The atheists may disagree, the sceptics may frown but there are moments in our lives when we feel closer to The Divine. For what a rationalist would call an “AHA” moment, they come mostly serendipitously and for other instances they have to be planned … yes much like the vacations and getaways!
It was the usual sweltering summers in Kolkata and we were just too exhausted of the daily drills. And thus the conception of Gurudongmar begun. A bit of Google, a bit of Books a lot of advice from friends and aquantainces , we were ready to dust off the dirt and grime of city life. But the trip turned out to be more… more than just a trip to the”hills”, more than just monasteries or cute local kids. The journey to Gurudongmar and back turned out to be our brush with divinity, our “aha” moment.
We set out from Gangtok early in the morning- and were duly warned by our driver, Prem Pa, that getting to see the Lake was a matter of sheer luck. We already had heard it countless times, when we made the travel arrangements, and had decided the risk may be worth it. After all, climbing 17800 feet was not going to be a smooth ride.
It was a ten hour drive to Lachen, with two stops for refreshments. The roads were not good, to say the least, and the bumpy rides meant we had some sore body parts when we reached our homestay at night. Lachen was a small village, with almost every home taking in tourists. Around twenty houses, two tea stalls, the army outpost- that was about it.
We were there just for the night, but still could not help but feel fascinated by the life in this small hilly village. There was a light drizzle going on, and we were praying that it won’t worsen. The road from Lachen was at the mercy of the weather Gods, and the army didn’t permit civilian vehicles to go through if there was the slightest sign of an impending change in the climate.
After dinner, we had a chat with our hotel owner, who also masqueraded as our chef. He had been a footballer, before venturing out into this business, and had even played for East Bengal a few years back.
“Have you heard of the Hand of God?” he asked us.
“Of course, who hasn’t. Maradona’s (dis)reputable claim to fame, say his detractors!”
“Nah! I am talking of a different God here.”
He had us hooked.
“It is said that when Guru Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche) had visited the Gurudongma Lake in the eighth century AD, the locals had appealed to Him to provide them with a source of drinking water during the winter months. He is then said to have touched the water with his hand, thus making the lake immune from freezing, even in the sub-zero temperaures. Ever since, this had been a holy place for the Buddhists, and the water of the lake is considered sacred.”
So now we knew why the Lake was a place of worship. And we had one more reason to look forward to visiting it.
Next morning we got up pretty early. 4 Am to be precise. We had not slept much. The excitement and apprehension was too much to let us doze off- we had kept a close ear out for the sound of raindrops on our roof- lest it might worsen and wash away our hopes of making it up to the lake.
Our driver seemed upbeat though- which lifted our spirits. We took our breakfast with us, and with trembling hands (read: excitement and the biting chill in the air) we set out on the mission.
Our first stop was Thangu. The road was made out of rocks mostly, broken down at places where signs of landslides were pretty apparent. On the way we even encountered a stranded trekker, whose wheel axel had broken down. “You shouldn’t carry too many tourists in one vehicle”, was what Prem told us. Thank God we were travelling light.
After a breakfast of Maggi and eggs we were ready for the final part of our journey. And boy! Little did we know it was going to be one hell of a ride. We were about to experience that sort of a journey which has a lasting impact on both our bodies and minds.
Two hours later we reached the final check-post. We had to get down for a short interview with the army, after which we were given our permits. The area was bustling with uniformed men, going around their business with serious faces-the atmosphere looked far from a tourist spot.
We stumbled upon an army canteen, where we got some good advice on how to survive the extremes of conditions we were about to experience. “Take deep breaths, do not walk briskly, take one step at a time”- we felt like little kids getting trekking tips on the first day of training! People with breathing troubles or other chronic disorders were strictly prohibited from going past that point.
The next two hours proved exhilarating. It was a terrain we couldn’t have imagined in our wildest dreams. Completely flat on most parts, rocky on the rest, the horizon interspersed with snow caped peaks and clouds, roads covered with scattered specks of snow- reflecting blinding light into our eyes- it was like from some sci-fi movie on another planet. Horses running freely beside the roads, and army patrols from time to time were what reminded us we were still on planet earth.
The border with China was just round the corner, which explained the heightened security and the presence of numerous tanks and anti-aircraft missiles. The army had built special bunkers to withstand the hostile environment, as these posts had to be manned round the year.
We stopped multiple times and took a walk on the “road”- if you could call it that. It was mostly a part of the rugged land, flattened out by the army bulldozers to make way for quick transportation. We could feel the ice cold breeze on our faces, as we walked on the frozen snow, with the sun shining brightly on our heads. The winds were strong, and we had to take care not to let our scarves loose.
With increasing altitude, we could feel our breaths becoming heavy. Even a few steps made us pant. We had traveled for two hours when suddenly the road in-front came to an abrupt halt- and we were stunned by what lay ahead of us.
Amidst the snow-capped mountains and the frozen landscape, there lay a lake, filled with water so blue that we thought it was the sky getting reflected in a mirror. Not a speck of snow could be seen in the water.
We stood looking at the scene spellbound, too overwhelmed to speak. There was something in it all that was beyond reasons, explanations or descriptions.
There was a steep staircase leading down to the lake. We were skeptical if we could make it back up. But if we had come this far, it was our destiny to go down and touch the water, we told ourselves. The walk down was uneventful. It was when we tried to bend down and touch the water, when we gasped for air. Our lungs were bursting out, calling for air, and our heads were throbbing with pain. The only thing that kept us glued to the spot was what we saw in-front of us- the perfect reflection of the landscape in the lake. We couldn’t tell which was the real image and which was the reflection. But that illusion lasted for hardly fifteen minutes, before there was a change in the intensity of sunlight, and the image blurred.
We touched the water with our fingers, and built small towers with the pebbles. Whatever you pray thus, comes true- went the ancient Buddhist saying.
The climb up was an unending task. We could only climb two three steps at a time- panting for breath each time we took a step up. And when we had managed to scale the hundred steps, we felt like fishes out of water.
Ten minutes is what it took to regain our composure.
The wind intensity had increased and the flags were flapping like crazy now. We visited a temple beside the lake to offer our prayers. By that time the other tourists had started clearing off, and we were issued a warning that the conditions were about to worsen. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we came outside the temple and saw the jeeps trembling in the wind!
The ride back to the check-post was spent in silence. We couldn’t believe we had seen what we had, and we kept pinching us to make us believe it was for real. We tried to blink as little as possible- lest we missed a split second of that experience that was unfolding in-front of our eyes. It was actually something to be felt with all the senses, but above all with our minds.
It was a journey that was more ……more than what we could expect or define. Such was Gurudongmar, etched in us forever.
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Archya, is trying his hand at prescribing medicines, and when he is not, he takes time off to pen down his thoughts on his travels and on umm..anything but medicine.
For his other articles on Blong…Shong, Click Here
(This article has been written in collaboration with Devlina Talapatra,who, in her own words, is “Just another Bengali woman proud of her Rabindrasangeet and Rosogolla roots ….. a psychiatry resident, still picking up the shells on the Freudian shore !”
For her other articles on Blong…Shong, Click Here)