Mani Mahesh – truly colossal and divine, and our expedition substantiated the fact. The preparation for this larger-than-life travel started a few days beforehand, with shopping for the necessities. For economical travel gear, Ambala served the purpose. Loaded with the requisites, we set out on 2nd October 2014 for what was going to be a life changing expedition for the 7 of us. Pitfalls form the foremost part of a journey, and the first one came by pretty early, when we realized that a 4 am bus to Chandigarh would be hard to come by. After what seemed to be a long wait, fortune favored us and we managed to reach there by 8. Kullu looked like a way more popular destination than we had expected, as even bus tickets were tough to get. So, a bit of a “jugaad” and we were on our way at 10. The route cadenced, as we took in the fresh mountain breath. Sleep deprivation took its toll and short naps were inescapable. The camaraderie of an attractive “pahadan” made the rather long journey to kullu a source of infotainment for us. An insight into her Buddhist culture was a windfall to her beauty. We reached Kullu at 9 and took a cab to Naggar, which was the hometown to one of us, and so, a place to rest after a long and exhausting day. After a refreshing bath and a traditional dinner, we passed out enervated from the after effects of a long travel.
The next morning started with local sightseeing of the Naggar castle, illustrious for the movies shot there apart from its historical significance, and the muralidhar temple, which was about a kilometer uphill.
The next destination was the famous Kullu Dussehra, known for its uniqueness and fervor, which we managed to reach by 4. It did not involve conflagrating an effigy of ravana, but encompassed various deities from the diverse districts of Himachal Pradesh arriving to show their reverence to Lord Rama in their decorated “palkis”. Legend has it, that these palkis sway from side to side because of the mystical divine energies these deities possess. Luck favored us yet again as we were able to catch a glimpse of this myth as “peer kela devta” revealed his might. After relishing the festivities and a joy ride on the Columbus, we set forth for another long journey to Chamba, a town situated amidst picturesque valleys.
We reached Chamba at noon the next day, after passing the entire journey napping. Not having much time to spend there, we freshened up at the HRTC guest house, stuffed our stomachs and headed for Bharmour. As the bus took a midway stop, we had the time to take a few pics on the banks of Raavi.
The voyage was a short and pleasant one and we reached Bharmour by 6. It is a small town at an elevation of 2195m, surrounded by high lush green mountains, located at 62kms from Chamba and popular for the Chaurasi (84) and the Brahmani Devi temples. The hotel rooms were cheap and cost about 400 bucks per room for a night. After a heavy dinner at the Punjabi Dhaba, a famous local eatery, we passed into a sound sleep and braced for the foremost part of our expedition, the Mani Mahesh trek.
Feeling the fresh morning breeze gush against our faces, we started on a 3km uphill pilot trek up to the Brahmani Devi temple. According to the legend, anyone who intends to visit Manimahesh must take a dip in the Holy kund at the Brahmani Devi temple failing which their pilgrimage would not be acceptable to Lord Shiva. And so, we abided by the ritual, and eating fresh farm apples on the way, made it to the temple. After taking blessings for our trip further ahead, we gathered courage to take a dip in the holy kund which was almost freezing at 1-2 deg. Being on a schedule, we quickly descended back to bharmour, visiting the chaurasi temples on the way, which are named after the 84 Sadhus who were passing this region and fell in love with its calmness and reconciled to meditate here. We compressed our bags down to 10kgs each and after keeping the extras at a cloak room, ate and geared up for it-the MANI MAHESH Trek. The cab to Hadsar, which is the starting point of the trek and is situated 17km away from Bharmour at an elevation of 2317m, was arranged for us by our guide at 400 bucks. At 2pm, we chanted the Lord’s name and took our first step of the 14km long trek. Our strategy was to reach Dhancho, the midway point of our hike, before nightfall. Our team grew as we were accompanied by two native mountain dogs throughout the journey.
After a few stops for snacks and pics, and most importantly to catch our breath, we made it to Dhancho by 6:30. We set base near the only shed that was still there after the ending of the Mani Mahesh Yatra in August. As it grew colder, we quickly set up our tents, one a branded Quechua, and the other, rather inferior. The ultimate anytime anywhere food-Maggi was cooked for us by the shed owner after which he headed with our guide to their rest place 500m away . The food tasted more toothsome than it ever had, and moreover, now we had lesser weight to carry. After a few pictures, with the DSLR set upon the tripod, we hoped for a sound sleep as we squeezed into our sleeping bags, but God had planned differently. The silence of the night was soon broken by the constant barking and howling of the dogs, who were being intimidated by some creature in the dark. Having heard stories about the mountain bears who are known to rip people apart and the knowing the threat posed by the wildlife in this untouched part of nature, our senses were alerted. Gathering courage, we all got out at the same time, only to find out that the dogs were fighting over our food reserve, two crates of boiled eggs that we had forgotten outside. Feeling a bit more secure, after picking up an axe from the shed, we still had a rather disturbed sleep not knowing the mystery of the dark.
We were up at daybreak as the guide had expressed the challenges of the route ahead. We freshened up quickly, took bread and tea for breakfast, and captured the landscape in our handycam before setting foot ahead. Appreciating the serenity of the place we left for the final part of our uphill trek to MANI MAHESH at 9. We soon started to feel the efforts increase as the difficulty of the hike augmented.
The number of stop overs multiplied as the oxygen levels dropped and the layers of clothes increased to face the escalating cold weather. Pausing for a few pictures at the waterfall, we continued up to Bhairav Ghati. To the right of this place was a perilous deep gorge where natures might could be felt eyeing down into the rapid stream of water gushing by. The guide instructed us to cross the ridge ahead together as the risk was high. We set each foot ahead with caution, our senses alerted. With each stepping stone we felt more alive than we ever did.
All of us made it through and after a rather easy hike that followed, we reached Gauri Kund-where Goddess Parvati was known to bathe. And there it was, mightier than anyone of us had imagined-The Mani Mahesh peak, but partly visible yet. The trek had taken its toll on us but energy surged into our body as we now took the final steps towards the sacred lake of Mani Mahesh. As per the guide, Lord Shiva tests his disciples in this last kilometer of the climb, as we ourselves felt the strain on our muscles increase. The belief of seeing the peak in full view drove us ahead as the Lord accepted us to his abode.
Thought processes stopped, pupils dilated, as we felt the energy surround us. A feeling of accomplishment started to sink in as we saw the first view of the Mani Mahesh Lake at 5pm. A few clouds that were earlier surrounding the peak, now cleared as if they were waiting for us to complete the Lord’s test of perseverance. Words can never be enough to convey the emotions we felt eyeing the peak on one side and the lake on the other. It grows cold rather quickly at 4100m, and so without much delay, we set up our tents. Taking a holy dip in the freezing lake was a challenge only two of us accepted, who settled around a bonfire later to avoid the risk of hypothermia. The guide ordered food for us at the shed there and soon we were feeding on Dal Roti, and a potato vegetable which felt like water to a thirsty traveller in a desert. We met a middle aged photographer and traveller from Kolkata, who discussed with us a bit about his past endeavors. We soon settled into the tents after a small game of poker. Outside the moon was waxing toward the 15th night, with its light shining on the summit. Despite the barking of the dogs all night, we had a more comfortable sleep having experienced it before and knowing that God was looking out for us now that we were so close to his abode.
As the sun rose and the rays shone over the snow covered Mani Mahesh peak, it looked more splendid than it ever had. A parikrama of the lake was all that was left to complete the pilgrimage part after which we packed the tents. In the want of more, two of us split with the guide further up to Kamal Kund from where the peak appeared like a wall impossible to climb, while the rest of us went for a hike to get a better view of the KALA glacier. After completing the documentation and experiencing the tranquility of the region we started with the descent and bundled up together at Gauri Kund at 1. With one last view of the peak and memories that would stay fresh forever, we made it back to Dhancho within 2 hours.
Realizing that we had to descend the entire route before dusk, we hurried our way down. Although the bags were lighter, and the trip downhill was no challenge, our knees started to give up. But we gathered strength from each other’s support as we climbed down the final set of stairs at 6:30. We closed our eyes, and with thoughts of the Lord, rung the bell and took our last step. We bid farewell to the faithful dogs that accompanied us throughout the journey and took a cab back to Bharmour. A feeling of tranquility engulfed us as we went deep into introspection. Without much delay, we ate and passed out for the night not knowing there was a bit more to the trip.
We woke up next morning to find that the peaks that were visible outside the hotel window, which were no higher than 3000m were now white with snow. Even though the view was fabulous, all we could think of was about being up there, at 4100m, waking up to experience our first steps outside the tent into foot deep snow. The guide tried to show us the bright side by expressing the threats that we avoided by descending at the right time. Even though our minds agreed, our hearts wanted something else. We made the final payments for the Hotel and the guide, who charged us at 800 a day for sharing his experience as we bid adieu to the abode of Lord Shiva.
The journey back to Kurukshetra was a comfortable one in an AC bus and without any other surprises reached our hostel at 5 in the morning. And now all we had to do was rest for a few days for the body to recover, but we were still there, back at Mani Mahesh in our minds. What started as a discussion among best of friends, turned out to be a journey full of thrills and a left us with memories worth a lifetime.