Thursday, September 24, 2009
Tryst with My Saligram
Any visitor to my home, who is allowed to step into the drawing room, gets drawn to the mantelpiece that holds besides two climbing trophies an assortment of rocks and crystals of all shapes, sizes and color. The 20 odd rock pieces find representation from all the seven continents and from some of the remotest and most hostile spots on our planet. There’s one from the summit of Everest and another from the crater of the highest volcano on Earth. There are crystals from Antarctica and a limestone from the deepest cave in the world. One of the rocks show the perfect silhouette of a temple while another enclose within a deep pulsating glow of surreal turquoise. They all are natural and have not been modified by any way by any man. There’s even two small glass phials containing ice (now water) from the two geographic poles; predictably one is sweet and the other salty. Now amidst the collection there’s one that superficially is the ugliest with dark contours across its broken and undulating surface. It is neither a complete sphere nor a triangle, in fact it defies any shape that has a name and if one noticed carefully then it is even broken by a thin hairline crack around its middle. Most of my friends express their wonder as to what this particularly ugly stone is doing among its more beautiful and proportionate siblings. And to each I say that this is my single most precious possession since within its bosom it holds one of the supreme symmetries of nature and more importantly because I did not find it; IT FOUND ME. This is my Saligram and I belong to it.
Even if you do a perfunctory search for ‘Saligram’ on the net you would discover few facts about it; according to some thoughts of Hinduism a Saligram represent a form of Lord Vishnu and many worship the stone for divine blessings. There are many websites where you can e-order Saligram. In scientific reality it is often a piece of marine fossil with the shape of some marine life or plants embedded within. A Saligram comes in many different shapes and colors, all of them claiming divinity, if you are a believer. It is also claimed that a Saligram is only found—for reasons no one cares to explain—in the Gandaki or Kali River beds of Nepal and along its tributaries. If you dig deeper in your quest then you would find mention of Saligram in Tibetan myths for being a stone with extra-terrestrial origins and supposedly possessed with life. It is highly revered by the Buddhists all over the world and it can be found in almost all the monasteries. Now another part of the Buddhist myth claim, the part which I like the most that every Saligram is unique and is meant for a particular individual and for no one else. That person could be in future too and the Saligram would wait for him or her to take birth and then find the person out. Now this might seem weird but it also says that one doesn’t look for or find one’s Saligram. If one is destined for then the Saligram will find the person and not vice versa. This does add some divinity and animation to the stone, which according to me is fine.
Now most often (all those vended over the net) a Saligram only comes in a half. The rarest of rare Saligram is actually a complete stone with a thin hairline crack perhaps, within which the fossil is embedded, and the complete fossil of a concentric spiral is among the most priced of the Saligrams. I am sure you all must have guessed by now that the Saligram that possesses me is of this specie. It is a complete Saligram with two halves joined perfectly with barely the hint of a crack around its central periphery. When you lift up the top half the perfect spiral is viewed within and only then do you appreciate its beauty and supernal symmetry. Though I had been seeing Saligrams all my life I did not feel tempted to buy one or simply borrow one from anywhere, waiting for the one destined to find me instead. And it finally did (twice actually) but far from the alluvial shores of Kali Gandaki River. Here is the story.
It would really surprise me if any of you have ever heard of the River Nu Jiang and the lofty Geuzong Massif in Yu Qu Valley of Eastern Tibet. Knock me dead if any one of you have actually traveled there (I am serious). At the prime of my crazy life around a decade and half ago, I once entered into a competition with my two equally asinine friends. Tasha had thought of it. We had to come up with three of the least known mountain regions on earth and we would travel to the one that would outbid the rest. Tasha was a Russian born and Swiss settled school teacher who doubled up as a rock climbing instructor in her spare time and could out run many veterans in the sport on her worst days. Damien, her partner and fellow school teacher was a Spaniard with a mouth as big as his head though it contained nothing much besides some of the finest ice routes ever climbed on both sides of the Suez. I had bumped into them once in the Amazonian wilderness and had been instantly drawn by this crazy and handsome couple. We met thereafter occasionally at various parts of the world enacting our stunts purely to impress one another since most often there won’t be anyone else besides the three friends in those unearthly places. Both Tasha and Damien were intrepid travelers and thrill seekers and had been everywhere. So when Tasha threw in the challenge, we had to think out of the box and think fast. We had only a day to respond.
I really don’t remember now what the nine places were that the three of us came up with, except the fact that though all of them were extremely inaccessible and dangerous to reach, the one place that emerged as the winner was the one that I dropped: you guessed it right; Yu Qu Valley, Geunzong Mountains, Eastern Tibet. I had read about the place in a mythically obscure travelogue from the previous century and wasn’t even sure if the place existed. Tasha and Damien opined that it was worth exploring. As we prepared for the journey and dug deeper into geography and world maps we realized that it would be an adventure worth remembering since it did exist but no one knew how one could reach there.
We were in a pre-internet era and the Chinese were still not very open about letting visitors go into Tibet specially the far flung corners of Eastern Tibet, which lay in a permanent shroud of mystery. Very few westerners had been there before. But as they say; will and hope and perseverance can move mountains so we did manage to move the powers that be and found ourselves facing a diminutive fellow by the name of ‘smiling Buddha’ waiting for us at Kunming. He was our interpreter. He held our permits and apparently everything was in order. If he was indeed speaking English or any other language for that matter, I had no idea. Somehow my companions were nodding their heads vigorously and laughing their guts off each time the squinty eyed Buddha opened his mouth. Till of course when we stopped at a check-post displaying a pair of gun totting Chinese soldiers who looked ready to collapse under the burden.
Smiling Buddha went up to them and returned post haste, while waving his hands like a plummeting skydiver whose chute had just collapsed and screamed in pidgin English, ‘No laugh, no funny, no permit, no go,’ while shoving back the toilet paper permits back at us. Those were the golden days of illicit travel when a shining green American Dollar bill could take you anywhere. So we continued uninterrupted. Several wads of American Dollar bills and stomach churning meals of dried yak meat later we sighted the Salween Canyon and from there our team increased in bulk as we hired horses for our journey ahead.
Over the next two weeks or so we had an out of the world adventure, often awestruck at the soaring glaciers and peaks of unheralded beauty. None of the peaks rose above 6000 m and there were no significant glaciers yet one could spend half of one’s life time climbing the jagged ridges and the sweeping faces. Most of the peaks were highly technical and though we had not come prepared for a full scale expedition we did have our basics. We had no permits to climb any peak and even wondered if we would be facing a firing squad if we climbed one. Nevertheless our biggest problem at that point of time was to get rid of the Smiling Buddha, who by now we were convinced was a lowly spy whose only aim in life was to part us from our money and goods. So we gave the fellow an offer he could not refuse. It was all Damien’s idea. I could never be that devilish.
We picked up the most horrific ridge line within sight leading to another valley deeper into the range and declared that that’s where we wished to go and camp for the next few days. When we showed it to our interpreter, the only sound that ensued from his mouth was a groan of indeterminate origin. By decree we could go anywhere in the valley and he had to be with us physically while by his common sense he must have sensed that it could as well be the last interpretation job of his life. So we offered him an outlet.
He could go down and wait for us along the river where there was a small nomadic settlement and we would meet him there about a week later; Damien palmed him the princely sum of a 10 US $ bill as well just to drive the point home. Smiling Buddha displayed his dentures that would have scared any brave-heart to despair and galloped away to enjoy the pleasures that American dollar would entail. Our smiles splitting our faces into half we turned around and headed for the actual peak we wished to climb. The peak had no name and the hand-copied Russian map we possessed claimed it to be around 5700 m high. Though a medium altitude mountain by any standards its conical peak and sharp ridges cut the blue sky like a Samurai sword. The sun glinted from its flanks and it lured us towards the summit that looked utterly unassailable. We approached from the east and I didn’t think it would be possible for us to free climb it to the top without any ice gear. With only Damien perhaps we could have done it, but with Tasha’s limited ice experience I didn’t think it was possible. But then we had to make a go for it, even if it meant at the end proving what we knew right from the beginning.
A long day’s march brought us on the ice covered ground right beneath the ridge and we camped for the night. We were at around 4200 m and we did not have any suitable tents or bivy for the steep ridge up ahead. Either we had to climb up and down more than 3000 m in one single push or we would only climb half way and then return. We woke up early around 3 into the freezing morning and in an hour had started going up the ridge. I wished to get to the ice line before sun woke up. Tasha climbed briskly over the rocks; we had all our ice gears still stacked in the sack on our back. Hand over feet we climbed silently in a line. Often we had to straddle the ridge between our knees as it narrowed down to mere inches. We hit ice around 4800 m. The sun rose little later and sank our hopes of reaching the summit. What lay ahead was seemingly impossible to free climb. Though we knew, but no one spoke and we kept climbing while hammering our ice axes and crampons with all might into the rock solid ice. We had to go real slow. Damien and Tasha clipped on to a rope while I remained free a little behind. At every stop on the sheer face I would plunge my ice axe and clip on to a sling through the shaft eye. Near 5300 m Tasha baulked. She was leading an 80 degree ice chute. She looked back, ‘I don’t think this will go, I am tired.’ Damien looked at me. I simply nodded and pointed my thumb down. There didn’t seem any point in killing ourselves at such a lovely spot. Moreover the two people above me were planning a family soon. Short of ice anchors and slings we had to down climb most of the icy face, abseiling only those pitches where anything else would be suicidal. Much to my relief we eventually returned to the rocky ridge with one ice piton still in my rack.
Though not the real summit, all three of us had reached our personal summit and it was a glorious day anyways. We soaked in the sun and marveled at the panorama at our feet. I was sure that no man had ever been here before at the spot where we were. I thought that the day could not get any better, but little did I know that it could and would… very soon. After an extended rest we three continued down, now slow and careful as the rocky ridge took our weight. Somewhere in between a pair of humps where the ridge broadened enough for few people to walk side by side, I happened to look down on the ground to see where exactly my two companions had stepped before me. I can’t explain why I did what I did. I saw Damien’s footsteps and half smeared upon was Tasha’s. I positioned my steps too right into theirs. Just after two more steps as my right feet sank into the gravel on the incline I almost stepped over it. Exactly a mm away from my toe the Saligram nestled into the earth. Incredibly it was a complete one and I had somehow managed to discern the hair line crack along its equatorial periphery. I picked it up and felt its warmth on my palm. I took off the upper half and caught my breath at the spiral cornucopia within. It was mine, I thought and then felt, I was his… or whatever. Shortly I joined my companions at the meadow below. Over the next week as we sauntered from one ridge to another I could barely contain my excitement. Though I showed it and told them the myth of a Saligram Damien and Tasha were somehow untouched by its significance.
We finally relocated Smiling Buddha and had to rescue him even from the nomads with appeasing gestures since he had stolen one of their pipes and then we headed back home. On our flight out I gazed lovingly at the mountains passing below me while Damien looking lovingly into Tasha’s eyes on the seat beside me. To each his own I smiled.
P.S. It is pertinent to mention that I lost this Saligram several years later to someone who at that point of time perhaps needed it more than I. The two halves had separated by then and I had absolutely no hope of seeing them return as a whole ever again. But then life offers us surprises and wonderments when we had lost all; and I found my Saligram earlier this year while on an expedition into an ice capped valley where we happened to be the first people to enter ever in the history of mankind. This time around I found it sitting patiently just outside my tent on a wide ridge. I know for sure that it can’t be the same one, but I would like to believe that it is and add a bit of myth and mystery to the Saligram that now rests in my house.