The Point of No Return-trekking to Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan

||The Climb||
As last night’s frost on the leaves melt into a shining dew
and the day’s light pours into the valley in a golden hue
I begin the climb up the Kingdom’s daunting mountain peak
to hope and search for answers that all men in lassitude seek

Up above me,perched on the valley’s bare rock cliff
stands the Nest of the Tiger,made through songs of old belief
In there must sit a hermit, and a butter lamp flickering by his side?
lost in sempiternal contemplation,somewhere beyond time and tide?

The cold mountain air numbs the earlobe,yet there’s a sweat on the brow
careful of the young buds on the path,for into morrow’s flower they shall grow
And then as the heart beats against your rib,and limbs turn wooden sore
you gather your sticks and bones and climb the hill some more

It is never about the Answers that throw men to the wind
always it has been about the Questions ,that first we need to find
for the wisdom that you find at the top, is the wisdom gathered on the way
because while long lost in such solitary climbs, You meet Yourself,they say

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Later that fine April day,around early afternoon,I was slithering like a worn out reptile in the labyrinth of caves at almost ten thousand feet altitude.The rock walls of the cave were icy cold as my limbs struggled against them and still there were more darker crevices ahead.And then I saw it…the single light flickering at the end of the cave,with nothing to disturb it and nobody to corrupt it.I sit there and reflect.The claustrophobic walls slowly getting away from me,expanding outwards,creating space where none existed before.I had been busy since morning…now I have time to think.

Around 7 that sunny morning,we had gathered at the base of the mountain and looked up to see the monastery hanging precariously from a bare rock face.Takstang Monastery is the most widely known cultural icon of the Kingdom of Bhutan,located 12 kms outside the town of Paro.They call it – the Tiger’s Nest.A red and white abstraction as seen from the valley floor,the true majesty of the monastery can only be gauged from close quarters and for that to be experienced,you have to make the arduous climb uphill.

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Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche is fabled to have arrived here in old days ,taking a leap over the hills on the back of a tiger.He chose a hidden lair of caves for his contemplative meditation and stayed there for 3 years.Thus the name – Tiger’s Nest.The monastery was built around the cave in 1692 and was later rebuilt after a fire engulfed most of the old structure.

We walked up the initial gentle slopes near the base as the intoxicating sound of running water accompanied us. Old pilgrims were mounted on weary looking ponies,whose heavy breathing was drowned out by the sound of bells tinkling from their necks and leg.Happy and apprehensive faces meet each other on that brightest of spring mornings.The hike would take around 3 – 4 hours depending upon your fitness level and enthusiasm.The first hour is spent in curiosity as the trekking path winds steeply up the first hill,green and dense foliage covering you from the sunlight and birds chirping on branches near you.This is also the most strenuous part of the journey as you put your walking pace into a rhythm.No haste,no delay,just walk as it suits you.
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Our first aim was to reach the cafeteria that is located at mid – point of the trail.The ponies stop here and so do most other people riding on them.Only about half of the trekkers carry on forward from this point.It’s not the walking,but the steep climb that will run you out of breath,and when the flesh and bones give up,you will realize that the spirit within you has more power to move forward.At times when you feel the weight of the mountain on your shoulders,just pick your limbs and climb some more.Simple mind over matter.
A local guide smiles at us as he carries an elderly Japanese lady on his back.As she looks at us with a glee the guide tells us about such journeys – “on all paths as tough as this,there comes always a Point of No Return,from where it is easier to reach your goal than to return backwards.All must try and reach that point”.
The lady dismounts,she wants to walk to the holy place.Our weary bodies take in the cold mountain air and feels reinvigorated.The first two hours behind us, we had camouflaged ourselves into the surroundings,mentally and physically.Now we move briskly through the woods.
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The mid – point break at the cafeteria was used to munch on chocolates brought along and other replenishments much needed.People have their own reasons but what about you? What gets you going forward?
If nothing else inspires you,keep your eyes on the Tiger’s Nest,the views of the monastery grows majestic with each step on the way ahead.You keep walking despite the tired legs,the denouement seems near,so near.Either as a pilgrimage or as an adventure,you end up with the intoxication of redemption at the end of both.Find your own reasons before starting any journey and let it then guide you to an ebullient climax.
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The path flattens out a bit just before you reach the last leg of the trail.A calm and pleasant walk ensues into a different terrain,a flat hill top with the occasional steep climb ups.Tall trees here and the sunrays piercing through the canopy.The old women and her guide are taking a halt and collecting water by a small stream.And just when I was thinking how infectious her smile is…I come to an opening at the end of the hill and stop in my path abruptly.A stopover where many people have gathered.The trail takes a downward plunge of stairs all the way to the gates of the Tiger’s Nest.I can see the daunting stairs and heave a sigh.But there it is,the cynosure of all eyes,the grandiose monastery in it’s red and whiteness.800 more steps hanging between the two hills like a necklace and a waterfall gushing down a stiff rock face on the way.This ought to be a “point of no return”.Is there a hermit sitting in transcendental meditation up here? Are all of us who have hiked up,not intruders into such inglenooks of the planet?
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I let go of the guilt,I indulge in jubilations, you get high on the rarified mountain air itself.The ethereal monument looks more beautiful than what picture postcards could ever show.The intruders are at the gate finally.
I cut away from the tourists,I go with the pilgrims into the main prayer hall and sit down at the back of the room,reclining my back on the icy cold wall of the monastery.
They pray in mellifluous murmurings , I listen , my senses and limbs inured.I envy all those people in that cold room for never have I been able to place my belief in a god,I really envy the simplicity of that thought and those people.Has my agnosticism helped make my life better? Or anyone else’s for that matter? I don’t know.
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There is an entire chamber aglow with butter lamps,I stand there for a long time looking at hundreds of them flicker and put forth light into that darkness, and I also realize that I am standing there just to feel warm at that cold height.The compound comprises of many small and big prayer halls and meditation chambers with the murals of Buddhist pantheon spread colorfully all over.The world that you come from, the life that you lead seems so far away,almost from another parallel universe.There is a precipitation of other – worldliness here.
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And then my curios steps lead me away to an entrance with “Tiger’s Nest” written above it.Bend low and enter the caves.The labyrinth of crevices goes vertically down and there’s wooden staffs put across the rock faces for you to hold on to.The walls come closer now,the very definition of claustrophobia up here.But the hint of something ahead gets me going…there must be an end to such a rigmarole of caves.
Someone has placed a stuffed tiger in here to heighten the dramatic effect of the Tiger’s Nest. Reaching another “point of no return”,twice on the same day,I see the lamp lit in front of the frame.A simple gesture to commemorate the spot where Guru Rinpoche perhaps came to meditate.Perhaps all mysteries are simple matters in the end.
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Down there it’s coldly quite except for a slow whistling of mountain air through a small vent in the cliff.The world outside the cave that you came from seems a distant dream now,the things that you do – seems trivial presently.Perhaps the quintessential peace that all men crave is at hand,or perhaps it’s just another fleeting moment in the chaos of our lives.
But I decide to do,what I must do.

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Done with the monastery,done with the arduous climb…I walk back the path late in the afternoon and the day’s light was fading out as I stretched my legs at the end of the day in Paro and also our last day in Bhutan.
And what did I do?
I brought back that ‘cave’ in me that day,I kept it inside me like a sanctuary.I still carry it around me at all the times.When the noise of the world gets too shrill and violent I sit in that cave and smile a little.

Soumya D Jena
27th September 2016

 

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