The journey to Dakshayani Shakti Peeth is not easy. Dakshayani, meaning daughter of Daksha, feels like the right place to begin. It is also in one of the holiest places on earth. Located along the banks of Lake Manasarovar in the southeastern part of Tibet, technically Tibet Autonomous Region of China. It is at the edge of the Himalayas and very close to the borders of India and Nepal. All the money in the world would not have made it easier to get here. Money may not be the rate limiting factor we believe it to be. I imagine, this is the first of many lessons awaiting me this year. It is immediately clear that embarking on this Shakti Pilgrimage is not just rocking up to a bunch of temples. The trip begins with discovering what I am made of from within, rather than any taste of shakti prevailing from the outside.
Travel to Tibet post-Covid is just starting to come back. Routes through Nepal or India are not options yet, leaving me to go through mainland China. The first leg begins with a plane ride to Chengdu and an unexpected 90 minute interrogation with immigration officials at passport control. We shared no common language, which was not a deterrent to the intensity of questions or skepticism. Thankfully there was an app for part of that. The years of navigating Israeli security and scrutiny was no preparation for the four men working me from the Chinese authority. The experience in China played out like a throw down between fear and trust. A core theme during my time here. Adhering to the rules was paramount and they do not bend for anything. On arrival, the first order of business was to prove that I was actually a doctor to enter even though I am a tourist. Fortunately, I had set myself up with an e-sim and could retrieve copies of diplomas and had enough of a digital footprint as a physician on an accessible part of the internet. Even with the e-sim’s VPN, the Google-verse, Meta-verse, and huge chunk of the English speaking-verse disappears from my phone.
Despite knowing that Tibet was under Chinese control and being aware of the information flow challenges within China, my ignorance just refused to put two and two together. My headspace was in some romantic notion of Tibet and not in the China of today. The next part of the journey entails a 40 hour train ride to Lhasa. I would like to say that getting on the train is this smooth experience, but it is a story for another day. The difficulties of boarding the train cemented the rigidity of rules working like glue for governance of 1.4 billion people. It is hard to judge being a stickler for the rules when so much of it works. Chengdu is clean, orderly and organized. It does not feel crowded. Food and transportation are accessible. There are stench-less toilets in every subway station catering to 3.17 million users per day in a city home to 16 million. An amazing first for me in Asia.
Like the subways in Chengdu, a sea of humanity board the train’s never ending row of passenger cars. Getting off the train was no different than being herded out of packed stadium at the end of a mega concert. Hours pass staring out the window as the train’s wheels glide us over the Tibetan plateau. Mother nature’s canvas here is painted with desert sprouting new shrubs upon the arrival of fresh rainfall. Scattered through this are rivers, lakes, yaks and horses flashing by as a momentary break to a monotony of beauty. This barreness is being quickly altered by the inherent human drive to live, grow and expand. Among the few untouched landscapes left, this one is changing into towns bridged by large military installations of tanks and trucks occupying the space between them. Electrical towers and countless miles of wiring litter over any hope of capturing some National Geographic worthy photo from the train. I could not make sense of whether the viscous grey silt filled streams were something typical in the early rainy season or a consequence of the massive construction effort unfolding before me in concrete. People on the train were either mesmerized by the vast terrain framed in the train windows or their cell phones. It is hard to cling to our differences when we all suffer the Achilles of the mobile. Most everyone manages to drown the people around them out. The cultural norms and rules around headphones on public transportation back at home are irrelevant here. A cacophony of sound is the white noise moving from one berth into the next for two days and nights.
Biometric payment is the price of exiting the train station, followed by a VIP escort to the police station where another officer, after some deliberation, delivers me into the hands of a guide. Lhasa is 3656M above sea level, compressing 1/3 of the normal breathing oxygen out of use. It is a bustling city, with its own Times Square and Jumbotrons blurring away the snow covered mountain peaks surrounding them. The faces of native Tibetans show up like random pixels amongst the populous Chinese business traders and domestic tourists engulfing the sidewalks. The only beggars I see the whole time in China are Tibetans in Lhasa. This is not Brad Pitt’s Seven Years in Tibet version of Lhasa. I doubt anyone is naive enough to expect this, yet it is hard not to long for a bit of it while being here.
Leaving the bustle of Lhasa is 4 days of driving. It is over 1000 miles before getting to Darchen, which is a basic outpost being developed as the next tourist hot spot. Darchen is the jumping point to Lake Manasarovar and Mt. Kailash. The carrot at the end of my stick. Along the way here, there are mountainous passes each surpassing the other in altitude…4300M, 4800M, 5100M and then 5200M at Mt. Everest Base Camp. It is arid and my body is going through various compensations to adapt. At 5500M we get half the amount of oxygen we are normally use to at sea level. Adapt away body. We are coasting on endless miles of smooth asphalt with the intermittent disruption of either a military or police checkpoint. One does not seem to trust the other in what feels like a competition of checking and cross checking of ID cards, passports and Tibetan travel permits. Those disruptions are temporarily forgotten on seeing huge herds of yaks just roaming free, just being, just doing their thing. Occasionally they are accompanied by a solo herdsman. It is some version of an imagined old American frontier. The horses, deer and antelope wandering completely free, generously sharing their road with us. Our Tibetan driver is unwavering in discipline with the speed limit. We never get over 50 MPH. Left to my own devices, I’m pretty sure I would be writing this from jail. It’s incredible to witness this grandeur. The challenges of getting here and negotiating the climate are shoved away like footnotes in an unread appendix. I am in awe of this place which gives me this visceral experience of being a speck of dust in the grand scheme of the universe’s expanding form.
The majesty of the terrain just barely pacifies the myriad of internal conflicts I am having as we periodically stop at a lake, glacier, or monastery in what has become mother nature’s Disneyland of tourism. Over 6000 monasteries were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in Tibet. Some were recreated for the spectacle of tourists like me and the millions of Chinese who share my interest. There are monuments commemorating a sense of national pride for taking over here. There are Chinese officers standing over the shoulders of monks engaging in the caretaking of deities within monasteries. Some are warm and curious towards the monks, listening on as they offer a teaching. Others are quick to move us along to avoid any trouble. Someone is always watching through the adornment of cameras lining the ceilings above. There are no blind spots. It is illegal to mention the name of the Dalai Llama in Tibet so we refer to him as “He who shall not be named.” The lack of creative genius is not lost on me and the eight amazing travel companions I am with. We have become a family away from family as the first adventurous foreigners to arrive here in 3 years.
This part of the world is steeped in deep spiritual traditions of Buddhism, Sanatana Dharma, Jainism and the Bon. Despite the history spoken of, there is little material evidence of it outside of the random monastery. There are no temples, sadhus or pujaris residing here anymore. The original names have all changed and are destined to be forgotten with the birth of the next generation. Currently the history told about the area is much like the Puranas themselves…relative to the narrator and rapidly contradicting itself. Dakashayni Shakti Peeth is the only one that lacks a structure around it and stays uncared for as a temple. It is a boulder by the lake that pilgrims come to pay homage to. Despite combing through numerous web pages and posts acknowledging this place there is no pin I could find to confirm its exact location along the 110 km of lakeshore. I do find one circumspect photo on some website without a caption and attempt to email someone from a travel list serve who I now doubt was ever here after receiving their reply. Our Tibetan Buddhist guides accustomed to taking Western tourists around do not know about this boulder. They help me hunt down another Tibetan guide use to catering to Indian and Nepali circuit. He immediately knows about it and is able to provide a general description of the vicinity to our driver in Tibetan. Who knows what was said? I am filled with skepticism and uncertainty around finding “The Boulder.” China only began resuming tourist visas for Indian pilgrims a week earlier so there is just none of that knowledge to fall back on.
It takes 11 days to arrive here, to lay eyes on Lake Manasarovar and Mt. Kailash. Mt. Kailash, the home of Lord Shiva and his beloved is said to be the point that the spiritual world connects to the physical world. No living human being has climbed its 6638M peak because it is so sacred. Pilgrims come to circumambulate it after circling Lake Manasarovar and a dip in its freezing waters. An ancient prescription for enlightenment.
By now, what started off as a viral upper respiratory infection in me has escalated to a full on bronchitis pneumonia. The Tylenol and Aleve I pop like TicTacs are no match for my fever. I have to admit to loving the health insurance-free; therefore, drama-free ease of going to the pharmacists without a prescription and getting whatever I need. It is fast, cheap and stressless. American healthcare feels like a capitalist conspiracy of the industrial health complex compared to this. Yes, it is a total leap of faith that the antibiotics in the package are what they say they are. My doubt is minimal compared to the one I have of the American $150B unregulated supplement industry. Being sick also turns out to be a perfect circumstance for me to work on my capacity to trust. After a week of denial, I surrender to the drugs, the rest and get my first experience of sleep after one week. I am alone, it is quiet, I am still and suddenly haunted by this massive hospital grade oxygen tank standing in the corner of the hotel room while my watch keeps alerting me to my high heart rate. I just refuse to go near it in a stubborn act of defiant pride colluding with irrationality. A desperate effort to avoid the fear that I am worst off than capable of believing. The nearest basic hospital is 16 hours away.
The next day, I pick up some offerings for the Devi and head out towards her with barely a clue about her location by Chiu Monastery and a suspect photo. Lake Manasarovar, is a fresh water lake at 4600M and is rich with life. It is believed to have emerged from the mind (manas) of Lord Brahma. This is where Sati’s right hand fell. Here, Mansa Devi is worshiped as Adi Shakti (first, primordial, earliest power) and she bestows the fulfillment of her devotees’ desires. Lord Shiva, is present as her Bhairava in the form of Amar. Meanwhile there is a second lake, Rakshastal, the lake of the demons or the black lake made of salt water. It is a bit lifeless and associated with Lord Ravana, the evil villain of the Ramayana, as well as devotee to Lord Shiva. He prayed to Shiva here to absolve him of his sins.
Heading down towards the lake, my heart is racing as the anticipation builds. We start heading counter clockwise around the lake. This feels uncomfortable since it is custom to circumambulate this lake and all holy places in Sanatan Dharma and Buddhism clockwise. Just past the monastery we see a wall of red rocks, kind of like my picture, blanketed with prayer flags, as well as a mediation cave and horns from a yak’s skull resting on a boulder by the shore. My heart skips. Quickly, doubt sets in as it feels too easy. We moved further around the lake and the terrain changes. The red rocks disappear revealing a flat plane meeting the water as far as I can see. There are no more boulders ahead, no more clues to follow, just the feeling in my gut, in my heart. Finding “The Boulder” became irrelevant. I had already passed the boulder for me. Turning back, moving clockwise, something settles in my base. My heart is tensing in the anticipation of arriving after a long journey.
I step into the the lake, gently rinse its chilly holy water over my legs, arms and face. Sinking into the possibility that it has the power to heal and absolve me of my sins. Is it the water or the journey to get here? As I collected my offerings and stare at this large rock, I am completely overwhelmed by emotion to the shock of my very analytical brain. The tension encasing my heart just cracks in half as tears bombard my cheeks and spill over on my chest. I have no explanation for the rationally oriented who want one for this. It feels dishonest, not to own the experience and the profound effect on me. Sati means truth after all. After becoming my own pujari, setting down my offerings (prasada) in an uncomfortable gesture of ritual, I sit at the feet of the Mansa Devi’s form. It takes time to drop in. The breeze, the birds skimming along the surface of the lake and ducks swimming behind me become a symphony of sound. The warm sun along my body cools with the whispering wind and shade of clouds sailing above.
A familiar feeling returns. Every time I have ever delivered a baby, there is this moment. It is when the baby is liberated from the bottle neck of the birth canal, takes its first breath and makes its first sound. Each time, countless times over, my heart stops, my breath is interrupted, tears well up like a veil and I fight to maintain my composure. I used to think it was some trigger from my own difficult birth expressing relief every time a baby defeats the dangerous uncertainty of being born. Another part of the experience clarifies itself now. I am just deeply touched by the awesomeness of life coming into existence. This is what it feels like here by the lake with this boulder as I really take in life just being itself undisturbed. In that moment, I do not fight back anything for any reason. I just give myself to the purity and the nakedness it brings. Stillness sinks in. Time ceases to exist. Another reality takes my being. As the moment passes, words emerge through the viscera of my heart. “Life will live. It knows the way.” I open my eyes and take in this dreamscape around me once again. The subtle effort to “control” my fait eases. The fear that struggles with keeping myself safe shifts. Life is living in me. It shows the way.
Next, the journey towards salvation,Muktinath Temple, Nepal.