We drove from Govindghat to Badrinath with the Himalayas scaling the skies outside our windows. Sometimes the fog spread itself over the peaks like butter on toast, at other times, the sun shone through to light them up. Below, the tall pine trees with their conical shapes covered the lower slopes. And quietly flowed the light blue Alaknanda foaming white while going over rocks and boulders. According to myth, Alaknanda is one of the rivers, the other being Bhagirathi that the Ganga split into to prevent the earth from shattering if it had flowed as one. So, at times, it is wiser to split!
As we neared Badrinath, the Nilkanth peak towered over the town. But we couldn’t stand and stare. We were accosted by sellers of shawls even before we had got out of the car. The thronging crowds brushed past in a hurry to join the queue. Our group of three non-believers ambled along recollecting stories of Nar and Narayan from the Puranas, both believed to be avatars of Vishnu. Two peaks in this range also bear these names. The myth is that the day the two mountains Nar and Narayan join together, the path to the temple will close and it will have to shift to another place called Bhavishya Badri. Another myth is the shifting will occur when one of the hands of the idol vanishes.
The Alaknanda flows rather noisily here quite close to the temple which has been a major pilgrim centre from the seventh century when Adi Shankara found an idol of Badrinarayan made of Saligram in the river. He installed it in a cave near the hot spring called Tapt Kund. Then in the sixteenth century, the King of Garhwal shifted the idol to its present location. The façade of the temple with arches and pillars in bright shades of blue, red and yellow with a gilded cupola makes it resemble a monastery more than a temple.
When we reached the queue and made enquiries, we were horrified to learn that people had been waiting for three hours and were nowhere near the main entrance. We were directed to a counter where we could buy tickets for special poojas starting from Rs 1100/- Since we were not interested in poojas, we decided to go ahead to Mana, which is the last village in Indian territory.
On our way back to the car park, we crossed the ponds where pilgrims were bathing. The sulphur soaked ponds were stinking like rotten eggs. However, what we witnessed left in us a whiff of the unbearable stench of power. A policeman caught an elderly man by the collar and pushed him yelling at him not to join the queue at that point. When his wife pleaded with him that they be allowed to do so, as they were too old to stand for long, the policeman pushed the woman too. We stood shell shocked, then led the couple down the stairs and walked on to the car park totally disgusted and disheartened.
On the way out, we passed a row of shops selling pooja essentials, shawls, caps, gloves. On one side was a row of tea stalls selling piping hot tea, samosas and pakoras. At one stall, we saw a large family sipping hot tea and eating what looked like a delectable sweet loaded with dry fruits. Quickly, my sadness lifted and I looked greedily at the box of sweets and told my son, “Let’s ask them where they got those. I want them.” The sight of sweets can make me shameless. I walked to the family to ask. A young couple replied in unison, “Yahan ka nahi hai (It’s not from here). We got them with us.” Before we could walk away disappointed, the entire family spontaneously said, “Le lo, le lo.” They placed the large sweetmeat in my hand. Deeply embarrassed, I said, ‘No, no, I thought it was from here and wanted to buy.” “Tho kya hua, le lo, lo.” As I said thank you, I broke the sweet into pieces to share it with my son and my friend. Seeing that, the family called out, “Arre, nahi, nahi, you eat it” and handed over more of their sweets to my son and friend.
That generosity which sprang so spontaneously not in one person but in the entire family of some seven to eight members touched us so deeply that we chose to recall our trip to Badrinath always with our encounter with these complete strangers who embodied kindness. If there is something called divinity, it’s here.