A Fateful Night at High Altitude 

Freezing cold made worse by biting wind.  Continuous rains.  15000+ feet above sea level. Resultant low oxygen levels and difficulty in.  Pitch dark at midnight. A full moon night with the moon no where in sight because of the clouds.

After a tiring drive through the mountains and making sleeping and food arrangements for 90 people who were traveling with me, I had just stretched out in a tent I shared with a few others, readying myself for a few hours of sleep.

I was half asleep. Suddenly there were loud noises of someone crying from the tent in the neighbourhood and murmurs in my own tent.

“Mundraji is no more” informed someone as they woke me up.   I rushed to his tent to assess what actually had happened.  Within the next 10 minutes I was told, “Naru is breathless and appears to be in a serious condition”.  Naru is Nirmala Gilda, my niece.  Her husband, was obviously in a state of panic. “Someone save her!”.

Leaving Mr. Mundra’s tent, I rushed to Naru’s tent.   I was told that someone had rushed to get an oxygen cylinder for her.  Within 5 minutes, another news came in, “Shobhaji fell and has fractured her hand.”   She had rushed to fetch the oxygen cylinder and got herself tangled with the rope that keeps a tent erect.

All three events happened in a span of 20 minutes. I was shaken up. I was confused at what was happening and scared of what was in store for the rest of that fateful night.  I prayed to Lord Shiva  for a few moments.  We were right next to Him, after all. We were camping at the bank of Mansarovar Lake, at the foot of Mt. Kailash, his mythical abode.

Lake Mansarovar – a place where no facilities were available, no shops, no habitants let alone medical facilities.   This was a trip I had initiated. I had taken a group of 90 people to Kailash Mansarovar Yatra along with Guruji, for a charitable cause.

We had nine qualified, helpful doctors in our group including Dr. Meena from Nashik who had spent more or less all of past ten days serving the members of the group.

Naru’s breathlessness was due to high altitude.  We were at a height of 15,060 ft, which does not suit everyone.  Immediately, a landcruiser was arranged to take her to a lower altitude.  Mrs. Shobha also was sent in landcruiser to a lower level for treatment at a place where provisional medical facilities were available.  Actions were prompt and brisk.

Right at the beginning, in the briefing sessions, all members were told that they ought to report even if they have minute symptoms of sickness.   Those few who reported slightest sickness were promptly treated.  One person who had acute altitude sickness had to be sent back to the base.  Another person who had mild symptoms of sickness was held back at the same place for another day for further acclimation and was then escorted to join the group the next day.  Arrangements for such emergencies were well taken care of.

Mundraji had been unwell for 3-4 days.  But neither he nor any body else reported the problem, probably presuming it was of no major consequence.   On that fatal day, he suddenly collapsed.  It is assumed that it was a massive heart stroke.

Mansarovar is in Tibet.  As it is a sacred place, his family, who was accompanying him on the trip,  agreed to have the funeral there itself instead of getting him back to India.  It took a full day to complete all the formalities.  Guruji was present all the time.  We could see the smoke from his pyre blowing towards the sacred Mount Kailash.

We found consolation in the fact that Mundraji was lucky to have survived till he reached Mansarovar and his last rites could be performed at such an auspicious place.

Though Mundhraji’s demise was something none of us could have helped, I still feel guilty and often wonder if there was anything I could have done for his survival.  The burden of that event I still bear on my heart and soul .

I guess this event is an eye opener to anyone travelling to high altitudes, “do not ignore, even mild symptoms, of any illness and report to the organisers immediately”.


Written & Experienced : Badri Baldawa

Editor  : Meeta Kabra

Visit To Bandit-Land

You have an option, riskier though.  Go off the main highway, take the first left.  The narrow, unpaved road will take you to the village where dacoits live. Take a right there and right again.  Hoping that the dacoits won’t harm you, you will join this highway again.  This would mean an additional drive of 25-30 kilometers and an extra one and a half hours,” said a truck-driver with his truck in a long, stagnant queue ahead of us.   We were in the Chambal Valley area where bandits were very active creating fear amongst people  in the entire region.

I was on a pilgrimage from Mumbai to Badrinath with my wife and the kids, by car  On that specific day in 1986, we started from Nashik early in the morning and wanted to break for the day at Gwalior.  We were on the Indore-Shivpuri stretch where we found ourselves in a traffic jam.  The queue was almost 5 kilometers long.   Most of the vehicles in the queue were trucks carrying merchandise. Passenger cars, like ours, were not very many.

Given an opportunity, the bandits were known to loot vehicles that passed over the bridge we were stuck at.  Armed Police patrolled this bridge.  Yet, loots were a common occurrence. Just the previous night, a vehicle was rumored to have been robbed.  Since the driver resisted, he was beaten by decoits.  To sympathise with that driver and demanding a better police protection, the trucks went on strike. There were no signs of the strike being called off as the dialogue with the authorities was yet to begin.

I wanted to get to Gwalior in time so that we could rest well for the next day’s long drive to Nainital.  I spoke to a couple of local drivers to ask about alternative route.  One of the drivers suggested that a private passenger car could use a diversion that would bypass the queue as well as the bridge.  The only problem was that it would pass through the village inhabited by the famous dacoits of Chambal.  I was also told that they were only interested in vehicles with merchandise and don’t normally harm families.

I had to decide whether to wait in queue which could last overnight or go back to the earlier town or take the risky diversion.  I chose the diversion – a calculated risk.

I did not tell my wife and kids that we were heading in a bandit zone so that the situation wouldn’t get worse because of panic.  I center locked all doors and windows and told them not to open them even if someone asked them to.  The road was rough, full of crater-like holes.   Slowly and steadily, we moved.

In the village each and every man had long and thick moustaches and bushy beards. Every one had a black, thick, woolen blanket and a gun hanging on a shoulder.   There were a few children around the age of 10-12 years.  They also had a blanket and gun.  Chanting prayers we crossed their village.  I guess the name of the village was Rampur.

Suddenly I found hundreds of them on either side of the road.  It was a weekly market day.  They were there for their weekly purchases.  None of them harmed us and very soon we joined the highway, on the other side of the bridge!  Once on the highway,  I told my wife and children what that was all about.

We reached Gwalior well in time to have our dinner.  A safe passage!  I don’t know whether I should have avoided that diversion.  But one thing is for sure, it created a thrill to remember!

Writer  : Badri Baldawa

Editor  : Meeta Kabra

Volunteering Seva Serves Dual Purpose

I happened to visit Asharfi Bhavan, an ashram (hermitage) in Ayodhya.  The ashram  conducts many activities like teaching Sanskrit, operating two gaushalas (cow sheds), maintaining a temple, serving free food to poor and visitors, etc.

The most impressive activity was that Vedas and Puranas (ancient scriptures and texts of Hinduism) are taught to students in Sanskrit – a language being forgotten soon. In fact, they are creating future teachers and pundits in Sanskrit. The students are given books, clothing, accommodation and food free of cost.  To run the operations Guruji went around the country year around to make discourses – a source of valuable donations.   Yet, the Ashram was always short of funds and they had to borrow to run the activities.

The Ashram property was in desperate need of repairs, repainting and renovation.  The class room roofs had leaks, the students slept in rooms that were almost open to air.  In winter, even at a temperature of 5 degrees centigrade, students slept without proper bed or blanket.  In rains, they spent more time cleaning up rainfall that came through the ceiling and walls than studying.  Some of them did not even have a proper, single layer of clothing whether to protect them from winter or monsoon.

Guruji  never asked for donations.   I thought it was an opportunity for me to assist.   I got the rooms repaired and had some sweaters sent for the students.  But that was barely enough. In October 2009, I suggested,  “I would like to assist the Ashram in all possible ways,  but I have my own limitations.  An alternative is to appeal to others for charity.  But I am not good at it.  Instead, let us provide some service which the devotees want.  Whatever savings we make from those services could be used for the requirements of the Ashram.”

Guruji asked, “Do you have any concrete ideas?”

“A pilgrimage to Kailash-Mansarovar (KM) is considered a difficult journey.  Many devotees are anxious to accomplish this yatra (journey – in this context a holy journey) at least once in their lifetime.  But they are worried as they consider it life-threatening.  Visiting  KM remained as a dream to most of them.  I have been to Mansarovar and have done the Kailash Parikrama in 2004 too (a journey around the mountain).  I am aware of some of the major difficulties one would face in that journey – they are manageable.  With your blessings, we can convert the dreams of devotees to reality. A group of people can be taken to this journey.  With your pravachan (spiritual discourses) and satsang (virtuous company) in the journey, it would be of more interest to them. Savings from this event, could be used to meet some of the problems Ashram is facing.”

IMG_1554Guruji  said, “Even I am keen to visit Kailash Mansarovar.  Many of the disciples here too.  There couldn’t be anything better.  But only thing is you will manage everything.                                                                                   I agreed.   I made necessary inquiries and it was decided in November 2009 to have the KM yatra in August 2010.   The initial target was to take 50 people.  I guessed even if we add  Rs.10,000 per person as for services and try to save on costs, there could be a net saving of Rs.7-8 lakhs.

The response was excellent.  We accepted 100 applicants out of which 90 members joined the 2-week yatra.  We then also extended the pilgrimage to Muktinath, another difficult 4 day trip from Kathmandu.  There were another 90 applications for Muktinath.

On the way, Guruji gave his discourses wherever possible and a grand Mritunjaya Yagna was performed at the bank of Lake Mansarovar.  The next day, the climate deteriorated. The members, except those who went forward for Kailash Parikrama, got a day more to spend at Mansarovar and continued to have Darshan.   (There were a few unfortunate events the burden of which I still bear on my heart and soul but will write about it separately)

After completing Kailash-Mansarovar and Muktinath yatra.   we presented a cheque of over Rs. 22 lakhs to Guruji the funds saved out of the event.  Appreciating the efforts, many offered direct contribution to Guruji  These contributions helped the ashram in clearing most of its loans.  It also provided for the necessary repairs and completing certain renovations of the ashram premises, which had been long overdue.

This event gave great satisfaction and confirmed that even for charitable purposes, we can collect funds by providing a service (Seva) instead of asking for donations.  Seva can serve dual purpose.  It can bring in contributions and also meets the needs of served.

Writer  : Badri Baldawa

Editor  : Meeta Kabra

Family Misadventure

I got the impression from my studies in school that the foreign invaders had mainly two difficult and tricky routes to enter India – Khyber Pass and Rohtang Pass.   A pass is a narrow path at a high altitude that lies between two mountains.  I wanted to visit them to see how difficult they were in reality.  Khyber pass is presently between Afghanistan and Pakistan and hence not easily accessible.  However, I could visit Rohtang Pass .

Around 1986 I decided to take my family for an adventure vacation.   I selected Rohtang Pass.  My wife Pushpa and our three children Meeta, Seema and Anand, in the age group of 7 to 12, were excited and were looking forward for a week’s fun and pleasure.

Rohtang Pass is a dangerous narrow passage at a height of 13,000 ft between two tall mountains of about 15,000 ft.   It is a dangerous and tricky route as the very name ‘Rohtang’ suggests ‘pile of corpses’.

We took a train from Bombay and drove to Kulu and then Manali.   I engaged a popular travel agent for all arrangements from Manali.   I chose April in anticipation of finding snow around.  It was just the start of season and we were amongst the first tourists that season that wanted to use tents.   The tents were at a beautiful location at the bank of a river that ran next to a mountain.  There was a water-fall very close to our tent.  It was a romantic atmosphere.

We were all very hungry and anxiously waited for our food.  Due to some problem, the cook hadn’t arrived.   One of the other staff members cooked some food.  After 9 PM, we were served some tasteless boiled rice and daal.  None of us could eat.

By then it had begun drizzling and soon it started pouring heavily.    Heavy wind added to problems and the temperature started dropping below 5 degrees C.   There was no power or lanterns and the candles would not survive to the wind.  We were drenched even in the tent due to heavy showers.

The facilities were inadequate to survive the night.   Sleeping bags did not reach.  I was frustrated and had a heated argument with the tour operator.  I lost my patience and decided to quit the place, without realising how to move out of that isolated location.

In the heavy rain we started walking through the pass.  There were no habitants for a 2-3 kilometer stretch.  No vehicles either.   We were all shivering from the cold.  I fell short of ideas.

Just then we saw an army vehicle approaching from behind us.  We signaled the driver to for help and guidance.  He said there was no facility around that place which could provide shelter to us for a night.  He was on duty and didn’t have authority to pick anybody up in his vehicle unless his boss granted permission.

Though he had a walkie talkie, he didn’t want to disturb his senior as it was past 10 PM.   I requested him to, at the very least, drop us till their camp site so that we could somehow manage from there.  Looking at a family with children, he picked us up and dropped us near the entrance gate of their army office.   He told us to take shelter under a shed near the entrance gate till the rain stopped and then find our a way to Manali.  We were not adequately geared to stand to the cold weather.

When we have many problems at the same time, the major one dominates over the minor ones.  Finding shelter was the dominating problem right then.

I requested the security guard for permission to speak to the officer in-charge.    When I explained the situation to the officer, he spared one of his jeeps and instructed the driver to drop us to a hotel in Manali.  He was a God-sent for us.

We reached the hotel past 1 AM and at last had a cozy sleep.

I learnt the lesson, however popular a travel agent might be, we should be prepared and equipped to face contingencies on our own.


Written : Badri Baldawa

Edited  : Meeta Kabra