Ramdevra Pilgrimage (2): the walk

We began at 7am, winding our way up and out of Jodhpur before the sun was hot. From our first resting point, we looked across at the massive Mehrangarh Fort, with the Blue City (the oldest part of Jodhpur) crowded underneath it. By half-eleven the temperature had reached 40C, and I had consumed three litres of water. My knees began to ache. I didn’t much feel like eating my lunch of spicy veg and chapati, but was glad of the rest. Once the hottest part of the day was over, we began again. The desert-scape was scrubby, arid, and strangely awe-inspiring. At one, weary moment late in the day, I watched the sun pass slowly behind the evening sky’s single cloud: it shed great bands of sunlight that fanned out, Statue-of-Liberty-esq. I came to know the evenings as my favourite walking time.

We set off at five the following morning, after chai and Parle-G biscuits (a major source of sustenance – and, latterly, humour). After walking less than a kilometre, my stomach began to cramp unbearably, as though a hard, expanding lump was trapped inside. Unable to continue, I squatted, then lay at the side of the road. Day began to break. The gloom receded, revealing a small but growing crowd of spectators around me. A woman forcibly unfolded my body from its cramped foetal position, and proceeded to prod and rub my stomach, staring skywards and yawning all the while. I was conscious of water being sprinkled, and flags waved, over my head.

All of a sudden, the pain began to ease, and I could sit, then stand. I saw the woman’s face for the first time: she was young, and beautiful. She insisted that I walk the next stretch with her party and carry their flag (all bands of pilgrims carried one, and it was forbidden for it to touch the ground). They sang and she danced out in front, barefoot. I was later informed that as she yawned, the good spirit of Baba entered her, enabling her drive the chakra from my gut; when she sang, she was rejoicing Baba’s triumph over evil. We came to a rest-stop, where she showed me how to put my hands in the fire of a shrine then circle them over my face and stomach, as if washing with water. She gave me a piece of blessed coconut before leading me to a crowded, makeshift doctor’s surgery a few metres from the shrine. Typically, religion and science, old and new medicine, coexisted quite happily at this camp. The doctor gave me a paracetamol, and re-bandaged my feet, applying Placentrex gel (I quote, ‘Each gram of Placentrex gel contains 0.1 gram of fresh human placenta’!) to their blisters.

We came across this same doctor later in the day. He lead us off the road to his community’s camp. It was sectioned into cooking, eating, sleeping, and praying areas; in the first of these, a team chatting women rolled out chapatis, others chopped vegetables, men dunked puris in cauldrons of boiling oil, and we sat to sample the fruits of their labours. In this community of merchants-turned-pilgrims, each person had a role. It fell upon one elderly man – and on him alone – to dole out the water day and night, and he carried out the essential task with a shy pride.

The road at such camps was often clogged with pilgrims milling around, handing out food, and exchanging pilgrims’ stories. Walking up to and away from these stops in the press of pilgrims, the road often felt like a ceaseless conveyor belt, powered by the momentum of their plodding, onwards movement. It was at such areas that we received most hassle: once when we sat drinking cold Mirindas (India’s not-quite-equal-equivalent to Fanta), the circle of young men standing around us goras grew so boisterous that those on the inside began to topple onto us. The feisty Sambhali girls, ever protective and vociferous, told them where to go.

The road between these camps was often empty. At these points, the spaces between members of our own party lengthened as we found our respective walking paces, and the desert spread out before us. Such stretches of the walk witnessed our best conversations.

On the forth morning we passed ‘a roller’ – a pilgrim literally rolling on his side along the road, followed by a woman pushing a small cart, which carried his water and cast some welcome shade over him. In his eyes, his reward would eventually match his suffering; and he showed no signs of complaint. Indeed the Hindus, who made up the greater part of our group, proved the most stoical. Many of the girls were fasting, and suffered from nausea, diahorrea and dizziness; their bare feet were blistered but they walked on. When one undergoes pain for something separate from the experience of the pain itself – for some later, higher gain – it is perhaps easier to bear. I was walking only for the experience of walking, and I felt every ache.

It was on reaching the temple at Ramdevra on the fifth day that the gulf between believers and non-believers was widest. We removed our shoes outside the town, and walked barefoot through the muddy streets. There was a queue outside the temple similar to that outside Jodhpur temple, but even louder and more rowdy. What was exhilarating for the girls was for me intensly claustrophobic. I was pushed through an arched security gate – its flashing orange STOP and high-pitched beeping ignored by all, lost in the chaos of the scene – and once inside I was ordered to hand over the small stuffed horse (supposedly resembling that of Ramdev-ji) which I’d been advised to buy outside. It was thrown into a pile of other horse-shaped offerings, and I was whisked round the corner. The temple contained numerous open-fronted rooms with small shrines, narrow passageways and rooms-leading-off-rooms in a labyrinthine, Russian-doll sort of way; had I not been dragged from in front and pushed from behind by Sambhali girls (our pupils-turned-bodyguards) I would certainly have lost my way. In the blur of colourful statues and chanting, praying faces, I remember the centrepiece of one particular shrine: a free-standing cradle stuffed with rupee notes – the offerings of hopeful pilgrims, all praying for a son. There was something of the games-arcade about Ramdevra temple…the colours and lights, the exhilaration, and the visibly disposable, disposed-of money. It more fervour than peace, more collective than individual.

Outside the temple, we descended a slippery flight of steps to a man-made lake, and splashed our heads with its water, washing away our sins. The water streaked the thumb-shaped vermilion bindi on my forehead (newly applied by a stranger outside the temple). The girls formed a circle and resumed the Hindi chanting that had grown so familiar over the five-day walk. Only this time it was different. It was louder, and its tone at once more urgent and more celebratory. Their faces contorted with an ecstasy that could be mistaken for pain: this was the culmination of what was for them a truly spiritual journey. All the strange rules by which we’d been forced to abide at various points along the way (don’t pee on the right side of the road for fear of offending Baba; don’t say challo! (let’s go) after a break or you’ll be inviting bad spirits to join you) had meant something real. It had taken me five days to realise that a pilgrimage isn’t just a long walk, but a walk to a holy destination. Their devotion was visible, audible; I was standing amid a demonstration of mass faith unlike I’d ever seen, and I felt unavoidably on the outside of it. I was suddenly envious of their belief and their ecstasy. And though I knew it was something I couldn’t partake in, it truly moved me.

 Some photos…

Flag-carrying pilgrims

flag-carrying pilgrims



Pilgrim camp






~ by Griselda Murray Brown on January 11, 2009.

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