Nestled before me in the Himalayas is Gandaki Shakti Peeth in Muktinath, Nepal. It is so close and without the wings of a bird, so far. The trip there will be a lot like the one that got me here. Long. It is time to say farewell to Tibet and take a 13 hour road trip from Darchen to Gyirong before crossing into Nepal at Rasuwagadhi. It is a 2000m descent. Scarcity of the desert terrain with its hints of greenery, dry air, tapestry of cotton candy like clouds woven into a hypnotic blue sky quickly disappears. The image of vastness that is the Tibetan plateau shifts dramatically as we drop into a valley carved out by the Trishuli river. I begin to comprehend the descent once the road no longer disappears into the horizon, but blindly ends into the curvy contours of this mountain. The sparseness is replaced with lush tropical greenery blanketing sheer stone cliffs. How life comes to exist through the unforgiving nature of rock is a great mystery to me. A WILL to live powerful enough to permeate stone. It confounds me. Life here is an eclectic mix of large flat leaves of foliage, cacti and evergreen pine trees. An odd combination to reconcile in this climate. The landscape of this valley is nourished from the ocean’s tears weeping from above and merging into waterfalls that become unbridled rivers we cross without the trespass of bridges.
As we descend, I become aware of the exertion that went into breathing over the last 11 days independent of my respiratory infection. It becomes so much easier and my obliviousness towards that effort is yet another mystery to me. How did I ever believe that I was “fine” or felt “normal” while my body was simultaneously working so hard. This is the beginning of a deeper contemplation of what assimilation and adaptation means within the matrix of the Sacred Feminine. The words imply the same thing and I know they are different in some way. As my body began to adjust to the climate, elevation, environment of Tibet, it required nothing of me. It just happened naturally. This is very innate. An autonomic capacity that also allows living beings to meld with each other. For life to live with more of itself. It feels like it is a superpower of nature to evolve with its creativity through cooperation. This process inferred into what we call adapting or assimilating. I know this process to be part of illness and healing, though less obvious on the surface. Darwin’s survival of the fittest perspective; the hyper-competitive formula we live of eat or be eaten, feels like half of a biological truth right now.
The road we take from Gyirong town over to Rasuwagadhi and then to Kathmandu does not show up on any map app. The reason becomes clear once we travel on this windy, rocky trail up and down multiple mountainous passes over the next 8 hours. In a way it is not so much a road as much as a path cut out of the steep mountain side that is on its way to becoming a road one day. A stark contrast between a Chinese occupied Tibet and an autonomous Nepal, which has a limited history of foreign rulership. The order, infrastructure, and obedience that was part of an uncomfortable ease in getting around Tibet quickly vanishes once crossing the redline into Nepal. A step back in time. On the surface there is chaos. The road is an unpaved obstacle course of pot holes. The immigration process is a haphazard vacuum of time. There are many highly suspect side gigs freely playing out in this unique border economy. It is totally fluid and organic in a liberating sort of way. The sub-conscious hyper-vigilance operating in me to become invisible to Chinese authority disintegrates. That fog of fear vanishing as I begin cracking jokes with the Nepali military from one check point to the other. Nepal is comfortable even if the roads are not.
This is far from a developed country and the development is happening through Nepalese grit, at their speed, with their agency. From my western perspective of creature comforts, life seems hard but not stressful. The American hustle is not a thing here. Of course people have stress. The economy is so dependent on foreign tourism, which is still lagging since Covid. In the wake of a few difficult years there is this grounded malleability in how Nepali people adapt with their challenges. This seems more true for those living and cultivating their food around the rural communities lining the hillsides hidden from view of this road. Communities we only see when looking beyond some valley or behind with distance.
As our day passes, kids return home from school in their awkward fitting uniforms, effortlessly strolling against the gravity of these steep narrow roads. The roads are a major artery of all movement here. The kids are laughing. They are as unfazed as dogs and cows taking their afternoon naps in narrow patches of sunlight peeking through the trees towering overhead as the leaves compete for sunlight. Drivers of this road are equally unperturbed as they swerve around these living breathing obstacles. Everyone is at peace with sharing the harrowing sliver of space made slick by the afternoon monsoons. Everyone except the three of us in the back seat of this Scorpio Jeep. We are unaccustomed foreigners holding our breath periodically and occasionally shutting our eyes, while trying to assimilate.
I’m in Kathmandu for a day. The rainy season has officially begun and the tourist season has more or less ended except for the occasional dreadlocked hippy popping up around the corner of a random gully in the busy neighborhood of Thamel. Leaving Kathmandu, I head back northwest towards the other side of the Himalayan mountains I was staring at 2 days earlier. There is an overnight break in Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal. It is famous for Fewa Lake that is positioned up against the picturesque snow capped Annapurna Conservation Range currently hidden by swollen clouds constipated with rain waiting to explode. The journey here is another long bumpy day in a car. It feels like I am in a Vitamix at full blast for another 8 hours. Fortunately, the scenery more than makes up for it. Here, traffic jams are the consequences of landslides of drowning earth. Motorcycles and smaller cars manage to find their way forward, while the larger trucks and buses start to line up behind each other in an indefinite delay. It is not clear how much of the roadway reopens from bulldozers or the redistribution of mud compressed beneath a swarm of wheels until the passage widens enough for these big vehicles to move once more. More adapting or assimilating at work.
The next morning, a 20 minute flight in puddle jumper from small military airport in Pokhara flies us into the narrow Mustang valley created by some of the world’s highest mountain peaks of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri ranges. This passage becomes impossible to fly through every afternoon when it converts into a wind tunnel. Flying over these majestic peaks with this bird like view has me speechless. It is yet another moment of feeling like a speck of dust in the cosmos of boundlessness with the great Himalayas as a reference point. We land literally inside the town of Jomsom, which is close to the Tibetan border. The green-scape of Pokhara evaporates into a moonscape with exception of the grey waters of the Gandaki River that form this valley. From here, its another couple of hours along another rocky road that follows this sacred river until we ascend to the village of Ranipauwa. Here we leave the car and hike up to Muktinath Temple, which is more of a complex of structures, at the base of Thorong La mountain pass, 3762m above sea level.
Mukthi means salvation and nath means lord. A path to liberation is the longing that brings people to this place. The history of Muktinath is multi-layered with each era adding its own unique significance. The minimalist landscape makes this place feel like the only changeless thing ever created. Yet, time is the space through which a poignant human history of change unfolds. The events of millennium draw millions to pay homage to this particular piece of earth. The landscape may not change, but the reasons people come do. It is hard to know the first moment this place became sacred. Who knows if it begins with Devi Sati or any of the other Puranic stories that mention this place. Whether it was the descent of her body part or some other event lost to whim of history tellers. Regardless, this place is special for Buddhist, Tantrics, and followers for Sanatana Dharma’s various sects. They share Mukthinath with the utmost respect of each other. They both care for it through infinite acts of cooperation that model an ideal relationship between what appears to the world as religious difference.
Here the frigid holy waters of the Gandaki River flow through 108 gold painted stone faucets. Each uniformly shaped in the head of a bull, lined up 7ft high and 1ft apart in a row along a retaining wall. It is an impressive fountain backdrop to the main Himalayan pagoda styled temple. There are two square pools of equally freezing water collected from the fountain in front of the temple. Pilgrims let the karmic cleansing Gandaki River rain over them as they pass one by one under each of these golden chipped spouts and then submerge themselves in the five foot deep baths in front of the temple. It is a whole body, bone chilling experience of brain freeze. 108 is no random number. It holds multiple spiritual significances in Sanatana Dharma. One example is the combination of the 12 solar houses and 9 planets whose positions to each other influence the karma each of us is fated to transform during the course of our lives if we choose. The Gandaki is also no ordinary river. It has the unique reputation of being the only source of shaligram, a fossilized form of stone, that also represents an embodiment of Lord Vishnu. Shaligram is considered the blessing of the Devi who forms it. There is an entire mythology around Lord Vishnu and one of Daksha’s daughters, leading to the origin of shaligram that adds to the holiness here.
This place is also known as Gandaki Chandi Shakti Peeth. The Devi is known as Gandaki Chandi, a form of Adi Shakti, has the wisdom to transmit the necessary knowledge of enlightenment. She represents the embodiment of all siddhis(transcendental powers). Gandaki Chandi Devi is believed to fulfill any desire of a devotee who comes with a true heart of faith. She helps her devotees overcome their obstacles. Lord Shiva’s Bhairava resides with her in the form of Chakrapani, the one who holds a disc. Most texts state her right cheek fell here. Some come here to harness her shakti as they engage in austerities for the spiritual attainment of their own siddhis. Given her enormous power, seekers hope to receive her grace along their path towards enlightenment, towards liberation…towards mukti.
There are multiple places of worship within the Muktinath Complex. The main temple is particularly significant for the Vaishnavs (followers of Vishnu). There is human size golden idol of Vishnu in his form as Shri Mukti Naryana. Sharing the inner sanctum with him are deities of Lakshmi as the earth goddess Bhoomi, Saraswati, Devi Sita and her sons Luv and Kush, plush the seven sages (Sapta Rishis) created by Lord Brahma. Buddhists also refer to this place as Chumming Gyatsam which means hundred waters. They pray to the deity of Vishnu in the temple as Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.
A short climb off to the left of this mandir is Narsing Gompa. Buddhist are drawn here because it is said to be among the 24 stops Guru Padmasambhva made to attain spiritual enlightenment before entering Tibet to rid it of its demons and introduce Buddhism there. Idols of him are housed for worship within the Gompa. The Dakinis Goddesses, known as Sky Dancers are believed to reside in Muktinath. A small group of nuns oversee the affairs of the Gompas and are considered descendents of the Dakinis. There is also a new addition of a 32 foot tall statue of the Sakyamuni Buddha carved out of a special black stone of pharping erected in 2022.
Of equal significance to both Sanatan Dharma and Buddhist is the Jwala Mai Temple/ Dhola Mebar Gompa. There are a few Jawala temples scattered through Asia and some are also acknowledged as Shakti Peeths; therefore, tie into the story of Sati. Jawala is a form of the Mahadevi as a glowing face of fire. Within these temples are unexplained burning flames in between rocks within the earth. Here at Muktinath, Jawala is The Mother. To see her, you have to kneel down to the ground and peer through a grate protecting her flame that continuously burns without any known energy source. It is suspected to be some type of natural gas flowing up from the ground. Equally mysterious is the sound of flowing water of the Gandaki heard just beneath the flame as if it burns on water. A mysterious contradiction to the natural laws of fire and water, which normally cancel each other out when they meet but co-exist together here. There are multiple Buddhist deities in this sanctum and these flames believed to be their powers.
The last notable shrine is to Lord Shiva, which also shares the style of a pagoda. Looking into the temple, there is not the usual lingam but idols representing Lord Shiva, the Devi, Lord Ganesh and Nandi. Outside of the shrine, at its four corners are four smaller shrines, representing the Char (four)Dhams (spiritual centers) lining the borders of India along with Lord Vishnu’s footprint. In India, the Char Dhams are Dwarka in the West, Badhrinath of the North, Jagannath in the East and Rameshvaram in the South. Travel to each of these places is another sacred pilgrimage of its own within India. There is a belief that the blessing which comes from traveling to India’s Char Dhams can be satisfied in Muktinath while circumambulating Vishnu’s footprint along with the smaller shrines surrounding Shiva’s Temple.
Getting here and experiencing the complexity of Muktinath is a lot for me to take in all at once. Really arriving, receiving this place, letting it permeate me becomes a choice to make in some odd way. A choice to lean into feeling more of what is here. It takes getting out of tourist mode to choose to be in the experience of a devotee, to tiptoe into the realm of surrender. I feel my resistance to it. I feel like I am still rushing all the time. It shows up as some belief that says, “I have to hurry up.” It is not true though. Just a habit from yesterday… many yesterdays ago. There is no one clear place or idol that represents Gandaki Chandi or her shakti across the layers of spiritual history I barely scratch the surface of. This whole place is the Devi at play from some beginning. In the absence of such a spot, I climb up a stairway lined by brass bells until this path ends in the mountains leading into limitless directions. The mountains are made of millions of grey stones adorned in the colorful drapery of Buddhist prayer flags saving them from living like a black & white photo. I can only imagine the many great souls who have stepped here as I find a place to sit, to rest. Sitting in a higher altitude again feels like nothing after the last few weeks. I am grateful, especially after seeing those carried down from the temple on stretchers with altitude sickness on my way up here. Again, I’m totally oblivious to any potential effort my body is making to adapt or assimilate now.
I close my eyes. A moment of stopping leads me inward. The experience is a myriad of sensations within my body. The earth vibrating in me… as me. The awareness of subtle sensations intensify beyond anything subtle. The many mysteries of the Devi that surface along the trip here, that work me mentally, slip away into the movement of what it is to just … BE. Mystery is the domain of the Sacred Feminine. The Devi communicates it through the mystery of life. Through the will to live that is strong enough to cut stone. I am a mystery to myself, especially when it comes to driving me on this trip. A mystery she is revealing to me more than one I am figuring out. The need to understand her evaporates a little more. The walls of fear that enclose my heart because its too overwhelming to feel her power living in me crack a little more. I am more aware of her coursing through me. Tears come, yet again. They came as I ran under her frigid waters fearing my own ability to endure her cold. Fear that the pain would be some end of me. They came in witnessing the unexplained mystery of her flame defying the laws of fire. They came as my doubt of being able to ascend up her steep earth fell to the ground with each step closer I came. They came as her force permeates my lungs with oxygen, just enough for me to be here without needing to be carried down on a stretcher of my own. Resting in her, questions of belonging seem so weird, as if I could no longer feel separate. It is just a relaxing into belonging because of course I am not separate. What is there to really surrender to? Just my own resistance. Just my own fear. Both belong to me alone. Her mystery continues to reveal herself to me through me, in me, and around me. The mystery of her all prevailing nature becoming less mysterious with each passing moment here.
Next Time…. Guhyeshwari Shakti Peeth in Kathmandu, Nepal