​ Giri Baba

September, 2015 

I was sick, really sick! I’d made the hike up to the Gaumukh Glacier, source of the Ganges, and back but just barely. I was dehydrated and malnourished, unable to keep anything down. Old knee and back injuries screamed loudly after the continual ascents, descents and weight of my pack. 

My guesthouse room overlooked the raging Bhagirathi river (which becomes the Ganges) and the Gangotri Temple. I vowed to hole up here for a bit and, hopefully, come around. I certainly wasn’t making the odious journey back to Rishikesh in this state. From shared-Jeep to shared-Jeep to local bus to local bus to local bus to local bus…… over-capacity, wedged into a hard seat, bouncing around on mountain switchbacks. It had been a pilgrim’s inexpensive way up here and would certainly be a pilgrim’s way back. 

The sun felt good on my face as I walked through the small village of Gangotri. Straddling the Bhagirathi, the village was nestled into a beautiful valley of soaring peaks and evergreens. The river, furious at this point in its’ course, continuously hummed; the contemplative “Om” became the white noise of my days and soundtrack of my dreams. A pedestrian street cut through town and toward the Shiva temple, the final destination of this segment of the Chota Char Dam circuit. While not planning on completing the Char Dam, I was up here to make the pilgrimage to Gaumukh’s sacred temple and, further on, to the glacial source of the Ganges. Said to flow from the locks of Shiva, this is India’s mightiest river and sustains life as it cuts onwards to the Bay of Bengal. I heard that this was also a place of hermits- sannyasis who had left our world and renounced all. Some apparently lived in the forests and caves surrounding Gangotri. If they really existed, against all odds, I vowed to meet one. 

While walking through town looking for medication for the tempest in my belly, a young Brahmin priest and I locked eyes. I wasn’t having much luck in my search and masked my frustration as I forced a smile to meet his. We greeted each other in Hindi and immediately he switched to English surmising my nationality. We talked briefly and he invited me to continue the conversation over tea. Under downy clouds and an azure sky, we walked up the mountainside to his small cinder-block home where he offered me chai and a bidi he had just rolled. We sat outside, talked and puffed on the hashish. I reclined as the sun warmed my body and the pain in my belly drifted away. 

Through the trees, a figure approached. Dressed in the faded orange hues of a renunciate, he clutched a simple cloth bag. His squat frame strode delicately amongst the marigolds. Noticing him, the Brahmin priest looked alarmed and jumped from his chair. He crushed the bidi under his sandal and turned toward the advancing man. I rose to my feet as they exchanged words. “Hare Om” I uttered as they both turned toward me. The man nodded his head in approval and repeated the blessing. I was bade to sit as the Brahmin priest retreated to his home and the man dropped his bag to the floor. He sat alongside me and exhaled. 

“Ram, Ram” I uttered, still very peaceful from the smoke. I offered him the small metal cup of chai I was drinking and pointed at my pack of cigarettes on the ground. He declined but pulled a bidi packet from his jacket pocket. I glanced down at his outstretched hand then looked into his eyes before pulling a bidi from the packet. I picked up the lighter, spun the flint wheel and raised the flame to his pursed lips. I then lit mine and inhaled the aromatic smoke. 

He was old, that was for sure. A bright orange turban sat atop his head concealing gray hair although tufts crept out here and there. His beard was white and set against very dark brown skin. His ragged clothes- tattered and bleached- indicated years of wear and rough living. A ruddy tikka dot stained the center of his forehead and directed me again to his eyes. The sclera, usually white, were earth-colored and bloodshot; his pupils dark and cavernous. There was wisdom and experience in there but yet innocence. Under his penetrating stare, I got lost deep in his soul but snapped back as he began to speak. 

“Om Namo Shivaya” he quietly uttered and closed his eyes momentarily. I smiled and sipped on the sweet chai enjoying the moment. We sat in silence for a short while before, in English, he asked my name…..and I his. 

We had just begun speaking and getting acquainted when the Brahmin priest returned from his home with a metal tray and 3 cups of chai. After we each took a cup, the priest pulled up another chair and introduced his newest guest. 

Giri Baba is a soft-spoken and humble man. He seems a man that prefers to listen than speak… a man who doesn’t feel the need to talk, to validate himself. Years spent amongst these peaks have been spent in silence, the sounds of the natural world his soundtrack and the animals his audience. Despite the austerities and introversions, however, his joy is infectious. He chuckles often and with the enthusiasm and innocence of a child. 

As we talked, laughed, smoked and drank our chais, I was reminded of my guts. I writhed in my seat as my stomach began to stir and the muscles contract. Unsure where the nearest bathroom was- likely the forest- I began to search my surroundings. My agitation was obvious and the Brahmin asked if I was OK. I explained that I had been dealing with a bout of Delhi belly and hadn’t had much luck with finding any medication to address it. Giri Baba listened as I tried to hold back the more disgusting aspects of my condition. At length, he then spoke with the Brahmin to which the priest seemed agreed. “We go” said Giri Baba, “Forest medicine I have.” 

We bade the priest “goodbye”, I grabbed my camera and followed Giri Baba further up the mountainside. Despite the incline and the years of his life, he swiftly trekked upward into the evergreens. After passing through a thicket of marijuana plants, he stopped. Struggling to catch my breath, I advanced to his position, lifted my water bottle to my lips and wiped my brow. With arm outstretched, his index finger pointed toward a rock-face; “home” he said and started toward it. 

From inside his cave, he brought out an empty burlap sack and spread it over the grass and dirt. He told me to sit and relax and that he would shortly return. With my fleece jacket rolled up as a pillow, I kicked off my sandals, lit a cigarette and stared skyward. Birds deftly soared under huge, ambling cumulus clouds. The muscles in my stomach relaxed and the pain subsided. I thought about the offering I had taken to Shiva up at Gaumukh and closed my eyes. 

“Eat all” he said. He had returned from the forest with a root and a few bunches of withered herbs. We had relocated to his home- a cave in the rock-face. It was austere. A small fire pit sat closest to the cave’s opening. Not far behind and in the rear of the cave, a thin mattress lay on the dirt floor with blankets here and there. Off to one side were kitchen items- a couple of pans, metal pots and cups- and religious paraphernalia including rudraksha beads and a trishula. Sunlight came through a small hole in one of the cave walls and through the sizeable entrance. Most of the ceiling was blackened with soot and ash obviously from the fire pit. A picture of a meditative Shiva watched over all. 

 Clutching my bottle of water, I chewed the herbs into a pulp and fought the urge to expell them. The root he ground into a fine paste by adding water and indicated that I was to apply it to any inflammed tissues. This was his specialty he said. 50 years spent up here had showered him with the wisdom of the forest and the medications it provides. I had no reason to doubt him and, without hesitation, followed his directives. 

The fire pit was alive and the smell of ginger and cardoman mixed with the burning wood scent. He strained the mix of black tea, water, milk powder, sugar and spices into the small metal cups at his feet and handed me one. I was seated against one of the walls and leaned forward to accept. He then began to busy himself with dismantling a bidi cigarette, infusing it with a ball of hashish that he took from his pocket and reassembling. I inhaled the Shiva sacrament and laid back against the wall. The pain in my belly drifted away on the swirling smoke from the fire; it would not return for the remainder of my time amongst the peaks. 

A Baba for most of his life, he rarely spoke of the past despite lamenting a time gone by when the village was smaller and garbage organic. He has watched civilization creep up the valley. Concrete buildings have replaced wooden structures. Convenience has come his way although he has refused the government’s offer to run power and water to his cave. And, most annoyingly, there is the garbage that disrespects the forest. 

What he often speaks of is “communication”- that between the sannyasi and the natural world that surrounds him. He speaks with the animals, the trees and the rocks. He says that all things are one and of a perfect harmony. 

Our conversation wended toward contemplation and silence. I reflected and felt humbled by the moment, his sincerity and my fortitude. “You are lucky” he whispers. Yes, I am! Here in this cave above Gangotri was the unlikely encounter I had wished for. What laid beyond and deep in those eyes, I am still discovering.

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