“I took the liberty,” Dharmendra said, “of asking a saint to come with us.” I must have looked a little confused. “A saint?” I asked. “Yes, he’s a saint. I asked him to come so he can do a ritual for your mom.”
We were on our way to a thousand year old temple in the Kumaun (click for some maps), a division of the State of Uttarakhand, on the Indian side of the borders of Tibet and Nepal. I had already traveled twice to the Kumaun, and always found myself wishing I used some type of prescription tranquilizer as the taxi travels along the narrow roads, along the edges of nearly vertical mountain slopes. Dharmendra has been my guide all three times. We’ve never actually gone to the peaks of any of the tallest Himalayan mountains. Only the foothills. But the views are fantastic.
During the last trip to India, in 2008, which was a birthday gift from my parents, my mother, who was born in West Virginia, and could not wait to move away to a big city, but who always loved mountains, turned to me at one point, and said “I see why you wanted to come back.”
My mother was quite an impressive woman. She passed the CPA exam in 1956, and the Maryland and DC bars in 1967. There were not very many women lawyers at that time. In any case, she certainly impressed Dharmendra on that trip. He informed me that MAYBE my mother was as good as packing suitcases as he was. But he seemed to acknowledge that she was going to get what she thought was her due, and he learned some skills in that vein from her. I had gotten the news that she had fallen, and was unlikely to survive, a few days before I was to leave Chennai and head to north India, for the “vacation” part of my trip to the sub-continent. There was nothing I could do for my mother at that point, by going home right away. So I continued my trip, with modifications in case I had to cut the trip short, which I did.
An Indian engineering colleague had a question for me at the time I was planning the 2008 trip. “Is it wise to use Dharmendra’s services? Is he accredited by the Government of India?” I said no, but I couldn’t let myself worry. Dharmendra’s tour guide service is no ordinary tour guide service.
Dharmendra is going to give his clients an experience to remember. It’s never mediocre. Apparently, as I found out on this trip, it includes the services of a saint to pray for your mother’s soul, should the need arise. Dharmendra arranged for me to do what he would have done had it been his own mother near death.
Swami Shivachaitanyananda, I found out the next day, really is considered a saint.
After spending twenty years in a cave, he decided to rejoin society. He loves to talk. Making up for lost time, he’s extremely cheerful and active for 70. He is a self appointed concrete inspector. If he sees the wrong mix of sand and cement, he complains to the authorities. Apparently, a large construction in Rishakesh was redone after the contractors were caught cheating by the Swami.
His materials engineering skills don’t interfere with his regular swami activities. He taught me a few Vedic mantras on the way to the mountain temple. He was impressed with my Sanskrit pronunciation, which I had learned at the beginning of my trip at a chanting yoga retreat.
After driving for 5 hours, to get to the town with the nearby temple, we got out of the car, bought around 150 pounds of rice, potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, etc., and called the temple priest to send down people to carry the food up the 3.5 km switch backed, gravel, rock, and tree root covered, steep path. I only had to carry myself and my purse. The taxi driver carried my sleeping bag and knapsack, along with his own stuff. As I looked up, and reminded my dear friend and tour guide that there was a reason I brought a cane with me, and that there was a difference between 3.5 km horizontal and 3.5 km vertical, he assured me it wasn’t strictly vertical. I made it. Slowly. The Swami beat me. Easily. Here’s the view from the “guest house,” at the 3.5 km mark. A mere half km from the top of the mountain, where the actual temple is. It was worth it.
Hopefully there will be a photo of the guest house itself in a later post, but for now I will say that we took the room that did not smell like burned plastic. The rest of the amenities? A concrete floor and a metal door, and two small windows with metal shutters. They were nice. They gave the spoiled American 3 extra blankets.
The resident priest made dinner for us. The most delicious dahl (spiced lentils) I have ever had. Dharmendra claimed it was because it was cooked on a wood fire. Despite the hot meal, I had never really warmed up after breaking into a sweat on the hike up. The mountain air was cold.
“No, Dharmendra,” I said. “Narendra (our driver) is not sleeping in a different room. He’s sleeping with us, to add his hot breath and heat radiations to the three of us.”
I asked if I had been snoring when we all woke up, and an affirmative answer let me realize that I did probably sleep for a few hours. Morning light at 7 meant time for me to eat the chapati that the priest had made specially for me so I could take my pain meds before walking up the last half km to the temple.
The last part of the climb to a mountain temple is reliably steeper than the rest. Getting to a mountain top temple is most of the prayer. As one of my companions on the earlier part of the trip, the yoga retreat, said, “The Indians With Disabilities Act has two words: Tough Shit.”
But with the cane, I made it. And the Swami performed the healing ritual for my mom. It turns out that she started breathing on her own, right around that time.
Never underestimate the power of prayer, whether it is from your own tradition or not.
Ultimately, as I already knew would be the case, my mom did not survive. But because she was breathing on her own, they were able to remove the ventilator mask, and my dad got to see her face, and kiss her face, and that meant a lot to him at the time.
Seeing her face, he was able to see that “she” was gone from the physical shell that had housed his wife of 59.5 years. It was still hard to let her go, but I think easier than it would have been otherwise.
Back at the guest house, the priest and Dharmendra had a little disagreement. Turns out that the Swami really is considered a saint, and the priest did not think that we should pay if we brought the Swami with us to bless his facility. Dharmendra had to clandestinely leave the money to pay for our accommodations.
Back at the bottom of the trail, as we got in back in the car, Dharmendra told me “Now you realize you are stronger than you thought you were.”
Miraculously, my arthritis pain was greatly reduced the day I got off the plane in India. Still, after two years of severe inflammation, my fitness condition wasn’t great. Back in the US for a month now, the arthritis pain continues at a much lower level than it was before I left. Maybe this is part of why old people go south for the winter. And probably why this wasn’t my last trip to India, even though I had said before I left that it was my bucket trip.
It was supposed to be MY bucket trip, not my mom’s.