That damn Beatles ashram was difficult to find. Instead of spending a lazy afternoon exploring the abandoned grounds where the White Album was written, we followed thousands of charras-smoking Shiva pilgrims on a 12km hike to the Neelkanth Temple.
The road immediately turned into a dirt path heading straight uphill. At each turn we were convinced that the destination lay just a few steps ahead. We had a vague idea that the orange devotees were heading to a holy waterfall but had no idea where that waterfall was located or what else we would find.
After an hour of walking straight uphill, dripping with sweat, barely able to breathe, we halting asked someone where they were headed: how far is this damn walk? For the first time in India, no one spoke English.
“Twenty kilometers!” someone shouted at us as they walked past.
Now we’ve been in Asia a long time and we have learned that no one willingly walks 20 kilometers in 100 degree heat at 2,005m above sea level. We were fairly certain he meant two. Two kilometers.
So we continued to climb. And climb. And CLIMB. By the time we had climbed 8km, we had lost our will to live. So when a posse of stoned Shaivas called for Vinnie to join them for a rest in the shade, he willingly acquiesced.
The group of guys had traveled from Goa and Delhi to make the holy trek together. This was the Indian version of a Cancun spring break with a religious twist. All the pilgrims carried two things: a bottle of water from the Ganges and a black fanny pack filled with charras, papers and matches. The water is poured over a stone at a temple at the top of the hill. The charras was to help make the climb a little easier.
The men sat under a tent, buying individual cigarettes from the vendor and roll a joint. Not just one joint. The men rolled one after another sharing the hash between each other and dozens of other men walking up the hill. Who knew that pot played such an important role in spiritual enlightenment!
They excitedly chattered away about their quest and the charras. The leader of the group turned to Vinnie, repeatedly asking, “How do you feel, are you happy?” “Be Happy!” demanded.
Together with the men we continued up the hill, albeit very, very slowly. The steep winding path was lined with garbage bag tents on one side and a sharp drop on the other. We may have been in the middle of the wilderness but it was never silent. Exuberant boys who had already reached the top ran downhill blowing on whistles and shouting “Bum! Bum! BOULE!”
We passed babas playing drums and asking for money, “Hurry, do not stop!” the group warned. Serious pilgrims slowly climbed the hill performing arduous prostrations – kneeling to stretch their body against the ground, then standing up to repeat the action until they reach the top.
Every few steps another joint would circle around; when it’s effects were felt, we would take a break to buy water or food for the monkeys.
Depending on the level of stonedness, the men would either marvel at their environment (“Oh my God. Oh my GOD. Look! Look my friend! Amazing!”), or discuss God (“You know God? God is great. GREAT!”).
It took us over four hours to reach our destination and like most things the best part was getting there. Hundreds of pilgrims had carried water and offerings for miles just to lay them at the temple. At the temple’s entrance we took off our shoes only to walk across wet garbage, bottle caps and discarded offerings. Every step produced a wet squish as your weight crushed the remains beneath your feet.
We followed the line of people into the temple where two men watched as pilgrims poured their Ganges water onto a stone. After only a few seconds we were ushered out of the main temple into the outdoor courtyard where incense filled the air.
Dozens of people stood at the base of the temple emptying their water bottles and throwing the plastic into a pile. Behind the temple people were preparing to take a dip in the small pool.
I looked around, did I miss something? Was that IT!?I had expected something more.
Yes, that was it. Thousands of men walk for hours, chanting and smoking copious amounts of ganja, only to stand in line and pour water on a stone. I can’t claim to understand this particular religious rite.
Dusk was approaching, Vin’s high was wearing off and my feet were killing me. The men had fulfilled their spiritual quest and now, much calmer, were preparing for the walk down by rolling yet another joint.
It was time to take the easy way out – we called a cab!
That night as we returned to our room, we could easily hear the shouts of “Bum Bum Boule!” from the street outside. Pilgrims were just returning from their epic hike and clearly had enjoyed every moment. We did too.