Thursday 6 September 2012

In Shiva's Mountains

Hello God!  I'm here!  Ringing the bell at the Shiva temple at Vashisht

I was glad in the end that the bus trip to Manali took place the next morning.  I sleep very badly on overnight bus journeys.  As I lose the following day through exhaustion anyway, I would far prefer to spend the night in a bed and the day looking at the scenery from the bus window.  And the scenery was worth staying awake for, including the enormous Pandoh dam and a huge and beautiful gorge past Mandi.

I got off the bus at Patlikuhl, a small town about twenty kilometres short of Manali, heaved my very grubby rucksack onto my back and wandered back to a taxi stand I had seen.  I was in luck, as the chap I came across knew Susie and where she lived.  We picked her up in Sarsai village on the way up the very steep and winding road (she’d been at the tailor’s), and then creaked the last of the navigable road up to Bhosh village.  

traditional architecture

Once that had disintegrated beyond the power of even a four by four (which this little taxi was not), we carried my stuff up the rest of the hill, following the watercourse through the woods to Susie’s lovely house.  Susie’s home is set among apple trees (this part of the country is famous for apples and marijuana, which grows wild everywhere) with lovely views of the mountains, snow-peaked half the year but now often clouded over with the monsoon.  We were greeted by the sixteen cats (it’s kitten season), just managing to avoid tripping over them as we took my bags up the narrow stairs to the puja room.  This was where I was to sleep, lucky me, surrounded by Tibetan iconography and large windows with beautiful views (when we weren’t obscuring them hanging the laundry that refused to dry outside in the monsoon rain).

view through the puja room window

Susie and I were at the last of my nine schools together.  When we finished, she began her travels and hasn’t stopped since.   

Susie and Lucy, 20+ years since schoolgirl days

She had two children in her early twenties and took them to live in Nepal with her where she began her studies in Tibetan Buddhism.  Her guru sent her along to a certain lama to learn a particular set of practices, which she duly learnt but also ended up marrying Jamyang.  He apparently now causes a bit of a stir when he turns up at the Sakhya Buddhists, as he now wears householder-lama robes on such occasions.  Apparently only the Nyingma Buddhists had such a thing up till now.  (The Dalai Lama is head of the Gelug, and there’s a fourth branch whose name I don’t recall.  Yes, the Tibetan Buddhists have their politics too.)

I am slightly intrigued how I ended up in the mountains, Shiva’s mountains no less, at the beginning of my two long trips to India.  I find mountains beautiful of course, but inherently claustrophobic.  I miss the sea and the sense of expanse and power and flow it gives me.  Of course, these things are also in the mountains, but strange things always happen to me in them.  I’m exhausted, I get sick or I can’t walk.  But it was Shiva who beckoned me to India last time (see In the Beginning for details of that encounter) and although he seems to be leaving me a little more to my own devices these days, nonetheless I must pay my respects.  So the mountains are the gateway through which I must pass.

fire pit and trident at Vashisht

Well I did spend the first few days at Susie’s completely exhausted, but bearing in mind the events of the previous days, that was hardly surprising.  My morning yoga was very weak and wobbly and largely spent trying to undo the pelvic twists of too many bus journeys in order to be able to lie flat without pain once again.   

The area around Manali is known for its hot springs and Susie and I would regularly go (though Jamyang avoided it all but once: “I don’t want to cook my bones.”).  Kalath is in one direction. The water is hot but easily so, the entry fee is 10 Rupees and in the winter it’s used by locals who have no other access to hot water.  The baths are right by the Beas river, full and rushing with the monsoon rain.  Between the noise of the water, the mountains above and the purifying, detoxifying effect of the mineral waters, the whole thing is pretty intense, despite the unaesthetic construction.

soaking in Kalath

A couple of times, we also went to Vashist, near Manali.  There the hot baths are in a Shiva temple, much more scenic and absolutely scalding.  It took me ten minutes to get in each time.  Trust Shiva to cook me, I thought, remembering a certain dissolving in fire meditation.

However, not everyone experiences it this way.  I watched in some awe as a young woman walked unhesitatingly in up to her neck.  “Japanese,” said Susie.  “Japanese hot baths.”  But even this stoic creature admitted the water was “very hot, hotter than Japanese baths.”

The first two or three times Susie and I went for our purgative hot washes, I felt knocked out and faintly unwell.  I recognised the signs of a clearing out and waited for it to pass while I watched the views and took my turn as kitten climbing frame.

cooking in Vashisht

My last day at Susie’s was Friday, the day the full moon was due.  Shortly after seven that morning, I was ambling across the little path that follows the watercourse to an ancient Shiva temple, dating back to the eleventh or twelfth century, according to a sign.  It is small, set into the hill in a courtyard and gardens.  I wandered around the outside, looking at the carvings, peering through the locked gate to the shrine to look at the beautiful murthi (statue) by the fire pit, a couple of Shiva’s tridents flanking it.  Voluptuous carvings of the river goddesses, Yamuna and Ganga, guarded the entrance.  On the left hand pillar were smaller carvings of couples making love, something captivating and piercing captured in simple, worn lines.  I sat by one of the flower beds on the side of the courtyard, looking at the temple and the hills across, listening to the stream below rushing through the apple trees to join the Beas, feeling whole and strong and myself again.   

Om namah Shivaya.

near-1000 year old temple with guardian

Later that morning, Susie and I returned to Vashist before running some errands in Manali.  This time I felt clean and good after Shiva’s scalding wash.  Afterwards I went to have a look at the shrine to Vashisht in the temple.  I was confused by the markings on the murthi’s forehead.

“Is that Vishnu?”  I asked the attendant in his pahari cap.
“No, it is Vashist.  Vashisht is the teacher of Rama,” he informed me before painting a saffron triangle on my forehead.

Of course, Vashisht, as Rama's guru, would be wearing Vishnu's mark, Rama being the incarnation of Vishnu. I reasoned he was in a Shiva temple because Rama paid homage to Shiva along with his servant Hanuman, seeking Shiva’s blessing on his endeavour to free his wife Sita from the demon Ravana, king of the island of Lanka.   

It is no small thing to be God’s teacher.  It’s not just temples and towns that are named for Vashisht.  We have a yoga asana in his name.  Vashishtasana.

on my way out of the temple at Vashisht

It was a good ending to my time in Susie’s lovely house, being looked after so graciously by her and Jamyang (who cooks lovely Tibetan food).  

Jamyang making momos, Susie dealing with cats

It was time to say goodbye to the sixteen cats, to Jamyang and Alexi, Susie’s daughter.  Susie, her son Samuel and I were bound for another overnight bus.  

Alexi, Susie, Jamyang and Samuel

Samuel was to see his orthodontist the next morning in Chandigarh (the Indian city designed by Le Corbusier in the fifties) and then catch the bus back home, while Susie and I would head on to Dehra Dun.  A Tibetan Buddhist puja was in full flow, and we were going.

from Lucy, with love x


  1. We are all sitting practically where the last photo was taken on the mattress, reading the blog... very glad you enjoyed yourself here and that Shiva's inspiration has been enhanced by your stay. By the way, there's a lovely history to Laxman Jhula that you can study while you're in Rishikesh, that may be an extension to your Vashisht Rama story....

    love from us all,

    1. It's lovely to picture you on that mattress (doubtless surrounded by a few piratical kittens) reading it! I shall have to look up the Laxman Jhula story. So far Rishikesh has been about navigating obstacles! Lots of love to you all xxxxxxxxx

  2. Hi Lucy,
    I’m looking for a picture for a video which will be on a mobile app. Could I use your picture of Kalath Hot springs and give you credit? i.e. if the pics finally makes it to the edit