The ground is packed down hard yet dusty from many wheels, hooves, paws, and bare feet like mine as I absentmindedly careen around piles of dung, sleeping dogs, and empty banana leaf bowls once filled with sweet rice. These bowls of sweet rice are given out free by street vendors to those going on this holy walk; hospitality seems to be common place here in India to those who follow their spiritual path towards whatever God they believe in. It’s 2 a.m. and I can’t believe so many people are still awake at their good-selling stands watching the hundreds, maybe thousands of people go by. I suppose if your bed and booth are one and the same you might as well stay up as long as there are potential sales to be made. I’m starting to feel my feet so I pad down a little softer. The varying terrain of dirt, paved road, rocks, and sand has sent my unaccustomed-to-being-without-shoes soles into a quiet protest—reasonably so, for my feet and I must have walked about nine miles and five hours now. We are making our way towards Radha Kund, an important stop on this 13-mile circumambulation. Saraswati, the girl I have been walking beside bursts out, “we are walking in the dust of the most sacred hill in the most sacred city of Mathura! In India, the most sacred country in the world!” and puts her hands up while closing her eyes. I turn my face forward, wide-eyed, and wonder to myself what I am doing here. Even in places where there are no buildings and no lights, the full moon shines on everything so bright.
I came here with the purpose of understanding my father’s religious beliefs in Chaitanya Vaishnavism, or the Hare Krishna movement. It is the first night of the month of Kartik, the most auspicious month of the Hindu calendar, when offerings to Krishna have an amplified significance. All of my surroundings have the amplified significance of novelty, as I have only been in India for three days. I am performing this Parikrama, the act of walking a path encircling something holy, around Govardhan Hill with my father’s ex-wife, Malati, and other devotees, but I don’t really understand anything. Beggars are lining the streets with deformities obscured in moonlight, grabbing at my ankles while I am pulled forward and told to ignore their pleas. People ahead begin to drop to their knees in quick prayer as the slope of the hill comes into unimpeded view. Face down with palms pressed muttering mantras, and we pour around them like boulders in our current. One, a man in child’s pose moving stones with one arm from a pile behind his feet to a pile ahead, pins me. Malati stops beside me pointing, “there are 108 stones in that pile.” Once the pile of stones behind him is depleted he stands with his palms together, steps in front of the newly completed pile, returns to child’s pose and begins the whole process again, chanting in prayer all the while. “That man will move those 108 Goverdhan rocks all the way around the hill as we’ve walked it. Just like that, the whole way.”
There is no sleep for this man until he has made his full Parikrama of Goverdhan Hill, yet I sense neither lethargy nor haste. The ever-needy clawing of the body falls away under this immersion in devotion. Walking on, I am forced to question the pace of my own feet. When was the last time I was able to allow for such emptiness? I find myself constantly striving to impregnate every moment with productivity, with motion, with experience. Looking to fill the next before the present has passed—a kind of experiential hyperventilation, inhaling without exhaling. Turning back for one last look, I don’t sense emptiness, but fullness.
Once at Radha Kund, a body of water fabled to be where all of India’s sacred rivers meet, Malati points to a building and says, “This was one of your father’s favorite places. He lived up there on the second story. It was special to him.” She hands me a small banana leaf bowl filled with a lit piece of waxed wick as an offering and turns away. I yearn to summon a fraction of the power of the man with the stones to immerse myself in something I’m not sure of. I want this moment alone with my father’s presence to burst beyond the confines of what seconds can hold. When I time my breathing just right, the seconds fill themselves.
About the Author: Dominique Edgerly is a 25 year old middle school science teacher and outdoor educator/wilderness trip leader who has been fortune to be able to travel through five different continents in the past five years. She is passionate about meeting people with different perspectives, writing, photography, and outdoor activities of all forms. She is in the process of assembling a family narrative that has left pieces all around the globe.
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