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Pilgrimage - III: Saligramam

From: Parthasarati Dileepan (
Date: Mon Sep 08 1997 - 18:41:31 PDT

Pilgrimage III: Vadanaattu Thiruppathi: Saligramam

Within hours of our return to Madras on May 18th from Azhvaar Thirunanagari
we flew to New Delhi.  In the next couple of weeks (May 19th through June
3rd) we covered nine of the eleven "Vadanaattu thiruppathees" located north
of the Vindiyas.  These kshethrams in the order in which we visited them
are, Saligramam, Ayodhya, Naimisaranyam, Devaprayagai (Kandiennum
Kadinagar), Joshimut (Thiruppirithi), Badri, Mathura, Thiruayarpaadi
(Gokulam), and Dwaraka.

Mukthinath (Saligramam):
Saligramam is in Nepal and is known only as Mukthinath to the locals.  It
is during the long 21 KM trek by foot from Jomsom to Mukthinath that I
realized that it not just the Sri Vaishnavas or the Napalese for whom the
temple is sacred.  We came across pilgrims from many parts of India such as
Andhra, Bengal, and Sikkim.  There were many Americans and Europeans as
well, trekking for pleasure quite oblivious of the "sukrutham" they were
gathering by walking the sacred path to Mukthinath.  There are many equally
or even more thrilling places to trek in Nepal.  How did these people
choose Mukthinath?  The customs official at Kathmandu had answered this
question the previous day when we arrived there from New Delhi.  He said to
us, "No, you are not going to Mukthinath;  Mukthinath is calling you
there."  This was his comment when we told him we were going to Mukthinath.

There are many ways to reach Mukthnath.  We flew from Delhi to Kathmandu,
Kathmandu to Pokhara, stayed over night at Pokhara, then flew into Jomsom,
and finally took a day long trek to reach Mukthinath.  One could completely
skip Jomsom and the arduous all-day trek by chartering a helicopter from
Pokhara/Kathmandu to Mukthinath.  For a group of about 10 it would cost
about $750 per head for the round trip and about an hour at Muktinath.  All
other modes of travel goes through Pokhara and Jomsom.

Pokhara was the last big town on our way to Mukthinath.  Any last minute
shopping of missed essential items must be done here.  Pokhara may be
reached by air from Kathmandu or by road from Gorakhpur, U.P ., India.
(There is another border crossing, but I can't think of the name right
now.)   Kathmandu to Pokhara is =BD hour by air.  Gorakhpur to Pokhara by
road would take all day.  Either way, we have to stay overnight at Pokhara
as flights to Jomsom are scheduled only during the early morning hours.  We
had our dinner in a pure Vaishnava vegetarian restaurant on the main road.

Royal Napalese Airlines and Everest Airlines fly a total of three flights
to Jomsom and back from Pokhara starting at 6:00 a.m.  There are no other
flights into Jomsom after these early morning ones due to strong winds
setting in at or about 10 a.m.  Tickets will have to be booked well ahead
of time.  Tickets paid for in dollars have priority and are less likely to
be canceled.  If flights are canceled due to bad weather dollar tickets may
receive priority for re-booking.  I hear white skin helps even more.  The
airline officials tend to be not very helpful.  By the way, Kathmandu may
be reached by air from Delhi or Varanasi.  Gorakhpur is on the
Delhi-Calcutta train route and may be reached by train directly from Madras.

The flight from Pokhara to Jomsom was quite uneventful until we were about
to land.  Jomsom is nested between gorgeous mountains in a deep valley.
The flight dives into the valley and makes sharp turns to align itself to
the air strip for landing.  These maneuvers must be routine to the pilots,
but they are sure to put the fear of God into even a non-believer.  But the
only way other than air to reach Jomsom from Pokhara is a week-long trek
through heavily wooded mountains.  This must have been the route Sri
Ramanuja and his entourage took to reach Saligramam.

The scary flight was well worth it.  As you climb out of the aircraft you
are surrounded by the breathtaking view of Annapurana mountain ranges.  The
air was crisp.  The sound of Gantaki river flowing at a distance makes you
want to run to the shores and look for Saligramas.  Alas, there are no
Saligramas to be found here except in shops.  More about this later.

The first thing we should have done is to reconfirm our return flight.  But
we were in a hurry to get started on the trek.  We knew that the longer we
delay the more difficult the trek will be with increasing severity of wind.
 We left much of our luggage in a make-shift hotel run by a Napalese
couple.  We took two sets of clothes, a bottle of "Urukaay", some bread,
and my camera box.  We hired a local young man for directions.  We hired
his horse for carrying our bags.  Then we set off.  I had a bottle of Tiger
balm and Tylanol that came in very handy.  We  did not have face lotion and
lip therapy that we sorely (pun intended) missed.  Trekking 21 kilometers
from about 8,000 feet to about 14,000 feet is no mean task.  Lack of oxygen
makes walking just a few steps feel like a workout.  This is not for anyone
who is not in reasonable physical shape.  Normally, pilgrims hire a horse
and ride it.  The horseman will then act as the guide as well for
directions.  It costs about 1,000 Napalese Rs. per horse (1 INR =3D 1.6
Napalese Re.) for the round trip horse ride.  Be prepared to bargain.

Only about half of the trek to Mukthinath is by the side of the Gantaki
river bed.  The river bed is quite wide.  But water was flowing in only
about 100 feet in width crisscrossing the river bed from side to side.  The
entire trek was over barren land with hardly any vegetation.  As the path
slowly inched upward it became increasingly difficult to walk for more than
10 or 15 minutes without stopping.  When passing through crevices between
rocks strong winds literally lifted us up.  It almost seemed as though
Thirumangai Azhvaar sent Vayu Bhagavan to help us move forward.  This was
particularly poignant because just two days earlier when we were returning
from Azhvar Thirunagari to Madras the train was 5 hours late and it seemed
as though we will miss the flight to Delhi.  That would have messed up all
of our carefully planned train/air/taxi reservations.  As I was sitting in
the train running late I thought perhaps Thirumangai mannan wanted me not
to go to Saligramam, a place he may not have visited himself.  Did he not
end his pasurams about Saligramam with "Saligramam pOy adai nencE!" (Let my
mind go and reach Saligramam, implying he could not go there in body).  But
when the wind simply carried us forward with little of our own effort it
almost felt as though Thirumangai Mannan was carrying us forward.  At this
time my father narrated an incidence during his first trip to Saligramam
when Garudaazhvaar appeared before him for a brief moment.  All of these
augured well for the spiritual experience that lay ahead for the next few

The path to Mukthinath branches off from the river after about half way.
>From then on the path slowly winds up dusty mountain ridges with hardly a
blade of grass. Except for the occasional Napalese passing us with a load
on their back, as we were struggling along, there was no sign of
civilization.  Over the entire 21 KM route there were 3 hamlets.  There was
a Hillton (with two l's) hotel and a few restaurants catering to the
Europeans in the first hamlet.  The second village was very small yet we
were able to get Sprite in one of the huts for 40 Napalese Rs.  The third
village was quite big.  We could see signs advertising clean rooms and hot
bath.  It almost seemed as though each house had rooms to rent and food and
drinks to sell.

Finally, after about 8 hours we reached Mukthinath.  It was about 6 p.m.
The sun was going down and it was getting really cold.  The thin air made
us feel squeamish and the constant, but mild headache was not helping
either.  There were several make-shift hotels.  We got into one of them run
by a Napalese couple.  The Inn-keeper made us "rotti" and "dhal", without
onions and garlic.  "Pyaj ouvr lassoon bilkul nahi" is a Hindi phrase I
learnt to parrot often during the travels across the North.=20

We got up early the next day and went up another kilometer and reached the
temple.  We passed the two helipads built for the visit of President
Venkatraman.  The entire circumference of the temple is about 150 feet.  I
was thrilled to see a large bell hanging in the praharam.  There is a small
building to the right of the temple, perhaps the priest's quarters.  Off to
the other side at a distance is a mutt.  A young Sri Vaishnava swamy from
that mutt was in the temple.  The Napalese priest was also there.  His
daughter was helping him with the alangaram of Perumal.

The temple is surrounded in the back by 108 fancy faucets in the shape of a
head of a bull.  Water was flowing out through its mouth.  These faucets
were closely arranged in a semi circle with hardly a foot between faucets
and at a height of about 7 feet.  Water from a brook must have been
diverted into these faucets.  We quickly walked under the ice cold water
falling through the 108 faucets.  By the time I reached the end of the 108
mini-water falls the ice cold water falling on my shaven head felt as
though a hammer was being struck on my head.  I was glad to get out are dry
myself.  We finished our anushtanam and went into the temple.  We chanted
purusha suktham and some pasurams from 4000 and Desika Prabhandhams. We had
taken some kalkandu and nuts as prasadams with us.  We offered these to
Lord Narayana.  Then we changed back into trekking clothes and returned to
the apology of a hotel room with dirty linen and cold and stinking common

It is not clear whether the temple we visited is the actual location of
Saligramam glorified by Thirumangai Azvar.  There are no saligramams to be
found any where except in road side shops.   Some claim the actual location
of Saligramam is another 6 days by foot.  There, it seems, we can collect
Saligramas right from the river.  "Another six days by foot, forget it," I
thought.  If that is the original Saligramam all I can I say to myself was,
"Saligramam pOy adai nenchE!."

In any case, it is clear that Sri Ramanuja visited the temple we went to.
There is a small minaret recording the visit of Sri Ramanuja giving some
authenticity to the belief of scores of devotees visiting Mukthinath every
season from May through October.

We stayed in the room for the rest of the day trying to overcome the
constant nagging headache.  The inn-keeper cooked us some "aloo" and roti
for both lunch and dinner.  The next day we left Mukthinat at 6:00 a.m.
The return was a breeze compared to the journey up.  We made it back to
Jomsom in 5 hours flat.  The flight out of Jomsom was the following
morning.  I went into the Royal Napalese Airline office, a one-man show, to
verify our confirmed reservations.  I got a lecture about the need for
reconfirmation the day we landed at Jomsom.  The manager told me he was
about to cancel our return reservations.

We took the 6:30 a.m. flight out of Jomsom to Pokhara the next day.  We
hired a taxi at a cost of INR 2,000 to the border, about 350 KM away.  The
crossing was like a fish market.  Somehow I strayed into India without
having endorsed the exit on my passport at Napalese side.  The Indian
immigration was about to string me up the nearest tree.  After apologizing
to him I went back to the Napalese side.  They examined my passport inside
and out.  It seemed as though they were fishing for some kind of problem to
exploit.  To enter Nepal, American citizens must get a visa from their
embassy in Washington, D.C.  Indian citizens do not need a visa, but must
have some sort of picture ID.   When you enter Napel you must get a
trekking permit if the purpose of your visit is trekking.  These officials
questioned me whether I did any trekking.  I answered that I was in Nepal
on a pilgrimage to Mukthinath.  Reluctantly they endorsed my passport.  If
you can avoid crossing the border by road you must do so.  The only reason
we took to the road was because there was no flight on that day to Varanasi
from Kathmandu.

>From the Indian side we took another taxi to Gorakhpur, about one hour
away.  We checked into an air-conditioned room.  But there was no power
almost all through the night.  We still had to pay for the room at the a/c
room rate!

The next day we were off to Ayodhya.

-- adiyEn

P. Dileepan
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