I woke up sharp at 5 am the morning and came out of the shed. The surroundings were not visible because of heavy fog. There was hot water in a big aluminium vessel placed in the veranda of the kitchen. It seemed that a big mound of firewood had been placed under the vessel in the night itself. Without hot water, life was surely impossible there. The cooks and other kitchen staff had still not woken up. I entered the bathroom, picking a bucket of water for brushing the teeth, cleaning the body and other primary needs of the morning. Readymade bathrooms and toilets made of fibre had been erected – about a furlong away from the camp. There were two bathrooms and two toilets erected thus.

The cooks woke up at about 5.45 am Since none of my fellow travellers had woken up, I sat near the fireplace of the kitchen, curling up my body. The unbearable cold was lessened a bit thus. I utilised the occasion to talk about things with the workers. Sipping black tea, I listened to their narration.

Walking up half a kilometre in the south-west direction of the camp, we could see Adi Kailash. The previous day, that mountain peak was fully covered by snow for the whole day. The team members who had come to the camp by 2 pm went there at about 4 pm but had to return disappointed. You have to go 2 km farther to reach the front of Adi Kailash. Those parts were full of dangerous glaciers. The water current that rises from Adi Kailash later becomes the Kunthi River. The Kuti River that originates from the Dhura Pass joins Kunthi at Phoolkiwar after flowing north through Parvati Tal.

We can enter Tibet through the Mamgsa Dhura and Lampiya Dhura Passes. The military men on guard duty would permit the pilgrims to go beyond the pass only if the climate was favourable. This is too dangerous an attempt. We could reach Bedang by walking 12 km from Jolingkong by the left of the Lampiya Pass. From there, we could reach Thavaghat by walking 50 km via Dhugtu, Sela and Niyu. The villagers belonging to the Bhotiya tribal community reside in Dhugtu, Sela and Niyu. Kilometres can be saved if we go to Dharchula from Thavaghat through this route. But it is not made use of because of breath-stopping inclines and the intolerable climatic conditions.

I was stunned to learn that under such conditions, villagers were residing there. The Adi Kailash pilgrimage conducted via Gunji with so many kilometres in excess was for the pilgrims to experience the vision of Om Mountain, the pathways with the footprints of Vyasa Maharshi, the famous puranic background of Kunthi Devi and the Pandavas, the pleasant villages and farmlands, the Kali, Kuti, Kunthi rivers and the cheerful sights of the extremely beautiful Himalayan mountain ranges.

After 7 am, the fog in the plains began to subside. But the peaks were still hidden and an elderly cook told me that at each moment, the sunrays were becoming brighter and soon the atmosphere was going to be even brighter. The camp was now in full swing and everyone was busy. As there was a long queue for hot water and in front of the toilets, some team members sat on the rock in the courtyard of the camp to brush their teeth and drink their morning tea. Meanwhile, attempts were being made to get the injured woman to Gunji.

The atmosphere became bright, just as the old cook had predicted. We had breakfast. Jolingkong and its surroundings shone in silver light when the sunrays were reflected on the snow-covered mountains. I stood melted in the incomparable beauty of the land. It was like heaven. I thought that this was the most beautiful place in all the Himalayas. Snow-filled mountains stood around like a circular stadium. In the middle was the vast meadow like a fully spread green carpet. One half of the mountain slopes were filled with green grass and these slopes towards the meadow were a lovely sight. The other half of the slopes was filled with pure white snow. Each nook and corner of the meadow was a universe of flowers in different colours. The sky stood behind the snowy mountains like a blue curtain and the white clouds were like tinkling silver anklets. The place had only one definition – beauty and only beauty!

We moved towards Adi Kailash in small groups. I stopped when we reached the camp of the horse attendants. The only dhaba in Jolingkong was situated there. The horse attendants slept in the open tents put up beside the dhaba. Their food also came from there. Stopping the card game they were engaged in right from the morning, the horse attendants joined us in the usual pattern of one horse attendant for one traveller. We went the way they guided. Though grass covered the entire area, the land was marshy in many parts. There could be many dangerous traps in the form of hidden pits.

Everyone bowed with folded hands seeing Adi Kailash from a distance. Some lay fully prostrated. Chanting of the Panchakshari Mantra echoed in the atmosphere (this is a prayer to Lord Siva associated with Siva’s mantra “Om Namah Sivaya”. Namah Sivaya is also called the Panchakshari Mantra, and it means “he who is looking like a demigod and who has matted hair, who has the trident in his hand and who is eternal and divine . . .”). Lighting up chirathu (small mud-pot lamps), the women members started preparing for pooja and bhajans. The Vedic scholar Dharmendrakumar Dixit was made the chief priest. The group deputed me to help him. After taking a bath in the freezing river, we began arrangements for the pooja. Deities in dedication to Paramasiva and Parvathy Devi were placed on the holy drawing done on the floor. Before that, the floor had been purified by rubbing cowdung paste on it. Pooja ceremonies started with Ganapathi Pooja.

Since the atmosphere was frozen with cold, pooja rituals were done in condensed form. The pooja was finished after bathing the deities with the holy water flowing from Adi Kailash and dedicating to them the holy offerings. After pooja, the offerings were distributed among the people and the next bhajan started with the women in the lead.

After we drank cups of hot tea which the cooks brought, the liaison officer and the guide gave us some detailed instructions. To go very close to the front portion of Adi Kailash was a most dangerous act. The path lying on the left side of Sin La Pass ended just in front of Adi Kailash. On the contrary, if we went steeply down by the right side, we would reach Bedang Village. The Adi Kailash path was possible only to those who had perfect physical fitness, iron-strong willpower and above all, the blessings of God. The advocate withdrew. The remaining four people of our group, the pilgrims on foot and a young man who had been preparing for his final chartered accountancy examinations, were the only persons chosen for that difficult journey. The liaison officer inquired whether any other persons were interested, but no one was ready. As the climate was favourable, it was decided to start the journey immediately.

The past week, Adi Kailash was completely sunk under ice, preventing any kind of access to the area. If our journey was postponed to tomorrow, there might not be another chance.

Excerpted with permission from The Journey to Adi Kailash, MK Ramachandran, translated from the Malayalam by Sheela S Menon, Penguin Ebury Press.