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:
heaped-up drifts
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.

  1. 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.

  2. Though we bathed in the spring
    and visited the god
    we had not gone as pilgrims.
    Summer travelers
    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?

    Shorn-headed widows
    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.
    Stranger,

    the riddle we ask
    beyond the threshold
    staring from masks of flesh
    veil upon veil
    and underneath
    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.

    By day
    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
    we left.

    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.

  3. 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,
    paved courtyard,
    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.

  4. 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

    fresh-woven daily.
    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.

  5. 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.

    Swamiji's disciple
    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.
    Barefoot
    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.

  6. 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

    listens

    who is the one who sees
    without light
    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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.
    In portraits
    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.
    Swamiji, beckoning,
    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.

  9. 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
    of dream.

  10. 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!

    Abruptly
    the bus came swerving down the mountain, full
    to overflowing.

    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.