We have gone as far into the mountains
as we can. Here the road
becomes a snow-swept track
that leads to Tibet or China or nowhere.
The small ramshackle town
is perched on a frontier
beyond which lies perpetual winter:
marked only by the occasional prints
of snow-leopard or the great Himalayan condor.
This is the remotest place of pilgrimage.
Those who go further
go on some private errand and go alone.
- We sat in the bus, my friend and I,
hurled through the mountains. Behind us
lay Badrinath, its mineral spring
and ancient idol; the town, tawdry
and sacred, receding to a spatter of roofs
against gray rock.
We were the only foreigners
among hill people: women
in velveteen and turquoise, spangled caps,
babies stiff in padded jackets.
One woman wept
for a girl left at the bus stop
with her new husband and his chattering sisters.
Others, seeing we were strangers,
leaned across to point out waterfalls,
rockslides, a green glimpse
of the Alakhananda River, deep
in its jagged gorge,
rushing toward confluence with the Ganges:
Mother Ganga, here a young, violent stream
falling from heaven to earth
in such a rapture of white water
that the god Shiva has to break her force,
catching her in his hair
in springs and fountains,
freshets, brooks, tributaries.
We jolted to a stop
beside a roadside shrine. Wind gusted
through stunted pines, rocking the bus. The priest
ran out, we crowded to the windows
to offer a few coins to the monkey god
and have our foreheads smeared
with thick vermilion.
The little temple,
carved and painted in yellow, blue and pink,
leaned crazily, as though about to hurl itself
off of its precipice.
Blessed, we careened on down the mountain.
- Though we bathed in the spring
and visited the god
we had not gone as pilgrims.
we went wherever trains and buses took us,
vaguely following the Ganges.
“Many monkeys in Benares”
you telegraphed home.
Lost in a flood of worshippers
we haunted the river, barefoot
on silty temple floors,
and fed whole garlands to the ribby cows
that mooned among the shrines. The hems
of our clothes were always damp
with the lap and splash of the river.
Nights, in our crumbling room
at Aces New Deal Hotel
we spread out treasures: tridents
on red silk cords, brass pots of Ganges water
sealed with wax, squares
of blue and orange cotton, printed
with the sacred syllable OM.
I said, would pilgrims
spend so much time in trinket stalls?
wrapped in dirty white
crouched on the river-stairs, held out
tin cups for alms.
their cheerfulness unnerved you.
Why is there suffering, you had asked,
would have asked any holy man or beggar
except that the fingerless, outstretched hand,
the ritual gleam of mutilation
defied your question.
the riddle we ask
beyond the threshold
staring from masks of flesh
veil upon veil
there are no words
for what the third eye sees
they are drowning
the images in
the river the riddle
what is the question
to this answer: yes
At night, in the streets
actors performed the Ramayana:
bright scraps of silk, horse-hair wigs,
love's epic gestures.
the goddess inhabited
a painted plaster body,
and god was a smooth stone
brought garlanded to the temple
and offered water.
Do you remember
the temple in Rishikesh? Stunned by light
we had gone inside to rest in the shade,
and entered a dimness down whose basalt steps
a waterfall of sound dropped, swirled
and vanished: solitary raga
of the young temple priest alone with the god.
He plucked the strings of his tambura
and a vibration filled the void
as though the void were humming to itself.
We had overheard a song
not meant for us. Silently picking up our sandals
Though we hesitated by the river,
we had a promise to keep.
“Should you reach Badrinath,”
our friend had said,
“I want to send a gift
to someone in a nearby village,”
and wrote, the Hindi letters
gracefully pendant as ripe fruit,
Honoured Swamiji: my American friends
are on vacation in the mountains.
They bring one hundred rupees
for the ashram, and greetings
from the grandson of your teacher, Ragunath.
“How will we find him?”
“Ask in Badrinath.”
And everyone to whom we showed the letter
added a message on the envelope.
Maharaj! Here are
some foreigners inquiring for you.
Revered Guruji, your servant Kumar
respectfully wishes you to know
all is well now with his wife.
Each time, we had to tell the story
as our friend told it us,
until the words fell smooth as river-pebbles,
exemplary as an old mosaic
on a temple floor.
In a fever-stricken year
Ragunath lost his young wife in childbirth,
left his family
and went to live in Rishikesh
at the foot of the Himalayas.
There he fasted and prayed
until pilgrims, coming daily with their gifts of food
and their garlands and pious questionings,
distracted him from God.
He moved into the mountains,
climbing the donkey track
that edged the terraced, stony farms
guarded by dogs. Hill families,
driving their water buffalo to high pastures,
stood aside to let him pass: gaunt wanderer,
saffron-clad, black-bearded, long hair
knotted at the nape; followed
by his disciple, a young boy
with the high cheek bones and black, tilted eyes
of the mountain people.
When they reached Pandukeshwar,
a village so hidden in cloud
that only the hardiest pilgrims, persevering
from fabled Badrinath, would find it,
they stopped. The village priest
had died, the temple
stood locked, the images neglected.
And Ragunath stayed,
lured out the monkeys from the shrine,
brought wildflowers for the gods.
Below the village, the wild Alakhananda
dropped roaring from the mountains.
Here Ragunath built his ashram:
neat whitewashed hermitage,
a carved balcony. Two cells for sleeping,
and a large empty room
where pilgrims could put down their bedroll;
and opposite, a shrine to house the god.
He planted peas and marigolds
and apple saplings in the stony soil.
Then Ragunath wrote home:
Let the boy come to me.
And so his son was brought
in a procession of donkeys up the mountain,
blessed, and sent home again,
too young and bewildered to remember
his only meeting with his father.
The boy grew up to marry
and have a son.
Sometimes a wandering sadhu
would bring news of the ashram: a paved road
now led past. More disciples
had come, Ragunath being famous
for his austerities and the grace
that flowed from them.
In his hundredth year
he sent a letter to his family: Great changes
will come upon India.
I shall not stay to see them.
He called his followers to him,
blessed them, and gave the ashram
into the keeping of his first disciple.
Then he went deep into the mountains.
- The gods of Pandukeshwar
rule their kingdom
beneath the mountain.
Queen Sita robed in cobalt blue,
King Rama in a scarlet cloak
hold out their hands to golden Hanuman
the hero monkey.
Their altar drips with garlands
How pale we look beside the gods,
how sparrow-drab the village children
twirling bare toes in the dust.
But where is Swamiji, master
of images? Whispers,
shy, sidelong smiles,
a sudden flight.
We sit down in the tea stall by the road
with its enormous clay stove fed with twigs
and watch food cooking.
Hammered brass pots
hold lentils, chili, rice.
Bread fries on the open fire,
sweet tea steams in clay cups
made to be drunk from once and broken.
We eat and drink
watched by mountain men in leaf–
green leggings and peaked caps
throwing dice beside the road.
What if the ashram is gone?
What if no bus ever comes here again?
Will a woodcutter appear
to lead us through the forest
past slopes of birch and twisted spruce
where bharal sheep dig through the crusted snow
with hoofs as black and brittle as obsidian?
If we climb far enough
we'll come to Ragunath in his high cave:
wind-hollowed, his body worn luminous as old silver.
The last stretch of the pilgrimage
is the hardest
inching along the rough track cut in the cliff,
waylaid at hairpin turns by the gods
in dizzying veils of light
or necklaces of skulls;
the whispers of the dead
hissing like wind in our ears.
One who returned from the journey
told me this:
lifting the cup from the well of life to his lips
he found the water turned to emerald ice.
The cook's apprentice
lies curled on a heap of rags
gazing down into the river. Dazzled
by the water's swirl, my eyes
begin to close, when Swamiji,
Swamiji! The children tug our hands.
They bring us to a small room in the temple
where he sits, Ragunath's disciple,
before a brassbound book.
Beside him on the bare stone floor
a wicker basket glows with marigolds.
Then his disciple, cross-legged on the floor,
opens the letter, reads aloud
the words of his old guru's grandson.
Gold light of noon falls on the images,
the flowers, Swamiji's face.
- Wrapped in shawls against the mountain cold
we sat on the ashram wall
shelling peas. Apple trees spread laden branches
over us. Behind us the river
tumbled boulders down the gorge,
but here was composure and stillness, the small
chores of afternoon. Outside the kitchen,
the serving woman cleaned the rice for supper,
ground cinnamon and cloves
to honor our visit.
came with gifts: apples, two yellow roses,
roast ears of corn. And a herd of small calves
clattered down from their stony pasture,
butting each other
for pea pods and corn cobs
and last night's buttermilk.
Then our guide led us up the river
to a wild garden of cosmos and roses,
overgrown, shadowy, the flowers
escaping to the river, or twined
with trumpetflower vines around the door
of a stone hermitage.
we entered: fumes of incense,
and a man sitting in meditation
wearing only a rosary
of seeds and silver, and his tangled hair.
He looked up. His smile
went through us like a spear.
Then, with eyes newly opened
we saw, along the bank,
dwellings of other hermits,
one cut into the cliff, one, woven
of leafy branches, perched
above the overhang;
and so on up the stream, the cells
blending with rocks and trees and blossoms.
How long we stayed
in that shape-shifting space beside the river
I never afterwards could tell;
only that when at last we sighed
and rose to go
the sun was dropping toward the mountains
and the stream's light was quenched. We turned,
and airy wards and tumblers fell
behind us into place.
Going down going into
the deepest part of the cave
darkness no lips need move
in this place
that is all breath
who speaks who
who is the one who sees
suddenly in the cave
vertigo of stars
a whirling center
into which everything
When we returned
to the compound
there was nothing to do
but look at the river,
a river that was now
only a mountain stream,
cold and deep.
We hardly spoke.
It was starting to get dark
and the serving woman
was filling oil lamps
against the coming night.
- Swamiji's Tale
There is an ancient grove, its fringes touching
The edges of the world. Here came one day
Sage Vishvamitra, weary from long preaching,
To fast, and meditate on life, and pray.
Shaded by awnings, curtains of green leaves,
For years he watched the shadows' dappled play,
Quicksilver beauty that deceives
The ignorant heart. He knew it for the veil
Of Vishnu's Maya, loveliest disguise
Of the forever hidden Imperishable.
But as he watched, straining to look beyond,
He saw the tiniest worm, almost invisible,
Eating a pinprick hole in a green frond.
“What are you doing to my tree?” he said,
Voice creaky from disuse. “0 friend,
It took a century” the worm replied
“To eat this least part of a single leaf
Among the billion billion leaves that shade
The ground you sit on. But this age-old grove
Will see the day when the last bite
Of the last leaf is taken. Then the breath
Of Brahma ends. A starless night
Will swallow time, the gods, and everything.“
And Vishvamitra, “how could one worm blight
A grove vast as the universe?” So saying,
He fell asleep. It seemed to him he dreamed
Lifetimes: Brahmin, untouchable and king,
Serpent, ox, butterfly, a clod of loam.
But when he woke he saw a curious thing:
How bright was his green home
With more than half its foliage gone,
Stripped to the skeleton
Through which the sunlight shone.
- In the pilgrims' hall
the oil lamp threw flittering shadows
as we ate our evening meal.
Swamiji told old tales
to entertain us, and brought
a picture of his teacher Ragunath
seated among mountains: one hand raised
in blessing or farewell.
all holy men look alike. Polite, mistaken,
we admired the painting.
After eating, we walked, shivering,
to wash in the spring. The air
smelled of spices and evergreens, distant snowfields.
Dark, watchful peaks
Nilkanth, Kedarnath, Bandar Poonch
stooped over us, shutting out
the last light.
Then we slept
on thick wool blankets on the floor,
blankets so black and rough
we thought they must be knit of yak hair.
A brazen clangor tore us out of sleep:
The temple gong
waking the god, and Swamiji,
a shadow in the inner shrine,
passing the oil lamp back and forth
before the staring image. His disciple
circled the temple, chanting.
A full moon
spilled its silver on him, on the temple,
the river, and the near, snow-covered mountains.
We crouched in the doorway,
shawls covering our heads, as though our journey
had been for this only, to complete
a necessary task: neither inside nor out
but on the threshold,
held by the old, charged syllables,
the great, dark lemur-eyes
of god, the ancient masque.
The disciple touched his forehead to the ground.
filled our cupped hands with marigolds,
then drew a screen
between the god and us.
The lamp in our room
had burned out. We lay in dense blackness,
shutters closed against marauding monkeys,
talking softly of the day, of Ragunath
and Swamiji, the ashram.
My friend said “and the watcher by the river...”
and I, “no, shh...”
and the voice of the Alakhananda
flowed through us
like the ceaseless chanting of mantras.
- In the night garden
a man keeps watch.
He is telling the story of my life
in a tongue I cannot understand;
tongues of moonlight
from the river to his face, light
on the mountain,
marigolds like heaped-up flames
in the dark hut.
As I bend
to dip water in a jar
a ring slips from my frozen hand
into the icy Alakhananda
flowing through the tangled hair of God.
The mountain shivers. He is dancing
on his dark dancing-ground, Chidambaram.
His drum beats like my heart.
But my friend
has turned into the seeker Gargi
from Swamiji's brassbound book.
A most persistent questioner,
she has been talking for two thousand years.
“Oh Sir, since all this world is woven, warp and woof, on water,
on what is water woven, warp and woof?”
“On wind, 0 Gargi.”
“On what then, please, is the wind woven, warp and woof?”
“On the moon, 0 Gargi.”
“Yes, but on what is the moon woven, warp and woof?”
“On the worlds of the gods, 0 Gargi.”
“The worlds of the gods,
across what are they woven, warp and woof?”
“O Gargi, they are woven
on that which people call
the present, past and future.”
“Sir, that which people call
the present, past and future–
across what is it woven, warp and woof?”
“It is woven across the void, 0 Gargi.”
“Oh Sir, across what –”
But as I listen, the river-murmur swells,
drowns out all speech except its own.
My ring, circle of jasper, turns
and turns in the green warp of water woven
on wind and moonlight, loom
- We rose to chanting
as dawn warmed the mountains.
The serving woman brought brass tumblers
of steaming, nutmeg-flavored tea
where we sat with the old brindled watchdog
outside the courtyard.
There is a woman, Swamiji told us,
who comes for a time each year
to live like a nun in the ashram,
her mind fixed on the imperishable
across which the void is stretched.
Will she at last
leave even here,
and go like Ragunath into the Himalayas?
It was time
for us to take the stony river-road
to Pandukeshwar Village and the bus stop.
Children ran beside us, from small farms
people hailed Swamiji – Maharaj! Maharaj!
the bus came swerving down the mountain, full
We had imagined
that in farewell we might, like pilgrims,
bend low and touch his feet.
Instead, our last memory was laughter,
and his hands pushing us
into the crowded bus.
And the ashram, our gift
for one day, receded,
a white speck in a photograph of mountains:
where we, bleached in the great light
and holding marigolds
stand timelessly beside the Alakhananda,
thumbprints like blood
staining our foreheads.