The next morning the day dawned, not bright and cheerful like our mood, but dull and dreary! It was an overcast sky and a chilly wind that greeted us as we got into the vehicle that was to take us to the start point of the trek. We toyed with the idea of cancelling it, but we had only that one day and our guide optimistically assured us that such weather is temporary and by mid-morning the sun should be out. To further cheer us up he also offered the comforting insight that it was just a two hour climb even if you took it slow and steady. At the base the weather stayed stubbornly dour and when we saw the not-so-very-easy-to-negotiate-track and the dark threatening clouds, we thought of engaging mules to carry us till the halfway point so that we could speed up our hike and get back before it started raining.
The climb up was a steep one and you had to take it slow to manage the pace of the altitude. The narrow mule track was fairly well maintained but the hooves slipping and swaying on some of the sharply rising portions was tortuous at times! The trail passed through a scenic pine forest and you had colourful prayer flags and even some scattered vendors selling souvenirs like prayer wheels, bells etc to keep you company along the way. The mules left us near a rocky plateau jutting out over the valley. There was a viewpoint and a cafeteria that served much welcome cups of steaming hot milky tea and some crackers. From here we could also see the Taktsang monastery buildings on the other side of the ravine.
Shrouded in clouds, it looked eerie and remote. We could all do with a flying tigress concubine to help us reach there, we joked amongst ourselves! Refreshed and energised we began the next stage of our hike on foot. The pine thickets were denser here and much to our chagrin there was a slight drizzle at times that added to our uncomfortable chill. We trudged along thus, the monastery appearing and disappearing in and out of the trees and the swirling clouds, and reached the final approach to our destination. One look and we almost gave up for we were again at a rocky outcrop dropping a couple of thousand feet into a gorge below with the monastery still on the other side!
The view was breathtaking, but the cold and tired part of you just wanted to take it all in and head back for you could see that the trail ahead consisted of seemingly endless stone steps (700 we came to know later) carved into the exposed cliff face. You could also partially see a waterfall at the deep end with a bridge across it that you had to navigate for the final ascent. Well, we took heart from the weather that had cleared a bit as well as the other pilgrims plodding along (including some old Bhutanese women) and began the climb into the canyon. The sound of the large waterfall falling 200 feet into a sacred pool below, dominated the surrounding. The entire area was festooned with prayer flags and here and there we could see mounds of ‘mani-stones’ (a feature we had first come across during our visit to Ladakh — they are stones of various sizes placed one on top of the other as an offering to the spirits of the place).After passing by the waterfall there was one last brutal flight of steps and then we were at the monastery.
At the entry gates, you had to leave your shoes, cameras, mobile-phones etc and thereafter you were free to climb the several levels within, soaking in the ethereal atmosphere inside. There were a number of narrow passages leading you into dark caves, chambers and temples. You could stand and stare at the countless images of ‘Bodhisattvas’ and other Buddhist icons and tangkhas. Offerings of food and money were heaped in front of some and the flickering light of traditional butter lamps cast a warm glow all around. There is a widespread belief that every one experiences some kind of a ’spiritual-moment’ once inside. The four of us too found our own secluded spots and spent some moments in quiet reflection. As i closed my eyes for those few moments i forgot the damp and cold on the outside…there was only a strange feeling of wonder at the thousands who would have meditated in this remote, inhospitable yet strangely peaceful environment and immense gratitude that we could manage a peep into this world…
(Picture credits: Surinder Sharma and Ajit Patil)