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Week of 4.17.09

David's Journal from India: Day 8
Part I

Tapovan Meadow, Morning

Television is not useful without pictures and the next morning nature comes out in favor of a TV story about the glacier and climate change: We awake early and the mist and the cloud are all but gone and both the air and the view are tack sharp. We are near the base of Mount Shivling, which Eurocentrics have sometimes called the Matterhorn of India. At 21,466 feet, Shivling is higher than the highest peak in North America, Alaska's Denali, by over a thousand feet. As the day breaks, a few clouds tease the pyramid of its summit. Conrad calls them "scout clouds," clouds that nose around and round up other clouds when the scouts spot mountain climbers to hassle.

Daybreak Tapovan meadow.
Daybreak Tapovan meadow.
My business is not climbing any closer to Shivling. I set out to meet a woman who inhabits this meadow. She says her name is Bhakti Priya, or Mata Bhakti Priyananda, One Who Loves Devotion. She lives in a cave set into one of the biggest boulders in this very high meadow created by the work of two glaciers. Priya sits on a camping mat on an arc-shaped rock around the side of her cave. A herd of bharal, the so-called blue sheep of this area, lingers near, unafraid. Guided by all the New Yorker cartoons I have seen over the years foreshadowing this scene, I sit cross-legged. Also on the rock, a cluster of seven or eight empty ballpoint pen refills and Priya's journal where she has been writing prayers with that ink, over and over.

I am not quite sure what word to use to describe Priya. She welcomes visitors, so "hermit" is not the right term. For alliteration, one could go with Wise Woman. Maybe spiritual advisor-in-residence.

Cameraman Thom Pollard and Conrad Anker set out for the Meru glacier.
Cameraman Thom Pollard and Conrad Anker set out for the Meru glacier.
Priya is 51, very beautiful with fine features, luminous teeth, and very dark skin. She has a mix of grey in her dark hair that twists out from under a light brown woolen cap with a knot at the top. She is wrapped in a white woolen shawl and has a blaze orange skirt that reaches almost to the tips of her bare feet.

What is your religion, I ask, getting right to it. Her reply: "My religion is peace."

Simple as that. She is also big on love. She worships a god who, she believes, created the magnificence that serves as the backdrop for our encounter, (left to right) the Bagarathi One, Three, and Two peaks and the great Shivling. The peaks have all emerged from the mist and, at that moment, are showing clear and crisp. If anyone wonders if there is a God, her answer comes with a sweep of the hand across that landscape, an implied "C'mon, take a look at that."

Cameraman Thom Pollard and Conrad Anker set out for the Meru glacier.
Pati Priya, a former school teacher in Assam, who lives May to October in the high Tapovan meadow. (Photo: David Brancaccio)
Priya worked as an employee at an education agency before getting her master's degree in Special Ed at Northern Illinois State University. She later taught in Assam for some kind of chain of schools, "sort of religious," she says. She taught all grades. There are many teachers in my family and I know that when I report that the woman who lives in the cave at the top of the world is a former teacher it will be well received back home.

In quite good English, Priya tells me she felt a calling to come up to the Tapovan meadow. That is a destination beyond the usual pilgrimage endpoint, the glacial mouth that is the river Ganges' source. It is hours longer, up and over the torturous Gangotri glacier, and up the nearly vertical wall left by the glacier to the meadow. As she tells the story, she got lost on the glacier on her first attempt to get to the meadow. She says she sat down to contemplate her fix and a young man in his twenties appeared, guided her up the cliff wall, and then disappeared. She says once after ten days of rain, she got sick and needed a doctor, she heard a voice that said there was a doctor near, which seemed to her impossible. After a few days of getting sicker, she set out from her cave to retrieve some cough syrup she'd lent to a "neighbor" and along the way she spotted a blue tent. It was a doctor, camping out. "How can I help you?" he asked and gave her medicine.

Priya and David in Tapovan.
Priya and David in Tapovan.
She says things work out like this. Milk and eggs get left at her door. Expeditions leave their extras. We do our part. She never asks.

On the subject at hand, the glacier below, she realizes it is in trouble but initially doubts that far-away Americans can do anything to help. I raise the issue of global warming and she is intrigued by the notion that changes in behavior by people far away might help to nurture the glacier nearby. She cautions, however, that if people merely watch our images of the glacier in trouble, not much will come of our project. But if they are moved to take action, then perhaps something will change, she says. She wishes the Indian government would act more responsibly toward the environment. Priya is, however, encouraged by the new rule this year limiting the number of people into the Gangotri area at any one time. She says change came quickly to meadow, much more peaceful, she says. It is peaceful. In an area of a couple of square miles, I can only see our climbing party plus the base camp for a Korean mountaineering expedition, plus a fellow affectionately called "Silent Baba" in a cave at the entrance to the meadow. If there are others, they keep it on the low-down.

Bharal, the so-called Himalayan blue sheep, on Tapovan.
Bharal, the so-called Himalayan blue sheep, on Tapovan.
Priya says each country is governed by a unifying idea. In America, she says, it is materialism. She says she has very warm feelings toward Americans and she says many are aware there needs to be something beyond materialism; they are just too often not sure what that is. For Britain, it's imperialism. Maybe it was imperialism. In India, she says the unifying idea is spirituality.

And that river, the Ganges, that emerges from the glacier? Yes, it is the center of the spirituality of so many Indians. It irrigates their crops; many must at least once bathe in her waters.

This spiritual advisor in residence has been living up here May to October for three years. Any advice for the folks at home? Work on relationships, she says. Family. Friends. Spend time on that. And, she reminds me, seek peace.

"I raise the issue of global warming and she is intrigued by the notion that changes in behavior by people far away might help to nurture the glacier nearby."
Yes, I know, the hard-boiled reporter here is supposed to come back swinging. Madam, you live in a cave far away from any friends and family, what do you know about nurturing relationships? Peace, madam? Are you not aware there is another glacier up here in the Himalayas where two armies, Pakistan and India, have sat encamped, staring each other down for years on end even as the soldiers regularly lose digits and limbs to frostbite?

But I can't bring myself to ask those questions. My days are normally packed with complexity, so instead I simply take in Priya's simple clarity.

Visit "On Thin Ice" to watch the hour-long NOW on PBS special and learn more about global warming.
*Note: All photographs by John Siceloff unless otherwise credited.

Next week: Read Day 9: "Afternoon: Doing Some Boulders"