The Sigerson Papers Part 2
I promised in my last dispatch to give my reader some details about the Vashisht Temple, which perches above the village of Manali, and is reached by a route as beautiful as it is precipitate. As one climbs painfully along the stony track (painfully, for the air - although pure and delightfully scented - is beginning to be thin, and does not fill the lungs) one gradually loses Manali itself in the haze of mist and smoke which conceals the valley. Flowers gem the hills as they do the valleys; here are great stores of my favourite – the Primrose, both the Pin and the Thrum: there are Roses red as heart’s blood; the mourning Adonis, true signifier of sorrowful remembrance; the Anemone which sprang from the tears of Venus, weeping for her lover slain; the nutmeg-scented Geranium which is used, as Europeans use lavender water, to cure the headache, and the humble, faithful Violet.
Birds abound: here is a flash of colour as the rare Tragopan, a type of black-crested pheasant with each flame red feather ornamented with a white spot, darts across the narrow path, while from the perfumed deodar, cascades of liquid glissandi announce the presence of more reclusive songsters. At length one comes to the holy temple of Vashisht. This exquisitely-made place of worship rejoices in its associated hot springs, which are sulphurous, with a distinct aroma of rotten eggs. For all their unsavoury smell, however, they are excellent for relieving the stiffness attendant on a healed wound: I thought as I lay in the steaming waters, how much benefit they might bring to at least one of my friends.
The temple and its spring are also the former habitation of the Sage Rishti Vashishta, one of the Seven Sages of India. For a small consideration one, may, while soaking in the enclosure (which is not unlike a small Turkish Bath) employ a local storyteller to relate the history of these springs, flowing as they do from an arrow shot into the ground by Lakshmana, virtuous brother of Rama, who wished the sage Vashishta to be able to bath near the site of his hermitage.
The kathaakaar, or teller of tales, also recounted of the said Rishi Vashishta, the righteous Muni of the Temple that bears his name, that he despaired when it seemed all those he loved were lost to him by reason of the evil deeds of an evil man. Desolate by reason of the deaths of all those in the world he held most dear, he resolved to put a period to his existence, and threw himself down from the summit of Meru. But the stony ground received him as if it were a heap of cotton. Again, Vashishta attempted to throw himself into a great fire, but it consumed him not, and he stepped from it as from cool waters. Then under the influence of grief, he tied a heavy stone to himself and threw himself into the depths of the sea - but for his virtue, the waves cast him gently to shore.
Thence he returned home disconsolate to his asylum, wondering that neither earth, nor fire, nor water would receive him, and, seeing the place empty, and all he loved dead, fell anew into the depths of grief. So after weeping awhile, once more he went out from his hermitage, wandering lost and lonely, until he came to the banks of a river swollen with the waters of the rainy season, sweeping away all in its path. And reasoning with himself that surely now he could find surcease from sorrow, he bound himself with cords, and cast himself into its depths, as into a waterfall, that his body might be broken, and he find eternal rest with his beloved. But the holy stream, knowing what it knew, refused to receive him: the cords were cut by the power of the waters, and he arose unharmed and lamenting that he could by no means die by his own hand, to return once again to the sorrowful place of his abiding.
It is a poignant tale, one to wrench the heart of all those who know loss and grief - but oh, if there be any who today are desolate and wish to cast themselves away by reason of the death of all that is dear to them, let them consider, let them think that there was a reason the world refused him entrance into the kingdom of shades – for it knew all was not lost. Even as he mourned, thinking he would be desolate for ever, even then, journeying towards Vashishta was the solace for all his woes, the reincarnated beloved who would renew his soul - and so he had only to be patient awhile. Thus, said my storyteller, even from the sages of old, and in tales from countries afar, do we who grieve receive tidings of hope, and bid each other endure against a better day.
This art of the Indian storyteller is sublime: one is reminded that the great Homer recited his Iliad and his Odyssey before they were written down: we, however now retain very little of that oral tradition which remains strong in India to this day. I presented my raconteur of the Turkish Bath with a quid of betel (the sliced nut of the Areca Palm, wrapped in the leaf of the betel tree, Piper Betle, held together with chunnam, or paste of slaked lime, and flavoured with Clove, Cinnamon or Cardamom: the whole package denominated Paan) which the native of those parts considers superior to the choicest Arcadia mix of tobacco. In return he regaled me with tales of heroism from the Vedas, the Holy Books of Hindu Scripture. At my particular request he allowed me to write down the life of Lakshmana, that most devoted brother of Rama, and the exploits of the Adityas, or deities, Mitra and Varuna, whose intimate friendship rivalled the love of David for Jonathan and of Damon for his Pythias. These tales are curious: it may be that I shall be able to recount them in some future dispatch - although they can scarcely be said to be family tales, partaking as they do of the robust and unashamed attitude towards generative matters which is typical of the inhabitants of the Indian Subcontinent.
Following my visit to the Temple of Vashishta, I retraced my steps to Manali, where I was to rest for a few days to acclimatise myself to the altitude: an ascent of the Rohtang Pass being in contemplation. The foreign and unaccustomed traveller at altitude is sadly subject to that sickness arising from the rarefied nature of the air: it causes shortness of breath, nausea and dizziness, fatigue with insomnia, and other such unpleasant symptoms. Severely affected individuals may acquire a sickness of the lungs, leading to the copious production of pink, frothy sputum, fever, a persistent dry cough, and dyspnoea even at rest, while others may suffer the acute headache resulting from bleeding into the brain. Acclimatisation allows the body to adjust to the lower pressure of the air, and can ameliorate or banish the symptoms. The natives of the region do not suffer: their bodies are more adapted from birth. I theorise that the haemoglobin that is a constituent part of the blood is more abundant in them. Indeed, in a test upon blood drawn from my own arm, and that of a native porter (with a reagent of my own particular making designed to distinguish human from animal blood) the gentleman’s blood answered more strongly to the test than mine, precipitating out with great rapidity and thoroughness. This surely argues a superabundance of those red cells discovered in 1840 by the German scientist Hunefeld and determined, some thirty years later, by his eminent compatriot, Felix Hoppe-Seyler, to transport oxygen around the system.
I hope in my next dispatch to discourse more largely and reflectively upon the extent of my travels in Asia, the better to enable comparisons to be drawn between our manner of living here, and our manner of living in Europe. It is said that travel broadens the mind: certainly one cannot long reside (with an open and curious mind) among the natives of any place without insensibly coming to understand that we are all a product of our environments, with all the prejudices belonging thereto – some of which and particularly those related to the practice of religion – merit scrutiny.