Indian mystic goes the hard way in the Himalayas

Wednesday, September 4, 2002

PINDARI, India -- The goddess, they say, should not come to you easily. So the holy man seeks her every year by trekking for three days high into the Himalayas.

He climbs to a hand-built hut 13,500 feet up, where oxygen fades and nothing grows but a few wisps of grass.

Here, in the deep Himalayan wilderness, Swami Dharamand -- mystic, ascetic, mountaineer and man of deep curiosity -- seeks communion with the Hindu goddess Devi Annapurna.

Hindus have long seen the Himalayas as a place of purity and ennoblement. Many trekkers also speak of the mountains' mystical appeal -- the beauty, the isolation, the challenge. It's a place where people of many faiths come seeking their gods.

Dharamand, a 32-year-old sadhu, or Hindu holy man, has been wandering India since leaving his far-off village 16 years ago. He left the world behind: no sex, no shaving, long periods spent in meditation.

From his hut, he sees a mountain named for his goddess, and speaks of it worshipfully. "In the moonlight, you cannot look at her for too long. She is so beautiful, so beautiful, you will die."

But all is not isolation. Dharamand, a sinewy man, normally clad in just a thin saffron robe, and nearly always smiling, is profoundly curious about the world he cast aside.

When he comes down from the mountain every winter, when the cold grows too intense and the snows too deep, he meets friends and followers across India. And he talks. He loves to talk. He talks about cameras and CD players, about mountaineering gear, about Bill Gates.

His hut is a combination of modern practicality and medieval asceticism: The simple structure was put together by hand but it holds vacuum-sealed dinners given by trekkers, 13 varieties of South Indian pickles and more. It's a hard, three-day walk to the nearest telephone, but he has one of the world's highest-altitude toilets.

More than anything, Dharamand shares.

His life is a cycle of sharing: Donations of money flow through his fingers, on to others. Gifts left by mountaineers later turn up in villagers' huts. Help is returned in ways both material and spiritual, whether it's leaving a Gore-Tex jacket with a young villager, or giving guidance to a follower in one of India's sprawling cities.

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