāṇa for the Buddhists – which transcends all else.
We are introduced with a quick bow, then Narayan disappears, only to return a few moments later with a cup of chay, milky tea and a few slices of apple set out on a sparkling metal saucer. The conversation carries on slowly, adapting to the rhythms of those living suspended in this dimension, as though time did not exist. The young renunciate never speaks about himself; after all his condition of sanctity goes beyond the human sphere, so much so that for him death is but a state of ecstasy, samādhi. He often points to the Shivling, he hints at the significance of the place, nearing Mount Meru, the mythical golden mountain mentioned in the Purana, the popular sacred texts used to spread the teachings of the Veda. The complex conception of this setting is skillfully described by Margaret and James Stutley starting from the Markandeya Purana, according to which Meru measures 84 thousand yojana (a Vedic unit of measure equal to 1.6km) in height, and 16 thousand yojana in depth below the surface of the earth. The diameter at the peak is of 32 thousand yojana and 16 thousand at the base; thus Hindu cosmology represents the mountain as though it were upturned with the peak larger than the base, and for this reason described as “the Seed-Cup or the Lotus of the Earth”.
On Meru sit the spheres of Kṛṣṇa and Viṣṇu, while below extend the seven underworlds, realm of the snake Vasuki. Mythical cobra and king of the naga – snakes – Vasuki is found asleep in the depths of the earth, on whose multiple caps rests Meru, shaken by earthquakes every time the snake yawns or moves. As soon as Vasuki awakens from his long sleep and stretches his enormous body, it signals the beginning of the end of a yuga, a cosmic era, and the whole of creation is consumed by his flaming breath. Meru represents the centre of Jambudvipa, one of the seven great islands that form as many continents, each surrounded by seven seas, made up of salt water, sugar cane juice, wine, clarified butter, curdled milk and fresh water respectively. Jambudvipa represents the central continent, India.
The hours go by in the stillness of Topovan. It is almost sunset when Shivendr and I make our way back to the cell of the ascetic after a visit to the base camp of the Shivling, beyond which lies the normal path to the peak. The sun sets gradually carrying with it the heat of the day. Soon temperatures will dip below freezing. We enter the crevasse, three metres deep, with the ceiling just over a metre in height, finding some room in which to spend the night. Narayan is a kind and caring host, but his religious practice comes before all else, carefully carrying out the rituals with great attention to every detail. The recital of the sacred texts continues for hours, day after day. In the feeble light of the Himalayan afternoon, the saṃnyāsin follows with his finger a composition of blue ink drawn in Sanskrit on an old squared paper notepad. An endless flow of formulas is spoken from the diaphragm, deformed into a hum as they hit the narrowed lips, animated by an incessant vibration that fills the narrow nooks of the cell. The ascetic is perfectly still, his back straight and legs crossed in the position of the lotus, a transposition of the mountain itself, of the Shivling which stands well in sight beyond the hole at the entrance, incredibly close and shining in the light of the dying sun. Yoga citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ, ‘Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness’: this is the cardinal conceptual cornerstone of sāṁkhya, the ancient Indian philosophy based on the principle of dualism between puruṣa, “cosmic man”, and praḳriti, “material reality”, and from their imbalance the world is revealed from its centre, in Himalaya. Narayan’s exhausting spiritual retreat aims to annihilate body and mind, to minimize action through meditation and yoga, channeling energy into self-searching, and then, after an unspecified number of deaths and rebirths, he may achieve mokṣa. Tapovan is the ideal place to attempt it.
Despite the tangible reality of its sides, Shivling and the nearby rock and ice giants possess a metaphysical significance, which is central in the millenarian Indian tradition since the Veda, the most ancient sacred texts of India. The mountain, the entire Himalaya serves as the seat of the gods – deva bhūmi –, but they are first and foremost the centre of the universe, a concept systematically reproduced in India, from the hidden villages in the valleys, to the communities of fishermen on the southernmost shores oriented towards the Indian Ocean. The Hindu temple structure itself imitates the symbolic architecture of the mountain, turning into a microcosm, the axis mundi of the village, where ritual and devotional practices sustain the ṛta, the cosmic order that prevents the community from descending into chaos.
In any case the eventuality of chaos is simply delayed and inevitable. In the beginning the Himalaya and the mountains were perfect pyramids, followed then by the age of iron, the Kaliyuga, the worst of the four ages of the world, the “losing” age destined to last 432 thousand years. The mountains, perfect as pyramids, began crumbling, and human rectitude was similarly corrupted, as predicted by Hindu literature: “soil becomes selfish, famine and drought alternate with excessive rains; the rhythm of seasons is increasingly unreliable; clouds perpetually cover the sun, terrible fires destroy the forests; man systematically uproots sacred woods and parks; hunger and malnutrition become widespread, meat diets propagate; spirits are widely abused; memory and intelligence degenerate; wealth becomes the only measure for virtue and nobility, force the only criterion for justice; the impure, the outcast and barbarians take the seat of warriors and sages, and receive positions of power, subjugating the population, imposing increasingly burdensome taxes”.
In this context the only escape conceived at the foot of the sacred Shivling is mokṣa, liberation from the tangle of rebirths. This is the path chosen by the young ascetic, obstinately bent over his sacred writings, translating through vibration teachings as old as man. While Narayan’s spiritual path is confined to Tapovan’s expanse, Shivendr and I resume the route to Gangotri, 25 km down the valley. My guide marches on briskly, conscious of having made me a witness to a unique experience, of having guided me in the depths of Hindu tradition, the most authentic kind, centuries apart from the crowded itineraries of hikers who year after year are transforming the Himalaya into a playground, to be consumed in few days, as prescribed by the package travel plans.
Today, in hindsight, I can’t but thank Shivendr. It is he, a humble Garhwali lad, who first guided me into the heart of the “Abode of Snow”, triggering in me a passion which over the years has driven me time and time again to Himalaya, particularly in Kinnaur, for months at the border between India and Tibet to study the oracle traditions of the grokch. But this is a different story.
Translation from Italian by Chris Dowling @pherio