An escape to Tilla Jogian

March 29, 2020

Sometimes all it takes is a journey to make one realise that in every moment of our lives, we have a choice of who we wish to be and how to move forward

The trees hum with birdsong.

Tilla Jogian is an ancient holy site that sits atop an unassuming little hill north of Jhelum. Some weeks ago I was invited by a friend to hike up there with a reputed local travel-and-adventure group for an evening in meditative introspection. On the group’s page, the trip was advertised as a Journey to the Self. I felt this was one of the worst propositions my friend had ever put to me.

Over the years, I have cultivated rather set travel preferences: comfort, independent itineraries and solitude. I prefer my adventure and outdoors to be delivered by BBC Earth. Besides, most of what I had heard of Tilla Jogian up to this point promised harrowing tales of the supernatural. However, I have also learnt that sometimes it is good to break a habit. So early one Saturday morning, against my better judgment, I hopped onto a bus full of strangers, and went along the bumpy ride to a remote village in the Salt Ranges, to climb up a rocky hill.

A disparate group of strangers sitting exhausted by a bonfire.

Tilla Jogian today houses the ruins of a monastic complex, which had been one of the holiest meditative sites for both jogis and Sikh Gurus for nearly two millennia before its abandonment shortly after Partition. The climb itself is not particularly high, but the path that begins up a treacherous watercourse gives way to loose rocks that would indeed have tested the commitment of devotees all the way up to the shrines.

Not the most enthusiastic of climbers, and teetering on unsteady feet from the aftereffects of a neuro-inhibitor I had had to take for my game leg the night before, I made my grumbling way up the hill. Though I brought up the tail end of the group, I was never lost sight of, nor left without much-needed encouragement.

Less than halfway up, my weak ankle gave way. In pain, overheated, miserable and embarrassed, I apologized like a colonialist to anyone I could. Along the way, I had started interacting with the others in the group and found them to be a surprisingly pleasant and helpful company; though under the circumstances, their cheerfulness and optimism were grating on my nerves.

As we climbed higher, the distance between myself and both the foreword advance of our company and the rearguard widened, and I was left with long stretches of the narrow, overgrown path to myself. I slackened my pace and began to appreciate, in small glimpses, the intensely peaceful, unobserved solitude of being out in the wild. I thought I had known this sort of peace before, in cities where I could wander about anonymously. But nothing comes even close to this experience.

The sun sets at Tilla Jhogian.

By the time we reached the summit, the sun was setting. Blinded by the pain and the exertion, I was able to appreciate little of what the fading light revealed to me, though I was surrounded by pristine rock faces and ruins tantalizingly peering out from the tree cover. The organisers, who had managed the whole trip splendidly well, had chosen the date of the super-moon to camp out on the hill. As night fell, the stars and the moon lit up the vistas of lonely hills all around us. There was silence so profound it became a tangible thing. I began then to understand the magic of Tilla Jogian.

That night a disparate group of strangers sat exhausted by a bonfire, lit in the ruins of a pool built by Ranjit Singh, listening to poetry read out by an actor who puts his soul into his craft. People shared their own reasons for undertaking the journey, mundane and profound — all equally important and equally true. The organizers, in their incredible kindness, kept walking around feeding us barbecued meat. It was becoming at once, one of the most absurd, melodramatic and profoundly healing experiences of my life.

The next morning shortly after dawn, having managed barely a couple of hours of sleep, I set out to explore the site in the company of an old acquaintance I had run into on the trip after over a decade of no contact. This proved to be greatly advantageous, as my acquaintance was a fairly good climber and navigator, whereas I have trouble spotting a five-storey church across the road unless my GPS confirms it. Out in the woods, I was completely at a loss.

We climbed first to the highest point of the hill where stands a crumbling monument, also attributed to Ranjit Singh, built to mark Guru Nanak’s place of meditation. Sheer cliffs descend from this point. Out in the distance, the river Jhelum can be seen carving its way through the Salt Range. I can confirm that Guru Nanak had quite a view there to give him perspective.

We made our way down and deeper into the brush. There are stairs along the way whose stones, fallen into disrepair, are merging back into the hillside. Pathways, long abandoned, are overgrown and sometimes fall away abruptly, forcing you to climb back and find different routes. We found more pools overgrown with moss, trees burrowing their roots into the walls, in the process of being swallowed up. We came across a climb of stone stairs that, broken in parts and overgrown, appeared to descend into nothingness. My companion went out to explore while I chose to sit there and have a quiet moment to myself.

Later, I made my way alone to the site of a small monastic enclosure that houses five tiny domed rooms. According to legend, the jogis had sat and meditated here till their time came and their bodies were left in place. Their bones turned to dust over the centuries. I found no ghosts here except those I had brought with me. And there, in solitude, in silence, I faced each one of them. It was not intentional but the magic of the place allowed one the space to confront things in a way the city simply cannot. I may have had some angry words with God.

Before we began our descent, my acquaintance pointed out to me a magnificent banyan tree, a species I have always had a special affection for. I went and sat under it and put on Beethoven’s ninth on my phone. There was a cool spring breeze, the sun was brilliantly warm, and the trees were humming with birdsong. In the distance, I could see nature gradually reclaiming the ruins of the monastery, absorbing back into itself the once-great works of man. At the same time the branches of the banyan closed in on me like the warmth of a mother’s embrace, the silence was answering me.

I found myself greatly comforted by all of this: to find that my existence, with all its great burden, was but a momentary emergence from the greater body of nature and would one day dissolve back into its eternity. In the long run, it really did not matter.

The great psychiatrist Viktor Frankl had written in his memoirs of the holocaust, that though others may control our circumstances, we remain in control of our own responses. It took this simple journey for those words to fully come home. In each moment of our lives, we are granted a choice in who we wish to be and how to move forward. Sometimes, the smallest moment of weakness can have disastrous consequences. Life must continue whatever form it takes. I have come to find, that the greatest measure of strength is often in continuing with love, kindness, compassion and above all forgiveness. That is what I found on this journey into myself, a lesson I intend to carry with me.

– The writer teaches high school sociology and politics

An escape to Tilla Jogian