I have never really been able to understand what devotion to God means. Why are people, who won't otherwise move a finger, willing to walk miles to a temple, mosque or church as a mark of penance? Why do misers put coins into donation boxes? How do people, who don't have much to offer much in terms of guidance, suddenly become the beacon-holders for religious processions? And how do the unfaithful find a path to God?
I did something extraordinary yesterday. Well, it was extraordinary for me. I climbed the 2,000 steps to make it to the Mahakali Temple atop the 2,000-ft Pavagadh hill located 46 km from Vadodara. I have been on the hill quite a few times before. I've even been once to the top, taking the cable-car most of the way, and then climbing up the remaining 250-odd steps. But yesterday, was different. I had the option to sit out, instead of joining a group of devotees on their pilgrimage. I had a good reason too, what with a stiff neck, a bad back, altitude sickness and a shoulder that was sore from playing badminton. Somehow, that didn't seem enough. Not when you want to know what thousands of pilgrims will be going through when they make the daily pilgrimage in the April heat during Chaitra Navratri. At least I had weather on my side!
And so I climbed, one step at a time. I chose not to look over the cliff to the beautiful valley below, with the towers rising from the Jama Masjid that belongs to the UNESCO Heritage Site of Champaner. I had to stop several times — to allow for herds of white donkeys making their way down, for devotees and goats who had been 'blessed' by the Goddess and who were marked with a piece of red cloth tied around their heads, for pilgrims who climbed quickly and shouted, "Jai Mata Di" and to gasp for air at that altitude. Fake sadhus (holy men) wearing saffron robes or synthetic animal prints (since fur is expensive and banned) beckoned me for blessings that would cost me just a couple of rupees. "Jai Mata Di," one of them yelled. I ignored him. He shouted again. When he didn't get a response, he said, "Arre, bhagwan ka naam bhi nahin le sakte ho kya?" ("Can't you even take the Goddess's name?") I smiled and turned away.
At a particularly steep turn I stopped. Was I really going to carry on? The wind was stronger and the sun shone bright. I wrapped my scarf around my head and ears. I looked thirstily at the earthen pots at the entrance of a stall. Chaas (buttermilk) and nimbu-paani (lime water)! But I had been warned about the water quality. I moved on. A few steps later I had finished the last drop from my water-bottle. And I wasn't even half-way up. I chose to risk suffering from contamination than thirst and purchased a plastic pouch of water and filled my bottle with it. This, I hoped, would see me till I reached the top.
The last 250 steps were the most difficult. They were steep and the climb was almost vertical. I crawled to the top, almost exhausted. The temple courtyard was small. Women in red sarees with vermillion marks on their foreheads were swaying to garba beats. They seemed to be in some sort of a trance. I spent exactly 10 minutes inside the temple, where the devotees offered coconuts and mithai and red chunaris (scarves) to the Goddess. The view from the top was surely breathtaking. And the temple's said to be at least 1,300 years old. Of course, the renovations have made it look like it's brand new.
Being no devotee of the Goddess, I wondered whether the two-hour climb had been worth my effort and time. I couldn't come up with an answer. But as I reached the last few steps (the climb down took me only 45 minutes) that led to the car park, I recollected that I had had no hopes of ever making it to the top. But I had carried on. And it was not because I was attached to the Goddess in any particular way, but the fact that I did not want to be the first one to give up. Not when little kids were climbing all the way up, not when people were walking barefoot on jagged rocks, not when devotees were crawling and inking each step with vermillion and certainly not when donkeys had made it look easy. I had gone all the way up thinking that I would turn into a believer. I came back believing more in myself!