The story of the Fat Man Walking took America by surprise. Why would some want to walk from California to New York? The story of Terry Fox is still an inspiration to countless of people. Running a marathon is considered a large achievement for many and something inconceivable for countless more.
North America provides a great background with which to contrast what I call the land of pilgrims. Visiting the chota char dham (small four holy sites, the main four holy sites involve traveling the entire country); I resolved to walk as much as possible. Yamontri is a 12 km route roundtrip from the closest car accessible village. To visit Gaumukh from Gangotri is an 18 km one-way and Kedarnath lies 14 km away from the closest place you can drive to (Gaurikund).
For me the walking meant carrying sufficient supply of water and food, wearing hiking boots and breathable clothing, all things typical of a North American going on a hike. Walking would take longer than horseback or a doli (four people carrying you on a palanquin), but it would be doable nonetheless. As I walked, all the preparations and comforts I needed to walk seemed laughable. Amidst the walkers, I def was one of the odd ones out. There were grandfathers and grandmothers walking barefoot or in sandals with simply the aid of a walking stick. Women walked with bags on their heads as they climbed to God’s shrine. The food/water I brought along – not really needed considering there were canteens every km or so, but then again, we didn’t need to stop at these places for refreshments. While I was on horseback on my way to Kedarnath, covered with a raincoat and every so often complaining of the cold setting into my legs due to the excessive dampness of my clothing, people walked through the mist without much protection from the wet or cold. While I would reach the destination before it became dark, many of these people would arrive well after darkness sets. Some walked because of sheer devotion, others because a horse or doli was simply financially not viable. Whatever their reason may be, their dedication is highly admirable and inspirational.
By far, the place where I became most aware of this land of pilgrims is Gangotri. While I made my way on horseback/foot to Gaumukh, I crossed paths with well over 200 pilgrims dressed in orange shorts and orange t-shirts with Lord Shiva picture across the chest. From all across the country, despite it not being “high pilgrim season”, hundreds upon hundreds are arriving in trucks to Gangotri. They walk to Gaumukh, Ganga emerges from glacial rock, collect two containers of the holy water, which their strap to their stomach and walk back to their homes on foot, where they will offer the water to their temple deity. They will walk miles upon miles on foot, typically covering 30-40 km in day. A vehicle will follow the pilgrims carrying their clothing, etc, while the pilgrims simply carry water and walking stick. Given the sheer number of people doing this type of pilgrimage every 30-40 km, there is a rest area, where they can all sleep/rest. Canteens along the roads have special areas outside where pilgrims can hang their water. From Gaumukh, pilgrims would carry the containers in dupatta type shawl that has a pocket on either end to hold each jug of water. For the pilgrims who make this pilgrimage from Haridwar, they carry the way on either end of a pole, which is decorated with pictures, flowers, etc (see the pictures). The contraption is heavier, but the road is also straight. Most of the pilgrims participating in either one of these walks were male and in their twenties or older. In Gaumukh though, I did see one boy who was approx 6 years old! No matter how tired you were when you saw him, your fatigue melted away when you saw his smile and heard him say Jai Bhole!, which is the typical greeting you would say to others as you crossed their path.
One of the best parts about visiting all these places was the sheer devotion that one got to experience and see. As we neared Yamontri and came across the steepest part of the climb, made up of countless switch back, all one could hear was people yelling and chanting Jai Mata Ki. Pilgrims and those leading the horses alike filled with air with their chants and devotion, praising the Mother as their approached her abode. Every place, it was the same. If you ever felt that someone needed some encouragement or simply needed some energy, all one needed to do was say Jai Bhole to another pilgrim and the walk became that much easier.
The chote char dham and Hardiwar by no means the only pilgrimage sites in India. At every site you’ll find countless people walking to reach God’s abode. Indeed, there is a land of walking pilgrims, it would be India.