Saturday, June 28, 2008


Since the pesky Romans destroyed the Second Temple, we Jews have lacked a proper pilgrimage. Sure, we can make a nuisance of ourselves in some biblical tomb in the West Bank, or nip off to see the shrine of some wise Moroccan sage, but these are all optional excursions. Evan at its most Orthodox, Judaism requires no pilgrimages. In fact, the Rabbis were so concerned with the negative effects of pilgrimage culture, that they took great efforts to ensure that the most obvious candidate for a hardcore Jewish pilgrimage – Mount Sinai – became anything but.

To make up for this lack, I decided to join the Sikh community on their trek up to Hem Kund (Uttarakahand), where the tenth Guru, Gobind Singh, is reputed to have meditated for 300 years before being summoned by God to begin activities as a human. My love-in with the Sikhs has only deepened since my chapatti-distribution at the Golden Temple, and now seems as appropriate time as any to officially declare that my apostasy of choice would be to Sikhism. They have been the friendliest single community I’ve encountered in India (with the possible exception of the Tibetans), and I’m particularly intrigued that most travelers seem to overlook them in favour of the more other-worldly abstractions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Perhaps it’s the Jew in me, but Sikkhism seems to be rooted in the here and now, which no doubt helps to explain why Sikhs have always punched above their weight, whether in India or the Diaspora. Also, their men are extremely tough (someone told me it’s the Punjabi water), and yet are still allowed to carry daggers! My only complain would be that they – like other religious communities – take themselves far too seriously, as demonstrated by their frequent complaints whenever Bollywood portrays one of their ranks as anything other than Turban-wearing, barbershop-avoiding, pilgrimage-completing devotees.


My pilgrimage started – but of course – with a ten hour bus ride into the mountains. I’ll spare you the details, though, save for one vignette: I spent the first couple of hours (4-6AM) cramped next to an old man vomiting out the window. During the dhaba-stop, I spied salvation in the form of a seat adjacent to the driver, with leg room that called come hither more enticingly than the Bollywood actress being beamed coquettishly out of the DVD player. Our break complete, I moved to occupt it. Almost immediately, the teenage boy who had been sitting there before came to reprimand me. Believing that the etiquette for these front-seat free-for-alls was first-come, first-served, I held my ground, greeting every Hindi threat with wild, threatening gesticulations. This stand-off played itself out for a few seconds, until a middle-aged man lifted his head from his newspaper, before stating disinterestedly – in English – “he’s the driver’s son.” Defeated more emphatically than the Russians by the Spanish, I returned to the dying man.


Hem Kund is reached in two stages. First, a meandering 14km hike to the 3029m high village of Ghangria. The pilgrim season runs from June to September, which makes for a crowded path. As every, I was the pork pie to the proverbial Bar Mitzvah, the crowds greeting me with the excited astonishment participation in India religious rituals leads to. Early on, two teenage boys took me under their wing, teaching me to say Sat sri ahal (hello in Punjabi) like a native. The next step was to teach me Wahigru, the Sikh name for God a word that is chanted constantly on the way up, with no variation, like a set of football-fans with only one song.

Although uphill, the first 12km were relatively easy. But then, like an invisible gas, the high altitude suddenly kicked in. Everyone was staggering, as if in a mysterious trance. Old or young, fat or thin, Jew or Sikh, it didn’t matter: Every twenty metres, there was a pause for breath. It was a taste of what was to come. 2km later, barely standing, I made it to Ghangria, base-camp for Hem Kund.

I rose the next day at 4AM, keen to be among the first to the top. The mountain-scape was lit up by the moon: giant, protective shadows were cast all around us. As my eyes accustomed to the gloom, I made out the shapes of a handful of other early risers, also eager to be ahead of the hundreds that would inevitably follow. Yesterdays 14km took me just under four hours. Today there were only 6km. From the rudimentary knowledge of high altitude sickness I garnered from Lonely Planet, I had hoped that a good night’s sleep would help me acclimatize. Not fast enough. The climb to Hem Kund turned out to be – quite simply – the hardest physical thing I had ever done. The path rose from 3029 to 4329 metres, while the air got thinner with every step.

As I tripped forward, I cursed Gobind Singh. Why couldn’t he have meditated in the hut of his local chai-wallah? Why did he davka have to schlep up here? Maybe this pilgrimage lark was over-rated, after all. Such thoughts were far from the mind of my fellow pilgrims, however, whose ever-monotonous chants of wahigru were as strong as the burgeoning morning light. By now, even I joined in, hoping that it might spur me on. It did. Eventually, after three and a half hours of calf-crushing climbing, I had made it.

The existence of a gurdurwa in such inaccessible place defies belief. The shrine itself looks more like something out of a ski-resort, a freezing structure dug into the snow. Pilgrims are greeted with hot chai, before heading inside to listen to the cantor recite from the Sikh holy book. The braver ones then walk outside to take a dip in the half-frozen lake. I was implored to join them, but thankfully my lack of towel proved a sufficient excuse, and I made do by taking photos of submerged old Sikh men.

On the way down – after taking a detour to se the famed but currently flowerless Valley of Flowers – I started to think about the pilgrimage in a less idealistic light. The sheer difficulty of the climb means that certain sectors of the community – like small children and the elderly – can’t do it unassisted. As a result, they employ local Nepalese worker to help them up. Some go on ponies. Others are carried up, either in a basket on a Nepalese man’s back, or in a chair carried Cleopatra-style by four Nepalese men. This doesn’t come cheap, of course, but that shouldn’t hide the fact that we’re talking about slave-like work. It doesn’t matter how used to the high altitude you are; carrying a fat old man up a mountain on your back twice a day is going to quickly destroy your body.

I suppose it’s yet another powerful illustration of Isaiah Berlin’s argument that two positive values can’t always be reconciled. You can outlaw the human-carrying, and in the process destroy the Sikh-reliant local economy. Or you can do nothing, and watch as the mountain schleppers turn into cripples. Such as the awful dilemmas India often confronts you with, even in the middle of nowhere. The only resolution will come from the Sikh community itself, who should surely implore those who are unable not to climb Hem Kund, while at the same time taking care to guarantee the economic future of the local community, who after all make the pilgrimage possible.

Note: Five days after I climbed Hem Kund, seven pilgrims were killed there in an avalanche – five from the Punjab, and two from Delhi.

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