Into The Arms Of Shiva

by Cheryl Bentley

I had hoped my spirit would soar on the four-day, 30-mile trek to the Amarnath cave high in the Indian Himalayas, but now all I can think of is the l5 pounds I have gained over the past few years.

The day before in Srinagar, in Kashmir, India's fabled Himalayan state, I had stowed everything but a daypack containing a change of clothes. Without my possessions I had felt exposed and vulnerable, instead of liberated. I had almost junked the trip then and there.

And now as I timidly start off from the village of Pahalgam near Srinagar on this, one of India's most famous pilgrimages, to Shiva's lingam of ice, a phallic symbol representing the creative force, I wryly consider Shiva, my favorite Indian god. Shiva is the destroyer, removing the attachments that keep us earthbound.

I am depressed that my attachments in what I had once envisioned as a journey of the spirit are glaringly physical. I mourn my former svelte form that would have had no trouble climbing l4,000 feet into the Himalayas. Can my present out-of-shape, middle-aged body make it?

The path on the first day's nine-mile leg rapidly becomes steep. I need all my energy to maintain my confident walk. I might feel shaky inside, but I resolve no one will know.

People try to talk to me. I imagine they think I am funny-cute-dumb-weird and walk past them, my shoulders boldly squared. I resolve not to be fodder for their tourist tales.

I am initially so worried about getting around the next bend and finally during these last hours as I near our camp at Chandanwari, just putting one blistered foot in front of the other, I hardly appreciate the beauty of the rushing river and pine trees beside the trail.

Chandanwari, and the two other camps we 20,000 pilgrims will rest in on future days, are like primitive cities with first-aid stations of both Western and ayurvedic medical supplies, tents, and a loud speaker system for lost pilgrims. Judging from the many announcements blaring into the night, it is evidently common to lose one's way on this journey to God.

These camps are organized by Kashmiri tourist officials. They have invited me to stay in their tent and share their meals. When I arrive, one offers me a welcome cocktail of canned mango Frooti and vodka. In spite of earlier thoughts of purifying my body along with my spirit, I sip it eagerly, an earthy libation not to the god of the mountains, but to the deity ruling my feet who had so miraculously made them walk, step by step.

Maybe it is from the vodka, or maybe from my growing certainty that I can make it, that on this first night I begin to warm to my fellow pilgrims.

Our camp is a pageantry of humanity. Naked holy men, dancing eunuchs with gold earrings and feathers in their turbans, tough Muslim hillsmen renting burros mingle with the thousands of Hindus who trust that this trek will bring them closer to God. Most seem as out of shape and poorly prepared as I.

The next day I walk next to a man in thin cotton dhoti ending at his knees, cheap sneakers, vinyl cap with fake fur earflaps, and a polyester sweater. Both of us are puffing. "Tired?" he asks.

My determined shoulders have begun to relax. Here in the mountains my weaknesses have found space. Liberated, they cease their nagging and become gentle reminders of my humanity. "Tired!" I respond with a happy laugh.

Tired is a word which fuels the rest of the trek over Mahagunas peak, beside the azure waters of Sheshnag Lake, and finally up to the cave of the flower-strewn lingam which every year melts and is reborn again.

Sloshing through the mud from the overnight rains, I am accompanied to the cave by a bent old woman who whispers, "Shiva!" with each step. She pats my hand.

Her faith embraces both the ancient mountains and my modern angst.

I sob all the way up to the cave. My Kashmiri tourist friends are worried about me.

I tell them that, indeed, I am just fine.

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