The Himalayas always held a special place in my mind since my childhood. The very first time that my mind’s eye roamed around those regions was when as a little kid I read in school about the Tamil King Imayavaramban Neduncheralathan’s [328-270 B.C] invasion of the North. This Chera dynasty king is said to have invaded the northern part of India, right up to the Himalayas, and inscribed his kingdom’s flag — a bow and arrow — on a Himalayan mountain. I was greatly fascinated by this story and I often day dreamed a lot of that invasion during my school days. In my mind, I always saw someone sculpting the bow and arrow on a rocky, snow clad mountain peak with snow all around. It wasn’t until 10th standard that I altered that imagination when I learnt in my Geography class that the Himalayan mountain range, is not just one range as I had imagined, but three major ranges – the Greater or Upper Himalayan range, the Middle Himalayas, and the Sivalik (or Shivalik) range. There is a good chance that the flag was sculpted at the base of a smaller mountain of the Sivalik range and not at the top of a Mt.Everest like peak. Maybe, that mountain stands on the state of the present day Uttarakhand. Maybe, I have that mountain in one of my many photos that I took in the last few days. And no, I don’t think I can set out on an archaeological expedition and dug through heaps and heaps of snow to uncover that emblem as my wild mind had envisioned back in school.
The Road to the Great Misty Mountains of the North
It was during the month of May that I received an email from Keshava ji (Spiritual Co-Director of Ananda Delhi) about a pilgrimage in November to Babaji’s cave in the Himalayas. I was thrilled. I filled up the application form, applied leave, paid the initial amount of money, marked the approval mail from manager in red and saved it for future reference, and decided firmly that I was going on this trip. Babaji’s cave! I googled these words and the first image that I saw was of Rajnikant smiling at the camera from a narrow opening of a cave. Although I had the thought of visiting the Himalayas at some point in my life, the thought was part of that dark region of the brain where one stores one’s To-Do list that always remains To-Do till the end. “Nainital? Darjeeling? Shimla? Tibet? Kashmir? yeah, some day…some day,” I told myself. Now everything seems possible.
I later learnt the names of some of my friends from Ananda Chennai who had planned to come on this trip. Sharmila, Mary, Agnel, Rajesh, Prasanna, Sundararajan, Sairam, Mahendran, Ashvini, Karthik…and the names went on and I was overjoyed to have all these wonderful people with me on the trip. But only days before the journey did I know that a total of 28 people from Chennai alone were coming on this trip. The more the merrier! We also had people from Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Kolkatta, and the US joining us, and totally we were a large group of 45 people. The plan was to take a flight from Chennai to Delhi, where we would meet up with all the others, and from there travel as a single group to Kathgodam via the Anand Vihar-Kathgodam Shatabdi train. At the Kathgodam railway station, we were to be picked up by two pre-booked buses that would take us to Ranikhet.
Babaji’s cave trip begins at Egmore, Chennai
November 6th was the day of the travel and I happily left home with my luggage to Sundararajan’s office at Egmore. He had graciously offered to pick me up in his car if I could come to his office and that is what I did. I reached his office by 1:40 PM and we talked for sometime about his office affairs. I sensed that the pilgrimage had already begun! I was starting to get excited. I had an urge to take a snap of him sitting on his chair with his hands clasped in front of a large world map. I controlled myself as my hand felt the camera in my belt pouch. “I am snapping one too many photos, I should control myself,” I told myself. But all that self-restraint or even the thought of self-restraint disappeared completely when I met with the others at the airport. Unlike the Pune trip, where I had only Sundararajan for company while snapping photos, this time there was Mary and Karthik who were only too happy to take photos and to pose for photos. Partners in crime! I was really pleased that Sharmila could come this time as she had narrowly missed out on the Pune trip. A lot of photos were taken from the moment we entered the airport, and throughout the boarding process, boarding the flight, in mid-air, and until everyone said “Bye, bye,” to each other at the Chennai airport on November 10th.
The flight to Delhi was lots of fun. At a height of 37,000 feet above the ground, we were flanked by the sun and the moon at the same time as we progressed towards the capital of India. By the time we reached the Delhi airport it was 8 PM. We boarded a small bus that took us to a Metro train station where more snaps followed and a warning from a security guard that my camera will be confiscated if I take any more photos inside the train. And since the warning was for only my camera, the others merrily took out theirs and snapped away in spite of the repeated cautioning by Prasanna. My camera lay sulking inside its pouch as we reached the final station. It was during this time that I first spoke to Sanjivi ji whom I had never met before.
“Are you a Kriyaban (practitioner of Kriya yoga)?” I asked him.
“What do you mean?” he retorted. “Can you not tell that by the glow in my eyes?”
During the course of the next few days I often wondered if he was deliberately being funny or if he doesn’t really know that he’s being funny. Either way, everybody loved it when he explained his point of view of things.
We were to stay at Ginger hotel which was located just opposite the station. We walked across the road, checked in, and directly dived into the dining area. It was a scene of total confusion as everyone thrusted Ruppee notes onto the face of a bewildered cashier and ordered food. The guy said something in Hindi and I didn’t understand a single word, but I did understand its overall meaning, “One at a time, please!”
After a heavy dinner I headed back to my room which I shared with our contingent’s captain Ilango. He was at a desk preparing battle plans for his troop movement the next day. Early next morning, I woke up at 3:10 AM after sleeping for just 3.5 hours. This was also the case with the others and we all piled into the cabs that Ilango and Karthik had booked for us the previous night. The cabs reached the Anand Vihar railway station and after a hot cup of coffee that tasted like tea, the rest of the pilgrims including Dharmarajan Sir, Dharmini Ma’am, Jyotish ji, Devi ji, Keshav ji and Daya ji joined us. The Anand Vihar-Kathgodam Shatabdi was boarded and the train left the station at 6:15 AM. The whole train ride was a joyous one. Everybody wanted to take a photo with Nayaswamis Jyotish and Devi and they kindly obliged to all the requests. Dharmarajan sir and Dharmini Ma’am talked to us for sometime and they stressed the importance of the trip that we were part of and the blessings that were coming our way. “This is a magical moment,” said Dharmarajan ji with a twinkle in his eyes. I absorbed his words and replayed it in my mind. My heart was warm and I felt very happy to be in the company of such great people. The Ananda choir then came to the fore and they sung a few beautiful songs for Jyotish ji and Devi ji.
The train reached the Kathgodam railway station by 11:30 AM and as we got out of the station and turned right, a huge hill stood in front of us. The image excited me. Our buses were waiting for us and I made sure that I got into same bus as Dharmarajan sir and Dharmini ma’am. They sat at the front seats behind the driver and I occupied a window seat two rows behind them. Sharmila sat beside me.
“I’ve finally seen the Himalayan hills!” I kept saying to myself. “I am blessed! I am actually a lucky person and I know it!”
Located at the foothills of the Kumoan Himalayas, Kathgodam is 554 metres (1,483 feet) above the sea level. As our buses started toward Ranikhet I took out my camera and clicked many photos. We rode alongside the beautiful Gaula river and at times crossed over it. Our road twisted and turned through the towering mountains and the altitude kept increasing. After a short while, we came across a vast, green lake called the Naukluchiatal lake (lake of nine corners) and a lot of cameras worked overtime. We then passed the picturesque towns of Bhimtal, Bhowali of Nainital, and Kainchidham. We stopped at Kainchidham and Daya ji announced that we were to quickly have our lunch and visit the Baba Neem Karoli ashram and come back within a short span. I think she gave us 45 minutes. So we crowded around the two small shops that offered us hot pakoda, Chappati, Aloo Paratha, and tea.
The Baba Neem Karoli ashram is located on the banks of a stream called Uttara Vahini (or Uttara Vaani) and is surrounded by the Bhowali mountains.
After a heavy lunch I walked to the ashram which was located right next to these shops. I climbed down a small set of stairs, crossed a short bridge that ran across the Uttara Vahini and reached the ashram entrance. The climate was very cool and pleasant. Visitors were to remove their foot wear before entering the premises. As I, along with Agnel, Mahendran, and Indu were removing our shoes, Sanjivi, our fellow Ananda Chennai pilgrim who was already done with his ashram visit, suggested that we remove our socks as well to enjoy the coolness of the place. He was right. I loved every minute of walking on the cold ashram floor bare footed. I’ve had a similar experience on the cold floor of a temple located at Thalacauvery, Coorg, Karnataka. Along with the others, I meditated for a few minutes at the lovely ashram.
Later that evening, we bumped along all the hair-pin bends and finally reached Ranikhet, a military cantonment. This beautiful town is located at an altitude of 1869 metres above sea level and from here one gets a good view of some of the towering peaks of the Greater Himalayas. As our bus turned a corner, Dharmarajan sir pointed us towards these snow clad peaks. We were over joyed and excited. Snow! Snowy mountains! Never have I seen such a spectacle. The feeling of gratitude returned strongly. The only thing that remains now is to touch these mountains and play in the snow. Our buses stopped near our resort Woodsvilla after about four hours of travel from Kathgodam.
As we entered the fantastic resort with its magical view of the Himalayas, I was dazed for sometime and then excitement engulfed me.
“I am blessed! I am blessed” I repeatedly uttered these words and patted myself on my back. Meri from California, who was standing next to me chuckled at my antics. She had come all the way from the US to visit Babaji’s caves. Each of our rooms had a view of the Himalayan peaks. The highest of these peaks is the Nanda Devi West (7816 m), this is followed by Nanda Devi East (7434 m), and the beautiful three-pointed Trishul (7120 m). These peaks are flanked by other majestic peaks like the Nanda Ghunti, Mrigthuni, Maiktoli, etc.
I love hill stations and this was certainly not the first time that I was visiting one. In the last three years, I’ve visited three hill stations, all located on the Western Ghats, and every time I visited one I was overjoyed. But there was a remarkable difference in the way I enjoyed those Western Ghat hill stations and this Himalayan one. Along with joy, I felt gratitude and the feeling that I was blessed.
From the entrance of the resort, we walked downwards on a stone flagged path towards the resort’s front desk. From there, another small flight of stairs took us down to a terrace which was flanked by a beautiful dining hall complete with a fireplace that one rarely sees in India. From this terrace, and the balcony in front of the dining hall, we marveled at the majestic peaks. To sit on one of the tables on the balcony and sip a cup of tea with this view, is a blessing in itself. Behind the dining hall a sloping path led us further down to our various rooms.
After a while we assembled at a room, located directly beneath the dining hall, for a satsang. We sat in a large circle and every one of us shared our thoughts of the trip. Some of us from Chennai recounted how the Rajinikanth movie Baba was responsible for them to join this path. It was amazing how Rajini’s name kept coming up throughout the trip. Keshava ji and Daya ji then instructed us about the trip to the cave the next day. After a wonderful dinner we retired back to our rooms for the night. Prem was my room mate.
The next morning I woke up at 4:50 AM, bathed, and hurriedly got dressed as I wanted to enjoy the early morning time. I stepped outside my room and found no one about. It was a beautiful morning and a bright full moon welcomed me. I rushed upstairs to the terrace of our building and breathed in deeply the Himalayan air. Below me lay sprawled a vast valley and many many mountains. It was pitch black and the lights from the villages in the valley looked like little galaxies in the vast outer space. This was too much joy and I couldn’t contain myself. I raced downstairs and seeing that no one was about I started jumping and dancing in the darkness. But there was one witness and it was Meri. My dancing came to an abrupt end.
“Good morning, Meri!” I said to her.
“Good morning, Nepolean,” she said smiling and she mimicked my dance. “It’s a wonderful morning, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is!” I said.
She hugged me and said that I was her best friend. It was a very sweet moment.
We then walked upstairs to the terrace near the dining hall for our Energization exercises. At about 5:55 AM I saw something move in the dark sky. It looked like a star but it was moving in a straight line towards the greater Himalayan peaks. I started filming it and called Meri and pointed it to her. Thoughts of UFOs and aliens came to my mind.
“Is that an aircraft?” I asked Meri.
“Aircrafts have blinking lights, that could be a satellite,” said Meri sensibly.
“Or maybe a UFO,” I joked.
“Babaji!” whispered Meri.
If it was a UFO, then it’s only my second sighting. Maybe this was a satellite as Meri suggested. Even if it was, no one could dispel my first sighting. It was many, many years ago and I was at the terrace of my house in Chennai. As I sat there star gazing, as I sometimes do, I spotted a moving star. It moved much faster than the Himalayan one and it suddenly stopped and changed course completely. It did a sharp right turn and then a left turn. No man made aircraft/spacecraft or a heavenly body could do that. Within seconds, the star went hyperdrive and vanished completely.
I rushed downstairs to share my “UFO news” with someone and I ran into Jyotish ji and Devi ji.
“I spotted a UFO!” I blurted out. “It looked like a star, but it kept moving and it didn’t look like an aircraft or a comet.”
“It could have been a satellite,” said Jyotish ji.
“Or a UFO!” said Devi ji with a smile.
“Yes, it could be a UFO,” agreed Jyotish ji. “It’s interesting that way.”
Later, Dharmarajan ji led the Energization exercises and after a delicious breakfast, we piled into our buses.
Trekking up towards the cave
Our buses wound further up through the mountains. We sped past small villages and saw school boys and girls trekking their way to school. They stopped and gazed at our two white buses and I looked at their faces thinking about the stories of Babaji in which he had appeared as a little boy. The sun was out in its full glory and warmed me up enough to remove my sweater. Our buses stopped at a point from which we had a good view of the Greater Himalayas. After a short break there, we further traveled and reached Kukuchina, the place from which we had to trek to Babaji’s cave located on the Dronagiri mountain.
Both Keshavaji and Jyotish ji climbed a small mound and the rest of us stood around them. Keshava ji gave us further instructions.
“Take your own time as you climb up,” he said. “We have all the time that we need.”
“You can rent walking sticks from a women who lives further up this path, but on the way back if she invites you for tea, do not accept. We’ve had problems in the past.”
Witches from Hansel and Gretel and other fairy stories flashed in my mind for a second. Did I just hear the classic dire warning of not to eat from a witch’s household? But I am sure that the past problems were nothing sinister of the kind that I imagined.
We prayed together before our departure to the cave. And then the most exciting part of pilgrimage started — the trek towards the cave! We took a dirt road that led us to the Dronagiri mountain. I saw the women and her hut as we began our ascent; she looked like a kind person and nothing like the witch that I had imagined (but isn’t that how witches lure you in? with a kind face that melts your heart?) She had a cute dog that followed us all the way to the top and then to the bottom.
We huffed and puffed upwards and I occasionally stopped to catch my breath and to let the beauty around me to sink in. I chanted Babaji’s name as I climbed higher and higher. On the way I came a across a rivulet from which I drank some water. At this point, the path split into two and I didn’t know which way to take. Ahead of me, I saw Prem taking the path on the right. As I stood there, Jyotish ji and Devi ji, along with Prasanna and a few others joined me. No one knew which was the right path.
“I’ll scout ahead and try to find the correct way,” I said to the others and ran on the path that Prem took to see if I can find the others who had traveled ahead of him. I saw him, but I was unable to find the others. I ran back to the others and I saw Keshava ji down below us. He pointed us to take the path on the left side. I shouted back to Prem and he came back to join us. All the running had me gasping for breath. From that point, I started to climb slowly. The winding path went up and up and after almost an hour of trekking we came across a locked cottage that had been built by the YSS (Yogoda Satsanga Society). The cave was just a few meters above this building and was out of view. Daya ji counted the people who had arrived to that point so far and said that I was part of the first batch of people to meditate inside the cave. I climbed up a set of concrete stairs and on the left I saw the cave. The entrance of the cave had been reinforced with concrete and was gated. The cave itself was small and could accommodate only about 10 or 11 people at a time. A brick wall that was part of the back side of the cave made me wonder if the wall cut us off from an extension of the cave that went deep down somewhere. I had brought with me to the cave, a copy of Autobiography of a Yogi, the book that I had bought a year ago from the hands of my friend Mary, and also a small picture of my Guru Paramahansa Yogananda and Swami Kriyananda. This picture had been gifted to all of us at the Ananda Chennai center during last year’s Christmas celebrations by our beloved Dharmarajan sir and Dharmini ma’am.
I settled down to meditate with the others, but to my dismay, my meditation there wasn’t as deep as I had expected. My back was a bit stiff, and it took me some time to still random thoughts that were running amok. But I did keep still for an astonishing 45 minutes (my average meditation time is 25 minutes and once I meditated for an hour). I thought that it was just 10 minutes, but 45 minutes had passed without my knowledge. It made me question myself if I had meditated without me knowing it. But still, I felt a little disappointed. I wandered about and spent some time lying down on the sloping forest floor brooding about my experience or lack of it inside the cave. During my little wandering, I went out of the path and saw an interesting tree, beyond which the terrain sloped more steeply downwards. The base of the tree had been struck and split open by a lightning. The opening was large enough for a little kid to sit inside and above this the tree split into two large branches. One half of the tree was dead, with not a single leaf, and the other branch was full of leaves. It immediately reminded me of the 1960s Tamil movie Kandhan Karunai (starring Sivaji Ganesan). This movie revolves around the God of War, Lord Murugan (Lord Karthik), and his battle against the demon King Surapadman. In the climax of the movie, Surapadman’s army is crushed and the demon king runs for his life. In a final attempt to save himself, the king transforms himself into a tree. But Lord Murugan’s all seeing eye spots the tree and he throws his spear at it, ripping it into two. The tree splits evenly into two halves; one half transforms into a Peacock (like the the half of tree with all the green leaves), and the other into a Cockerel. I lay down completely at the base of this tree for sometime, and then wandered about before finding another spot to lie down again.
After about three hours, towards the evening, Jyotish ji and Devi ji blessed us all in front of the YSS cottage and then we started our descent. We had tea at a little tea shop near which our buses had been parked and by the time we reached our resort, it was time for dinner.
Kriyaban Sanjivi ji had one huge question.
“How can people sleep at night in this biting cold? It only gets colder and colder at night and I kept wondering how everyone else is able to sleep.”
“Didn’t you use the heater in your room?” asked someone.
“There’s a heater in the room?”
And thus Sanjivi ji became Heater Swami from then on. We very much look forward to sharing our future pilgrimages and heaters with him.
The Last day of the pilgrimage
The next day, I woke up at about 6 AM. We had a wonderful round of Energization exercises, led by Keshava ji, and this was followed by meditation. It was around this time that I had a chance to speak with our guide Mahavir ji, a long time member of Ananda Sangha. He recounted his tale of his meeting with Mahavatar Babaji and how he was about to begin a school for the local children there with Babaji’s blessings. It was a very touching story.
Afterwards, we had a lovely breakfast, a photo session, and finally it was time to leave. Reluctantly we bade goodbyes and left the beautiful resort. Our buses retraced its steps (or tire marks), and we stopped again at Kainchi Dham for hot pakodas and a visit to Baba Neem Karoli ashram. This time we were given a long time to meditate at the ashram and I meditated more deeply there. It was at a shop near the ashram that I surprised myself by speaking in Hindi. I had ordered for some food and as I gobbled up the tasty pakodas, I was joined by Sunderarajan ji and a few others and they ordered a few things. At the end of our meals the shop keeper approached us and sent across a flurry of Hindi words. He wasn’t sure if the items that I had ordered should be billed separately or if he had to combine everything. Some tried to explain that it was two bills, but the shop keeper did not understand. I got up and said, “Tho bills. Ek plate Chappati, ek plate pakoda, ek chai — mera bill. Kithna?”
“90 Rupees,” replied the shop keeper. With a great sense of accomplishment I left the shop after paying my bill 😉
Throughout the time that we were traveling, Dharmarajan ji and Dharmini ma’am kept us engrossed in their many stories and all the wonderful chants. Dharmarajan sir also told us about his meeting with Rajini. Later that day, we reached a hotel where we all shared our experiences, had dinner, and left to catch our train to Delhi. In the morning, the Chennai contingent parted ways with the rest of the pilgrims and reached the Delhi airport, and from there we flew back to Chennai with lots and lots of sweet memories that we would cherish for a lifetime!
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Nayaswamis Dharamarajan, and Dharmini ji, Nayaswamis Jyotish and Devi ji, and the Dynamic Duo Keshava ji, and Daya ji. The whole pilgrimage was a great blessing because of these great people. Thanks to each and every one of my fellow brother and sister disciples for making this tour so enjoyable. On the very same day that I visited the cave, the thought of revisiting the place occurred to me. I hope Babaji would permit me to visit his cave again sometime next year. Babaji is calling me back, and I have to go! Aum Babaji!
Notes and Extras
The route that we took: Delhi – Kathgodam – Bhimtal – Bhowali, Nainital – Kainchidham – Ranikhet – Kukuchina.
Babaji’s cave is located in a region called Kukuchina which is part of Kumaon. The Kumaon region comprises of both the Siwalik and Greater Himalayan mountains.
Our Captain Ilango ji has provided some useful information that he obtained using his Nokia Lumia application “Runtastic” (Runtastic is also available for Android, iOS, and Blackberry devices).
- The total distance from the tea shop at Kukuchina to the base of the Dronagiri mountain is 1.6 km.
- The uphill trek takes another 1.14 km. So totally one has to trek for about 2.24 km.
- Babaji’s cave is located at an elevation of 2226 m (7303.15 feet).
A snapshot of the actual path that we took:
My UFO video
The little stream that flows down the Babaji-cave mountain
A Short Gallery of our Trip (click to enlarge)