In the aura of dawn’s first light, the forms and faces of the other pilgrims became visible and what a truly eclectic mix it was: young couples, elderly couples, family groups and larger groups belonging to a sect – one lot clad in saffron and chanting, another dressed in pure white cotton and carrying small brass pots of water. Everyone was on the move towards some unseen goal, some destination ahead which no one knew how long it would take to get there or, whether in fact they would get there.
Along the sides of the steps were the idols of the world’s most idolatrous religion. On one stretch of the trail, there were concrete boxes, painted white and inside them, gaudily painted multi-armed and multi-headed deities. I recognised only one of them: Kali, the goddess of death with her protruding tongue, her angry face, her necklace of human skulls and murderous weapons in her hands including sword, axe and mace.
A little further on there was a small area of rock which had been painted orange; on the rock face, in silver paint, there were two eyes and a mouth; this also represented a deity – at its base were candles and burning sticks of incense.
After about 3000 steps and a steep ascent, I came to a group of large temples.
In times gone by, this must have been where the trail ended. The temples were old and high. Their tapering stone facades had been delicately carved, in the Khajuraho style, into galleries of figures and deities, animals and humans. They were enclosed by high walls.
It was too cold to linger there so I kept going.
The trail wound its way higher up a mountain slope and near the top, levelled out. It was here that the pilgrims entered an arcade of stalls lining the trail on either side, their canvas roofs almost touching one another. The rising sun shone down into the arcade and simultaneously lighting up the trail ahead in a blaze of flaring red light.
In the stalls they were selling glasses of hot chi and biscuits, pakoras and sweets; books and cd’s by famous gurus and cd’s of sacred music. In a couple of the stalls there were screens featuring sermons by famous gurus – they could be seen every day on several Indian TV channels – and scenes from the annual ‘kum mela’, when tens of thousands of pilgrims converged on the Junagadh trail. From a cd player came sacred music, choirs endlessly repeating a refrain in honour of Rama to the accompaniment of tabla and sitar. At one stall there was a table covered in a tattoo blaze of colour; here the pilgrims could buy small, framed mass produced images of the gods; the purple faced Shiva, a third eye in the middle of his forehead (where the Hindus place the red dot or bindi) a cobra entwined around his neck, holding a trident spear and mounted on a bull, riding above the peaks of the mighty Himalaya; the monkey god Hanuman, with a monkey face and tail but the body of a man (and a body builder at that), wearing a gold crown and holding a large mace; the elephant god Ganesh also wearing a gold crown, seated on a magnificent throne, his long trunk dangling below like a flaccid member; a doe-eyed Rama holding a huge bow, a sheath of arrows on his back, and loaded down with so much finery that it was miracle he could stand up; another version of Kali, this time mounted on a tiger – and so on, an endless pantheon of lurid images and fantastic creations, of blues and reds and greens and yellows….it seemed extraordinary to me that these extravagant, outrageous images could mean something to someone, form the focus of their most heartfelt hopes and desires, and more than that, be worshipped by hundreds of millions of people.
As I left the stalls and continued my journey, I was met by a strong cold wind and a flaring early morning sun; the pilgrims up ahead were like silhouettes, black figures devoid of any features, moving over the trail as if drawn by a magnetic force.
The trail rose gently towards the top of a ridge, where there was a small temple. This is where most of pilgrims stopped – at about the 6000-step mark – before turning around and going back. The temple was a small shrine on top of a pile of rocks. I didn’t stop and look at it, but instead kept going; the steps plunged steeply downwards into a ravine, looping back and forth before climbing up again on the other side.
This was the last 4000 steps. At the end of it was another small temple.
It took me over an hour to reach it.
But the temple was an anti-climax.
There was an unimpressive painted concrete deity enclosed inside a shelter of corrugated iron. The iron rattled in the wind. I took a cursory look at the deity and then stood outside and took in the scenery.
Looking down at the zig sagging trail below me and the people and small groups working their way upwards, ant-like, I was impressed. There were groups of elderly people and villagers, people who were far from being physically fit, plodding towards the final goal, step by torturous step, singing and repeating mantras.
What was at the end of all those steps for the true believers?
An accumulation of merit so that in the next life they would be born into a higher caste or at least not slip down in the caste hierarchy?
Or perhaps not to be reborn at all but rather to be freed from, in Ghandi’s words, ‘the vicious cycle of births and deaths’ and attain enlightenment?
On the way back – by which time I began to feel the first pains in my legs – I thought about Tagore and his insistence that a pilgrimage was never meant to be easy. Whilst descending Junagadh’s 10, 000 steps and dodging the increasing number of people on their way up, I recalled an incident from a few years previous.
It was in Belgium.
In the backstreet of a town with a beautiful historic centre was a small shrine inside a narrow room between shops. The shrine was over 500 years old and was dedicated to a young man who had gone on a pilgrimage to Rome, been attacked by a bear on the way and badly injured. He had kept going, only to be robbed and beaten afterwards by thieves. Recovered, though badly injured, he had continued until he reached Rome, where he had died shortly afterwards. The then Pope had declared him to be a Saint. For centuries afterwards, he was a kind of local hero. People had worshipped en masse at the small shrine. In recent times however, no one bothered. As the caretaker of the shrine observed, rather humorously:
‘These days you can drive to Rome in a day. No one can see why this man should be a Saint. The Vatican would like to annul his Sainthood, but it can’t really, it would set a bit of precedent….’
In medieval Europe thousands of pilgrims walked to Rome. In those days, when Europe was covered in forests and where bears and wolves – and bands of violent thugs – thrived, it was a journey filled with danger. It was a mirror image of the situation in India in centuries past, and it seemed to me behind this original idea of the pilgrimage was a deep-seated expression of the nomadic impulse, when thousands of years ago, Homo Sapiens had lived as nomads. Civilisation, the settled life, came late in the history of the species.
Behind the pilgrimage was a longing to return to that existence….
That night, I was on a bus to the city of Ajmer in Rajasthan.
At some time in the early hours of the morning, I was woken from a deep sleep when the bus stopped for a break.
I could hardly get down from the bus.
My legs were killing me.
How had the considerable numbers of elderly pilgrims I had seen that day had fared?
Were they in a much pain as me?
Or did the rituals and prayers which they performed at the temples on the way inoculate them against the pains of a non-believer?