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Thursday, July 5, 2007

Mukhtinath and a Failure to Summit

These are Jane’s notes about July 2 being typed on July 5 in Kathmandu by Reba, since Jane is still out west.

After our amazing festival in Jomsom, where the painting now hangs, our team of seven (plus our great West Virginia friends Debra and Eric, and their gorgeous baby Joey) had the tremendous fortune to walk for days to the northern-most, twelve-o’clock point along the Annapurna circuit of ancient trails out west here in Nepal. This ultimate village is called Ranipauwa, where we stayed with Tsampa’s brother-in-law and his wife, in their rustic Hotel Mona Lisa. From this spot, we took day walks down into a valley, visiting Tsampa’s exquisite nunnery, Tarba Chuling, and his “born village,” the remote and untouristed and most definitely ungentrified Chhenghor.
But Ranipauwa itself is far less famous than the holy pilgrimage site a twenty minute uphill walk beyond it. This destination is Mukhtinath, and it is revered not only in Nepal but the length of the Indian subcontinent. Pilgrims from even the southern-most tip of India, for thousands of years, have walked (and hobbled) for months to reach the holy site of Mukhtinath. Like all pilgrimages, part of the sacred experience derives from the sheer difficulties overcome in reaching the place, which raises interesting questions about the very recent addition of a crude new heliocopter landing pad, where a Russian-piloted chopper now makes noisy runs to deliver a dozen rich and sedentary Indians at a time within a few yards of the fabled gates of holy Mukhtinath.
Mukhtinath is two sites simultaneously. It is a holy site for Hindus, mostly for worshippers of the Himalayan god Shiva. Our culture at home seems to me quick to dichotomize: rich/poor, young/old, white/black, marriage/divorce, female/male. And although the Christian god does manifest as a Trinity, Christians I think closely guard the fact that the Holy Trinity is still One God. Hindus, too, speak of Moksha, a Heaven-like Over-Soul, like a big circle lassoed around the festive pantheon of Hindu gods; a kind of “Everything” idea. But Hindus are in love with a crowd, and so their God prefers to stay divided into a dizzying number of personalities, much more divers than just the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Anyway, there is certainly the dichotomy in Christianity between Heaven and Hell, which is also the opposition of God and that ultimately arrogant, failed angel, Lucifer, the Devil. Maybe because our western religious imagination has the habit of this good-bad dichotomy, the Hindu god Shiva has a particularly bad reputation in the west.
He is known as Shiva the Destroyer, but this way of calling his name is misleading. Shiva is simply the aspect of nature that worms, vultures, and maggots represent. Shiva oversees decomposition. He is The Composter. Without the energy he represents, life would be no journey, just stasis. He is part of a triumvirate in the crowded Hindu pantheon, one of the Big Three boy-gods, as my friend Suzi Gablik would say. Shiva the Destroyer cooperates with Brahma the Creator and Vishnu the Preserver. Think of Shiva as late autumn in your garden. Vishnu is winter, preserving sap and life-force in clever seeds. Brahma gets to star as spring and summer, but he would lose favor on Broadway without his co-stars. There would be no re-incarnation (Vishnu) without death (Shiva) and life (Brahma); these three gods know their gardening and their theatre, and not one of them is a devil, inexplicably mean or evil.
So I like Shiva. I like many of his stories. I really like Brahma and Vishnu, too, but not as much as I like the girls-gods in Hinduism. The Indigo Girls are their choir.
Mukhtinath is, simultaneously, a Buddhist pilgrimage site. Over to the far right, beyond the many shrines and temples to Shiva, is one low, unpretentious, rock building. Buddhists bend to enter the undersized door, and one’s first impression is of grime and smut and near-total-darkness. In this smoky, blackened, juniper-acrid room, over on the floor, rises a little adobe hump with a screen grill over the front. When your eyes finally adjust, you see through the gummy grill a small blue flame, smelling of a gas pilot light. And then your eyes adjust again, and by only the light of this pale fire reflecting, you now see a boisterous little umbilical spring of water gurgling up out of the earth four inches from where the earth cracks open to allow the blue fire. Then you realize what you are beholding: earth, fire, water, air, and the fifth Tibetan element, mind; all five elements in the same space. For this confluence, for being in the presence of this balance, Buddhist pilgrims come from all over the world. This grimy, primal cave of all ingredients is my draw to Mukhtinath. I re-emerge from this natural shrine equipped with new, secret colors on my palette and a more subtle education about the anatomy of love.
Meanwhile, just outside, powerful torrents of freezing Himalayan glacier-melt muscle into dozen of unruly streams, diverging crazily through the property, channeled somehow into dozens of audaciously engineered irrigation ditches. The place is loud with water.
And thanks to this wild water, larches and willows green Mukhtinath into a rare oasis, in an otherwise harsh Himalayan moonscape. (Each tree, incidentally, is thought to be a walking stick, plunged into the earth by some ancient pilgrim) And, from the tangled branches, all the strings of five-colored prayer flags add the campy festivity of a state fair. But ten yards behind these trees, the world shifts.
Immediately behind the shrines of Mukhtinath sit the race of giants whose great stone toes few people ever approach, the enormous and unfathomably vertical Himalayas. These giants have no peers-nothing comparable. They are bigger than planets, and they stare down outer-space. There is one single way into their realm, a god-awful vertical path, invisible except to the most determined and intrepid, an ascent through boulders and broken, rising pastures and over granite-grey river sources and straight up alongside dizzying precipices that make King Kong’s Skull Island look like Disneyland. This path traces the infamous backside of one of the huge Himlayas, and it is called the Thorung-La (say it, TORE-ung la), 18,000 feet tall.
“La” means “pass” in Tibetan, so think of this path not as the trail leading up the profile of North Carolina’s old Grandfather Mountain, but more like Jack’s beanstalk spiraling above the clouds, making the only way in this part of Nepal to cross this particular range of the otherwise impassable Himalayas.
Jenna and I crossed this pass in January, 2001, from the other (easier) side, in a blizzard. This time, our team of seven attempted. Five of us have incredible stories of victory to tell, but I wanted to address what all the serious Himalayan climbers call “failure to summit,” since I am one of two who did not reach the very top.
Climbing this mountain requires fitness, patience, and will. These I had, even after six hours. But suddenly, at 17,000 feet, 40 minutes from the top, we were hit with rain, sleet, and a driving wind from the top of the mountain. In three minutes I was drenched and shivering convulsively-the one of us without a raincoat. Andrea, if I wore the one you gave me, I too would’ve summited, but I thought my fleece was enough. I failed from this simple technical point.
As a result, I had a four-hour descent alone, with sleet in my hair, my hands numb (though I was badly sunburned from two days before). I saw one enormous wild yak, a few bird, and not another soul. I saw clouds shaped like gigantic sea-horses and tortoises outpace and swallow me. I saw glaciers practicing yoga. I noticed edelweiss and creeping juniper and dwarf azaleas and miniature primulas blooming. I was devoured again by clouds. I became lost briefly. I slipped in mud and nearly sailed off raw edges. And, finally, I became mindless, like a rock, like a cloud, like drizzle, and sleet, and breathing, without any certainty of a safe destination.
Failure to summit. I did miss standing at the very top, but in my wild walk down the enormous mountain, alone, I was reduced to pure quiet vision, and this is what I saw: my children. Jenna. My family. My friends. Animals. Plants. Painting. Teaching. Walking. Moving. Mountains. Rivers. Villages. A Buddhist nunnery in the far distance, nestled in yellow wheat and green pea fields. Prayer flags. Nothing else necessary.


Anonymous said...

I love this story. I would call it white like the clouds you got lost and found in. Also maybe white like the "mystery" flavored candy that comes in the white wrapper because you discovered something unknown but also that you had along.


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