Valley of Flowers, Travellers and Pilgrims

I feel quite smug when I look at people performing rituals to appease Gods. I have never been compelled to fast and hope for redemption. No, that definitely does not mean that I haven’t tried to appeal to the better Nature of Gods on the morning of many an exam to ensure I score more than I deserve. But I think, that if there is a person called God, that person wouldn’t be so corrupt as to dole out marks, money and marital bliss in return for renunciation or offerings. Honestly why would a God care how many fasts you have kept and why would that God choose to praise you by rewarding you with your heart’s desire. It’s all too simple isn’t it?

In short I believe I might uncomfortably occupy that space called religious agnosticism.

This makes me quite capable of stepping into a place of worship to enjoy moments of calm, while observing the architecture, the paintings and murals.

The beautiful Badrinath temple in Uttarakhand (India)

The beautiful Badrinath temple in Uttarakhand (India)

But I have never quite believed in the rituals that people engage in. For me they are mere formalities to facilitate my visit.  Take the practice of taking off one’s shoes before entering a religious sanctum for instance. During my formative years, I was exposed to my mom’s friend who was finicky and expected everyone to take off their shoes before entering her living room. I started thinking of temples as similar places owned by finicky Gods. Like I listened to the aunt hoping to get chocolates, I followed rituals to visit temples in order to be able to observe.

You may enter - after you take off your shoes

You may enter – after you take off your shoes

My understanding of such demonstrations of faith such as walking barefoot to a pilgrimage, is limited to say the least. I can’t help but engage in a fierce debate when such instances meet my eye. A similar opportunity presented itself to me during my sojourn in the Valley of Flowers, Uttarakhand (India).

Valley of Flowers – if you haven’t taken a look at the hyperlink, I’ll state the obvious, it is a valley of, guess what? Flowers!

But these aren’t just any flowers. At least not the ones you can order online for your mom’s birthday. They are flowers which are a part of the sacred Himalayan alpine vegetation.

A beauty seldom found beyond the valley of flowers

A beauty seldom found beyond the valley of flowers

Unique, bashful, temperamental, the flowers live and breathe in the valley, watched closely by the guardian mountains of the Himalayas with their burly bodies and beards of soft white. Streams which simmer with shy gaiety keep them company with their gurgling and shimmering warmth. And pretty butterflies and naughty wasps are aplenty.

Flowers being looked after by the Himalayas

Flowers being looked after by the Himalayas

No wonder it features prominently on many a traveler’s ‘bucket list‘ and finds mention in some of the greatest works of literature. Such is the enchanting beauty of the valley that Frank Smythe, the British mountaineer froze in his tracks when he accidentally chanced upon the valley and his encounter resulted in a book – The Valley of Flowers. Oh and of course, it is also listed in the UNESCO World Network of Biospheres.

Counting stars would probably be easier than counting the flowers on this plant

Counting stars would probably be easier than counting the flowers on this plant

Well, I for one don’t really have a bucket list. A place catches my fancy and I start planning a trip (sometimes when it doesn’t work out, I add the name to a secret ballot from which one day when I run out of places, I shall draw a name at random and scurry off to sip tea there).  So, with great eagerness, I set out to explore what promised to be an unforgettable rendezvous in the Himalayas where there are several species of flowers, names unheard of, some dangerous, fatal even, nevertheless beautiful.

You can find several winged companions buzzing with excitement

You can find several winged companions buzzing with excitement

Now when I head to the mountains, I do it for the vantage point above the world that the peaks offer. I do it for the emeralds swaying on the boughs of trees, the majestic robes of cloud which flutter in the wind and the Sun which blushes a deeper red while setting in the hills than in the plains. Distance from the chaotic network of roads in the cities which make life run like clockwork, from the hands of soot outstretched to hold and wring my wind pipes, from an armor of people who protect me so well that I’m at no risk of discovering myself ever. The kilometers which span between the city and the hills, bring this distance for me.

A flower which would give Black Beauty a run for her money

A flower which would give Black Beauty a run for her money

As I began the ascent to Ghangharia, the village which offers lodgings for the travelers aspiring to visit the valley, I was hoping for all of this and more. However, what greeted me was not a pristine picture but a picture which had been knocked clean off the wall and the inhabitants of the frame were swaying in the wind. An iron bridge and wide concrete roads on which vehicles were plying with great urgency, more hawkers selling more goodies in shimmery plastic packets than the New Delhi Railway Station and more people around me than I was likely to meet at a party in my city.

People clicking pictures around concrete structures on their way to the valley

People clicking pictures around concrete structures on their way to the valley

What was the reason? Apart from being a major attraction for nature lovers and Himalaya enthusiasts who throng the village to see the marvels of the Valley of Flowers, Ghangaria is also swarming with pilgrims who come to visit the shrine of Hemkund Sahib. Many of them walked beside me during the ascent, holding a polite conversation before quickly overtaking me. Some of them preferred to walk barefoot and that’s perfectly not unusual for pilgrims in India.

Sikh pilgrims I met en route Ghangharia

Sikh pilgrims I met en route Ghangharia

Now I am a perfectly jovial person as anyone who would have met me knows. However, I have a daily quota of joviality which is directly proportional to the number of people I meet. Hence, I was becoming increasingly irritable, aloof and the backpack started to feel much heavier than it was– when finally the respite came as I turned another dreary corner. It was as if I had crossed an invisible barrier dividing two countries. The air was a playful child which greeted newcomers with an enthusiasm which could knock down unprepared souls. The assault on my senses became pleasurable all of a sudden as the surroundings became beautiful. And amidst the new-found liberty of the mountains, I set the pace for the rest of the journey.

This twisted tree is the last post before the village Ghangharia

This twisted tree is the last post before the village Ghangharia

The path meandering through the mountains abruptly came to an end, vanishing within a huge intersection of a small village which by no means looked empty or quiet. I found myself moaning again. Would I never be rid of people on this trek? I had reached my destination for the day, tired and spent, but excited because of the promising aspects of the next day. I waited for the morning like I had waited for the morning I was to be awarded a Student of the Year (or something along the same lines) award in 6th standard.  Unlike that day, I did not have a nest of butterflies in my stomach who threatened to fly out through my windpipe. I had a cheery breakfast and made more acquaintances before setting out.

We cut across the village diagonally at a brisk pace to get to an official barrier. All the jagged, chaotic beauty I had been yearning for remained elusive. There still spread some beautiful, soil and moss-covered rocks between the valley and me. Had I not been so preoccupied with getting there, I would have probably paid them the attention they deserved.

Entering the valley is like going through The Looking Glass

Entering the valley is like going through The Looking Glass

I feel obliged to give a slight warning to future explorers. Don’t bother going there if it is order that you seek. I for one, usually tire of order and the chaos which it sows in my city life, the burdens of which are noticeable within a week of turning my back to the mountains. I love the mystique and the exotic chaos of the mountains which calms my mind and gives it the depth I seek. And this valley, an abode of the beautiful chaos whose song is sung by the countless species which come into existence in the delicate habitat, is perhaps the best chaos I have witnessed.

Mr. Leaf here looks really good with the yellow hair, doesn't he?

Mr. Leaf here looks really good with the yellow hair, doesn’t he?

As I rested by the river bank, soaking in the glory of Nature which surrounded me, my mind wandered. I thought about sundry things. From the botanist who had lost her life to this valley and its mysteries to the Lord Indra who sought his pleasures here. And then I thought about myself. The valley meant so much to me while I probably meant nothing to it. Just another of those thousands who flock to see the wonders it holds in its arms.

A flower shining like a beacon among the greens of the valley

A flower shining like a beacon among the greens of the valley

Then something interrupted me. Not something actually, someone refilling their bottle at the stream while making what seemed to me as much noise as possible. Another possible acquaintance, another interruption, who I observed chose to walk barefoot. Another pilgrim! But why walk barefoot to the valley? Not really, a splash in the stream led to wet shoes which were now drying on the bank. But my presumptuous query about the shoes managed to start a debate. Lots of words cropped up – renunciation, salvation, and beliefs – yes, all the stock phrases basically.

Then the conversation started taking an interesting turn. My acquaintance wanted to know why would I climb mountains, why would I walk when I could ride, why would I eat sparse meals in the villages when I could afford lavish dinners in the cities? Choice – was my simple answer. And then that victorious smile spread upon my new friend’s face and something dawned upon me.

The message reads

The message reads “enjoy the view of the mountains from here” – Nandadevi National Park, Joshimath

My friend got up to leave. So it was as simple as that. Being baptized in a certain religion at your birth makes you a devotee. Many a times the lifestyle choices prescribed do not appeal to your soul, your being. So people like me start thinking of religion as a factory, working through the machinery of rituals trying to manufacture identical individuals in the society. But does that mean we don’t need that kind of influence? One might choose to live by a different set of rules, or by no rules. Even negating makes you a believer. That becomes your own personal religion, albeit with fewer followers than other religions. Like the flowers of this plant, alike yet different :

Cluster of flowers spotted at the valley of flowers

Many musings later, I found myself getting up to join the rest of the group to head back. I was reluctant. I did not want to leave, not yet. But I had to. This view would have to do for now.

I was, after all, a pilgrim!

-Swetambara Chaudhary


Tripoto
The author served as a staff writer at Scoopwhoop! and is a freelancer
Send her virtual chocolates on her Twitter and Facebook.

© Copyright for all the images owned by SlowRover and Swetambara Chaudhary. 

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SR Guest Posts: NIK & MAYHEM SHORT STORIES SERIES by Anahita

SlowRover presents the first part of Anahita’s NIK & MAYHEM SHORT STORIES SERIES.


Chapter 1: The Stairs

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He sat there with a cigarette between his lips and a worn out Polaroid of two.

“She used to live on the first floor and I used to live down here. The outdoor staircase was our safe haven. It was secluded and this is where our fingers nervously found way to each other. This is where we shared our first kiss. This! This was the place where I finally found someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.” His voice rose with every word, he uttered.

I wanted to ask the inevitable, “but” or “so what happened?” But he sensed my hesitation and added “a week before our wedding, she realized, she didn’t love me anymore.” I gave him a quizzical look, because either he was taking me for a fool or this was some Bollywood romantic gone sour.

Before I could ask him again, he cut me off by adding, “I am an artist.” and it was then when I could relate to what he was going through.

As artists, if someone falls in love with you, it’s extremely difficult to figure out whether they love you, the entirety of your existence of are they intimidated and enticed to your most prominent/highlighted face, “the artist”.

He took a long drag and rubbed his palms together and spoke in a grave voice, “I remember her telling me that I had too many flaws, that she loved me but she wasn’t ready to handle my past or be a part of my future. That there was a part of her, that was not ready to accept a part of me.”

And so we sat under the cracked roof of a staircase in silence because that was my only means of providing him compassion. It was my only way of letting him know that I understand because sometimes silence is louder than words.

Chapter 2: First 

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We met again.
I was pacifying myself with a salad on a rainy day while everyone around me sat in their bubble of happiness.

“Is this seat taken?” He smirked at me.

“Do you have a thing for movie like dialogues?” I snapped, hating the intrusion in my private moment.

For a second, I saw his no-care-I-own-the-world-sheit-eating grin disappear.

Then he abruptly sat down. “So Mayhem what’s that story on your lips?”
I was taken aback because his voice was serious and his eyes were intense.
I gulped down the fear because this was the first time someone was able to trace a speck of gloom in my pristine face.

“Why would you say that? Is it because I am enjoying a meal on my own accord. That’s kinda sexist of you, considering you’re an artist.” He laughed loudly.

“You’re adorable. But no that’s not why I asked you that question. For you and I both know I can list all the reasons to the question I asked which will leave you in tears but that’s something I fear. ”
I stared at his incredulous behavior.

“Who do you think you are? Just because I am your neighbor and we shared a moment on the stairs you think you know me.”

“Moments make a lifetime Mayhem. The increase in your tone & the rise of your chest & lets not forget the rather beautiful red on your cheeks is indicating otherwise.”

“Stop staring at my chest.” I blurted mad & ready to leave.
But then it made sense to me, he was forcing me to give in to the situation like all the times in the past.
Our past, is like worms dipped in a jar full of HCl. As soon as they are provided with the smallest inlet, they seek revenge and freedom.

“You know Mayhem. It would do you good, if you just shared. Stop being a Disney princess like Elsa hiding behind your frozen castle when you’re supposed to be slaying like a khaleesi.”

“Did you just quote a Frozen and a GOT reference in one?” I started laughing oblivious to the warmth that had developed in his eyes.

“So friends then?”

Chapter 3: Second Tilt 

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We decided on taking a joint trip to the land of tranquility, since it was peace that we were both craving. 

It had been a few weeks since the restaurant incident and Nik had been considerably docile and understanding, minding his own limits.

We sat on the steps of the monastery, enveloped by the peace around us.

“Do you believe in this?” He started. “In this concept of actually healing and acclaiming your inner peace?”

I pretended to think about it, when in reality I had the answer on the tip of my tongue. “No, I don’t.” He looked at me with a raised eyebrow.

“Okay, I am listening.” I got nervous again.

It had been these little moments with Nik that were forcing me to pull down on the fortress walls. Because, for the love of all that is food, I couldn’t figure out why I felt comfortable with him. 

Perhaps it’s the knowledge of his warm brown eyes or how his bearded face splits into dimples when I say something stupid or the way his raspberry lips paint themselves with a calm & accepting smile.

“I…I don’t think anyone ever heals per say. Pain stays with us for long and it leaves only when its course of time is done. Meditation is equivalent to a glass of whiskey for pain, it doesn’t completely erase it but it sure dulls the ache. So you understand? It’s like one day this pain will dull significantly and acquire a shade that doesn’t fit with our dress & that day, that day it would lift from our body like a dragon fly and fly it’s course away.”

I lean up because I had started to ramble again and I see him smiling gently trying to suppress a laugh. 
I feel dejected, had I made a fool out of myself again?

“Let’s go Mayhem, we have some orange and purple to get rid off.”

And he drags me by the hand. 
And I let him. 
Because our colors were merging and they were creating a beautiful composition. 

Chapter 4: Third of Line.

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It was another blissful morning.

“Are you done with the evil scheming for the day?” Nik stood besides the wooden frame of the door to our joint hotel room.

His hair was wet & damp & his face was void of the lines that hid with it his grievances & his pain.

“Come dear soldier, give me your advice?” Little did I know, aversion was the last thing on his mind.

“It’s been a week.” He said and I was reminded of the promise that I had made him that a week into the vacation I would try to open up.

“Nik, don’t.”

“Mayhem there was a reason we took this trip.” I could feel my breath galloping like the horse bitten by the snake. Now this was definitely “anxiety”.

“Nik, it’s morning. We could..”

“We could what? Talk about this later.” He spoke sarcastically.

“Wtf is your problem? Why are you so hell bent on knowing stuff? I am here, is that not enough.”

“Is this what you do Mayhem. Do you like the thrill of enticing people? Of knowing how intimidating you can be? How people are affected by your presence? Is this how you use them to subdue your pain? Is this your drug?”

“How dare you? Wtf is wrong with you?” He suddenly held me by my arms.

“Let me go. This isn’t your quintessential teen drama, where you hold me & intimidate me with words & I will be telling you everything about me.”

“Then what about this trip Mayhem. Why rip me apart more than my previous girlfriend? How long do you expect someone to wait around? Love…”

And that is where world stopped for me. That was the last endearment I expected to ever hear from a man again.
We often cut parts of our life story from people, for fear of judgement or fear of them proving our virtues wrong.
But every soldier has a chink in their armor.

“My fiancé was murdered in front of my eyes.” I suddenly uttered & for the first time since we stepped into the Himalayan hill station, I could feel the silence of the hills enveloping my being & piercing through every door I had kept locked. …..

There are stories which are not meant to unfold.
Ask the snow that sits atop on the mountain peak of all that remains in her soul, of all that she wish, she could have told.

Chapter 5: Magoa 

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Nik and I sat awkwardly at the coffee store.

After the dramatic confrontation, screaming & confession, we’d decided to end our time in the mountains. I touched my glass of ice tea & then stared at that book again.

“Do you remember how every childhood fairy tale used to begin with a once upon a time?” He didn’t reply, just nodded following my gaze.

“I know you need answers Nik, but you have to know that Kai was the one for me. That I was supposed to get married to him.”

“How do you know he was the one?” He raised his eyebrow in mock fashion.

“You’re incredulous. Nik I am trying to give you your answers & you have the nerve to judge me that the man who was killed in front of my eyes, that the man I loved more than anything wasn’t the one for me?”

“If he was then what are you doing here with me?” The cold of his voice seeping into my bones. I pushed the table aside,

“Why are you being a prick to me Nik? Is this some sadistic male pleasure of yours? Do you not understand how difficult it is to confess? I feel like I have been wasting my time on a prick.” I ran away tears brimming.

After Kai’s death, every guy had been a one night stand to a two date protocol. But Nik he had been different. 
I hated in accepting it, but his comfort slipped into my soul on levels where even Kai had never reached.

“Mayhem” he held my hand as we stood there under the beautiful white entrance arch of the cafe.

“You have to understand my insecurities. I can’t have you building your recovery around me.”
“I am not.”
“Who are you kidding? Did you see yourself a few months back? You looked like if you had your way you’d exchange places with Pluto. Look at yourself now, the day you put kajal for the first time I couldn’t stop staring at you, because in that hour I knew you had started healing. I care for you but you need to know I can’t take another break-up, I can’t take another you’re not enough.”

“And I can’t take another bouquet of flowers & then get stuck in the cage admiring the one thing I had & I lost. I can’t watch my pristine white gown, rust & turn pale & yellow. I need to be sure this time.”

And in that moment we had found our moment of sorts.

Chapter 6: Fragments 

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“Nik” I screamed, gushing down the common staircase that separated our flats.

“Nik, open up.” I kept banging on the door & was soon met with his sleep deprived-ruffled hair-perfect beard face that I had a secret itch to kiss him senseless.

“Mayhem it’s 6:00am. What is wrong?”

“I had a dream.” He arced his eyebrow in mock sarcasm.

“You don’t say. Is that even human?”

“Nik seriously. It was an important dream. Psychologists claim it only happens once or twice in a lifetime.” I pushed him aside & entered his flat. He shut the door & joined me on the couch, “tell me about this dream.”

“I had a dream that my tooth is falling.”

“Mayhem seriously, superstition.”

“No, you fool. Look even Freud & Jung have theories on this particular dream.” I said shoving my phone in his face.

He read intently & gave me the “go-on” nod “Nik this dream is both positive & negative. Freud says it means emotional repression & a great loss. Jung says its re-birth? Back to square one as a kid with inquisitiveness for the whole wide world. I don’t know what to assume of it. Am I about to lose someone & myself again. Am I?..”

“Mayhem, remember when we were in the hills & we stood at the edge & you asked, “fall or fly.” The same applies to you, if you wish love, you could believe in Freud & fall prey to a million doubts or you could believe in Jung &” he paused “and soar to your new life with me.”

I stared at him, he’d always leave the ball in my court, it was my choice.

In a lot of ways he had/no has become my person, but was I ready to fall into a vortex only to fly.
I closed my eyes, scooted closer to him & gently pressed my lips to his plump ones.
The decision was made.
I did rather go cliff jumping with a happy smile & a hand held out, rather than a suppressed sigh & a band of doubts.

Chapter 7: Equinox

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IG: kashmirichaii

And as we stared at the canopy of bliss above our heads, I couldn’t help but laugh at the way we’d found a way out.

“What?” Nik spoke from where his head rested above mine.

“We met on a staircase taking solace from the rain. Now here we sit an entangled mess under the rain seeking solace in each other. Don’t you think this is mystic?” He took a deep breath & pulled me over him.

“Love” he spoke with warmth gently pushing away the hair that had escaped from the French bun I was sporting.

“I always told you we were meant to be. But you & your neurotic ways were such a roadblock.” If it wasn’t for the way his eyes got all crooked when passing a genuine smile, I would have categorize this as a “typical jerk move”.

“Oh Ya. I am the only one who is a neurotic bitch. As if you don’t throw a fit when I re-arrange your paint brushes or call out canary yellow as Kodak yellow.”

“Cause they are not the same.” He replied incredulously.

“They are.” “They are not.” He said pushing me up with him.

His silent laugh rumbled through me as he laid his head on my chest.
And I couldn’t help but smile and envelope him in my arms while passing a thankyou to the skies above.

We were still stuck in a vortex.

We were yet to fly.

But from the white clouds spilling into our dark domain, there was nothing but hope & a will to fly & fight against all odds.

Two deranged half found freedom in the sanctity of being whole.……

Fin.

-Anahita

Originally published at Anahita’s super awesome blog: NinjaPotatoFry


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