Amarnath Pilgrimage

India 1975

 

Amarnath is the sacred cave from which Shiva created the world. All Shivaites from India make this pilgrimage at least once in their lives. Every summer, between the full moon of July and that of August, thousands of pilgrims attack the Himalayan peaks with insufficient equipment, if not absent. At 5000m in the eternal snows of the Himalayas, we were in t-shirts and flip-flops!

 

Pahalgam

Five days one way, five days back, from Pahalgam to Amarnath, here is what adventure the friend Gilles leads us, Micha and me. Ten days to roam in these incredible mountains of the Himalayas, without porters, without tent or down mountain, without equipment, barefoot in flip flops, in shorts and t-shirt in the snow with the passage of a pretty collar at 5000 m. We did not know that it was impossible, so we did it. Like hundreds of Indians barely better off than us. All this beautiful world climbs cliffs, crosses névés, bivouac in villages of canvases distributed along the way.

It’s exhausting, often dangerous, always exhilarating. Bom Shankar had me too attracted, I absolutely wanted to see this magical place, at the very end of the course, the famous ice lingam cave where Papa Shiva would have created the world. Gilles was immediately on board. From what I understand, he was ready to return every year in the middle of summer, since it is the only time the high mountains are accessible. In my memory, it remains the highlight of this trip.

 

Aksa Lodge

The encounters are innumerable, incessant. Sometimes exhilarating, even astonishing. I remember this German baba I met in Pahalgam, in a kind of boarding house called Aksa Lodge. I’m afraid it doesn’t exist anymore. This large fellow had very short hair, and on the top of his skull circulated a lacy of bumps the size of a finger, snaking, sometimes shaking to the rhythm of the emotion of the fellow. 

He sat in a lotus, closed his eyes and entered meditation, on the edge of the deep trance. So the most amazing thing happened. The big spaghetti from his skull started to swarm, and an incredible sound came out of his head. A distant, nasal sound. The guy kept his eyes closed, he was far away from us. I stayed a good quarter of an hour to fix the locations of these mowed caterpillars. I was totally captivated by the movements they made and the deep, unreal sound they seemed to emit. I had teased the charras, I admit. Like every day. But as good as it is, this shit is not hallucinogenic.

Another strange, if more trivial memory. The toilet. They were outside, in a small box in disjointed boards. There was a hole in the floor where you could see the rocky ground 30 metres down. The toilet was on the side of a cliff. I hadn’t noticed before I came in, and I was shocked. The advantage was that the smells stayed at the bottom of the cliff, with the rest. But I have to say that doing your needs in these extreme conditions was not obvious…

 

 

Indian style

Indian women have a unique custom in this regard. In the early morning, we see them moving away from the village and in the meadow, sketching a dance step, jumping while turning on themselves. When they fall back on the ground, their sari inflated like a corolla and under this improvised tent, they can modestly relieve their bladder. Or even worse. We can see all these human flowers dotting gracefully the meadow, we would like to applaud their ballet… but we hold back! It is a very poetic show that I still have in my eye after all these years.

The departure of Aksa Lodge marks the beginning of the pilgrimage. We leave civilization to climb into the unknown. It is dawn. Gilles has been shopping for two large bags of seeds and dried fruits that will be our basic menu for the next ten days. You have to walk a good step, because the steps have a fixed length. It is imperative to reach a canvas village every evening, if one does not want to sleep under the stars. And the more you climb, the colder the nights. Especially when you don’t have the right equipment…

The first day of climbing will therefore be rather physical. We only stop for a few minutes every hour. When we have the chance to meet a waterfall, in the shower! And we leave also dry, completely soaked. The sun of India soon dried us.

We gave up the western brief for the one that is traditional here: a simple strip of cotton fabric without hem, which is passed through a belt of the same material. Economical, simple to wash, the only drawback of this typical thong, the cotton strip rolls and fits into the. And that is very unpleasant to me. Anyway. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

 

Where are we from?

Towards evening we arrive at the first stage relay. Several large and comfortable tents are used as hotels. As we are the first to arrive, we are entitled to the honors: curry dinner in Kashmiri masala, chapatis very hot, tea idem, and then under the covers for a well deserved sleep. All for a few rupees. Barely lying down, surprise: expert fingers give us a skull massage! It is included in the accommodation, and I must say that it helps to sleep. We sink with delight in the arms of Morpheus.

 

 

In the morning, chapatis again, and we take the road. We will wash at the first mountain stream. The path is easy to spot: there is only one. Impossible to be wrong. We meet pilgrims who descend towards the valley. At each meeting, we stop, we greet each other at length and questions come up. Always the same. There is one that amuses me a lot: “Where are you from?”

Well we come from Pahalgam. Obviously, like everyone else. It is impossible to come from elsewhere. On this path, one can only go up from Pahalgam, or down from Amarnath. No mystery. Gilles puts me in my place. “Not cool. You make fun of them, Xavier. They ask you what country you’re from. You don’t look like an Indian, and they’re interested. There are people here from all over the world.”

Damn it?! I’m the pretty one in the story. The next meetings will be better. We take the time to sit down, we talk about France, Europe, while circulating the inevitable shilom.

 

– Cabri!

The afternoon of the third day of walking, we are very high in the mountain. On the steep slopes, a kid is chasing his goats. At this altitude? There is no grass, no bush, no tree, we see Kashmiris loaded with fagots and branches to feed the fires of the relays and Amarnath. The rock is bare. Scree, cascading streams of water, and suddenly this little shepherd with his goats. Surreal!

He comes to us. Dressed in rags, I should rather say: undressed. In his hand an orange. He peels it and without hesitation divides it into four. A quarter for Micha, a quarter for Gilles, a quarter for me and the last quarter for him. “You see, Gilles, this kid has nothing of his own. Just this orange. He did not hesitate to share it. This is the hospitality, the true. The one that comes from the heart.” I still think about it today. What a love, this little goat! Am I ready to share everything I have with the first comer?

In Urdu, Gilles asks for his country. He answers: “Cabri” by showing his little herd. I guess he didn’t understand the question. Gilles is wrong. There are three countries that touch here. This child doesn’t know who he belongs to, or who he’s in right now. He doesn’t care. His country is where his goats lead him. Hence his answer, “cabri”.

 

 

The pass that kills

We arrive on a meadow of thick grass that reminds us of alpine pastures. wild horses walk along paths, a whole lacis of narrow paths that they dug by force of passing there. At some intersections, there is a post with a sign written in Hindi. The funniest thing is to see a horse stop in front of the signs, look up as if to read them, and resume its serious path like a pope. I tell myself that it is a village for wild horses. Too beautiful.

On the fourth day, we arrive in the eternal snow zone. They are reduced in this season, the only one of the year where access is practicable. We are still forced to cross a snowfield where our flip flops (!) slide dangerously. We put ourselves barefoot to avoid a fatal fall into the abyss. Gilles announces that we will pass a pass at 5000 meters. Higher than Mont Blanc!

The snow is deep where our bare feet sink. I’m the one who closes the walk. The closer we get to the pass, the harder the climb. I’m behind, and I can’t do anything about it. I’m short of breath. My heart is pounding. My feet weigh a ton, I can’t lift them. My head turns. I fall into the snow. Micha looks at me with a smile. Gilles turns to me. They think I’m messing around, as I often do. But no, I’m really on the verge of syncopation.

 

Ants

When I see their happy face, the devil of the joke takes me back despite my discomfort. Belly down in the snow, I extend my arm towards them and I exclaim: “Abandon me there, I delay your walk!” For years I wanted to say this. I am happy with myself. They retrace their steps, surround me with loving care. I drink a drink, I nibble some cashew seeds.

Morale is back. But they will help me to cross the pass. As soon as we descend on the other side, I find my shape intact. They don’t seem to have suffered at all. I get it: I’ve just reached my altitude limit. We all have one. Mine is at 5000 meters. Fortunately the hardest is done: Amarnath peaks at (only!) 4500 meters.

What magnificent mountains!  We just crossed a pass at 5000m — so higher than the highest point of the Alps, the Mont Blanc and its 4807m. Passing this pass, peaks still dominated us by 3000 meters. The impression of immensity is indescribable. It also reinforces the feeling of our smallness. In these bewildering expanses, human beings are like ants on Mont Saint Michel.

The next night, we slept too well. The next day, departure at dawn, Amarnath is waiting for us!

 

Amarnath, Shiwa Baba Cave, India 1975

 

A tiny herd

The final step is like a dream, and it is. We were expecting a surprise that would make me forget this pass that I had so much trouble crossing. I prefer altitude in astral!

We tore ourselves out of our diapers just before sunrise. Like every morning, we are the first to leave the canvas village. The path – the raidillon I should say – is deserted at this hour. Yet on the other side I see a tiny herd of goats no bigger than an insect. Without their wanderings, I would not have noticed them. There, behind them, trots a goatherd. Our friend from the other day? It’s possible. As the crow flies, he’s a mile away. But if we had to join him, it would take us all day.

 

– At least two days of walking, you mean, correct Gilles. Did you see the depth of that throat?
Indeed, the rift that separates us tumbles to a narrow valley that should be reached at the risk of our lives before climbing the cliff opposite. How do these kids? They have the same agility as their goats, and like them, do not know vertigo.

– Maybe he’s not in India anymore. The border has to go through here, I don’t know where.
A bunch of borders, actually. That of China in the north, that of Afghanistan in the west and between the two that of the USSR – today that of Tajikistan. Pakistan can even be added to the southwest. Farther east, the Nepalese border. As you can imagine, this crossroads in the high mountains is the place of all the contraband.

 

Mao’s Red Guards

Two days ago, we met a troop of Red Guards. They detailed us without convenience, gun in hand, face closed, and left without a word. Gilles pointed out that they crossed the Indian border illegally. But legality is the least of their concerns. Their priority is to track down political smugglers and refugees fleeing the divine regime of Mao Tse Tung.

I know I should write and say Mao Zedong or Mao Ze Crazy but it feels good and I do what I like. So I will call him Mao How? Micha and I had just stayed in Macau, Portuguese China. It had only Portuguese names, led as it was by a representative of the CCP —  Chinese Communist Party. In hand, of course, but without hiding the least.

Every time the Portuguese governor of the peninsula had to make a decision, he turned to the Chinese all dressed in black who never left him with a single step. After a brief talk, the Portuguese announced the decision — not of Lisbon, but of Beijing. And everyone found what needed.

 

Prasad

We’re making a good start. Gilles announces a break. He unpacks a new bag of seeds, and we peck with the blissful satisfaction of three farm chickens. The show is magnificent. Gilles chose the place of the halt well.

With a magician’s gesture, he religiously hands us three pils of acid to magnify our salvation to Shiva. We swallow them without hesitation. Then he shoots out of his bag several small squares of silk that he spreads on the rock cleared of all dirt. Then he pours a nice pile of seeds and nuts into each square. Micha and I observe it with interest and curiosity. What is it?

Gilles makes his mysterious for a few more moments, the time to carefully tie each small package. He gives one to Micha, who takes it as a Eucharist. Then he gives me another and pockets the last.

He finally deigns to explain. “We will soon climb the stairs that lead to the sacred cave. Up there is a sadhu whose role is to keep the lingam sacred. The custom is to give him prasad: a food offering, because it is rare at this altitude. Without the offerings of the pilgrims, the sadhus who watch over Amarnath would soon be without resources.”

Giving these offerings is a widespread custom. It is called “making prasad“. Offering a present. For the saddhus who watch over the sacred cave, prasad is vital. And for pilgrims, prasad freely consented attracts blessings. And we need it on these uncertain slopes.

 

Amarnath, Shiwa Baba cave, India 1975

 

The king of gongs

Of course. Everything that is eaten, drunk or burned here must necessarily come from Pahalgam, after a five-day climb, exactly as we did.

Pahalgam. A serene haven in the Himalayas, say the tourist ads. It’s beautiful as hell.

We sit at the foot of the endless staircase cut out of the rock and lost in the light mist. There, the wonder awaits us. We have no particular hurry to climb to the cave. We spend long moments chatting with a nice sadhu who maintains a welcome fire. He carefully scratches the embers that cover a large log. They fall as they sizzle, and while he rests the log on them, his fire starts again.

The divine moment was born. On a hill that in Vézelay would be called Montjoie, the delirious effects of the acid and the place are felt and I sit. Micha imitates me at once. Gilles got a little ahead. He retraces his steps by sketching entrechats and near us sits, enigmatic baba.

In front of us, the cave dominates a valley. At that time, there was no canvas village there today. Just the line of pilgrims winnowed by the days of walking and who find wings feeling the arrival.

A gong resonates, at length, powerfully. Gilles explains. Each time a pilgrim reaches the cave and touches the lingam, a sadhu strikes the gong that resonates throughout the valley.

This one makes an exceptional size, to wonder by what superhuman efforts he could be hoisted into the cave by a slippery staircase with steps carved in the cliff. But we’re not there yet.

 

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

To our right, an endless cliff rises to the sky. And in the torments of the rock, all three of us together, we see figures of stone, finely carved, adorably sexy, dancing gracefully waving their supple bodies and their beautiful, loose limbs.

Transported we are. In ecstasy. Hallucinations are intensifying. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds…

I take out my backpack the camera that has not left me. And I film this breathtaking show. The whole mountain is a sculpture, a tantric work of art, the facade of a temple dedicated to love, coitus, orgasm, Shiva. I filmed long minutes in the giggles and cries of admiration of Gilles and Micha.

Long after, back in France, we watched the film. You can’t film an acid trip. You got to remember. The film acts like a reminder, and sometimes, when the mood lends itself to it, we can have acid rises. There I see again these splendid bodies, these erotic dances, and in the silence of age, I remember. My assembly point has got to the position it was then.

We will finally go up the stairs, somewhat dizzying I admit, but we have nothing without nothing. Prodigious combination of exaltation and physical exertion as we begin the final ascent to Shiwa Baba – I write Shiwa to speak as Bom Shankar.

Dear Papa Shiv! Blessed as his cave, lingam in the yoni as phallus in the cave. How can we create the world other than by mating? And how can mating not be divine? Happiness of the tops, drunkenness decimates. Lucy is Stone with Diamonds dream.

 

 

We have overcome the last climb, the great staircase cut into the rock, and the gong up there that greets the end of our journey to Shiva. The emotion was great. One after the other, we gave the prashadoffering to the sadhu keeper. And one after the other, we touched the ice lingam, stalagmite with evocative forms, symbol and real presence of Shiva creator, father of all the gods of India and the rest of the world.

Farewell Shiwah Baba! I have never loved such a god. So strong. So sweet. Fucking crazy memory.

 

It was India

The text you just read is from a series of articles about my discovery of India half a century ago.

 

Be back soon!

 

If Christianity had been stopped in its growth by some deadly disease, the world would be mithrasic.
Ernest Renan