"Let your life lightly dance on the edges of Time like dew on the tip of a leaf. " ~ Tagore


Satopanth Tal: The Silent Ascetic

Chinmoy Chakrabarti trekked ten hours a day for two days over the most difficult and dangerous terrain, to reach the silence of Satopanth Tal and be greeted with tea in cocunut shells.

We ran into him on the bank of Satopanth Tal (14300 fts) - a small triangular, almost inaccessible, glacial lake in the hidden depths of the Himalayas. There is only one access route from Badrinath, over razor-sharp ridges and perilous broken glaciers. Every time the trekker would fall or was faced with a landslide, and both were inevitable, he would desperately want to run back to the safety of the Badrinath valley, amidst familiar sights and sounds. Half-way there, when we had comprehended the danger, we were already at a point of no-return. To return we would have to cross that killing field again. So we marched on. Naturally, at such a godforsaken place, in the middle of nowhere - 25 kms away from the nearest habitation, amidst harsh reality, we least expected to see anyone. Definitely not a half naked ascetic.

Having trekked ten hours a day for two days over the most difficult and dangerous terrain, almost killing ourselves in the process, we reached the lake. As we dragged our half dead bodies over the last ridge and descended on to the bank of the lake, he came out of a cave, smiling, holding two steaming cups (actually two coconut shells) of tea. He must have seen us coming down the ridge. The first thing that struck me was his ordinariness. He was of average height, average buid - with a common face. But his eyes gave him away. It was not those small eyes, but the gaze - full of so much compassion. As it caressed me gently, some thing ruptured inside me. I felt like crying.

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It was freezing outside yet he was wearing a small piece of saffron cloth that fell to his knees; his torso exposed to the elements. His white teeth flashed through moustache and long beard every time he smiled. And he smiled a lot. His small and lithe body looked exceptionally fit. I had so many questions wailing to burst out that I was momentarily lost for words. Seeing my amazement, which must have been dangling like a red flag, he gesticulated to let me know that he would not speak. He had taken a vow of silence. He also would not allow me to take his photograph.

As we took possession of the two nearby vacant caves, he went into his cave to prepare our meal. Silently, he had taken control. But from where did he gets his rations! The unanswered question haunted me for the rest of the day.

We had not planned to visit this lake. We were at Badrinath arguing against the commercialization of religion and the profusion of Dosa and Chana Batora shops at Badri with Darshananandaji, the mahant looking after the Balananda Ashram, when he suggested that I visit Satopanth. He even arranged a guide and porter for us.

So off we went on a two-day grueling and risky trek over sharp ridges and broken glaciers, bivouacking at 13000 ft on the first night and almost killing ourselves amidst landslides and rock falls.

Perhaps this is a result of the ardour of the climb. We had to admit; our suicidal efforts were amply rewarded. As I feasted on the spellbinding scenery, I became aware, for the first time, of the complete lack of sound. It was eerie. Except the occasional sound of avalanches from the nearby Chaukhamba peak, which accentuated the silence, the silence was all encompassing. Indeed, it is the right place for a vow of silence. According to the Skanda Purana, this silence is guarded by Bramha, Vishnu & Maheshwar - the holy trinity who sit in meditation on the vertices of the triangular lake. No-one dares to break this silence.

The day passed into a starry night and the night into a glorious dawn. It was time to depart this world of splendour, legend and silence. As we clambered up the ridge, our silent ascetic stood on the bank of the lake bidding us farewell. I turned back to have a last look. Seeing me turn back, he waved. I felt his gaze on me silently caressing me like the soft touch of a caring mother.

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Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.