First of all, thanks and prayers to the Divya Dampathi and our Acharyas, whose grace made this trip happen. It was undoubtedly their krupa that helped us have a safe and successful trip overcoming several hurdles.
Sincere thanks and respects to Sri Mukund (NAMA Singapore) for his blessings and guidance – based on his past travels to Mukthinath. He has been instrumental in making this trip happen.
Special thanks to Sri KaLai (Ramanuja Dasan) who has been the chief planner and coordinator for this trip. His arrangements were meticulous, and enabled all of us to have a wonderful trip with memories that will stay forever.
Thanks to Sri Sudhir and Sri Srikanth, for their support and presence that made the trip a truly enjoyable and devotional experience. And how can I forget to mention Sri Mugunthan, who made the trip lively and engaging with no shortage of humour and cheer!
[Link to photos of the trip]
We landed in Katmandu around noon on Feb 13 and after completing our arrival formalities, were met at Tribhuvan International Airport by our designated driver – Shyam Lama. The weather was pleasant and we drove through Katmandu to the office of Samrat Travel, where we met our travel agent Rajaram. Sri Kalai had previously worked out our travel plan with Rajaram and we collected our air tickets for flying within Nepal and our Government permit for travelling through the Annapoorna Trail. Although we did not do any trekking on this formidable trail, we still needed the permit to pass through Jomsom town en route to Mukthinath. Katmandu is located at an altitude of about 1400 m above sea level and is a crowded city with small roads and a lot of traffic. We did not see any tall buildings or apartments – Katmandu still seems to have only individual houses.
[External Link for information on Katmandu]
From our travel agent’s office, we proceeded to have a late lunch at Aangan Restaurant and then started our journey to the town of Pokhara by van. This town is located at an altitude of about 800 m above sea level and is 200 km from Katmandu. We reached around 10 pm after a six hour journey. In between we stopped a couple of times for hot tea – which was most welcome in the cool weather.
Pokhara is home to Lake Phewa, and is close to the base of the formidable Annapurna mountain range. It is a rather relaxed and unpolluted place compared to Katmandu. We stayed at Hotel Landmark, where the only inconvenience was that we did not get really hot water for our bath next morning. We got a packed breakfast of aaloo parathas and started off next morning to Pokhara Airport to take our flight to the town of Jomsom. Our plane was a small twin engined one with a capacity of about 20 passengers. The local airlines in Nepal have names like Sita Air, Agni Air, Buddha Air, etc etc. Our flight to Jomsom took about 25 minutes. We got a very spectacular view of huge snow-capped peaks. This region is home to several tall peaks like the Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, Manaslu and Macchapuchre. Mother Nature flexing her muscles!
[External Link for information on Pokhara]
Jomsom is a very small town (perhaps settlement is a better word) located at an altitude of 2800 m above sea level. Upon landing at Jomsom, we could immediately feel the effect of the altitude. The weather was much colder than Pokhara and we immediately had to put our winter clothing (winter jacket, gloves, head cap, muffler, moisturiser etc) to full use. We left our bigger pieces of luggage at Hotel Majesty and packed a few essentials into smaller bags and left for Mukthinath by jeep.
Mukthinath is located at an altitude of 3800 metres and is about 1.5 hours by jeep from Jomsom. The journey is beautiful and takes us along River KaliGandaki. This is the same as the sacred Gandaki River in whose bed Salagramam stones can be naturally found. Salagramam stones, as is well-known, are manifestations of Lord Sriman Narayana. As the Himalayan mountains started to form and rise above the sea, the Gandaki river slowly cut its way through the mountains forming a valley. Our journey took us along a part of this valley. The path to Mukthinath is a very rough trail and not a proper road. We stopped in the middle to take photos. It is also possible to make the journey from Jomsom to Mukthinath by pony or by walk. By walk, it can take several hours and is a very arduous journey.
We reached Mukthinath at around 2 PM and went to Sri Mukthinath lodge where some of us had lunch. Mukthinath is a very small mountain village with a few hotels and a few houses. The houses are built on highly uneven terrain with mud walls and have a pile of wood on the roof for insulation. It is common to find solar water kettles here. The temperature was around zero degrees even in the afternoon. Since it was February, there was hardly any crowd in the town. March is a rather crowded period, since the temperature is more conducive. There are a few roadside stalls from where local handicrafts and Salagramams can be obtained.
We left our luggage at the hotel and started off to our most important destination – the temple of Sri Mukthinath, one of the 108 Sri Vaishnava Divya Desams glorified by the Azhwars! From our hotel we could choose to walk uphill for about 20 minutes to reach the temple, or we could choose to be driven on a motorbike. Either way, the path is steep and can be difficult for people with acrophobia (fear of heights).
At the Divya Desam, there was not much of a crowd. At the entrance to the Divya Desam, we bought a few pictures of Sri Mukthinath. There were about 4-5 visitors apart from us, and they left presently. The temple is very small compared to the Divya Desams of Tamil Nadu and the style of construction is also totally different. Around the temple, there are 108 water-spouts –representing the theerthams of the 108 Divya Desams. A few of us chose to do snanam here, braving the sub-zero temperatures. After this, we entered the temple and first worshipped Sri Ramanuja and Sri Andal in a small, separate sannidhi. We chanted thaniyans and submitted our offerings to Sri Ramanuja and Sri Andal. After obtaining their blessings, we went to the main sannidhi where we offered worship to Sri Salagramam Udaiya Nambi (as PeriAzhwar addresses Him) who is accompanied by Sri Lakshmi and Sri Bhoo Devi. It was a most wonderful and auspicious darshan. Sri Perumal has a very benevolent expression on His face. Adiyen will describe the temple in greater detail in a separate posting in this blog. The sannidhi is maintained by Buddhist nuns. Also, we met a Nepali Sri Vaishnava priest who also does araadhanam at the temple. After our worship at the temple, this Sri Vaishnava priest was kind enough to explain the sthala-puranam of Sri Salagramam in detail.
After a very unhurried and thorough darshan at the temple, we walked down to our hotel. It was around 4.30 PM and had already started growing dark. It was at this point that we really started feeling the adverse effects of the high altitude and the cold weather. Altitude sickness affected all of us. A couple of us vomited and we had difficulty breathing as oxygen was scarce. None of us felt like having any food or drink. We did not have any heating in our rooms and we had to keep one of the windows open to maintain our oxygen supply. So in effect, we had to spend the night exposed to the atmosphere. It snowed through the night and temperatures were around -10 degrees Celsius. It was a most difficult experience. Our hotel owner gave us tablets to counter the altitude sickness. These provided some relief. We had to sleep (or rather, try to sleep) under very thick blankets to shield us from the biting cold. It was a very difficult night. Thanks to the Grace of the Divya Dampathi, we survived. The next morning, a few of us went uphill again to have a second darshan of Sri Mukthinath. Also, the Sri Vaishnava priest at the temple gave us several Salagramams. At around 11 AM, we started off back to Jomsom by jeep. En route, we stopped to have contact with the sacred water of the Gandaki river.
At Jomsom, we went straight to Hotel Majesty and had a nice lunch (soup, sandwiches, rasam – yes, the hotel was able to provide our South Indian rasam!, aloo parathas etc.). We warmed ourselves on coal stoves. After lunch, a few of us took a jeep ride to the village of Marpha, where we bought fresh apple juice from a local factory. Then we had an early dinner and went to bed at around 8.30 PM. A night of solid sleep gave us rest and recuperation from our mountain sickness. We got up at 5.30 AM to catch our flight to Pokhara at 6.30 AM. We found that it had snowed heavily through the night and our flight was cancelled. We spent the morning waiting for information and trying to make a decision on what to do next. We also used the time to visit a local museum that had a lot of information about the geography and origins of the region. Finally we decided to get moving and got a jeep to take us to the village of Ghaasa. We heard that, just before Ghaasa, there was a roadblock and we had to alight and shift our luggage across the roadblock and then take another jeep to Ghaasa. From Ghaasa, we had to take another jeep to Beni, from where our agent would arrange for our travel to Pokhara. We started with this plan in mind. However, en route to Ghaasa, our vehicle sunk into the mud and stalled. We were stuck in the middle of nowhere! Along with Sri Srikanth, our driver went to get help from a nearby village. As the rest of us were waiting, a van came by and the driver managed to skilfully negotiate the road where our vehicle was stuck and got to the other side. When Sri Srikanth came back, we all got into the other vehicle and reached the point where the road was blocked. Here, we moved our luggage through a very tricky mountain slope to cross the roadblock. Sri Srikanth played a key role in guiding us through the path and also in carrying most of the heavy luggage.
At the other side of the roadblock, we had a van waiting to take us to Ghaasa. From Ghaasa, we chartered a jeep to take us to Beni. The journey from Ghaasa to Beni took about 3 hours, and our driver had to negotiate very tricky slopes and narrow paths. In the moonlight, we could see the beauty of River Gandaki making its way through the mountains. We reached Beni at 11 PM, and were met by our driver who took us to our hotel in Pokhara at around 2 PM. We got up at around 8.30 AM and had a good breakfast and did a little shopping. Sri Sudhir and Sri Kalai found a very knowledgeable supplier of Salagramams at Pokhara.
Later in the morning, we took a flight back to Katmandu and checked into Hotel Manang at around 2 PM. After unpacking, we started off to the temple of Sri Budha Nilakanth, which has a beautiful vigraham of Lord Sriman Narayana lying on Adiseshan. After offering worship here, we did a little bit of shopping before heading off to dinner. After dinner, we got back to our hotel and woke up the next morning at 5.30 AM. We drove straight to the temple of Chaangu Narayanan (Champaka Narayanan) which is situated on a small hill outside Katmandu. We had an excellent darshan early in the morning with a wonderful view of the sunrise. The vigraham of Sri Garudazhwar outside the Perumal Sannidhi here is very beautiful. After a very satisfying darshan, we visited a nearby museum which housed relics and coins from ancient Nepal. Then, we dropped off Sri Srikanth at the airport for him to catch his flight to Delhi and proceeded to our hotel for breakfast. Then we packed and made our way to the airport again to take our return flight out of Nepal. It was a great trip!
Based on our experience, here is a list of items to carry during the trip:ThirumAl thiruvadigaLae saraNam
- Full winter gear – heavy winter jacket, sweater(s), scarf, woolen head-cap that also covers ears, woolen socks, thermal innerwear, heavy winter shoes, heavy gloves
- Torch – Very important as power cuts are regular in Nepal.
- Tablets for high-altitude sickness (very important)
- Basic medicines – for cold, fever, antibiotics, anti-diarrheal, antiseptic, bandages, painkillers
- Lip moisturizer (like Vaseline), face moisturizing cream
- Ready to eat foodstuff – energy bars, biscuits, nuts (almonds)
- Electronics: Digital camera + batteries/chargers, mobile phone + charger. The electric power plug design in Nepal is the same as in India
- Basics: Passport, cash/cards, List of emergency contacts, insurance papers (Indian citizens don’t need a passport to enter Nepal, but some form of identification like PAN card/ration card is needed)
- Religious items: Thiruman and Srichoornam, Containers/bags for bringing Sri Saligramam moorthys
- Miscellaneous items: Soap, cosmetics, detergent, plastic bags, cloth-hangers for drying.