Friday, March 21, 2008

The Goddess and the Demon

“It’s bigger than I imagined.” I said, looking down the window as the plane started its noisy descent into Jammu. From the air, hundreds of feet above the ground, it looked like your typical B-class Indian town. Neither big nor small. No visible character, not from that distance anyway. A few minutes later, we touched down, deplaned and walked into a small, dreary airport. My mother-in-law, my brother-in-law, my sister-in-law and me. We were here for the Vaishnodevi Darshan, of course (read this, if you forgot why). We got into a rental car and began our journey to Katra from where we would start the famed arduous walk to the shrine.

We were Vaishnodevi illiterates so to speak. We had small pieces of disconnected information: from the shrine websites and Google and friends who had made the trip years ago. But no real plan. We did not know what to expect really, except perhaps for a 6+ hour walk up the steep slopes of the Trikuta Mountain. We checked into a hotel in Katra, showered, came down to the lobby to ask the front desk about logistics. A rickshaw could put us by the base of the mountain in Banganga after which we just had to follow the signs. Food, water, blankets, everything was available on the way. We would not have to carry any supplies. I was only half listening to the desk manager, my attention diverted by thoughts of what I would expect to happen to me in the next few hours. “But you are lucky. Very lucky.” The desk manager was saying. “Purani gufa has been opened. After 21 years.” I wanted to know what Purani gufa was. “It’s the original path Mataji took. It is small and you have to crawl through it and there is water in it. You are very lucky it has opened today. After 21 years.” My mother-in-law was delighted. Surely, this was an auspicious sign.

And thus began our journey. On the Mahashivratri day. We bought chunari and chattras and some prasad and set about the climb. My mother in law decided she wanted to climb as much as she could. After which she would get a horse. We started the climb. The path was flanked by shops selling devotional music, dried fruit, walking sticks, pooja stuff, trinkets, clothes, blankets, photos in Kashmiri outfits and of course food. We window shopped, bought some water and walked and walked. My sister in law and I walked a little rapidly, anxious we might get tired sooner if we walked leisurely. We tried taking steps instead of the paved ramp to see if that worked out better. After climbing one such flight of five hundred stairs, my sister in law sat down on the low wall and decided to take a break while I climbed on. I could see her sitting down talking to a fellow pilgrim beside her. I thought nothing of it then and it was only later that my sister in law narrated what the woman had told her. Many years ago the woman had asked for a son to Vaishnodevi promising she would visit the shrine. A son had been born to her but she did not keep her end of the promise. A few years later, her parents passed away, then her husband, then her brother and her sister. She lost her entire family. A few weeks ago, her daughter had dreamt that if the woman did not visit the shrine, her daughter would die too. The daughter had implored her mother and they were both making the trip.



It was close to five in the evening. We had been walking for four hours and we had reached Adhkuwari. We convinced my mother in law to get a horse while we walked up the mountain. The unkind rays of the afternoon sun had given its way to a gentle evening light and a soft breeze had begun to blow. I felt no hunger or exhaustion. As we climbed up from Adhkuwari, the shops and food shacks grew fewer and fewer and I could finally feel my mind uncluttering. As the three of us walked at our own pace, I often found myself all alone with just my thoughts and the steady rhythm of my step. I was trying to make sense of it all. The weird quasi-dream that had driven me here, the purpose of such pilgrimages, the clichéd metaphors of life that they generally are. Here was my own metaphor for it. At the base of the mountain I was like a small child. Full of excitement and promise, not really knowing what lay ahead. A few kilometers down the line I was a teenager – the excitement was still there and along with it a fearless, can do attitude. I had a glimpse of what the climb would be like, and I was ready for it. And here, just a little over half way I found myself exactly where I was in my life right now. In my thirties. The can-do attitude had vanished. Doubt about my own abilities had crept in. I was unsure. But what choice did I really have than to go forward? I had reached a point where there we no horses available even if I wanted to ride one. I just had to walk on. Strangely though, my own silly metaphor comforted me. Because, if the climb represented the stages of my life, then I was going to get a glimpse of my future when I reached the top. What would it feel like to grow old and what would it feel like to shed this body?

My thoughts were interrupted by my brother in law. He wanted something to eat. A few minutes later we reached a small shack that sold rajma and rice and we ate some. I wasn’t really hungry but I thought the protein would do me good. Dusk was slowly creeping in on us. The air had turned cooler as we started to walk again. I could see the path we had taken and the shops and the town we had left behind. There was a sense of a quiet pride in the accomplishment. We had been walking for over six hours. We could see the top. I still didn’t feel tired. A strained muscle bothered me now and then, but it was not enough to slow me down.

As we walked on, my thoughts turned to the legend of the goddess. I had googled it. Mata Vaishodevi, climbed the Trikuta Mountain as she tried to flee from the tantric demon Bhaironath. She hid the in cave at Adhkuwari for nine months, was enlightened and finally slayed Bhaironath. As the dying demon repented, she blessed him saying that devotees who came to her shrine would also have to come to his shrine for the pilgrimage to be considered complete. The demon was as important as the goddess. Because, without him how could she have ever attained godhood? She had conquered the demon and he had stopped bothering her. He was dead. How had she done it? She had tried to flee from him, but he had pursued. It was only at Adhkuwari, after nine months, had she been born again – with knowledge and perhaps with vigor to demolish her pursuant. She had been enlightened and perhaps it was at that moment the demon had been really killed. In that one moment of true knowledge.

As we climbed to the top of the mountain, we got gorgeous views. It seemed so easy – looking down like this. It had been a good ride. And despite the doubts, I had done it. It was getting dark, and a refreshing chill had set in as we approached Bhawan. We found my mother in law who almost went to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee. The horse ride had been bumpy for her. The horse was too big for her petite frame and her back ached. We took a little break and then went on to put our stuff in the lockers and stand in line for the darshan. My back was stiff and I longed to do the marjarasan (cat pose) I had been taught in Yoga classes to ease the stiffness. But to break out in a yoga pose here would look very odd and I decided to save that for the privacy of my hotel room. After three hours, the long line of people showed some promise of ending. I felt a slight sense of excitement and anxiety, but soon my thoughts which had been drifting away, turned to more immediate concerns. Hitching up my salwar to make sure it stayed dry in the icy waters. Plans to manage the yellow plastic bag with my chunari and chhatras and prasad as I prepared to contort my body to fit the jagged walls of the dark cave. My mother in law was having a difficult time navigating the cave but she soon found a way and I followed her. As I entered the shrine, I was surprised initially at how austere is really was. And then a sense of void washed over me. I felt utterly empty. As if everything inside me had simply vanished or better still had been neutralized (does this even make sense). It was a brief moment of utter calm and emptiness. There really is no word in English to denote what I felt. It was a nothing-ness. Shoonyata. I finally felt what that word really meant. It must have been only a few seconds and I had no idea what the priest was saying. I offered my plastic yellow bag and my mother in law asked for one chhatra and the chunari to be returned as prasad. I collected the things and walked out behind my mother in law.

I walked out into the open air and more confusion. That’s it? This is what it came down to? The simplicity of it all felt ridiculous. Surely there must be more to it. That now familiar voice of the old teacher was certain to reveal more. Somehow. As I walked on the cobbled stone to the lockers, the voice did return, but it was only with a single line. “I am glad you came and visited me.” Nothing more. I prodded inside my head for more but no other information was forthcoming. This was really it. Later, way past midnight, after we had eaten a simple dinner and rented horses for us to go back down the mountain, I had a chance to go back and think about my encounter. What startled me was the fact that it had been such a personal experience. BigGeek and Chip and my other family were not a part of it. It was something between me and her. There was no one else in the picture. This seemed it was my path alone and no one else could walk it but me.

Looking back, I am unsure if I should be putting a logical spin on the events that occured. I have tried to, but the attempt has been nothing but futile. Perhaps as the years go by, the answers to some of my questions will be revealed, or perhaps the answers will wait for me in another lifetime. The only thing I can say with certainty is this. I definitely haven’t seen the last of her. She will come again. And I will wait. And one day, when the time comes again, I shall pay her a visit.

23 comments:

Altoid said...

Lovely! beautifully narrated. I do hope and wish there are more such encounters for you. To your point, its a lone journey- for one and all. Its such forces beside us that give us the strength to forge on.

rayshma said...

your faith is inspiring. truly.
it's truly an honor to have heard her voice, been there. i've wanted to go... a couple of times... but something or the other always is an impediment. was in jammu for almost 2 weeks for my bro's wedding... but still cudn't make the journey.
maybe, what they say is true... mata ka bulawa nahi aaya hai.

Shobana said...

In my opinion, I think it is that small moment of quiet and confusion is the beginning of that enlightment, that the Goddess herself must have felt. The strength that comes out of that peace ....nothing can equal that experience I guess. Lovely reading this memory.

Suki said...

Beautiful.
Goose-bumpsy.
Inspiring :)

Girl Next Door (gnd) said...

Loved the metaphor! And reading about the "moment" was just so touching! Am envious! Almost felt like I was there...I'm sure this is one post I'll keep coming back to...

noon said...

Enjoyed reading this post - the part about how you felt as you went along until you reached the shrine...
My trip to Tirupathi for KB's tonsure was different - I really just felt like that one fleeting moment in front of the deity was just...really too fleeting...this is it? Exactly how I felt...I wrote about it a while back - will try to find it.
Anyway - when I read the part about what the lady told your SIL - I just wonder - it must just be a coincidence...why would God punish a whole family so cruelly for some promise the lady did not keep? I just hate this feeling of a carrot and stick God. It really gives me the jitters...
Waiting to hear about how Chip enjoyed the whole India trip...

Candyfloss said...

Wow...sounds like it was worth the trip...where was Chip, and how did he deal with being away from you?

dipali said...

Wonderful, Dotmom. A beautiful narrative.

choxbox said...

hey good to see you back. beautifully narrated.

anava said...

Glad you had a good trip. Looking forward to more details about the trip to India. I have always wondered about people making mannats/navas etc. Glad to read about your experience (I know yours was not a navas, but a calling). Did you take any pictures?

Mona said...

welcome back.
and a beautiful post to make up for a long absence.

DotMom said...

altoid: thanks.. you said it well yourself!

rayshma: that's what they say.. I have heard many such tales too.. I guess the bulawa is really a will that surpasses everything.

shobana: thanks so much.. it is still so connfusing and foggy!

suki: goose-bumpy indeed!

gnd: ah! thanks. this made me blush so.

noon: do send me the post.. would love to read about it. about the odd tale.. i am sure it is a conincidence..if I were to look at it rationally. But I am not sure if rationale can be enough sometimes...

candyfloss: chip was with my mom. He had a blast. went to the zoo (where he just chased pigeons). Everybody was a lil nervous if he owuld stay in a strange place without me. I was the the only "bindaas" one who never had a moment of doubt he would :)

dipali: thanks.. one tries :)

choxbox: good to be back too!

anava: I took some pictures... I am in a mental fog to wonder about all these things... its just so confusing. all of it.

mona: thanks, girl!

Anonymous said...

delurking for the first time here. I have been reading your blog for sometime now.
This was beautifully written post...I felt as if I was there ...thank you...
I agree with noon about the carrot and the stick thing. I beleive you should feel God is your companion, friend rather that someone who would punish you cruelly. SIL story gave me jitters too...

I like your style of writing...you analyse all your thoughts and put it out so well.

I am sure after this trip...there will be sense of peace you will feel about everything especially BigGeek. All will be well.

AI

mnamma said...

Beautiful narration Dotmom! And could relate to the feeling of emptiness you felt for a few moments. The post brought back memories of my childhood trip to Yamunotri and Kedarnath.

I love Lucy said...

welcome back!and this was a lovely post.loved the way you narrated it.

Poppins said...

What a beautiful poignant narrative. I was so touched to read both your "moment" and the metaphor. I'm so glad you did it the way you wanted to, instead of the helicopter ride as you were debating earlier.

cacophoenix said...

The metaphor and the whole narrative by itself was lovely. It calmed me down, which is wierd becasue I did not know I was anxious. The whole mata spending the nine months in the cave seemed almost like an unborn child spending nine months in the womb. teh baby grows in body and spirit gathering the strength to vanquish the demons that he/she might face one outside. We become its source of power the energy to make the baby strong, courageous and victorius.

DotMom said...

Al: thanks for delurking... the carrot and the stick god does seem shallow doesn't it.. but perhaps god works on all levels. who can say? there is a certain sense of peace.. actually i have to admit, once my plans for the trip were finalised, a certain sense of peace did come over me..thanks for all your wishes.. it means a lot, really.

mnamma: you have been there? that's my next destination with my MIL. y brother in law thinks I am crazy to do pilgrimages at my age!

I love lucy: thanks, girl!

poppins: Boy.. I am glad I did not do the heli-darshan. This was soooo much better. can't wait to do it again.

cacophoenix: there is an asterix fan here :) I am glad I could pass some of that calm to you. It's funny you mentioned it because many times after reading something or talking to somebody I get the excat feeling of being calmed down and it is ony then I realise that I was anxious. I really liked the 9 mon metaphor.. these metaphors are all so illustrative, but yet each one of them is just so incomplete.

utbtkids said...

That was beautiful. Temple = abode of Gods, but still, I personally feel that there are very few temples that touch you. I feel very connected to the Thiruvannamalai temple. Every time, I go there, I feel as if I have come back 'HOME' :)

Starting the the hike with agression and arrogant attitude of the teenager and towards the end growing wise out of the whole experience....excatly how I felt hiking up the Kilimanjaro.

Upsi said...

Reading this post, DM, a chill went up my spine. I am not able to clearly put down in words the feelings.

I came to know about VaishnoDevi only after you mentioned in one of your earlier posts. I am enthralled and googled to quench my curiosity. Needless to mention, I was looking forward to your posting on this.

I sense a lightness in your heart and a calmness in your self. Sending good wishes your way, DM.

Just Like That said...

That was a lovely narration, and a fitting sequel to the Voice.
I have only heard of Vaishno Devi thru movies,like you mentioned, she is not a familiar Goddess to me, but after reading your experience, am a little awed. And am impressed that the trek left you feeling not tired at all almost..surely the Goddess' blessings were and continue to be with you.

DotMom said...

utbtkids: it was really nice to read your "going home" example. I did feel that any long, climb/hike would evoke similar feelings. Kudos on having done Killi!

Upsi: Thanks Upsi.. because a co-workker noticed that too.. she said I looked so much calmer after my vacation (which was anything but leisurely)

JLT: Thanks JLT.. the experience has in some ways changed me..I think

Squiggles Mom said...

Thanks for sharing. I was looking forward to hearing about it.