I met Ritu and his friends while climbing Girnar Hill, the Hill of 10,000 Steps, in Gujarat. Girnar Hill is a famous pilgrimage site. It is about 1110 meters high and topped by a number of temples, with a Jain temple situated a little bit lower, at about 7000 steps. There is something bombastic and challenging about Girnar Hill. 10,000 steps? Who wants to climb 10,000 steps and back in one day?
Well, I do, so just before dawn a riksha takes me to the bottom of the steps. It is chilly, but low temperatures are a blessing on such a trip. The driver is swaddled in a rag to keep him warm. His teeth clatter. So do mine. I start thinking of my own people, of the reasons Austrians or Europeans might have to climb such a hill. Being devoid of most religious sentiment, we can only start by seeing it as a sport-like challenge…but for me there is something else as well. I have been dreaming about the place, long dreams about climbing endless stairs and the stairs have begun to show up in the drawings I do daily. For me there is something mystic about it and I begin to think about how the Indians approach such a climb. I cannot number one god for every step that I take, I even have troubles with the basic concept of divinity and here I am in a world that is steeped in it. I smile patronizingly about the various Western “truth-seekers” that I meet from time to time and who come here for markedly “spiritual” trips (often translating as “ganja whenever you want it and no authorities” )…but the idea of spirituality is unmistakable. Has it snuck up on me? No, it can’t…it is here all the time. Sneaking is something decidedly un-Indian. It would ring a loud bell or shout at me. I’m about to climb a holy mountain and while the mountain may come to Mohammed, I’m sure it makes a whole lot of noise while it does. So I am safe from sneakers. But what about the obvious?
I realize that the very idea of a holy mountain is staggering to me, defies to be grasped by any sort of rationality. I do what everyone here seems to do when confronted by sheer irrationality: I shrug, chose a god to say some prayer to (Odin, who I have always liked – after all he’s the god of travelers) and race in headlong.
The mundane and the divine go hand in hand – look, the steps up the hill are lined with shops! It’s early so not all of them are opened yet. Those that are hold lonely figures swathed and swaddled in layers of clothing and the shops themselves are lit by a few candles. They sell Prasad, offerings to the gods; brightly coloured flowers, coloured powders, little tasteless rice puffs and pin-point heads coated with gold, silver or sugar, fragrant garlands in orange and yellow that one can hang around the necks of statues. They also sell more prosaic stuff – water bottles, chocolate, namkeen (tasty snacks). Other shops are still dark, the counters turned into makeshift beds where the proprietors sleep like corpses, clothed in white linen. Later, as I climb higher, it becomes clear to me that many of the shopkeeper live in their little shops…they sleep in there and, given the number of steps they have to climb up and down, they probably leave them only when necessary. It is certainly not the worst kind of life – shopkeeper on a sacred hill – but how do they live there? What about their families? (some shops are run by a number of people, women and children included) Who carries their goods up the hill?
I didn’t pause to find answers to those questions because climbing up steps is a consuming task. After a while one falls into a rhythm and that rhythm can be improved all the time. Watch out that you take one step with the left leg and the next one with the right or your knees will start to hurt. If you can take a stair in one step, perfect, otherwise you have to devise a pattern to put equal weight on both knees. The mind is engaged, one tries to keep oneself motivated, begins to trick oneself by saying “Look, a hundred more steps, then I’ll take a break…hundred more steps…ten more steps…one more step…oh, you know, let’s make it another hundred” and so on.
I cannot pause long enough to admire the landscape for fear of taking too long a pause, but the higher I climb the more breathtaking it becomes. I slowly clear the smaller overgrown hills and can see the sprawling villages surrounding them. There are other, smaller hills, topped by other, smaller temples (“Hills of 3,000 steps, hills of 5,000” steps says a small, exhausted and sarcastic voice inside my head). I am ambitious when it comes to climbing hills and mountains, so the people I started out with are soon left behind.
Before my climb I found out that you can actually climb Girnar without ever setting foot on one step. You can hire porters who will put you on a little wooden seat tied to a long pole and on this seat they will carry you up and down without ever complaining. You pay accordingly to your weight and so you will be weighed publicly and, I imagine, ceremonially before your trip. I was hoping that I would see some people being carried, but the carriers start their work later in the day, so I have to wait until I climb down again.
Later, higher up, a group of young men catches up with me. I don’t want to talk. I want to climb. But they are chatty and so I answer their questions evasively at first. But they are persistent. One has a piece of lemon that he sucks of when he feels exhausted. He is small and slender with a fine and noble face. A good-looking and charismatic man, a little younger than me. He smiles easily and acts assured. This is Ritu. Ritu is the leader of the group. They number about ten, all of them boys around twenty. Most of them are engineering students in nearby Allahabad. Only of them has chosen a different field of study. He’s going to be an Ayurvedic doctor and he has to endure some gentle ribbing from his engineer friends. They take turn asking me questions, but there is respect and restraint about their questions. Soon I find myself caught up in their interest, their manner of talking, their quick and friendly spirits. They are from Junagadh, where my guest house is. They have lived in the area since they were boys and they quickly offer to show me around. They point out, while we are walking, all the different things that we can see. Sasan Gir. Have I seen Sasan Gir? There are lions in Sasan Gir! Have I seen wild animals? Have I been to the forest? Will I visit them at their houses?
They are exuberant and curious. After a while it is very good to have someone to talk to and to point out things to me. We exchange compliments and observations, goad each other on when we get tired, pass the first temple, the Jain temple (“7,000 steps”, we sigh) and finally reach the top of the hill…
Having reached the top the first thing I felt was how strangely energized I was by the walk up the steps. I couldn’t have stopped and stood still even if I wanted it. On the top, I saw now, there was not a single and huge temple complex like the Jain temple, situated a little lower, which we had passed a while ago. There were small temples, almost like huts, some on rocky spires that stood against the clouds and made them seem like miraculous castles out of some deeply strange and affecting fantasy.
One thing, something that I had never seen before, was the way the sun, which had risen while I was climbing the stairs, illuminated the clouds around the hill. For some atmospheric reason it looked like a halo of light surrounding the entire hill. The lower parts of the clouds were dark, but the upper parts where they slowly vanished to show a light blue sky were brightly lit. Halos of light? Temples on top of rocky spires? I was pulled ahead by my wish to explore more of this miraculous place.
The first temple I passed was a temple dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god. There were a few pilgrims sitting around the temple – in fact there was a surprising number of people, men, women and even children, already at the top which made me think that they must have climbed up her during the night. If a place is called holy, it is never left alone.
I met two elderly men who greeted me with surprising friendliness and patted me on the back and one of them showed me his rosary which held attached to it an image of Osho, one rather controversial spiritual master who had founded the Pune commune and who held the belief that sex is the best way to spiritual development and enlightenment. We said goodbye and I moved on. There were more steps, but now they led down. I felt truly removed from everything else, as if by climbing these steps I had found some lost magical kingdom and now I could wander around here for as long as I pleased. Ritu and his friends were next to me one moment, gone the next. We chatted freely and joyfully.
I noticed stones painted in bright acrylic orange with two little stones painted like eyes glued to them. They were everywhere. They represent Ganesh, the elephant headed god, as I found out later. Little representations meant to remind you that the divine is watching from every place.
I climbed up to the temple that I had seen first, the one I had seen outlined against the clouds. It was a small temple, the highest point of Girnar hill and when I stood before its open doors I could see in every direction of the compass. Rivers, forested hills, villages. Everything lay spread out before my eyes.
Soon I was driven inside the temple by the throng of people pressing up to it. There were three priests inside the temple. One sat next to a divine image observing the worshippers. I had no idea what to do so I studied the people who sat down in front of the image before me. This gave me very few clues since most of them simply sat in front of it and then supplicated themselves to the image. Then they moved off, moved around clockwise in the temple room and then, upon leaving it, they rang a bell. When my turn came I sat down in front of the image and got up again. The priest called me back. “You didn’t do it right,” he told me in English. “Sit down and relax.” I crossed my legs, breathed a few times. “And now you bow down.” I did, touching the cool stone with my forehead. He seemed satisfied, so I put a few rupees next to the image as a ritual gift and moved off. I reached the bell and another priest who was sitting right underneath the bell, an expression of absolute bliss on his face. I was puzzled for a moment, apparently long enough for the first priest to turn and tell me, “You ring it, as loud as you can.” I nodded and rang the bell, moved outside of the temple, slightly stunned and dazed.
The cool air outside refreshed me and I climbed down again, made my way back to the temple of Hanuman where I hoped to meet Ritu and the others again. On the way I met some men from Rajasthan, a desert region, who invited me to sit down with them and share a bit of their food. They gave me cooked flour mixed with spices. We couldn’t communicate much but the mood was very friendly. They asked where I was from. There was a graffiti right next to us, on one of the rock faces. It said “Austrian-Indian Mountain Climber’s Association” in Hindi and English. I pointed at it and said, “From there, from Austria.”
Later I found Ritu again and he showed me something next to the Hanuman temple. There was a formation of rocks and if you climbed through it, you were said to be allowed to make a wish. We went down on our bellies and slid through a narrow mouth made of rocks and entered something like a little cave. We had disturbed two young boys who had sat there and who looked at me with wide and surprised eyes. We climbed out through an exit on the other side and Ritu invited me to come and eat with him and his friends. He had seen that I had not brought anything to eat with me so I had to share with them.
We sat down on a ledge behind the Hanuman temple and had chapattis, some pickled spicy vegetables and even some sort of dessert, which I couldn’t identify. It tasted wonderful. Monkeys had gathered to watch us, hoping to snatch some of the leftovers, but there weren’t any. Afterwards we sat in the sun, enjoying the day, enjoying the sunlight and watching the faraway and blurred world below.