“It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken away from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell.”
While studying at Mayo College Girls’ School, I remember our sports coach Sir Sajjan and his team arranging Sunday morning hikes for us within the vicinity of Pushkar. Sogani buses would line up at a gathering point (usually the Meera house junction) while a hundred sleepy girls would gather in their games kits and keds, carrying water bottles and a couple of caps.
While the less enthusiastic lot lamented the loss of their precious Sunday morning sleeping hours, the sportier kids would hurriedly take their seats, being careful so as not to crush their glucose biscuits that they had pocketed before setting out. This energy reserve was essential in helping them lead the hiking pack, or so they would have liked to believe. At daybreak, the bus engines would rev up and as they passed the Aravali countryside, the sleepy lot would gradually let go of their cynicism, taking the sporty morning with a pinch of salt.
Fortunately for me, I belonged to the glucose biscuit eaters’ club or BisCo. as we liked to call it. The BisCo. club was eager to climb any mountain that the PT coach unleashed them towards. The sheer anticipation before the climb, the persistence through my racing pulse as I ascended the mountain and the sheer exhilaration that my euphoric heart felt upon having climbed the peak was an experience that my heart wouldn’t trade for the most precious heirlooms. The leisurely breakfast that followed these hikes felt like a victory treat that each hiker was entitled to that day, something that they had rightfully earned through their trivial sweat droplets and pounding hearts. The victory cheers atop the summits contain so many nostalgic memories.
Looking back at these smaller victories makes me realise their importance in the cultivation of self esteem, motivation and what it means to make life less mundane and more worthwhile. Isn’t this what the spirit of adventure is all about? No matter how microcosmically, isn’t this the kind of kick that develops into the mature hearts of Norgay and his comrades? Methinks too.
Around ten years hence, the idea of climbing mountain peaks still makes my heart race with excitement. It is for the same reason that when my Bhutanese guide suggested a hike upto Paro Takhtsang, I had a rare glint in my eyes. Paro Takhtsang (Tiger’s Lair in Bhutanese) or Tiger’s Nest (in the language of us laymen), is a seventeenth century Buddhist monastery dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava, known more popularly amongst the Bhutanese as Guru Rinpoche. Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche arrived at this spot from the Bhumtang region on the back of a tigress and thereafter meditated in one of the caves. Thereafter, he emerged in his eight manifestations, each of which is displayed in the temple chambers. In present times, the Paro Takhtsang is frequented by several devotees, tourists, monks and meditators alike. Apart from being one of the most famed monasteries for its unique placement and legend, it is also one of the most iconic sites of Bhutan.
Nestled atop a cliff, the Tiger’s Nest beckoned me from a distance in all its mysteriousness and wonder. I had promised myself to visit it while my body was still agile and lungs, reasonably strong. The night before the climb, I set about five alarms and lay my hiking gear out. Usually an avid listener of music while jogging, driving, bathing (and practically everything else apart from sleeping), I ditch my earphones during hikes like these. Reason? The inability to hear your racing pulse, the rustling of the blue pines and the whistling thrush in the midst of the Himalayas is one of the most pitiful states of existence that I know of. I am sure your wise discretion makes you nod to that one.
The morning of the trek had me blinking my eyes way before the alarm went off. That panic of having missed alarms in our sleep never gets old, does it? After getting dressed and putting on a reasonable amount of sunscreen, I rushed to the hotel porch. A strange nervousness in my stomach made me skip most of my breakfast- a carelessly nibbled toast and a few almonds in my pocket is all that I had carried, apart from a water bottle as a dumbbell and a down jacket that weighed roughly half of myself.
Upon reaching the base camp, I hurriedly walked past the trail of mules, trying to avoid the dust and predictable sprays of mule stuff. A retired trekker, my husband decided to join the mule party and meet me halfway to the Tiger’s Nest at the café, where he would patiently wait for me while I followed my trekking pursuit. Mr. Sonam- our guide as well as my fellow-hiker for the day led me to an alternate path that was less crowded. He explained to me that the trek was to be completed in three stages per way. First, was the stretch from the base camp (where we commenced our trek) until the café. The next stage comprised of the trekking path that threaded the café to the view point. Beyond the viewpoint there lay around six hundred steps to the Tiger’s Nest, which counted as the third and final stretch of the hike.
Upon beginning our ascend, I found the first stretch to be steep in a prolonged sort of way. Unlike many amateur trekking paths in Himachal Pradesh that agree to meander flatly for a while, their Bhutanese counterpart was unrelenting in its inclination, providing the amateur hiker little breathing time. The sun gradually gained dominance in the skies as the air thinned. I found it harder to keep up with Mr. Sonam, who strolled up the path while casually texting on his phone. He generously accompanied me everytime I stopped for a breather and advised me to rest as and when required.
My dizziness could be blamed on relatively poor meals preceding this trek. Mr. Sonam promised me that the café wasn’t far and that a sweet cup of black tea would help me recover. The very idea of sipping black tea in an authentic Bhutanese swag made me forget all about my fatigue. As I doubled up my pace, I walked past exhausted trekkers along the way, who were possibly in need of similar motivation. I shared an old Himachali tip of trekking using smaller steps, with the spine slightly bend forward to align with the ground at a certain degree while breathing rhythmically. With parched throats and stiffening lefs, we all seemed more eager to reach the café than the Tiger’s Nest at that point!
My husband had already reached and was clicking photographs of the surrounding landscape. I headed into the café and poured myself a cup of black tea with two big sugar cubes. And boy! That sweet tea accompanied by dipped crackers (best eaten soggy) was, by far the most satisfying meal that I’ve eaten during a trek. Restraining myself from overeating and developing stomach stitches, I got up to perform a couple of stretches before bidding by husband farewell and continuing towards the much-anticipated second stretch.
From the café, the Tiger’s Nest appeared to be placed at such a short distance (as a crow flies) but one that required a lot of labour and mental resoluteness to aptly pursue. Taking a deep breath, I told Mr. Sonam that I was all set to meet Guru Rinpoche and his tigress. We walked on.
The second stretch seemed to be more familiar in its intensity and I thanked my stars of that. It was more compassionate to the thigh muscles and unlike its relentless predecessor, this stretch occasionally lent us gradual inclines. The hike began to feel rather pleasant by now, with the mountainous breeze blowing through my hair and cooling my tee. In no time, we were at the viewpoint, which buzzed with several photo-enthusiasts taking the icons shot of the monastery along with selfies. The sun’s inclination at that time had caused the rocks’ shadows to overcast the Takshtsang, making is less favourable for photography. Anticipating it to glide further westwards by the time we were heading back, I decided to take my photo shots on my way back. But the inner YOLO spirit in me made me take a quick round of snaps nevertheless.
I couldn’t believe how close I was to the Tiger’s Nest and firmly decided that there was no turning back now. I could barely wait to reach the magnificent wonder and discover what lay within. There was no time to waste.
We jauntily began stepping on the last stretch upwards, with six hundred steps that cascaded between a waterfall, prayer flags, watermills and spinning prayer wheels as the Takhtsang dominated our approach from above. The six hundred steps seemed less challenging simply because I could see my destination impatiently waiting on the cliff above. As I took my last step and entered the monastic premises, I was surprised not to find myself at my usual enthusiastic state. I was awestruck for sure, but in a surprisingly peaceful and sedate state. As Mr. Sonam guided me through the four difference sections, I was mindblown by magnanimity of the Takhtsang.
Guru Rinpoche in his many forms lay venerated by visitors from all across the subcontinent and several distant lands. Each visitor had come down the same ascending path, a climb that recognised no special passes, VIP tickets, fast track slips short cuts or diplomatic concessions. Each one had succeeded in conquering the upward climb through their stamina, agility strength, and above all, their mental resoluteness to go on. It was the realisation of a kind of individual as well as collective penance that made this climb so special for me.
Upon my various darshans of Guru Rinpoche, I made small prayers and offerings- initially in cash and later in the form of the almonds that I had brought in my pockets. Upon reaching the room filled with butter lamps, I remembered what my spiritual twin had told me earlier that morning.
It happened to be her birthday on the same date and I called her to wish her in advance, as I would be hiking while it the Canadian clock reached midnight. She was excited to hear of my hiking plans and told me the meaningfulness in wishing upon a successful mountain climb- that we had triumphed upon our will and deserved to make a wish. Following that, she told me to make a wish for us. That might be because, in making a wish for Rumi, you make one for Shams. And in making one for Shams, you make one for Rumi. Hence, among the several lamps that I lit- for my parents, my husband, my friends and my family, I lit one for the birthday girl. I told Rinpoche to accompany Allah in listening to her from now on and never stopping.
The peaceful aura at Paro Takhtsang made is hard for me to depart but thinking of my husband waiting for me at the café made me head back, filled with wonder, stories and a couple of photographs that would help me share this magical experience with him. That said, I feel like the larger part of my experience belongs to a realm where words don’t suffice. A realm of inner peace, contentment, understanding and nirvana.
A seemingly distant monastery, nestled on a rocky cliff had the power to attract the penance of thousands. It was in this mountainous haven that a famed Buddhist Guru and his tiger arrived against all odds and geographical logistics. Hundreds of years ago, at a height of 3000 metres above sea level, on a cliff in the Paro valley, an entourage of the Guru’s devotees built an entire monastic institution around his landing spot.
In a world like ours where miracles are a depleting resource, the Tiger’s Nest served as my personal reminder of the supernatural possibilities that lie in faith driven human minds. The fact that hundreds of devotees and curious hikers ascend thousands of feet to frequent a celebratory monument of peace, compassion and faith is something that contributes in reassuring my faith in humanity.
I am certain that each visitor took back their stories from this rare wonder. Similarly, I departed feeling more peaceful than I had ever been, having found a piece of myself among the flowing prayers, while at the same time having left a tiny piece of my heart to be nourished in the cave below Guru Rinpoche.
I then descended the 600 steps with a euphoric spirit, a new zest and one of my favourite trekking stories and mythological legends that I will live to tell.
Guru Rinpoche- you’re nodding, right? I feel like your tigress definitely is.