Mountain spirits - the Gangotri Glacier - Page 3

Read the article

“Of course Hamish didn’t really care about the anthropology,” he said. “It got him the money go to the mountains. Well, that was just fine by me. Hamish got me to where I wanted to go. And then there were his friends.”

He mentioned more names. It was a roll call of the finest British mountaineers of their generation.

Our food arrived. I fell on mine. Julia toyed with hers.

“I suppose you get used to it,” she said.

“Dysentery?” said Jo. “No one gets used to it. No one’s immune. There was a survey in a country district of Nepal a few years ago. Most people had either bacillary dysentery or amoebic dysentery; a good many had both.”

He had discovered the body of an Inca girl, frozen in the ice of a Peruvian mountaintop

Jo was touring the Garhwal temples, trying to catch the closing ceremony at each of them. He had spent his life doing anthropology in high places. A year ago he had discovered the body of an Inca girl, frozen in the ice of a Peruvian mountaintop1. The mountain was 6300 metres high; just two hundred metres lower than Shivling. The girl had been taken there sometime in the sixteenth century as a sacrifice to the gods. Her frozen body was as heavy as a plaster saint. Jo had carried her down the mountain on his back, and then lashed her to a mule. There was no time to stop and rest; the girl had to be deposited in a freezer before she thawed.

“Did people mind you taking her away?” Peru had barely emerged from the Sendero Luminoso insurgency. It was a country where tactlessness could get you killed.

“Keep her if you want, we said. But you’ll have to look after her properly. She’ll need refrigeration, air-conditioning, security... They let us take her.”

So the Ice Maiden went to Washington and made headlines in the world’s papers. Hillary Clinton was photographed with her.

Two years earlier I had been in the Bolivian Andes, four hundred kilometres south-west of the volcano where Jo had found his Inca girl. I remembered the mountains that stood over the altiplano, watchful and watched. Grandfathers, people called them.

“In the Andes the mountains are gods,” said Jo. “They control the weather, so they control people’s lives. They gave the Incas rain. Now and then the Incas used to give back one of their children. People still make offerings to them. Token things, usually. Once in a while they sacrifice a llama.”

“Even the Christians?”

“They’re all Christian. That’s what they say. It makes no difference.”

In the Himalaya a goat is sacrificed for a good harvest or for the safe crossing of a pass. The people say they are Hindu, but animal sacrifice is anathema to orthodox Hindus.

“It’s different here,” I said. “Look up there. The mountains are nothing like the Andes. They’re not gods here, are they? Just homes for the gods. Or meditation aids, like Shivling?”

Jo shrugged.

“Hinduism’s not my area,” he said. He was an academic; he would not speculate.

“What about Nepal?”

“Buddhists in Nepal see the mountains as gods. They’re the protector gods. When Padmasambhava brought Buddhism to the country he fought the old gods and defeated them and turned them into protectors of the faith. All over Nepal you can still see cairns that people have built to honour them.”

I remembered the cairns and the tatters of saffron that I had seen on the Garhwal hilltops, wherever one or another of the great peaks could be seen.

“You see?” said Jo. “There are animist traditions here too. Mountain deities would have been absorbed into Hinduism. Some of the stories about Shankaracharya sound like the Padmasambhava stories in Tibet and Nepal. Someone made the local gods into manifestations of Shiva. Perhaps it was him.”

“But Shankara wasn’t like Padmasambhava at all. He was an intellectual. Padmasambhava was a tantric. A wizard, a shaman.”

“Mountain people believe in shamans.”

I thought of Bengali Baba. He wasn’t a shaman. But then, he wasn’t born in the mountains.

Jo sipped his tea.

“Do you think the Baba would pose for a photograph?” he said. He was thinking of the article he might write about the Garhwal temples.

“Why not?” I said. “Take some sultanas with you.”

Maybe we are all mountain-haunted animists, I thought. The Incas, Bengali Baba, Jo and I. And Shankaracharya, too. Animists believe that everything is inhabited by a spirit; Shankaracharya believed that everything is the illusory play of Spirit.