“Asti kaschit vaak vishesh?” asked Kalidasa’s wife when he returned home after long years away from her and home. This question in Sanskrit means “do you have anything to say?” Inspired by each of the four words (of the question) Kalidasa is said to have written four epics of the medieval Indian Sanskrit literature – Meghdoota, Raghuvamsa, Shakuntala and Abhijanashakuntalam. I have not read these texts in their original form nor can I claim to have a good grasp of their themes. My exposure to Sanskrit remains limited to learning the language for five years in high school. But the anecdote conveys a great deal about human imagination. The tremendous range and depths of human imagination appears exasperating and at other times exhilarating. In this, I have often located myself as a traveler, exploring what it is that delights us? What is beautiful? And how do we know when we find see something beautiful?
Courtesy their experiences, exposure to absolutely alien environments, landscapes, cultures, languages, colors, food, customs, societies and lifestyles travelers tend to look at life in a much different perspective than they would have otherwise. It could have been a fair chance that had Kalidasa not left home and wandered for years, he may not have developed that ‘different perspective’ that I am talking about. Men and women across ages have ventured out solo or in groups to explore what lay beyond the immediate and apparent. They have almost always returned with life altering experiences which have also added greatly to human knowledge – Al Beruni, Ibn Batuta, Huein Tsang, Fa Hein, Marco Polo, Amerigo Vespuci- the list is endless. Of more recent times Lawrence of Arabia, Freya Stark, Pico Iyer (?). How does such an experience shape a person and how does his conception of the world change (perhaps slightly) is often a gradual process. Like this trek in the Himalayas four years back. What was adventure alone then is a clear experience in traversing the personal plane beginning with the outside. As I walked, putting step after step on that 14 kilometer trek to Kedarnath shrine I didn’t quite realize that those footsteps were not made on the physical terrain alone. They were also the first steps made into the self. Another terrain where I was beginning to know myself and explore how I related to others and what did I think about things that I hadn’t known were raging questions in themselves.
Spending a moment on recalling this journey is also due a chance encounter with a fellow traveler on a train to south India from up north (Kris, this is for you. And the Kedar pictures that follow). Kris has made me go over that trek in the Himalayas frame by frame (from what I remember) and place myself again in those experiences contrasting and mapping the distance I have covered as an individual in these years.
We were four of us on the trail. What we shared was an excitement for the unknown. An urge to venture out, test the limits of our physical selves and wrap in all the adventure that we can while we are still able bodied. This could be very Indian thought, for we believe that able body is a blessing and a matter of being fortunate. On their mutual love for science that brought them together, in a memorial address for Hermann Minkowski, David Hilbert says,
“… we also liked to seek out hidden trails and discovered many an unexpected view which was pleasing to our eyes; and when the one pointed it out to the other, and we admired it together, our joy was complete.” On that trail high up in the Himalayas our joy was pretty much the same.
Himalayas can evoke a range of emotions. This experience intensifies when a man’s faith is layered on this. Himalayas are an abode of many Hindu gods. High in the snow capped peaks are caves, temples and physical forms of divinity which are revered. This I think is a work of human imagination and a profound one at that. Perhaps the experience of witnessing the sight of these majestic peaks, the experience of being one to one with these enormous mountains was a spiritual experience. It is stirring – the physical exhaustion of having trekked so high and what one sees in such a physical and mental state. And to one’s imagination this was the divine one that he sought or never knew he sought but could make out when he found it.
The high point of the trek to Kedarnath temple was the awe inspiring fashion in which the magnificent Sumeru peaks revealed themselves for a brief moment from an overcast sky and on a rainy noon.
Talking to Kris on that train traveling across the Deccan plateau, I was startled to know that he had a similar experience. He was on his way back from a trek to Kedarnath and I did it 4 years back. But the similarity of experience and his sublime experience made me wonder if that is how the nature plays itself out high up there. I would be happy enough to leave my ‘rational’ self and believe in this spectacular play of divinity manifested through the nature.