Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The toughest pilgrimage - climbing Parasnath

I was late starting. I'd got up at six, was checked into a dharamshala in Parasnath by eight, on my way up the mountain by nine; but that was still late. Some people start at five, just as the sky begins to lighten a little before sunrise; others start at four, even three-thirty.

Breakfast was a packet of biscuits and orange juice. Then up the street between white marble and red sandstone temples, dhabas selling samosas and shops selling walking sticks and toeless, heel-less socks, to a place where a gate opened on to the forest and a steeper slope.

That's the way you start your pilgrimage. Others were still going up; two naked Digamber Jains, burnt brown as conkers by the sun, passed me, one walking and carrying a huge peacock feather fan, the other sitting in a litter slung between two bearers who kept time with their sticks tapping on the path, tick, tick, tick.
(He was frowning furiously. I don't know what it is about Jains; some are very charming people, but there's one in ten who looks at the world from behind a scowl. I noticed most of the dholi-borne were scowling, though some weren't – one resplendent gentleman in white asked me 'How are you enjoying?' and smiled to show that he, at least, was enjoying – while the walkers seemed happier.)

It was still cool morning, slightly misty, the path shaded by tall trees. The first three kilometres went quickly. I'd already climbed the little hill I'd seen from the village. Ahead, the path kept going, winding, corkscrewing back on itself, climbing.

Either side, teahouses. Perhaps that's too dignified a name for them; they're just rough shacks made of untrimmed branches, black plastic sheet, leftover oil tins and woven plastic rice sacks, whatever was spare at the time. Sometimes there's one at a bend in the track, or a scatter of them where the path descends to cross a ravine. Not all will be open; but flat-topped mud walls, or huge rough planks, polished and cracked and sagging with age, offer the chance of a rest, with or without chai, tea, mineral water, or juice.

The sun ascends the sky fast in India; by ten it's almost directly overhead. The day heated up; as the trees grew sparser, higher up the slopes, sweat started to sting my eyes. The gradient was relentless; deep enough to test the hamstrings but not deep enough for real climbing, and with a camber that had me staggering sideways as I my legs tired.

Still the hills were misty; the views suggestive but blurred. High up, I'd caught sight of the temples; but I seemed to be between mountain peaks – to the left, one white spire topped a mountain; to the right, another spire; and another, further ahead. Among the confusion of smaller temples, though, one dominated the rest; it seemed so high I'd never make it.

An Indian lady passing on her way down had already warned me; "You need to start back by two o'clock. Three hours you need to get down the mountain, even quick quick. Three or four hours." We chatted for a little while before she moved on, and as she left she shouted back at me: "Remember – two o'clock." 

Now it was getting towards two, and that white spire seemed as far above me as ever. Tears came to my eyes and I thought well, let's at least get the crying over with, and found a little corner of a wall where I could sob quietly for a couple of minutes without anyone noticing.

A couple of minutes later I met a lovely family from the US – sister, brother, auntie, and Dad, who had flown over specifically for the pilgrimage day; the older members of the family in litters, the younger pair walking, brother resplendent in white and gold, but barefoot – "so Dad can't say young people have it too easy these days," he said, without rancour. I've forgotten their names, but not the encouragement they gave me. Without that, I doubt I'd have reached the top. I chatted with the girl – just moved to San Francisco after years on the east coast, and loving it.

"You know you can get a massage afterwards?" she said.

I wondered if this was the kind of massage I was always being offered by dubious looking Nepali men I bumped into.

"No, the dharamshalas offer it as part of the service. Ladies get a lady masseur, men get a man, really helps you recover."

(When I got back to the dharamshala a lady did in fact offer me massage, but I was simply too tired to take up the offer.)

I missed out the penultimate shrine – I wasn't following the map, had in fact missed out two of the routes that loop off the main climb to visit other hilltops. I was beginning to see, by now, how the paths were laid out below; connecting each foothill, each subsidiary peak. This isn't a simple up-there-and-back-again pilgrimage like climbing Everest; it's a whole sacred landscape, a gradual and graduated progress. (I regret, now, I didn't stay a few more days and do it again, the proper way.)

Slowly, painfully, stopping every hundred yards or so for a quick breather, I grappled with the way. At last, I was at the bottom of the tiled stairs that led the final fifty yards steeply up to the temple. A banister to cling to, at last. Shoes off; the tiles cool on my feet, even though the sun had been beating down on them for hours. And into the shrine; surprisingly simple, surprisingly dark, surprisingly empty.

At last, from here, I could see the mountain spread out below. Heat haze hid the Bihari plains, but there were the five great peaks, temple-topped, linked by white meanders and wriggles of path, and below that the wooded foothills, misty and dark. The shrine where I'd met that family fifteen minutes ago seemed miles below, tiny; the furthest shrines so far that it seemed impossible I'd passed them the same day. It was a little like looking down on the horseshoe of the Tayside Munros from Ben Lawers, but it seemed higher; the temples, perhaps, make everything seem further away just by giving it a scale by which you can judge.

India isn't blessed with many mountains, outside the Himalayas. The Ganges basin is flat, wretchedly, interminably flat, except where rivers have carved their way through the layers of soil, or where little fists and nuggets of rock thrust up out of the interminably flat plain. But no real mountains. And yet here, at Parasnath, there's a 1,000 metre mountain bursting out of the level. No wonder it's held to be sacred.

The way down was much easier, which isn't always the case. I went swinging along, followed by two inquisitive dogs who stayed with me most of the way to the bottom. (A glass of sugar cane juice just below the summit had restored my optimism, if not my knees, which continued to groan and hiss and complain.) I chatted to a couple of Delhi girls; one on her fourth pilgrimage here.

"And you know," she said, "some people do it eleven times."

"In their lives?"

"No, they stay here two weeks and climb the mountain every day for eleven days."

Horrible thought. (I did climb again the next day, but only as far as the first temples, just 3 km in, and even then it was hard enough.)

Then there was the noisy great group of pilgrims who decided to take the steep, rocky, dusty short cut rather than the easy curve of the path. I was going easily now, in big swinging strides, and reached the bottom of the slide before they did.
"Short cut!" I yelled. They laughed. We were all in good humour now, just one or two kilometres from home and a hot shower and food and bed.

When I got back, though, I'd lost my appetite. I couldn't find anything that wasn't fried - samosas, puris, pakoras – and my stomach writhed at the thought. In the end I grabbed a couple of samosas and had my friend the juice man (for some reason, I always manage to make friends with a juice man) package up the flesh from a green coconut after I drank the milk. I slept a bit first, dragging an extra mattress on to the bed in the dharamshala; about ten, I woke up, ate the pastry off the samosas and most of the coconut, and went back to sleep.

I ended thoroughly worn out, mentally and physically. A wreck. I'd lost my appetite completely – could just about dare to think of melon sorbet or elderflower cordial, certainly not eat puri subji for breakfast; I wouldn't find my appetite again till three days later, in Allahabad Station, I found some dahi wada (dumplings in yogurt with sweet-sour tamarind sauce). My legs were tense, my muscles tight as bunches of stretched elastic bands, and my back ached. I might have wondered why I'd put myself through all this.

But I didn't. There was something about Parasnath – the quiet of the forest, the chance to meet Indian pilgrims on the path, the obvious enjoyment of so many of them – that impressed me, in a way more obvious tourist sights like the Taj Mahal haven't. Whether or not I could say at the time that I was 'enjoying', it is a day I'll never forget.

The meaning of a hill – a few thoughts
There's something qualitatively different, I think, in the way different religions approach the hill. Its meaning shifts and changes.

Hindu temples are often built on hills; the whole landscape of Orchha is dominated by hill temples – the immense bulk of Chaterbuj temple, the smaller hilltop temples just outside the town – and the temples of Khajuraho are built on their own artificial mounds, up steep steps, so that you have to crick your neck as you approach to see the sanctuary doors.

But every Hindu temple is its own hill, an imitation of Mount Meru, the hill at the centre of the world-mandala. Its spire is a hill, its sanctuary is a cave. It doesn't really matter if the temple is on a hill, an island, on the flat; it is the world-mountain in little. And while a pilgrimage may climb steps up to the temple, that's just the nature of where the temple is; it doesn't seem to be part and parcel of the experience.

The Jains on the other hand seem to seek out hills; Parasnath, Girnar, Mount Abu. There's something ascetic in the religion which demands the hard work of climbing; and perhaps, too, something about purity that demands the thinner, clearer mountain air.

Christianity has its hill temples too. I remember as a child cross-country running up Glastonbury Tor, with its tower on top the only remains of St Michael's sanctuary, and the views across the Somerset Levels. It's almost always St Michael who gets hilltop dedications – at Sacra San Michele in Piedmont, at St Michael's Mount and Mont Saint Michel, at the Gargano shrine (a cave below a hill) - Michael the archangel, a fiery vision, a protector. Some people think he took over from an autochthonous snake deity or sun god, the same god as Delphic Apollo. But these hilltop shrines don't seem to fit a single pattern, and there doesn't seem to be a single Christian practice of hilltop pilgrimage; it's only Munroists, in Britain, who make the hills their focus of worship. (If you think Munroism isn't a religion, you haven't met enough Munro-baggers.)

And there are also hill-top Calvaries, like the Calvary steps in Rijeka, built in the seventeenth century by the Jesuits; the recreation of the way to the Cross was part of Ignatian spiritual practice, that used meditation on the life of Christ as a way to salvation, and in Central and Eastern Europe such monuments use the physical effort of ascent to make the worshipper share the experience of Christ - they are not merely a passive device like the Stations of the Cross in a church. By following the ascent, the worshipper is brought into sympathy with Christ's sufferings; the hill becomes not a symbol but a re-creation of the original Calvary.

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