Narayan Ashram, Pithoragarh An abode for communion with higher self

Col Satish Singh Lalotra
‘You don’t excel by conforming to society you excel by conforming to higher self ——Matshona Dhliwayo’.
The eternal quest of a human being to maintain a semblance of proportion in his being has often taken him to places unseen or unheard the world over. Through the ages this quest for identification with his inner self also known by the name of ‘Higher self’ has been given many names; the inner self and soul etc. Yet despite being familiar with all these concepts, many of us keep on grappling throughout our lives to understand the so called ‘Higher self’ and its role in our lives. In other words, how can we transform this topic from an intellectual concept into a broad feeling? The world over there are places revered by all which are seen by the humanity as beacons of hope, trust and faith in the divine incarnation. Of all the places which this planet can boast of as bearers of eternal salvation for human beings, the Himalayas take the cake. In many of my previous articles too I have dwelled upon the Himalayas as carriers of omniscience of human salvation. These unique ranges of mountains hide with in their innermost recesses countless sites associated with multi religious faith, hope and aspirations like no other physical entity for the redemption of human conscience.
Though starting its journey eastward from sister mountain ranges like the ‘Hinduraj and ‘Hindukush’ (now in Pakistan) which were choc-a-bloc with Buddhist/ Hindu culture, art and living, the Himalayas to date espouse awe and inspiration simultaneously even today cutting across religious divide and thinking. But the cake for withholding Hindu beliefs in all their entirety of this sub-continent goes to the Himalayas of the ‘Dev Bhoomi’ or Uttrakhand’ an abode to numerous temples/Dhams of this religion in the form of Gangotri, Yumnotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath to name a few. Be that as it may, there are many hidden and uncut diamonds in the form of religious abodes still in these mountain ranges unheard of and no less in their eminence only to be unraveled by an enthusiastic traveller or pilgrim. ‘Narayan Ashram’ is one such holy cum spiritual place tucked away in the innermost valleys of district Pithoragarh on way to the famous ‘Kailash Mansarovar’ yatra route which has been acting as a soothing balm on the troubled souls of a modern man. I have had the first chance as also the glimpses of this highly evolved and revered place perched precariously on way to ‘Kailash Mansarovar’ route way back in July 1991 while on a reconnaissance patrol during my stint in the army. Situated at an elevation of about 2734 m (appx 9000 feet) and 136 kms from district headquarters of Pithoragarh this scenic piece of land is a spiritual -cum- religious /socio education center.
The ashram was established by revered ‘Narayan swamy’ in 1936 when the country was still under the British rule. Primarily hailing from southern Karnataka from a very affluent family, Narayan swamy developed leanings towards ‘detachment and renunciation’ from an early age and set off for the Himalayas in his quest for inner peace. Covering ‘Haridwar, Rishikesh, Gangotri,Yumnotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath etc he used to remain engrossed in religious discourses for hours together savouring in the religious wisdom of his peers and elders. Thereafter he went for the Kailash Mansarovar yatra in 1935 whereupon the swami stayed put at a place called as village ‘Gangh’ on his way back in ‘Garbayang valley’. The locals of the area were taken in by the aura and mystique exuded by the Swamiji and started flocking him to listen to his discourses borne out of his rich experiences. The Swamiji later on shifted to village called as ‘Sosa’ and came in contact with like-minded people like ‘Sanyasini Ruma Devi’ who suggested to him to establish an ashram with in the area. Her refrain was to have one stop place as a center for meditation and religious cum scholastic discourses and spread the light of education and enlighten the backward area of tehsil Pithoragarh then part of District Almora. On invitation from late Ishwari Dutt Pandey of village ‘Sosa’, Swamiji selected a large parcel of land at a height of about 9000 feet and sat down for his settling down procedure involving an initial meditation procedure.
On 26th March 1936 the ashram began its humble beginnings from a small hut with 52 feet long flag pole and a flag having an inscription of the words-‘Om Shri Narayana Namah’ planted in the center of the courtyard facing the hut. The locals of the area jumped at the opportunity of building this fine ashram on way to ‘Kailash Mansarovar’. During those days the road head used to terminate at ‘Almora’ with a fortnight’s footslog to the ashram site. Approximately 250 labourers from Pithoragarh and neighbouring areas and a host of pilgrims from Gujarat and Maharashtra parted with their precious money and savings to see their dream come true in pre-independence times. It took about 5.5 years to help make this ashram cum temple situated with an excellent educational cum spiritual center housing all modern amenities. The ashram can accommodate about 250 devotees/ pilgrims in its main discourse hall which is adorned with costly Kashmiri carpets. During the construction phase the ashram’s progress used to be personally monitored by the swamiji with all the accounts scrutinized under his watchful eyes.
In the year 1946, one of the disciples of Narayan swamiji late Ms Sharda donated a huge idol of ‘Narayan Bhagwan’ which was established with much fanfare and religious discourses followed by a puja ceremony involving many devotees from Gujarat and Maharashtra. The ashram mandir has idols of Lord Vishnu, Goddess Bhagwati, Saligram , Dakshinyan sankh and Mangal kalash too in its precincts. M Manubhai and his relatives from Gujarat have donated a refined aluminum idol of Lord Hanuman, Shankar and Ganesh along with that of Goddess Lakshmi which find their pride of place in the temple premises. The backside of the ashram temple houses an excellent library with books on myriad subjects to include religion, art, culture and philosophy in both Hindi and Guajarati language. The ashram has ‘Annpurnalya’ which has a huge sitting area, kitchen and lodging facilities to match the heavy influx of pilgrims during the yatra season. The best part of this entire area is that it has transparent glasses as doors and windows allowing lots of fresh air and sunlight providing a very balmy look to the entire façade.
Ahead of this lies the ‘Shunyata kutir’ signifying or meaning emptiness, vacuity or nothingness. Translated into Indian milieu it denotes multiple meanings depending upon the doctrinal concept. It is either a meditational state or a phenomenological analysis of experience. Narayan swamiji used to stay initially in this ‘Shunyata kutir’ with just a bed sheet to lie upon, very Spartan living conditions indeed. In 1982 a meditation center too was added to this unique concept of nothingness and named after late Ishwari Dutt pandey the first co-founder of this ashram along with Narayan swamiji. Before the 1962 Sino-Indian border war the ashram used to be full of sadhu-sants and yatris on way to the famous ‘kail;ash Mansarovar’ . During that time Narayan swamiji used to donate each yatri a blanket, a handful of jaggery piece and some ‘Sattu’ to tide over the difficult route of the KM Yatra. It is quite amazing that Narayan swamiji had been 13 times to this mother of all yatras in his brief life span of 44 years on which I too ventured twice in 1991 and then in 1993 starting from Pithoragarh as part of my patrol till ‘Trijunction point'( confluence of India ,Nepal and Tibet). After reopening of this yatra route in 1981 between India and China all the batches of yatris first of all congregate at this ashram from all over India and partake in singing of bhajans etc where they are subjected to the ashram’s historical perspective and all its related activities . The ashram is still maintaining its age old practice of donating a blanket, jaggery and sattu to each of the pilgrims though they may not be wanting them in this age and time since all boarding and lodging is being looked after now by the KMVN(Kumaon mandal vikas nigam) of these yatris.
Narayan swamiji has to his credit various schools which he had opened up in Askot, Didihat as also established ‘Narayan nagar ‘ in that area. Being a far sighted man, the swamiji had planted acres of apple orchards near the ashram land and also reared about 70 to 80 high breed cows whose benefits are being taken by the locals and the yatris alike. As if this was not enough he in his life time established an educational trust which till date supports bright but poor students from the area of district pithoragarh. The core philosophy being propagated by the ashram devolves around the following-
* Lowering or completely diminishing your anxieties.
* Openness and receptivity to life.
* Creativity and inspiration
* Enhancement of intuition and spiritual/personal gifts.
* No longer fearing death
* Cultivating unconditional love for self and others.
At a very young age of merely 44 years Narayan Swami passed away in Kolkata leaving behind a rich legacy to be followed by his disciples.
As stated earlier since self was part of a patrol our party too just went through all the motions quickly as a mark of reverence both in 1991 and 1993 quickly making our way ahead so as to not get crowded around with the yatris heading on this dangerous route. Incidentally it is the same route on which Protima Bedi wife of famous Bollywood hero Kabir Bedi was killed in a massive avalanche at Malpa in August 1998. During our times in early 90s the road head used to be till Tawaghat and one had to haul himself/herself up till the ridge line of ‘Thanidhar top’ a tough climb indeed to come up to the KM Yatra route. But now two years back in May 2020 the government of the day has inaugurated a new road all the way up till Lipulekh pass which makes a traveller much easier to reach this ashram.
(The writer is a retired army officer)