Reprinted from Sacred Waters: A Pilgrimage Up the Ganges River to the Source of Hindu Culture with permission of Harcourt, Inc.

By this time it must have been well past noon and I hadn't eaten anything since the night before. My pack felt like an immovable weight on my shoulders and made it difficult to climb, catching on shrubs and bushes. Though the air was still cold, my clothes were drenched in sweat and I was covered with dirt and leaves. Hauling myself up a few feet at a time, I had lost all interest in the surrounding forest and my only concern was to reach the pass. For a while I wasn't sure that I would make it to the top because I kept coming to cliffs or other obstructions and each time I had to divert my route. Though I was carrying plenty of food, I was too tired to eat. Besides, the ridge was so precipitous, if I had tried to remove my pack, I might have slid straight down the hill. Once I started to fall it would have been impossible to stop myself. The distance to the top was difficult to gauge since the trees blocked off the view, but eventually sunlight began to penetrate the leaves and I knew that I was close. Using my knees, elbows, hands, and feet, I made a last effort to hoist myself up, when suddenly there in front of me was a broad path, coming in from the left. After catching my breath, I followed this trail up to the pass. Almost immediately the ridge leveled off and I came to an amphitheater surrounded by oaks.
Each step I took was an effort, even though the walking was much easier now. Just beyond the amphitheater I came to a saddle in the ridge, where I collapsed beneath a moru oak. The pass itself was completely sheltered, with only a scattering of dappled sunlight on the ground. For ten or fifteen minutes I lay there with my eyes closed and if anyone had come upon me they would have thought that I was dead. When I eventually opened my eyes, I felt sure that I had breathed my last and gone straight to heaven. Two rays of sunlight were streaming through the branches of the oaks and falling directly on a smaller tree that stood twenty feet away. Though it had no leaves, this tree was covered in flowers that seemed to glow in the shafts of light. Lying there against the roots of the massive oak, my first impression was that I must be hallucinating, for the vision of this flowering tree and the sunlit glade was magical. I dared not move for fear of disturbing the perfection of that scene. The amphitheater lay just beyond the tree and the surrounding forest gave me a comforting sense of enclosure, particularly the overarching branches of the oaks. There was no spectacular view of snow peaks or dramatic cliffs, no lammergeyers soaring overhead, not even the slightest breeze. But in the stillness of that glade I was acutely aware of something much greater than myself. Awe is the only word that might describe the experience. I had walked right past the flowering tree but in my exhaustion I hadn't noticed the blossoms and only now was I aware of its transcendent beauty. The catharsis that it evoked was so powerful that I felt weightless, as if the ground had dropped away beneath me. Lying there I found myself in tears, emotions welling up inside of my chest, as if the roots of that tree had penetrated deep into my soul.
I'm not sure how long I lay there staring at the flowers, but after a while I saw a movement at the edge of the glade. Two yellow-throated pine martins appeared, ambling down the slope with fluid grace. They didn't make a sound, leaving the silence of the clearing undisturbed. Neither of them saw me as they passed beneath the flowering tree, pausing and lifting their heads, as if to sniff its fragrance. Within five minutes they were gone, disappearing across the white crescent of snow, on the far side of the amphitheater. When I finally got to my feet I knew that I had experienced something profoundly spiritual. But at the same time I could not help but question my response, trying to rationalize what I had observed. Walking over to the tree I tried to discern what species it was, amazed that anything would bloom in winter. The flowers were different shades of pink, with florets of ten to twelve buds bunched together. They had a delicate fragrance, hardly noticeable, but with a lingering sweetness like a faint perfume. Later I identified the tree as Daphne bholua, a species not commonly found in Garhwal.

Already I had begun to doubt the significance of what I had seen. The image of this flowering tree bathed in sunlight was undeniably powerful, but my exhaustion could have exaggerated the beauty of the scene. Those sensations of release and weightlessness may well have come from discarding my pack. Was I weeping from awe or was it simply relief at finally finding the pass? I began to wonder if the experience meant anything at all. However, when I turned my gaze away from the sunlit flowers and returned to where I'd left my pack, I looked up at the trunk of the moru oak. In its bark I saw a glint of metal that made me realize I was not imagining things. Pressed into the crevices and dry moss were coins that others had left in recognition of the sanctity of this place. Though completely alone, I was aware that the experience I had just gone through was shared with others who had passed this way before. Their offerings reconfirmed the mystery of the glade.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad