A shorthand to life

The last time there were leaches everywhere and caterpillars in their hundreds, dropping down on us from the overhanging trees. Our group had trekked through the hills and forests of Savandurga to eventually emerge at the Bheemshwari elephant lodges, exhausted and hungry. That was my last trek, over twenty years ago.

This time, we started from Subramanya, home of the ancient Kukke Subramanya temple, the one that Shankara visited during his epic all India road-trip in the 8th century. We had arrived at the village during the Margashira masa, an auspicious time to rid yourself of curses, particularly by snake-gods during a previous birth. At the temple, one could offer the Ashlesha Bali pooja, performed on your behalf for a couple of hundred rupees, and from what we witnessed, snake gods tend to curse an inordinately large number of people.

 

The temple elephant, flag bearers and priests
The temple elephant, flag bearers and priests

 

A streak of gold

Devotees thronged the main street leading up to this ancient temple village, pooling together in groups outside eateries and pooja shops. Our group had halted for the night at a lodge nearby, and we spent the evening walking about the village. We explored the temple street which housed little shops displaying a colourful array of many shiny things. I observed a shop selling bottles that contained mysterious roots, the label advised that you to fill it with warm coconut oil and apply the decanted liquid to your hair. A procession went by, led by a young temple elephant, with banner bearers and priests in tow. People lined up to offer tokens, and be blessed by that venerable grey trunk. It was all a magnificent gestalt of colour, smells and texture, perhaps exactly as it may have been a thousand years ago.

We ate a hot vegetarian supper and walked back to the lodge, passing through darkened streets lit by pools of light spilling out of the shops. My mind was on the trek tomorrow, and I wondered what the terrain would be like. I worried if I was would be able to keep up and how far, I wondered, would I walk with that gargantuan back-pack strapped on. The answer arrived, on cue.

Someone in my group was pointing out into the distant sky. We followed the line of her outstreched finger and with some effort, located it. Somewhere in the far-off darkness of the mountains, a single bright white line was visible. A tiny gash of burning white gold etched against a pitch black nothing.

 

A wedding of Gods

The premise of our trek was fascinating. Our journey was in fact, a wedding reception, and I was one among the wedding guests. Our group comprised family and friends invited for the nuptial celebrations and our hosts, the wedded couple had picked the place and time for the trek very carefully.

Kumara Parvatha, was our ultimate destination.The legendary mountain peak had once witnessed a wedding between Gods, Shanmukha – the son of Shiva, and Devasena, the daughter of Indra. The other marvellous detail that the couple had planned for, was the time. The gods were wedded during the Margashira masa, which was around the same time that we were visiting. I loved the idea. It was a magnificent tribute to the institution of the hitch, a nod to tradition, without the ritualistic sentimentality.

What I did not know however, was that the Kumara Parvatha trek was a 13 kilometre slog through forests and barren hills, always infuriatingly upwards, at a 45 degree angle. We began our ascent the next morning, and my only thought as we moved out was that I should have packed a lighter bag.

 

Forests, scrub and barren rock

zig zag, helter skelter
zig zag, helter skelter

It was a race against the sun from the very beginning as we plodded upwards through a beautiful forest that was quickly beginning to get steamy. A narrow and winding path climbed upward, thick with knotted roots and loose rock. The forest grew thicker over the next few kilometeres, and the canopy cast a tinted green shadow over everything. The interior of the forest was cool and silent, amplifying the crunch of our footsteps and all I could focus on was our rhythmic breath as we trudged along, ever upward.

Four hours later, we broke out of the undergrowth very suddenly into dry grassland. If the jungle was a tough slog, the dry, hard and rocky massif had a few treats in store for us.

The sun had caught us out in the open by then, although it was only now beginning to slowly heat the air. We scrambled upwards through the scree, grabbing whatever little scrub grew on those merciless hills, and occasionally stopped to rest in the shadow of the larger boulders. During these moments, I would stop to draw the breathtaking landscapes in my little sketch-book, but all too soon we would move on.

The groom, leader of our group, set a scorching pace, leading us to a safe haven before the sun reached it fullest intensity. Somewhere amid all this viciously hard terrain lay the home of a cook, and that was where we were heading.

 

The house of the cook

A view of the Areca Nut plantation, after we climbed up to the forest department office.
A view of the Areca Nut plantation, after we climbed up to the forest department office.

The Bhattara Mane, nestled in a valley, is a little south-Indian village shack surrounded by a modest Areca nut plantation. The house belongs to four brothers, two of whom resided in that solitary forest dwelling, and the other two lived in Subramanya. The house was a halfway point to Kumara Parvatha, and the only refuge for the tired, hungry and depleted of spirit.

The Bhattara Mane fed thousands of exhausted hikers each year and on a good day, the bhatta’s house would be packed with people devouring the modest vegetarian fare. The Areca nut groves would house dozens of tired hikers passed out for a few hours under it’s cool shade, preparing themselves for the assault on Kumara Parvatha.

The bhatta brothers employed a team of runners- exceptionally fit young men who raced that torturous path carrying heavy bags of rice, oil and coconuts, occasionally leaving behind bewildered and slightly neutered trekkers in their wake.

We reached that tiny scrap of paradise a little after noon.

 

The black temple

We ate and slept for a while at the home of the bhattas and soon it was time to move again. We were climbing up to the Mantapa – a little black testament to some distant, long forgotten architect. When we made it there some four hours later, it was buried between kilometres of black grass, the aftermath of a controlled burn by the forest officials, to create breaks in the landscape to contain potential forest fires. This was the burning white line that we had seen from the village marketplace the previous day.

We pitched our tents in the creeping darkness. A mist was embracing us, and the cold was beginning to set in. The girls in the group had fashioned little lamps from paper cups and a sweet little wedding ceremony unfolded. We toasted to little bottles of water with dissolved electrolyte powder, laughed and sang, and the couple did their Saath Pheres around the campfire, now a Vedic wedding flame, turned sacred through our half-serious intent.

The evening had all the poignancy of a coming of age ritual. Indeed if the premise of a wedding reception is one where the couple display the strength of their union, there could not be a better test or demonstration. The groom carrying the heaviest load, always leading from the front, sensitive to the tiniest inconvenience of his guests, motivating the tired group by the strength of his presence and action. The bride, a wiry girl possessed of deceptive strength, who positions herself at the end of the line, cajoling exhausted stragglers and even lightening another’s load at the pain of doubling her own.

Darkness descended, and we boiled instant noodles and sat content for a little while around the campfire. Today was the easy day. Tomorrow we would climb the Sesha Parvatha, which lay between us and the Kumara Parvatha.

That night we were cocooned in flimsy tents that were buffeted by howling high speed winds. Somewhere in the middle of the night, I snuck out to straighten some ballast attached to the tent, and for the first time in a really long while, saw what a starry sky looked like. I was just a drop of ink on a charcoal landscape, looking up at a pitch black sky, and the vault of heaven was thrown wide open to me.

 

The mountain of the thousand headed snake

For the ragged of breath, the Sesha Parvatha is a maddening place. Every time you think you have reached the summit, it turns out to be a false peak, and another one magically appears, an excruciating hour away. When your knees creak, and your calves begin to fill up with lead, you don’t tend to take nature’s practical jokes all too well. I cussed fervently and often, for the cathartic experience, but laboured on.

The weight on my back had slightly reduced, because we had consumed some of our rations, but my hips and back were still on fire, an appropriate tribute I thought to the lord of this land. We were now in the domain of Sheshanaga, the thousand headed king of the snakes, one of the primal beings of creation. The mountain itself seemed to have been crafted in the image of the serpentine, all fire, scales and sinuous paths.

The rocks are the remnants of basaltic lava, perhaps cast during an ancient Precambrian age, and even though it seemed like nothing could make a mark on those titanic black Monoliths, a history of feet had managed to scratch a feeble trail onto its harsh, ebony hide. Some cut vertically upwards at an impossibly steep angle, a direct route downward taken by a stream, now bone dry except for the rocks and pebbles it has washed up in its descent. Some pathways snake around and upwards, in a circuitous motion, longer for the climb but with the relative comfort of footholds.

Eventually the incline becomes bearable and in time the landscape becomes slightly more horizontal, allowing us and the wild grass all around us some purchase on the precarious surface. We relax only to become suddenly aware of a singular sound that starts ever so slowly and gradually gains momentum, until it drowns out everything else. A sound like the rasping of threshed grains, rattling down a metal funnel, or like the sound of a score of demented maraca shakers.

 

Sentinels of the forest

The view from the summit of Sesha Parvatha is indescribably beautiful. All basalt black with washes of ochre and the odd accents of brilliant greens where streams have pooled, long enough to kiss a little life into the arid landscape. The woods, each of which are roughly a couple of acres in size, grow in this staccato fashion all over the mountain top.

The forests are home to a multitude of Raspy crickets, who strike up an orchestra at the slightest disturbance. The sound is a defense response by the insect rubbing its legs along the pegs of its abdomen, or tapping its feet on plant stems. When a single bug does this, it inspires characters such as Jiminy the musical cricket. The fiddling of a million crickets on the other hand, is the stuff of forbidden forests and furious forest spirits.

A tiny rocky encrusted pathway cracks open between the rock face to reveal a saddle that threads the massif. Clamber onto that ledge and you immediately see your place in a vastness that is only limited by the capabilities of vision. The crickets have gone silent, and there is a strong, cool wind blowing. The view is of a series of cascading blue spires that diminish into the horizon. A delicate, desaturated Taoist painting, come vividly alive.

Resting within the cool grove at the peak of Sesha Parvatha
Resting within the cool grove at the peak of Sesha Parvatha

The green saddle that connects Sesha Parvatha with Kumara Parvatha dips slightly between the two mountain peaks, like a gently sagging clothesline. The heat dissipates instantly as we enter this dark, verdant grotto, lined with trees that are coated with tiny tendrils of spiraling emerald moss. It is cold here, enough for some of us to bring out the woollens.

While most of the group press on to complete the last kilometer of the trek, a few of us elect to stay back and drink in the atmosphere of the place. I scribble in my sketchbook, gnaw on some groundnut chikki and snooze happily in my hard-attained paradise. In that quiet, blissful, half awake state, I promise myself an early retirement to a hideaway such as this someday. Soon it will be time to descend the mountain, though for the moment, I have evaporated, my identity fused into the verdure.

 

Descent into the woods

During the course of the trek I realised firsthand, how different muscle groups combine to fight gravity. Walking up the mountain placed tremendous stress on my hips and knees, which I somewhat alleviated with the help of a wooden staff. The descent on the other hand, set fire to my calves and thighs, burning down to the tips of my feet, as my toes clutched at footholds in spite of my sturdy sports shoes.

We were racing against the sun again, this time for the opposite reasons. We had to cross the forests before nightfall, and I did not relish the thought of having to navigate a path barely visible even in the daytime. The forest floor which descends at a thirty-five degree angle is a jumble of jutting roots, loose rocks and slippery moss. Fallen tree trunks bar the way, and the pathway twists and turns at the oddest of angles, leaving you facing what often appears as a dead-end.

The descent can be treacherous and exacting, especially if you are not a seasoned trekker. The tempo driver who brought us to the village of Subramanya had narrated to us the episode of a previous client who had literally collapsed at the end of the return journey, clutching at the ground in exhaustion and hugging the flatness of the surface for a full two hours. At the time I had mentally compensated for what I thought was our Indian penchant for exaggeration. It turns out he was more than a little conservative.

A few of us who had gotten a head start, found ourselves waiting on a large black rock in the middle of the forest. The others had fallen behind to help an injured team-mate make her way to the rendezvous, a halfway point back to the village. We waited in the falling dusk, each of us silently dreading the thought of navigating a pitch black forest.

Eventually the stragglers came into view, the groom supporting the limping girl, who was clearly in a great deal of pain. The bride sounded out clear instructions. Three would remain to help the injured girl, the bride herself would carry the extra load and lead the rest of us down to the base of the hill, where the forest skirts the village.

 

The forest at night

The way in which light leaches out of the forest at dusk is as breath-taking as it is unnerving. At first the colour of the undergrowth changes to dull earthy hues, as the golden evening light bounces off and is reflected by the forest canopy. Then the little details disappear, leaving behind just the large shapes, as though you are seeing through squinted eyes, and finally an inky blackness diffuses through the jungle, blotting out everything in front of you.

My partner and I had one tiny flashlight between us, and the pathway was not broad enough to walk beside each other. A system of navigation emerged, with my partner taking the lead, calling out the obstacles and me in tow, feeling out the pathway between us with my staff. Ever so often we would come across a fallen log and stop to catch our breath, but knew that we had to keep moving.

I think forests sleep during the day and only truly wake up at nights. A rustle in the thicket ahead, a dull thud in the clump behind us or a screech from directly above – all of it apparently designed to make the imaginative jump out of their skins. None of the scenarios that flashed before me included the idyllic retirement I had dreamed of, just a few hours earlier.

Many times during the trek I cursed those lazy hikers who had littered the path with their garbage. In that blackness however, I was grateful for those little reflective candy wrappers that glinted in the torch-light, letting us know that we were on the right path. Somewhere in the distance, dogs barked, and a half hour later a sliver of light flashed through the trees, accompanied by what could only be a motor vehicle.

The decrepit, rusted little metal gate at the end of the trail was the prettiest of exits that I had seen in a long time, and oh joy of joys, the groom had the foresight to tell our driver to move the vehicle right outside of it.

 

Home again.

I was in the Tempo Traveller, being rocked to sleep. I thought of wedding ceremonies and the gifts that people exchange. Mosts guests to a wedding reception take home a gift of betel leaves and coconuts. Our wedded couple had gifted us something far subtler. I closed my eyes and reflected on the shorthand abstraction, the rough and resplendent trails of a trek called life. The driver switched off the lights, the Tempo turned dark, and the drone of the engine lulled me to sleep.