Pilgrimage to Santopanth Tal

Since the early 1990’s, I had begun to travel to India every other year.  The South, especially Thiruvanamalai had brought me the greatest spiritual joy and experiences.  I felt that all one would have to do was just to  stay there long enough, and all could be discovered!  There is magic in around Arunachala Mountain (the red mountain which Ramana Maharshi considered the embodiment of Siva).   Some of siddhas manifest there from time to time.  I have witnessed this for myself.

I didn’t make it to Badrinath in the Himalayas until 1997, then again in 1998.  There is something about Badrinath.  I think of all the many spiritual seekers who have experienced the “call” of Badrinath.  One trip there, I was hooked, line and sinker. The first two trips I planted some part of me, hair and nails in its earth.  Something that might grow or draw me back again.  I have continued to return at least every other year since then.

There are many sacred sites where Babaji did tapas.  Badrinath is where our tradition says he reached Saruba Samadhi (the golden body of Immortality).  Another is nearby, at Santopanth Tal, a beautiful green lake, formed from a glacier and surrounded by mountains on all sides.   The whole area was said to be a glacier and very difficult to access even in the summertime.  Mana is a small village, 2 km from Badrinath, which borders Tibet.   It is here that  the underground Saraswati River pushes to the surface to unite with the Alakananda.   It is there they say that Sage Vyasa, with Lord Ganesha’s help wrote the Mahabharata.  Much of the Mahabharata was staged in the area.

The villagers of Mana are a Bhotia community of Mongolians. They are beautiful people with amazing face and strong constitutions. Their deeply lined faces make them look ancient and the light from their eyes, wise.  In this small village on top of the world in 1998, I made the vow to return the following year to make the pilgrimage to Santopanth Tal, a 23 kilometer trek, over heights of 16,000 feet.  I didn’t think how I would accomplish any of it.  I just vowed I would do it.

A few months later, Marshall Govindan contacted me and said he would go to Santopanth Tal in late summer/early fall, and would take a couple of others with him.  He figured that I wanted to go.  Of course, I wanted to go.  A vow, I thought was all it took!   As the summer neared, I heard that more and more people were going on the trek  with us.  There would be five of us, then seven.   By early July, fifteen people were going.   Govindan told me so many more wanted to go.  Someone had asked if she could go by  pony.

I was getting irritated and losing interest in the trek altogether.   I meditated whether I should still go.  I always thought that I would travel only with two others.   I still felt strongly still that I should travel with only two other people, whenever that might be.   I meditated again the following night to make sure that I had heard correctly.  In the morning, before I had a chance to phone Govindan to tell him of my change of heart, he had cancelled the trip.  Gaetane, his wife (at the time), had a vivid dream where Babaji told her that Govindan must immediately cancel the trip to Santopanth Tal.   Govindan wrote in a group email to everyone, “Babaji says the group has gotten too large. And furthermore, he (Govindan) felt that he was not the gatekeeper.   He would go alone to Santopanth.  In the future if one was to get there, he or she would have to arrange it with Babaji Himself.”    I was relieved!  I knew Babaji did not want group tours to his Ashram.  I felt elated that I had heard correctly, although sad that I would not make it there that year.

Later in the day, I received an email from a kriyaban I knew slightly, who wrote, “You and I are going to Santopanth!   I can arrange everything. I will call you later in the day with all the details.”  – Randy.

Well, I thought, no matter how much I wanted to go, there was no way I was going to Santopanth Tal alone with him. Randy knew his way around mountains but he was pushy and always seemed to have an agenda with me, often monetary.  He was someone with whom I had some one-sided or lop-sided karma.   I liked him and he was sincerely devoted to  Babaji.   And he  seemed to be on my path for a specific purpose.  You know from your own lives that there are some people who come into your life at the perfect time, and perform an important function for you, or you for them, and then they are gone.  Randy was one of these people.   But still, I wrote Randy that I didn’t feel comfortable going alone with him and I didn’t have the money to pay his way.

The next morning Devanada wrote, “there is a silver-lining to this! You,  Randy and I are going to Santopanth Tal!  Go buy your equipment. I will phone tonight and we can talk about the dates and flight arrangements.  And that was that!  Devananda was a good friend and his wife knew me and Devananda offered to help Randy financially with the trip.  I went shopping for equipment just as he had suggested and we settled the dates and bought the flight tickets that evening.

Devananda was angry, not that the group trip had been canceled.  He hadn’t  liked the idea of a big group either, but he wanted to go with Govindan.  Govindan had told him no.  Devananda was Govindan’s first acharya and we had all been talking about this pilgrimage for a year.   I was happy with Govindan.  He had canceled the big group and refused to take Devananada.  And I was going because of it.   However,   I don’t recall that we let Govindan know that the three of us were going to Santopanth at the end of August.   It all happened so quickly.   Whenever you plan a true pilgrimage, it begins the moment you decide you are going.  Your dreaming cycle become vivid, your meditations important and your life begins to bring your karma to you at lightning speed.  Cause and effect becomes most distinct.   And that is what began to happen almost immediately.

One dream I will share, which has some importance  in my story.   I was walking along a hillside in the mountains.   A woman was drawing water from the river.  She was lovely and had long black hair.  I walked up to her and asked her where I could find Babaji.   She said, you can never find  Babaji because you can never recognize Babaji, even if you meet him and speak with him directly.  I sat down next to her for quite a while.  “Okay,” she said, as she was leaving, “he will be strict with you and you will know and people will say he has a shoe loose.”

The three of us met up in NYC at LaGuardia. We had not said where we would meet up, but I was hardly there ten minutes when I heard my name being called and Randy appeared.  A few minutes later we saw Devananda looking like Indian Jones walking towards us, smiling like the Cheshire Cat. We waltzed up to the Air India counter and checked in and requested three seats together.   The representative told us that there were plenty of seats free and we could have a whole row to ourselves if we wanted it.  But we wanted to sit, shoulder to shoulder.

We talked the whole way to New Delhi.  We shared what our lives had been like since we decided to take this trip.   Devananda’s wife had all kinds of premonitions about buses driving off the mountain roads and many people dying.  Nothing could dissuade us. The good news was that she hadn’t seen us at the bottom of any ravines.  Randy and Devananda had meditations with Babaji over several days.  And Devananda said that He said quite clearly to him that we were welcome, but not to expect a “big brass band.”   We were just explosively happy.  I had felt as if I had won the lottery or Miss Universe contest.   Even though I had dreamed of this trip for the last ten years, it had finally come together perfectly as if  effortlessly and in an instant.

We arrived in Delhi about midnight. We got our luggage and headed out the door of baggage claim. I had forgotten that Devananda had not been to India before and as we went into the main hall of the terminal where people were awaiting arrivals,  he quite literally stopped in his tracks. “Oh my, was all he said.  I just smiled.  Randy herded us towards the main doors. I always got a prepaid taxi in the terminal because it is so hectic, but Randy was ahead of me. I turned to say something to Devananda about it, and by the time I had turned back around, a young boy had taken my cart and was rushing toward the main doors, saying, “Come Madame, follow me, I take you to your taxi!”
”Wait, I called out. And ran after my luggage. All three of us followed the young boy out the terminal and though the throngs of people and taxis and auto rickshaws.  The boy kept a fast pace but continued to look back saying, “Come Madame, your taxi is this way. ”

We walked through the parking lot to a covered lot and there was a taxi driver standing by an old Hindustan Ambassador.  The taxi driver gave the boy something and he left.  He didn’t even ask us for tips.  The taxi driver packed our bags in the trunk.  Devananda and I got in the back and Randy got in the front with the driver.   I told the driver to take us to Connaught Circus to  a particular hotel for the night. Randy told him that we were going to Badrinath.  The taxi driver told us we needed to get out of Delhi, that it dangerous, that there were terrorist attacks and such due to the upcoming elections.  “It was not safe to stay here. You should go now to Haridwar!”

I said, “take us to Connaught Place.”  He ignored me, until I tapped him on the shoulder and  said, “Sir take us to the Park Hotel in Connaught Place.”

He said without looking at me,  “I don’t know where that is!

Connaught Place is one of the most well known area of town to tourists.

” You need to get to Haridwar tonight.  I will take you to a government travel agency, they will get you a taxi out of town tonight.”

Devananda was sitting back and seemed to be enjoying the whole experience.  He didn’t say a word.  “ I am tired, I want to go to Connaught Place.” I argued.

The driver turned to look in the rear view  mirror and looking at me straight in the eye said, “ Madame,  sit back and be quiet!  I will take care of you. You must get out of Delhi tonight!”

“Oh my God!  I thought, Who is this?”   I sat back and waited to see what would happen next.  Randy turned around from the front seat and moved his lips to indicate to me that he was drunk.  Like that was supposed to reassure me.  Randy began to chat non-stop with the driver as the driver drove through all kinds of neighborhoods and dark alleys.  About fifty minutes later we arrived at a building that was completely dark.

“Here we are, the taxi driver said with a big grin in the mirror!”
It’s closed,”  I said.

“No, they are there, I’ll get them up!” And off he went.   A few minutes later, lights came on, the door was opened and we were invited inside by two yawning young men, who were rolling up their beds on the office floor.   And yes, indeed this was a government travel agency. And yes, they could get us a taxi tonight for Haridwar.

I asked if we could get a hotel room at Connaught Place and again the taxi driver chimed in, that we really didn’t need a hotel in Delhi, we were going to the Himalayas.    So the agents went to work to find us a taxi to get us that evening to Haridwar.    Did we want a new car?   Did it have to be air-conditioned?

I said, ” I want a very  good driver and a newer and reliable car!”   The taxi driver was standing right next to me and  smiled  and instead of asking for his fare and  leaving to get another fare, he sat down in the empty chair next to Devananda.   Randy had to stand up, as there were no other chairs.  I was growing more and more suspicious of this man in our midst.

About 15 minutes later,  the taxi driver took Devananda’s hat off his head and put it on his own.  My jaw dropped when I saw the taxi driver looking like Indian Jones.  I was totally nonplussed to see the driver do such an intimate thing and amazed too that he looked so striking in the hat.   I really looked at him then.   His face was beautiful and his eyes shone with such a twinkle of delight.  Devananda was taking everything in stride.  Randy was agitated and walking in and out of the building.    The travel agent on the phone was frowning and looking at the taxi driver with occasional sideward glances.   A few minutes later the driver put the hat back on Devananda’ s head and adjusted the cock of it just right.  He turned to me with a smile.   Still he did not move or ask for his fare.

In fact the driver did not leave until we had been able to locate a taxi and a driver had been found and called and was on his way.  It took hours.   At one point I  had gotten up to let Randy sit down and had walked into a small anti room.   Before the taxi driver left, he came into the room where I was standing and said, “I am so happy to have met you. It is a pleasure!”   He took my hand and brought it to his lips and kissed it very gently.  “Yes, I am happy indeed.  May you have a wonderful yatra to Badrinath!”   All I could do was to look straight into his eyes.  He then dropped my hand and brought the back of his own hand to my lips?  I tilted my head as if that would help me see him clearer.  I bit my lip, brought both my hands into pranam at my heart and smiling, bobbed my head slightly.  “Who are you?” I said.

He smiled and walked out of the room.  I followed him out and he shook hands with Devananda and wished us all safe passage and then we all followed him outside.  The driver then walked over to Randy and asked for some money.

Randy said, “He already paid you, pointing to Devananda.  Go!  The man said, “you mean you wont even give me 10 rupees?  I rushed over to him with money in my hand.  He turned to me and with his hand said no.   I stepped back.  Randy said, “He paid you already, and I am sure he paid you well.”   He tried again with Randy, “What about 5 rupees?  Would you deny me 5 rupees?”   And again Randy dismissed him.

He smiled, turned and walked off toward the taxi.

The government agent walked out of the building into the night air.  He scolded us, “Where did you find him?  You were foolish to let a man like that take you off in a taxi!”

“What do you mean,” I said, “you didn’t know him?  He drove right here, refusing to go anywhere else. I thought you must have a deal with him. Doesn’t he come her all the time?”

“No,” the young man said, “I have never seen him before.”

Randy, said , “Yeah he was drunk.”

The agent replied, “No, they are all drunk, but this one, wasn’t drunk.  He was crazy.”   He sat down on the step.   “No, this one ” he paused, “this one, had a screw loose!

I almost fainted. My dream!  I turned and rushed toward the taxi. We hadn’t heard it leave but it wasn’t there. No one had seen him drive away.   I kept my thoughts private, to be shared at the appropriate time at Santopanth Tal.   Ah, India!

To be continued

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