Stairway to Heaven
With my coffee in hand, I waited on the bench in front of the yoga shala in southern India I had been practicing at for the past month. The soulful song of the first call to prayer was starting to fill the air as I waited for my my friend that I affectionately call my Mysore bestie, to meet me for our day’s adventure. There was no one on the streets yet, a rare sight in India. It was a Sunday morning, and just barely 5am.
Both of us were used to getting up early, as our yoga practice had us sometimes at the shala by 4:30am. But why, on our only day of the week off from yoga would we be up at this hour? We decided to make the trek up the 1,008 steps of Chamundi Hill before we both departed back to our native lands.
We walked down past the coconut stand to see which of the rickshaw drivers would be willing to take us to the base of Chamundi and wait for us as we did our trek, without charging us outrageous prices. We finally settled on one of our favorite drivers, Abu. He had taken us to many other spots around town safely and charged reasonable enough rates even if he refused to use his meter.
The hustle and bustle of the streets of Mysore were missing as we drove by the colorful landmarks we had come to love over the past month. Still a little groggy, we finally arrived to the base of the hill. It was like we had stepped back in time. Fog filled the air as we prepared to start the trek. We told Abu we would be only about 2 hours. He laughed, and said he would see us in 4 hours. A little perplexed, we agreed and began our ascent.
Before coming to Mysore, I had never heard of Chamundi HIll. But upon arrival I came to learn that Chamundi Hill is a pilgrimage site for many who come to Mysore. At the top of the hill is Chamundeshwari Temple, a Hindu temple erected for the goddess Chamundi, one of the avatars of Durga. She is an extremely important deity to the people of Mysore and the focal point of a 10 day festival, Dusshera Festival. According to legend, the goddess Chamundi killed an ancient king of what is now Mysore after a fierce battle on the very same Chamundi Hill. Needless to say, my Mysore bestie and I were keen on feeling some of the Chamundi’s powerful energy.
We started early in the morning to beat any of the afternoon heat, as well as to avoid any crowds. Our other friends also advised us that the pilgrimage was best to do barefoot, to truly receive Chamundi’s energy. However, we chose to wear our sandals, just to be safe. As we climbed I was enamored with the sights. It was very much a microcosm of modern India. There of course were altars along the path, but there were also people running the steps training as well as devoted elders making their weekly pilgrimages. But the people that remain etched in my memory was a young couple that were making their pilgrimage together. They dressed in Indian clothes and not only climbed the steps, which were pretty steep, but they were adding vermillion powder to the steps with their fingers as they went. So they were not only climbing, but squatting too, a quite strenuous pilgrimage. They did it with such grace and love that as I watched in awe I thought, I hope whatever their wish is, it comes true. And then I thought about all the vermillion smudges before I saw the couple, and all the people who had done this before them. Chamundi Hill instantly felt just a little more magical.
The views of Mysore were stunning as we continued to summit the hill. As we approached the halfway point we were greeted by a giant statue of Nandi, Shiva’s trusty bull. We made a couple of rounds to take pictures and ask for blessings before continuing up the hill. As we got closer to the temple monkeys started to join us on our journey. Monkeys might be cute, be in India they are also very mischievous. Luckily, these ones just wanted to keep us company. After what we realized was 2 hours, we had made it to Chamundeswari Temple. We had underestimated the hill, our rickshaw driver, Abu, had been right the entire time.
I don’t know what I originally thought would happen when we finally got to the top, but it wasn’t at all what I expected. There were cows up at the top with a number of stalls selling various souvenirs and offerings. The sun was finally starting to really shine as my friend and I each bought our flower offerings to throw to the goddess Chamundi. We waited in line with all the locals for the temple to open. And we made our way through the temple to throw our flowers to a small black statue in the altar once we finally could approach her. To the naked eye it would all look to very ordinary and trivial. But to those believers and worshipers, and to me there was more at work. When we left the temple, I looked at my Mysore bestie and I knew we both felt renewed. We had spent a month with various trials and tribulations; assimilating not only to India but to a strenuous yoga practice. Our bodies and minds were constantly being pushed to the limit, and on that Sunday morning, we were rejuvenated. It was the last thing I expected, but the very thing I most needed, very much like India herself. I purchased a blessed mantra with some vermilion that I still wear as a necklace to this day to remind me that the very thing you most need will find you in the end.