Traveller only who is foreign

Surreal.

Yes , that is the apt word for what I see. Close to 12 am in this temple town, when all God fearing folk should have retired for the day, I see streams of people arriving, their voices , their footsteps echo amongst the corridors / buildings of the huge pilgrims residential compound. All lights are yellow, adding a sense of uneasiness to my apprehensions on the proposed trek up the hills.

“ I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travels sake.”

I glance down at my coloured tee , my purple sneakers for some relief. My friend , in his brown coloured kurta /lungi /flip flops , looks unperturbed , though the humidity is high and the temp around 35 deg C.

“ We are all travellers in the wilderness of this World and the best we can find in our travels, is an honest friend.”

We drive away into the city and then to the suburbs. Less vehicles, lesser people , we see empty state transport buses returning to their depots. A few shapes on the road dividers stir, I see water being gulped, the shapes flop back onto dirty dusty sheets. Heat and exhaustion ensures their sleep, mutters my friend.

“ they do not grasp at the stars , but do life’s plain common work, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life “

We reach the base of the hills, park and walk towards the well lit arch at the start of the steps heading away upwards into semi darkness. A board reads “ 1085 steps” , “ 10 Kms to temple”. I sigh, and join my friend by putting my right foot on the first step. A bunch of college students chuckle and laugh their way past us, and yell in chorus “Govinda.” The stone arch is reportedly around 10 century AD. After about 15 min of the climb, my friend pauses, waves to me to continue.

“ the best things are nearest, breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties in your hand, the path of God before you.”

The steps , between flat stretches, appear to be increasing in number . I suddenly remember my Dad chanting , “ up and up we go” many many years ago, when we as children, negotiated the steps to the Todas village in the botanical garden in Ooty. He had asked us to zig zag our trek up the steps, and I , a senior citizen now, smile as I follow his advice. Sweat pours off my forehead and neck, in the very warm night, and the small hand- towel in my hands is as wet as a dish rag. Many stride past us, including ladies with babies in their arms and children clinging to the ends of their sarees, talking shrilly, casting shy glances at two well aged us, while their children eye the sodas stacked in small shops along the edges.

“We are now not that strength which in old days, moved Earth and heaven, that which we are, we are….”

I had , as part of my prep, walked 4 flights of stairs each day for 2 weeks, prior to this day, but I huff and puff and pause to check others’ progress. A few ladies are bending down at each step to apply turmeric paste or red kumkum ! I stare in amazement only to notice a few others stooping to place small camphor pellets on each step, whilst their companion bends down too, to light these pellets. And I ? – I am merely walking.

I try a few deep breaths , mutter “ the saints are the sinners, who keep on trying” and march on. More pauses, knees aching, I finally reach and lean on a board which reads “ steps 2000, temple 8 Kms”. A cool breeze caresses my face and neck as I wait for my friend. Small deers congregate at the fence separating the step pathway and the forest. Fellow walkers feed the deers, some take selfies.

“ it is not so much for its beauty that a forest makes a claim on mens’ hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of the air, that emanation from old trees that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit”

My friend reties his lungi , we gulp water , we decide to climb at least for 1 Km between breaks. The staff in the now increasing tuck shops loudly proclaim their wares, invite us to sit on red and yellow plastic chairs near their establishments. I wonder why no one is sleeping.

At 3 am my thoughts drift towards my family, all member snug in their beds. They are not aware of my mode of travel. After all, one of the joys of life is to do something when all say one can’t.

“ how dull it is to make a pause, to make an end, to rust unburnished, not to shine in use”

1500 steps done, we step on to a tar road, winding its way between peaks. The temple priests begun chanting the suprabatham. The speakers on top of poles, planted every 50 metres ensures that we stay awake. I look up to spot the gopuram, but to no avail. Instead I spot Usha dancing her way on the trees and foliage.

“ rousing all life, she stirs all creatures that have feet, and makes the birds of air fly up”

We sip sweet hot tea, before the final climb of 500 steps. We are tired, but firmly believe that all treks have happy endings, and so if we aren’t happy, the trek isn’t over. We are so engrossed in putting each foot forward that we don’t notice that the climb is over, we are actually in the temple compound. Most shops are shut, a few taxi drivers are awake, we decide to follow the signs to reach the enclosure specially made for foolhardy walkers. Our footwear and mobiles are stored away, we sink gratefully on to the cool floor in the large hall with huge fans and a few benches. The volunteers there offer warm flavoured milk, as we stare like Cortez at the 100 odd metres of pathway and gopuram at its end.

“ I never weary of great temples, mankind was never so happily inspired, as when it made a temple”.

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