My second-last physical adventure was to Badri-Kedar. It was not a pilgrimage, more of a hike. From Old Delhi station I took a night train to Hardwar and in the hazy light of a new day I walked down to the bathing-ghats. There was a separate pool for Sikhs and an elderly Sikhs was swimming in the waters, his grey beard floating in front of him.
I spent the early morning there, then, when the clock on the ghanta ghar showed 8.30 a.m., I walked back to the station and took a shuttle train ti Rishikesh.
The Ganga flowed through the town, temples and ashrams on its two sides, sadhus in ashes and loin cloths wandering about, a gentle tinkle of bells carried across the water. It was all peace and serenity. But at the bus station, there was noise and bustle and haggling over fares. I haggled over my fare, then retired to a serai across the bus station and spent the night among pilgrims, their children, mosquitoes and bugs.
Early in the morning, the bus left. Before we started, and every time we stopped and restarted, the driver, his mechanic and all the passengers shouted "Jai Badri-Kedar" and involked blessings for a safe journey. A little self-consciuosly, I joined in the chorus. The prayers were necessary: the vehicle was old and on its last wheels, the road was treacherous, the driver casual.
We drove over the Laxman Jhoola, a suspesion bridge with notices at its two ends - "Elephants not allowed on the bridge." Next moment, we were climbing into the Shivaliks, moving higher and deeper into a mountain fastness.
Late in the everning, we reached Guptkashi. It was the end of the road, from there you walked up the mountain to the temple of Kedarnath. It took me the best part of two days to do so, along the banks of the Mandakini, sleeping in the little restaurants along the way (it was a good arrangement, if you ate in a restaurant, you slept there free), once, at Gaurikund, having a bath in hot sulpher water.
There were hundreds of pilgrims along the way, barefooted, scantily clad against the cold, and the snow as we climbed higher, children on their shoulders. I looked silly in my climbing boots, baseball cap, camera round my neck. Like one of those foreign-returned characters in a Hindi film. I also became increasingly aware that I was the only person among the hundreds there on the track, who was going up not pray to Kedarnathji but for the adventure of it.
Still, I forgot all that when we finally reached the top. On the final morning, I came round a bend, and there, in front of me, was a green mountain meadow, gently rolling down to the temple. And behind the temple was the snowly peak of Kedarnath. If there was god on earth, he ceratinly lived here.