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Published: July 23rd 2013
When they emerged, blinking, from the darkness of the got
this morning they were silenced buy the sight stretched out before them. Soaring above the hills to the north, was an arc of snow peaks - cold grey at first and then glowing in the morning sun. In the lap of one of these lay their lake, surely close enough for them to reach the following morning.
They set off northwards. Ahead of them was a stooped figure, clad in the robes of a Shaivite, a follower of the great Hindu God Shiva, shuffling along in nothing more substantial on his feet than a pair of rubber flip-flops. He carried a thick folded blanket over his shoulder which was held in place with a rope wrapped around his shoulders and chest. His progress was painfully slow, and they soon caught up with him. Frank glanced back as they passed to get a glimpse of his face, and realised that he was looking into the white bearded and sun-burned face of the ex-army sadhu
he had met at Pashupatinath. He looked weary, and had visibly aged since Frank had last seen him, just a few months ago. There was little of the yellow dye left in his filthy and tattered sun-bleached robe. At first he didn't recognise him, but when Frank reminded him of their encounter, he expressed surprise and pleasure. As travellers in the mountains, their first question of each other was inevitably: “Where are you going?” It transpired that they were all heading in the same direction.
“For a long time I have wanted to go on a pilgrimage to Chandrapal Pokhari
before I was too old,” he said in his near perfect English. “But it is very difficult for me.”
“Look at your feet,” Hamish said. “You can't climb a mountain in chappels
“It isn't easy,” he admitted. “But suffering is part of a pilgrimage. The more I suffer the more merit I gain. God is everything. I must make myself nothing. Maybe then Mahadev” (he was using one of Shiva's honorifics meaning 'the Great God'😉 “will help me achieve moksha
?” Frank had forgotten the meaning of this.
“We Hindus hope for moksha
. This is release from samsara.
When...,” he hesitated, and corrected himself. “If
, I can conquer my desires, not love my self,” he looked at his scrawny arms, “not care about my body, then I will no longer be separated from God.” He was carrying his possessions in a cloth bundle tied to a stick. He shouldered it, and they walked slowly together to their day's destination.
They could see an old Buddhist stupa
looking at them from below the village they were aiming for, and the prayer flags fluttering madly in the biting wind hurled down at them from the mountain peaks. The village at first appeared to be deserted, save for a lone lama whose chanting came from one of the houses. At last they found an ancient, withered woman who opened her door to them. Their sadhu
companion did not join them, explaining that he never entered people's houses. After they'd had some tea to warm themselves, they went out to see how he was getting on. He had settled himself by a stream, and, with his blanket draped over his shoulders to keep out the freezing night air, was cooking some rice and spinach on a wood fire.
“Where did you get the food from?” asked Hamish somewhat enviously. They had not seen rice and green vegetables for over a week.
“People give it to me. That is how I live. When I have no food, I take vegetables from people's gardens.”
“Really? Isn't that stealing?” Frank asked, surprised that he could steal without incurring bad karma
“It is permitted. They know it is the only way I can live. And they gain merit by helping a sadhu
. But sometimes they chase me away, especially here in the mountains where the people do not respect sadhus
,” he admitted ruefully.
“Aren't you going to be cold tonight?” Frank asked.
“Yes, but I don’t think about it,” he said. “I concentrate my mind on other things, and the cold no longer reaches me.” Not possessing such mental command over their bodies, they were driven back into the old lady's house by the cold. Frank took a potato from Ungel's supply, and went out once more to donate it to him. He accepted the gift by indicating with his head where he should place it on his mat. It occurred to Frank that he was, if the Hindus had got it right, creating merit for himself. Failing that, he could at least enjoy the meritorious glow that giving rewards the giver.
Their hostess lived all alone, and sat tending the fire in the murk of her house, with a blanket over her bony shoulders, leaving her desiccated paps uncovered. Indeed it seemed that the only warmth enjoyed by the poor old woman was the warmth of her hearth. Her body was emaciated, as if all the juice of her life had been drained away. She claimed she had reached her century, and was a great-great grandmother. That is quite an achievement anywhere, but especially here. Frank thought of Sunita with her clean limbs and full breasts, and felt a pang of sorrow. The old lady must have been remarkably hardy to have survived so long. The smoke hurt her eyes, and she had to grope for the potatoes that lay baking in the cinders, or the little plate of rice set on a shelf above the fire. Yet her voice was firm, and appeared to be capable of holding her own in conversation with Ungel.
Ungel made them a meal consisting of a thick paste of tsampa
and water. They were hungry enough to eat it without the usual disgruntlement. They swallowed it down with the help of some good raksi
, and they raided their precious tin of coffee powder for a treat. Then, hugging the fire for warmth, they watched their hostess roast barley ready for grinding later into tsampa
in her hand-mill.
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