Sleep deserted me last night. Partly because of the excitement, partly because of tension around whether we can successfully pull off the journey to Kedarnath and finally because of the roaring sound of Mandakini flowing under the balcony of our room. When we got ready to start, it was still dark. The walk to the pony stand from the inn was a narrow lane through the maze of the hotels, inns and shops of GauriKund. We were clad with whatever warm clothes we’ve brought but still the cold outside was biting and this was still 14 km before Kedarnath.
After some bargain, three ponies were slated for us. To board them, we had to ascend some stairs to an elevated platform to get to the same level of their backs. With some difficulty, my mother managed to sit on the saddle of her pony and local boys helped her to sneak in her feet in the metallic slots that hung from the saddle on both sides. Once she was settled, me and my father repeated the steps for our respective ponies. A look at my mother quickly revealed that she was not at all comfortable and looked very tense. Her entire attention was focussed at her pony. We started off just as when the morning light started to come out. After sometime came the first shock. Till now, each pony had a person by its side, but now only one boy remained who was supposed to control three ponies all the way to Kedarnath. That sent shivers down the spine. It was a narrow path and the ponies moved along the edge beyond which there was a steep slope that went straight down to the gorge of the river Mandakini. The fact that all three of the ponies were tied to each other by a rope didn’t give much comfort. As they went around the bends, they came precariously close to the edge. The fast flowing Mandakini thundered down the gorge in the form of roaring rapids. It must have been a magnificent sight, but frankly, beauty did not even figure in our minds. The trail was laden with dung of ponies and every now and then, their hooves skidded on such piles. The morning mist, the smell of the fresh morning dew from dense forest in the valley and the aroma of dung piles all mixed to form an atmosphere which was refreshing (yes, even with the smell of dung). Our ponies formed a line with my mother at the start of it, followed by my father and I at the end. The local boy was at the front carrying the leading end of the rope that tied all three. I missed enjoying the beauty of the initial journey as all my attention was on the ponies. Our bodies danced in the rhythm generated by the steps of the ponies. Every now and then we crossed with the ponies coming down the mountain from the other side and with carriages carried by humans (dandi, as they’re called in this part of the world). In these mountain roads, such crossings weren’t very pleasant as there wasn’t much room to spare. To allow passage, someone had to step aside (usually one tries to be on the side of the mountain wall, but at times we got forced to the edge). My constant vigil on ponies wasn’t letting me enjoy the beauty at our disposal and I tried to force my attention towards it. After all, this is what we were here for. Gradually, I got used to the situation and was able to turn my attention away into the wilds of nature. The thick dense forest was interspersed with thundering waterfalls every now and then which came down the slopes. A batch of four persons carrying a dandi were coming down the path from the opposite side. I was worth watching their steps, which looked like a march with all of their steps harmonized like a tuned musical instrument. This was very crucial to keep balance of the carriages in these roller coaster trails, which carried a human being. As the carriage approached us, I suddenly saw that my mother slid from the saddle and she almost fell from it. The boy immediately rushed to her help and prevented the fall just in time. She was crying like a child. Later, it transpired that the carriage collided with her pony and that imbalanced her. This incident had a lasting impact on her for the rest of the journey and she could never turn her focus away from the path or the pony.
After 7 km from GauriKund, we reached Ramwara. Just before reaching the place, we had to cross a place where the path was very narrow, filled with boulders with water flowing over it. The ponies had to jump from one boulder to another carrying us on their top. Every step appeared to be dodgy and a slip from there could have landed us straight into the laps of Mandakini. We had our lunch at Ramwara while ponies were given their share of grams. Apart from food, our bodies too got a chance to relax as it was very painful sitting on the saddle. Our journey resumed after lunch and now the path started to spiral upwards. The hairpin bends increased in frequency as the trail moved up. People of all age group were on this path – right from child on the backs of porters to the elderly and differently abled. Some of them were treading on foot wrenching their backs to scale these tiring slopes with the hope of reaching the shrine. In search of what? What has made thousands of them toil over the ages to these shrines? Is it the wish to rid their sins in life? Is it the wish to reach heavens beyond this earthly life?
Trees had declined in numbers, giving way to shrubs and bushes. After Garur chatti, the last inn before Kedarnath, the last trace of green disappeared from the mountains. We were now into the land of moraines and slopes with striated with patches of snow. As we crossed a bend, we were greeted with the sight of the Kedarnath shrine at the backdrop of the Kedarnath and Kedar Dome peaks. The afternoon sun showered its fading rays on the Kedarnath peak. We crossed the bridge over Mandakini to reach the Kedarnath town. The Kedarnath shrine was at the center with hotels and inns surrounding it. The place looked like an amphitheater surrounded by mighty peaks on all sides. The temple had a simple structure with the idol of Nandi (the bull) in front of it.
We arrived at the Bharat Sevashram Sangha and went to our allotted rooms to relax for sometime. In the afternoon, the bells of the temple resonated amongst the mountains. The fading sun showered its rays on the temple and turned the peaks of Kedarnath and Kedar Dome into crimson and then gradually faded away. Temperatures plummeted as darkness hovered over the town.
We offered puja at the shrine and went into our rooms. At about 7 PM, we were told that dinner had been served but we didn’t even heed to that. We were already into our beds, wrapped in multiple blankets. It was so cold that the blankets felt like they were drenched with water. The tiring journey on the ponies and cold made us fast asleep.