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Top of the world on the eve of Atonement

The telephone next to our bed rings at 04:15: "Good morning, this is your wake-up call". After a hasty wash and brush-up, and a scalding cup of Orange Pekoe from the in-room tea-making service, we join our sleepy fellow travelers down in the lobby. The bus ride is short, and then the driver down-shifts in order to negotiate a steeply climbing forest road up a valley with mountains on either side, terminating in a deserted parking area. Still pitch darkness.

Our guide: "From here we walk. A few hundred meters, and then a bit of a climb, but we can take it slowly."

Just ahead of us we see a group of ancient temple buildings, incongruously flood-lit in the middle of nowhere. They seem to be totally deserted. We pass through a gateway, and are astonished to see the intricately painted and brilliantly colored frescoes which decorate nearly every wall. The complex dates from the 18th century and was built to honor a purported saint. It was rediscovered only in recent times and has not been restored in any way, making its state of preservation even more impressive.

We would like to linger, but our guide urges us onwards and upwards. The path is quite well paved, but becomes increasingly steep.

We pass by another complex of buildings at a higher level, also deserted, and enclosing several large pools of water. By now, the darkness has been relieved by a hint of the approaching dawn.

Suddenly we are surrounded. Not by people but by dozens of monkeys, old and young, including many mothers with babies clinging to their fur. All of them are perfectly friendly and incurious. We continue to climb.

And then we hear a sort of short, loud cry or prayer, and espy a man seated on a rock with his arms outstretched in the direction of east, towards Surya, the Sun God. The cry is immediately echoed by another, and then another. As we approach the top of the mountain we start to hear, at first quite faintly, a continuously murmured chant. It comes from a small half-ruined building, and as we pass by we see three or four men squatting inside, rocking back and forth as they intone over and over again what is surely an invocation to a deity.

Now people are approaching from all directions. Many carry small bundles. The sudden appearance of the monkeys is explained; the bundles contain items of food which local people are accustomed to bring every morning as an offering to Lord Hanuman, one of their many gods, who is represented on earth by the monkey, an animal considered to be particularly sacred.

Having deposited their offerings, the worshippers continue to the very summit where stands another temple dedicated to Lord Krishna. We are at Galtaji, in Rajasthan, India, a few kilometers outside the city of Jaipur.

There is light in the sky. We sit and watch the incredibly beautiful sunrise between the mountains surrounding the valley. The chanting never stops. We are alone and we are together and it feels as if we are at the top of the world.

The date is September 13th 2013, the 9th day of the month of Tishri. This evening our own holy day of Yom Kippur will begin. As we make our way back down the hill, we pass by two of the pools, which are now crowded, one with men and the other with women. To bathe in these waters is auspicious and is said to cleanse a person of his sins.

Somehow I cannot imagine a more perfect place to be on this particular day; on top of a mountain, at sunrise, surrounded by believers with their own practices but with what must be a very basic human desire to seek forgiveness for sins and feel close to heaven.

The sun is up, and the monkeys have completely disappeared; they have had their breakfast. So we had better get back to our hotel to have ours, before the atonement fast begins in a few hours' time.



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Thursday, 25 July 2024

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