Gujarat, India: Stairway To Moksha
By Jenny Williams
Our auto-rickshaw stutters to the base of the mountain just before dawn. The streets are already surging with people, bobbing bodies huddled under woolen shawls and white turbans. It smells of dust and early morning. Straight ahead, the holy temple-topped Girnar mountain range sports a sunrise halo.
“We're climbing that?” I ask. My boyfriend, Randy, raises his eyebrows.
Vijay, an Indian student we met last night, nods.
“Nine thousand, nine hundred, and ninety-nine steps,” he proclaims. “Many pilgrims come here to climb Girnar. And since today is the last day of the Bavnath Mahadev celebration, there will be the most people on the mountain.”
Bavnath Mahadev is an annual three-day festival that brings thousands of Hindu pilgrims together in a mahapuja (grand worship) of Lord Shiva. During the day people scale Girnar to pray in the top-most temples at 3100 feet, after which they descend to bathe in the holy water tanks at the base. The climax is a midnight parade led by naked sadhus—men seeking moksha, or enlightenment—riding elephants amidst lively crowds. We’d stumbled into the celebration by accident, hearing about it for the first time on the train here. Fellow passenger: “You will enjoy the festival so much.” Us: “What festival?”
As sun floods the packed streets, we are swept into the human rip current and pulled toward the first steps. Streetside booths sell inflatable animals in rainbow colors, handmade cloth dolls, fluorescent pinwheels, glitzy plastic jewelry, and CDs with faded cardboard covers. Televisions buzz with images of last year’s parade, complete with undressed sadhus wielding sticks while a crowd beats syncopated rhythms on hand-held drums.
Before we begin the ascent, Vijay stops us.
“I will come with you on one condition,” he says. “One condition only.”
Randy and I hold our breath.
Vijay continues. “You have lunch with my family after we climb. You meet my family. That is my condition.”
We break into laughter and agree. Vijay grins and pats Randy on the shoulder.
“I think we are great friends now,” he says.
Fueled by the thought of home-cooked curry, we start off strong. The steps are some four or five feet wide, flanked on either side by dirt, boulders, and an ever-increasing drop-off. Women are wrapped in layers of vividly colored fabrics and bejeweled with heavy gold earrings and bangles; men wear anything from stonewashed jeans to white dhotis.
Alongside the path, half a dozen sadhus, flabby and quite nude, sit cross-legged on small squares of cloth with bowls for alms. They compete for rupees against dirty children with tiny outstretched hands, women with babies suckling at their breasts, and men with bandaged limbs—or no limbs at all.
Other pilgrims have too many limbs: paper maché hands painted black and attached to stooped shoulders, making the men look like divine statues. Groups of (clothed) sadhus gather around fires and puff on pipes; a few invite Randy and me to sit, but Vijay ushers us on.
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