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Pilgrimage Stories (Part Two)

Posted by J Foster on Aug 16, 2017 in Fieldwork in Nepal

“My elder brother inherited all of our family Shaligrams.” Suresh began, carefully folding his white pilgrimage wraps in order to keep them clear of the mud. “I wanted at least one but that was not possible. They all went to my brother. But now I have two sons and we’ve recently moved away from India to our new home in Australia. I don’t want to lose the tradition and I am afraid that my sons won’t understand Shaligram so I’m coming here to Kali Gandaki to find new Shaligrams for our family.”

I nodded. “Is this very common in your experience? For second and third children to have to begin their own traditions?”

“More common than you might think.” Suresh nodded. His companion, Manu also nodded as well.

“In my family,” Manu interjected, “There are three boys and two girls. Both of my sisters received a Shaligram at their weddings but my brothers and I don’t have any yet. Our father still keeps our family Shaligrams. I think he will for a long time, so I am coming now too for my own Shaligrams so that I can give them to my children when the time comes.”

Suresh smiled. “Oh yes, no favoritism on my end. Both of my boys will each receive Shaligrams. If I find enough, I will keep some for me and my wife and then I will have one or two each for our children to look after. It will be good for them to start right away.”

“How old are your sons, Suresh?” I asked.

“Ten and Thirteen. I wanted to start earlier but it is so difficult to come to Kali Gandaki as you know. And with our move to Australia it became even harder. We are considered foreigners now, even though we are Indian.”

“And have you found the Shaligrams you wanted?” I continued.

Suresh looked down at his hands shyly. “I am almost embarrassed to say. I came here to pray for the appearance of Shiva. In my family, Shiva is very important but my wife said that is not who would come to us. She said I would see the Devi first because the Devi is who watches out for us now. It’s a very long story but it has to do with my wife’s illness. She prayed for Devi and well…” He pulled the small linen bag from his belt and opened it to show me two surprisingly large Shaligrams resting within.

“These are the first Shaligrams that have come. They are Durga and Parvati. This one here, I think though, might be Shiva also. Shiva-Parvati, but I am not sure. I will bring them to our guru when I see my parents in Kolkata on the way back.”

Manu stopped to take momentary darshan on the Shaligrams before looking back up at me. “I will go out onto Kali Gandaki early tomorrow morning for my first look. I’m praying for Vishnu to appear but any Shaligram is fine with me. I think that whatever Shaligram might appear is what is meant for me and my family. Though I have a feeling that it will be Lakshmi or possibly even Narasimha.”

“Why is that?”

“It’s a feeling you get.” He explained. “When you come to this place and you begin pilgrimage, you start to see how God comes to you, how God speaks to you, in the river and in Shaligram. It’s a feeling I have so I think that is who will appear.”

“I am just happy for what I have now.” Suresh concluded. “My wife was right. This is what is meant for us.”

(For the next several weeks, I am going to be posting a series of pilgrimage stories from the Kali Gandaki and from Muktinath. But while I will be discussing my own experiences for the most part, I am also interested in hearing from you. Do you have a pilgrimage story? If so, would you be willing to share it? Please feel free to write about your experiences in the comments or, if you would prefer, send them along to me via private message).

 

 
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Pilgrimage Stories (Part One)

Posted by J Foster on Aug 4, 2017 in Fieldwork in Nepal

I meet a great many people in the course of my travels but some of my favorites are those I meet on the pilgrimage trail to Muktinath. Shaligrams have a way of bringing out the best in people and, more often than not, also bringing out the best in their stories. One particular story that has stuck with me over the years involved an older woman, on her first Shaligram pilgrimage to the Kali Gandaki in Nepal, whom I met while we all gathered one evening for dinner at a local guesthouse. She and I had been discussing Shaligrams off and on throughout the day and when I saw her sitting alone at a table on the far end of the dining hall I called out to her with my customary greeting, “Namaste Didi! Sanchai Chha?”

She smiled up from her tea and motioned for me to join her. “You would never imagine what has happened today.” She began, excitedly grasping my hands and bouncing up and down on the bench.

“No?” I responded. “What is it?”

From the folds of her jacket, I watched as she produced a small, rusty-looking, Shaligram from a kathag wrapping. It was about the size of a golf ball, round and flat, with a clear Surya chakra deeply imprinted on the front. But I was slightly puzzled.

“Didi,” I started, “This Shaligram is not finished in the river yet. It is still orange and red and rough all around. It hasn’t turned completely black yet and the chakra is partially obscured.”

She nodded happily. “Oh yes I know.” She said. “But you see, it was the very first Shaligram that came to me. I went down to Kali Gandaki to do my prayers. And you know what I prayed about? I prayed about my son. He died a few years ago from a sudden sickness, so I prayed for him. And then, just as I was about to step out into the river, I saw it. Right there next to my feet. Right at the very edge of the river. Looking up at me and waiting there.”

I took the Shaligram carefully in my hands, turning it over and over again while she continued to explain.

“And then I just knew. I knew that God was speaking. My son, his name was Surya. And he died so young. Unfinished, right? This is his Shaligram. This is Surya. Unfinished. Now Shaligram has come to help me through and to help him through. Now we can go on in our lives.”

I could see what she was talking about. The Surya Shaligram that I held was just beginning to glitter with golden colors throughout the edges of the spiral. The chakra itself was deep in the stone, but iron ores and other minerals from the mountain had not yet been completely worn away by the river and so the Shaligram had been born “unfinished.” But still it was beautiful and I could see that it had already taken up residence in her heart. She began puja that very night and carried the new Shaligram with her, in layers of soft cloths, wherever she went.

When we parted ways a few days later, I waved goodbye to my new friend on the outskirts of Kagbeni village as she began the long walk back to Jomsom (and back to the airport). In the course of her pilgrimage, she found several more Shaligrams. A total of eleven if my memory is correct. But she left with only one. The rest made their way into the hands of other pilgrims we met along the path.

“My Shaligram has come to me.” She explained. “It is all I need. The others are just appearing so that I can send them on their way to wherever it is they must go. They are not for me.” We then bid one another farewell. I turned and walked off back towards the village, while she pressed her walking stick into the late summer mud and trudged off into the Himalayas. I realized at that moment that, in a sense, we were also sending each other off… to wherever it was we needed to go as well.

(For the next several weeks, I am going to be posting a series of pilgrimage stories from the Kali Gandaki and from Muktinath. But while I will be discussing my own experiences for the most part, I am also interested in hearing from you. Do you have a pilgrimage story? If so, would you be willing to share it? Please feel free to write about your experiences in the comments or, if you would prefer, send them along to me via private message).

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