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).