Hinduism Today Magazine Issues and Articles
Pilgrimage: My Journey with the Mother Goddess
Category : April/May/June 2015
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PHOTOS: MARTUSHKA FROMEAST

Arduous journey: Pilgrims at the feet of Mount Trisul, winding toward Homkund

My Journey with the Mother Goddess

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The Nanda Devi Raj Yatra: one of the most difficult pilgrimages on Earth

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BY MARTUSHKA FROMEAST, POLAND

LEGEND SAYS THAT LONG AGO THE GODDESS Nanda Devi left Her home in Nauti village in Karanprayag—east of Srinigar—destined for the snow-capped heights of what is today known as the Nanda Devi mountain, India’s tallest peak. There She would be united with Her beloved, Siva, who resides at its summit. She was guided up the mountain’s frozen face by a mystical four-horned ram on a journey that is reenacted every twelve years in the Nanda Devi Raj Yatra.

I first learned of this pilgrimage from a book I was gifted, Mountain Goddess, in which author William S. Sax tells of his experiences on the yatra, one of the world’s longest, most difficult pilgrimages, leading tens of thousands of devotees on a three-week, 173-mile trek up to the dizzying elevation of 16,000 feet. It courses over grassy foothills, through mountain meadows, along craggy cliffs and between frozen Himalayan peaks. Led by a four-horned ram, pilgrims carry the Goddess with them on a bejeweled palanquin, boldly facing the inhospitable weather of the region’s rainy season.

With previous experience in the Himalayas, I bravely decided to join the trek. I was awed by the extreme preparations given by the government and local villagers. While you would hear occasional complaints of a dirty blanket or worn supplies, one couldn’t help but marvel at the care given to the pilgrims. Twenty thousand people were provided food, security, health care and camping, all for free. Some villages of no more than 100 houses supported thousands of pilgrims in one of the harshest environments on Earth.

Each Raj Yatra is declared only upon the birth of an auspicious chau­singha khadu, a four-horned ram. In March of 2014 a male lamb, black in color, was born in La­doli village in Uttara­khand’s Cha­moli district. Weeks later, as its horns began to grow, it became clear that he was the ram for which the Nanda Devi Raj Ya­tra Committee had been waiting. The ya­tra was announced. Per tradition, the royal family of Kan­su­wa village wove the raj chin­toli—the first of many bamboo umbrellas, an emblem of the ya­tra—that would accompany Nanda Devi and the sacred ram up the mountain. When the ya­tra’s pilgrims see the line of chin­toli ­bearers, they know that Nanda Devi is near.

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Thousands of pilgrims gather at Chandpur Gari. At some locations along the route the group will number 100,000; the official four-horned ram is hugged by one of his caretakers

The yatra starts in Nauti village, where a golden murti of Nanda Devi is ceremoniously placed on Her palanquin, sheltered by the raj chintoli overhead. Following an elaborate havana and several pujas, the immense throng winds its way through a string of villages as it proceeds higher and higher to the sacred goal, Homkund, a remote glacial pond said to be one of the sources of the River Ganga nestled between the great Trishul and Nanda Ghunthi peaks at an elevation of 12,323 feet.

The 2014 yatra was originally scheduled for 2012, but was delayed two years due to weather and natural disasters. So we began on August 18th, 2014—five months after the birth of the four-horned ram. Along with the main palanquin, there were several smaller ones, Nanda Devi’s divine sisters who together comprise the whole of Devi. The palanquins were usually carried by priests, often at an impressively quick pace. Almost running, the priests explained that the shakti of the Goddess propelled and guided their steps over the rocky terrain.

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An elderly umbrella bearer, carried through the crowds, gives blessings. Apart from practical protection from the sun and rain, the chintoli are said to ward off demonic spirits and other malevolent energies.

At night the ram slept next to Nanda Devi—tired from carrying the Goddesses’ gifts of jewelry, milk and other offerings received along the way. Never overburdened though, he enjoyed the loving attention of everyone who came near. Keen mountain trekkers, these sheep reach their destination as naturally trained guides, picking the safest and quickest paths through the treacherous terrain. The rare four-horned rams are considered the keenest of all.

At Nanda Kesari, eight more rams joined from different locations. Each was four-horned, but had not been chosen as the official holy ram. This determination is based on a variety of disqualifying factors, most importantly the timing of birth.

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Amazing vistas: A pilgrim worships in the icy waters of Bedni Bugyal pond, which was made artificially from the surrounding wetland

From the very start, the yatra takes on a life of its own. You become part of one giant religious body. As the event progresses, the days cycle by, the locations change and every village is new and unique, each presenting its own narrative and regaling you with folklore, songs and dances. Everything rotates around the center, Nanda Devi’s divine journey.

The natural beauty is stunning. Beginning in flowery, tropical jungles, you eventually reach the heart of the mountain, a barren world of frozen stones and silence. Along the way I was enthralled by the mountain and the pilgrims. At any moment there were people praying and sometimes crying with love and devotion.

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PHOTOS: MARTUSHKA FROMEAST

Amazing vistas: Pilgrims travel through flowering meadows on the way to Patar Nachauniya; one of the mountain camps, Bedni Bugyal (according to legend, the Goddess escaped a demon here by submerging Herself in the pond below the shrine); Nanda Devi on Her palanquin.

Being a foreigner and a woman, I was surprised at the warm, loving acceptance I received at each point along the journey. The region’s deeply held respect for women is embodied in the faith and reverence for Nanda Devi in Himalayan lore. These village-to-village experiences of hospitality would repeat themselves with distinction, until finally the yatra reached Wan—the last hamlet accessible by motored vehicles. Here we worshiped at the temple of Latoo Dev­ata, the spiritual brother of the Goddess. He is revered only upon the arrival of Nanda Devi and Her pilgrims. The rest of the year, the temple doors are closed.

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Pilgrims stand with Nanda Devi and one of the four-horned sheep; a map showing the yatra route; a Raj Yatra shawl is held up by a pilgrim.

Leaving Wan, there are two choices: turn around and head home or brace yourself for the treacherous final climb. For their own welfare, pregnant women are asked to not go further than Wan. Beyond this point, articles made of leather are prohibited, for purity’s sake. Musical instruments are left behind, lest the sound start an avalanche. Saying goodbye to the last vestiges of civilization, bold pilgrims continue up the mountain with the Goddess.

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PHOTOS: MARTUSHKA FROMEAST

A sadhu known simply as Babaji stands at the water’s edge of Roopkund lake

High above the tree line is a true no man’s land—a desolate world of swollen rivers, barren cliffs, dangerous, windswept passes and terrifying ice fields. We overnighted at numerous camps. One was Bedni Bugyal, the site of a small man-made lake. From this hilly spot one enjoys a glorious panorama of ridges and peaks, brightly lit by the vivid Himalayan sunlight. We reached Patar Na­chau­ni­ya by passing through a surreal meadow of luminous grasses and rare mountain flowers, out of which arise monoliths of natural stone. Aside from the biting cold, the takeaway from these nightly sojourns was a deep sense of freedom, which comes easily, being so close to the Gods. But there is also fear—a natural fear of being somewhere so remote, unpredictable and dangerous.

Just nights before reaching the famed Roopkund lake, I experienced one of the most difficult points in my journey. At this height, near 16,000 feet, headaches, nausea and acute mountain sickness are common. Suddenly we were hit by soaking rains. Everyone and everything was drenched, including all our clothes, sleeping bags and tents. Only after hours of suffering and shivering to my core did I finally fall asleep. Upon waking the next day, I deeply considered turning back, as I truly felt my life was at risk. But I had come too far. As the stormy clouds cleared through the morning, I knew I must proceed and pressed on toward Roopkund.

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Heights of worship: pilgrims hike up the Path of Death; some of the human remains that surround the lake; a pilgrim blows a sacred conch

Throughout the pilgrimage, I heard stories of this sacred lake, a small body of freezing water with a tragic past. Hundreds of human skeletons litter its shore, with more visible in the shallow depths. Legend tells that the remains—carbon dated at 1,200 years old—are from the retinue of Raja Jas­dhaval, King of Kanauj, and his pregnant wife Rani Balampa, who were on pilgrimage to Nanda Devi shrine with servants, a dance troupe and others. Caught here in a powerful hail storm and then an avalanche of snow and ice, the entire party perished. I found the lake beautiful, but it didn’t feel as sacred to me as the other places we had visited. Admittedly, though, my experience was framed in the light of my recent rain-induced struggles.

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A puja takes place upon reaching Homkund

Leaving the lake, we reached the Path of Death. This craggy trail twists and winds up through dark mists that overhang the cliff sides. In some places the mud was thick and slippery; many pilgrims went barefoot to avoid falling. A long and torturous climb brought us to our goal, Homkund. The sense of accomplishment was overwhelming.

Here the four-horned ram is set free. It is believed he then finds his way to the summit of Mount Trishul, known as Kailash to the locals, leading the spirit of Nanda Devi to Her mountaintop.

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The final steep climb with Nanda Devi up to Homkund

The Hindu religion is unique. Within it one feels so much more connected to nature than in other faiths. There is an overwhelming sense that we are part of the natural world, rather than the rulers of it. I have had a special passion for the Himalayan culture since I was a little girl. My dear uncle instilled it in me by telling stories about the region’s people, how they adapted to the dangerous climate; their trials and adventures and, most importantly, their deep connection to the mountains and rivers. This yatra gave me a powerful first-hand experience of that sacred, auspicious bond.

image Martushka Fromeast is a Polish-born photographer. She graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznan, Poland, and from the Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design in London. She is founder of the Stories From Himalayas project (StoriesFromHimalayas.com) and of Click Academy (ClickAcademy.co.uk), an art group that uses photography as a means of social change.