After reading two unique books, Srajan’s fascination with the Himalayas comes full circle.
A year-long hibernation in the midst of a global pandemic was followed by one of the hottest and driest spring/summers in recorded Sonoran desert history. With temperatures cresting at 110 degrees (44 C), hunkered in a small adobe house on a property anchored at the corners by four tall date palms, steaming amidst an assortment of bougainvillea, flowering oleander, and small shrubs hiding numerous families of songbirds, we adventurous souls turned to books and screens for views of the wonderful world we call ‘life’. Our nomadic wings have been clipped, at least for now, which, along with enduring the undeniable aging of our bodies, allows time for introspection and exploring what other humans have been doing through reading their books and watching their films.
You may chuckle when I mention this first book, so go ahead and get ready, because we are going to Shangrila. Come along and you will be following a wise (or is he mad?) Tibetan terton named Tulshuk Lingpa, who seduces you along with this statement: “Don’t listen to anybody. Decide for yourself and practice madness. Develop courage for the benefit of all sentient beings. Then you will automatically be free from the knot of attachment. Then you will continually have the confidence of fearlessness and you can then try to open the ‘Great Door of the Hidden Place’.
A Step Away From Paradise – The true story of a Tibetan lama’s Journey to the Land of Immortality by Thomas K. Shor, traces the fascinating saga of how, at the apocalyptic time of the Cuban Missile crisis (1962), 300 followers of this charismatic lama climbed the slopes of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain at 8,586 meters.
The author weaves together the story by finding and interviewing those that made the journey as well as their descendants. The questions that arise for the reader are, “Will I ever be able to release the incredulous mind? Does this portal to the paradise world really exist as it had been long foretold initially by Padmasambhava? Will they make it? Why am I so hoping they will? What is this, the ‘Great Door of the Hidden Place?’
“If Paradise is but a step away why do we wait to take it?”
Then, of course, not a moment after the final page is turned, another story rises in synchronicity.
Some time back, around the year 1988, whilst in Poona, I organized a tour of the sacred sites in the Indian Himalaya. Spring brought that overwhelming heat to the Deccan plateau and the ashram was steaming. Having made an initial exploration of the Gharwal Himalaya soon after taking sannyas a decade earlier, by visiting the Tibetan community at Dharamshala and later Kulu and Manali, I was longing for the relief of the high mountains again. So, leaving the Poona ashram, I ventured ahead to Mussoorie, India and arranged for a van driver to chauffeur our group to the Yatra pilgrimage routes. We would rendezvous in Mussoorie and then would weave our way to Gangotri and Gomukh (the holy source of the Ganges), then visit Kedernath, and finally Badrinath.
It was a marvelous trip with these places still wrapped in snow having minimal supplies left after a long winter. There was, however, one leg of the Yatra route that we didn’t attempt and I had often wanted to complete the circuit. So it was serendipitous that the next book to come along would take me there.
Himalaya Bound – One Family’s Quest to Save their Animals and an Ancient Way of Life by Michael Benanav, was my ticket to Yamunotri. Michael would join the Val Gujjars, a nomadic tribe of vegetarian Muslim water buffalo herders, as they moved their herds from the winter forest of the Shivalik hills up the Yamuna drainage to the heights of the Himalayas and their traditional summer pastures, in what is now the Govind Pashu Vihar National Park Sanctuary. It was to be a physically difficult but most rewarding journey, fraught with great uncertainty: Would the park officials allow them to enter what was for generations their summer pastures? After being arrested as a trouble maker by Indian officials, would Michael end up in jail?
Michael was gradually included into the tribe and found them to be a most exceptional group of people. They were illiterate but wise in the way people who found great joy and strength living away from civilization in their forest. The care and love that they gave to their beloved buffaloes and to each other deeply touched Michael. The Val Gujjars proved to be the perfect custodians of the forest and pastures, since, having had a long relationship with the trees and grasses so necessary for the well-being of their buffalo herds, they knew how to utilize but not deplete the resources of the land.
This beautiful story that led to deep cross-cultural friendships will beguile you.
For me, the journey now feels complete.
Image credit Kanchenyunga – Amey Meher at Unsplash