Life Beyond The Summit
Climbing wearily up onto the Deurali La above the small settlement of Goripani we stood amongst lines of Buddhist Prayer Flags strewn among the rocks and fluttering in the morning breeze. This was my first trek to Nepal and the first time I had come upon these flags in the mountains. As Thakur, my guide, told me all about them I found myself contemplating religion beyond the bounds of my own Christianity and eternal life beyond the very summits amongst which we stood.
Despite being raised a Catholic, I have long since held the belief that there are many ways to worship. Standing among the foothills of the Annapurna Range that morning surrounded by some of the highest mountains in the world I felt humble and at peace. I offered up my own silent prayer with those I was told were fluttering out of the flags. My fascination and love of the spiritual powers attributed to the mountains and those who live among them began.
Buddhism is the main religion among the Sherpa people who live in the mountains of Nepal. Symbols of the Buddhist Religion are everywhere along the mountain trails of the Himalayas and it seemed a constant stream of prayers was rising up among them.
The colours of the Buddhist Prayer Flags are symbolic of the elements of the world.
- Blue for the sky or space
- Yellow for the earth
- Green for water
- Red for fire
- White for air
What I love about the Prayer Flags however is that prayers are imprinted on them and it is believed that, as the flags flutter in the wind, those prayers are carried to the heavens.
This was particularly moving for me a few years later when, on the Everest Base Camp Trek, I stood in the Chukpo Lari. This is an area of stone cairns and prayer flags standing as memorials to many of the climbers who have died on Everest.
It’s almost impossible to trek in the Himalayas without coming across Prayer Wheels. These are vertical cylinders on which prayers are printed around the outside. It is believed that the act of spinning them as you walk past has the same merits as saying the prayers printed on them. Often there is a bell which sounds as the wheels rotate which just adds to the tranquil sounds in the mountains.
One of the most amazing views I have ever seen opened in front of me as I arrived on the plateau in the settlement of Thyangboche. Everest and Lhotse among the line of mountains towering above and directly in front of us. To my left was the world famous monastery of Thyangboche. The feeling was as though standing before the very alter of Heaven itself.
After a short acclimatisation walk, we were soon back in the settlement where we were allowed in to see the Monks conducting a service. Listening to the low drone of mantras recited by the monks and the clang of small symbols in the soft light of the temple, the serenity was incredible. We could indeed have been sitting in eternity.
The religion prevalent among the Berber People who live in High Atlas Mountains in Morocco is Muslim. Despite the different religion from the Sherpas in Nepal, the faith of the people is just as strong and the welcome just as warm.
In this part of the world it’s the greetings from the local people, as much as the sincere and friendly welcome they give you, which shows their religious beliefs. “As-Salamu Alaykum” is the main greeting you will hear which means, “Peace be upon you”.
Often, when we said that we were heading to the summit of Mount Toubkal (The highest of the Atlas Mountains) the reply was, “InshAllah” which translates to, “If God wills it.” In the phrase there is both the expression of the hope that you will be successful and an acknowledgement that nothing happens unless it is God’s will.
The Song Of Kilimanjaro
The prevalence of Christianity in the region of Kilimanjaro was very apparent to me as soon as I headed out to explore close to the small town of Moshi. Most of the local population were walking back down the road into town from local Churches.
If his name alone didn’t hint at his religion, Abraham, our lead guide for the Kilimanjaro climb told us that he had previously trained to be a Priest. When telling us how far it was to each of the camps along the way, he would often joke, “Trust me. I’m Catholic. I can’t lie.”
On summit day, as I desperately struggled towards Stella Point, Abraham’s conviction drove my spirit on. “Yes you can!” he told us many times as we pushed ever upwards.
One of the Porters called Alias did everything to get me to the top. Carrying my pack and sometimes physically supporting me as I slumped exhausted along the path.
Though the songs the guides and porters sang as they carried heavy loads up the mountain weren’t necessarily Christian, their humility, generosity and their actions spoke volumes to their Christian faith.
Having encountered many different religions and cultures on my travels, I would say that mountain people and the lands they inhabit have much in common. Whether Buddhist, Muslim or Christian, they possess humility and charity in equal abundance. Perhaps they are touched by the enormity and sheer raw beauty of the lands they occupy. For sure they enhance it with their spirit and by their actions.