Tribute: Prayag Giri ji (Hari Baba)

Mahakumbh Prayag 2013

Remembering Prayag Giri ji ~ Gautam Dhar

Swami Prayag Giri spent 20 years in austerities and meditation at a cave at Gomukh. Originally from a tiny Himalayan Village, Dhontri, near Uttarkashi, he was fondly known as Hari Baba. He often spoke about his many journeys throughout India. I am not anyone to speak about him, and seek forgiveness from the divine in doing so.  To pay tribute to him, here are a handful of memories of Maharaj, whose smile and conversations could light a room. 

He was a dear friend, an elder brother, and a guide.  His crisp, friendly voice and thick Garhwali accent, reverberated over my phone few times a month. The last time I spoke to him, mere days ago, he sounded weak. In hindsight, I wonder if he had already been preparing to depart Earth for his next assignment. 

Dhontri dhuna of Prayag Giri Maharaj

I will miss dialing your number, dear Hari Baba. I send my Pranam and best wishes on your journey ahead. I wish you had asked your brother to call me. Yet, I know that you would have wanted to slip away quietly. I feel honoured and blessed to have known you these past ten years. Perhaps it was an old tie with my father and I, that created this bond. You fondly called my father, ‘Pitaji’. I will recall how you often told me, “Gautam bhaiya mera Hanuman hai, mujhe koi fikr nahi”. 

What are the odds that Sriji, a teacher and someone who has guided me in matters of spirit and otherwise in this life, led me to you back in 2012. I will always remember the first meeting, and how we both beamed at each other. I can only hope that I will be true to whatever I was able to learn from you. As you merge with the infinite, or perhaps on another mission, I seek your blessings, just as quietly as you departed this earth. 

Perhaps that last meeting that never happened last month, will happen at some level. Om Namoh Narayan.

Listen to Prayag Giriji speak about the Damru

Pranams to Swami Prayag Giri ~ Narayan Shetkar

Prayag Giriji Maharaj, was at the Prayag Kumbha in 2007.  I was staying at a camp for 3 – 4 days, witnessing the entire preparation and anushthan maintained during the auspicious period of the Kumbha mela. Maharaj would frequently visit at the camp where I was staying, which was on the banks of the river, in the Akhada kshetra. A simple, straightforward sanyasin, the warmth of his smile and friendly greeting, still remains with me. His tapasya at Goumukh, where he lived throughout the year, was clearly visible in his direct and pertinent words.

Later, when he was maintaining Navaratri anushthan at Vrindavan, the following year, I had the good fortune to meet him, again.

After the Haridwar Kumbha in 2010, he returned to Dhontri, Uttarkashi and began staying at a kutia he built, there. Slowly he built a small ashram there. One of his favourite occupations there was gau-seva. He had a young calf that he had named Kapila, if I remember correctly. I could never visit him at Uttarkashi, though he had invited me several times. He used to say, “hum to Ganga maiya ki god mein hai” (I am in the lap of Mother Ganga).

Prayag Giri aka Hari Baba at Kumbha

My last meeting with him was at the 2013 Prayag Kumbha, where I stayed with him at his camp. After an early morning snan, when I returned to the camp, he gave me a beautiful Shaligram from Damodar Kunda and told me to keep it in Puja with Tulsi leaves. He also gave me a rudraksha mala to wear.

I stayed in touch with him, and continued to send him seva on Akshay Trithiya, and whenever possible during the year. He never failed to shower blessings before Chaitra and Ashwin Navratri and on Mahashivratri; during which times I maintain anushthan. 

Prayag Giriji was a sanyasin whose purity shone through. He spent his days in worship, devotion and seva. I will always remember his humility, seva-bhav and love for Ganga-maiya, which was inspirational for any sadhak. 

My pranams to Maharaj.

Shraddhanjali to Prayag Giri ji ~ Swagata Shetkar

We were blessed to have the opportunity to experience the Allahabad Kumbh in February 2013. My exposure to earlier Kumbhas at Ujjain and Allahabad were at a tender age when I was not aware of the energy at a Kumbha, as I had not begun my personal sadhana.

After having darshan of Shree Vishweshwar Mahadev ji and a dip In Ganga Maiya at Kashi, we boarded the train from Varanasi to Allahabad. As we approached Allahabad station I had a mesmerising view of the vast camps along Yamunaji’s banks. It seemed like a mystical magical timeless space that drew me in.  We phoned Shree Prayag Giriji who had arranged for our stay at their camp. I only knew that he is a sanyasin living in his own Ashram at Uttarkashi, and I idly wondered if he would be stern or even bad-tempered. To my surprise he answered Narayan’s call though it was well past midnight, and guided us  on how to reach his tent. In the deserted silence of the night hours we were clueless about the direction to take in such a wide area.  Narayan exchanged several phone calls with him to find our way. 

When we met him, fresh and energetic, a lean figure in clean saffron robes, he welcomed us with a generous gesture. We were given refreshing hot masala tea that tasted like an exotic herbal concoction. It was the end of winter and yet I shivered at the chill winds. The tea replenished us. 

Swami Prayag Giri at Mahakumbha

He warmly escorted us to another tent where sanyasins were gathered around their dhuna. It was warm and cozy inside. As we were introduced I realised I am the only woman there. Narayan taked to Prayag Giri ji to ascertain if we could have Snan at Brahma Muhurt.  He gave a very comforting answer and asked one of his shishya sadhus to accompany us in an hour to the Sangam and bring us back to the Camp. 

Prayag Giri Ji gently asked us to move to an adjoining tent to grab a little rest. I was still wondering whether he rests for the day or is so active round the clock. All I could perceive was a broad and calm smile across his bright face. He made us feel comfortable in another tent where there were a couple of other sadhus.  

Within 45 minutes, the alarm woke us. Prayag Giri ji was waiting outside with his shisya to take us to the Sangam. We started following his shishya to the Sangam at 3.30 am and submerged ourseves in the sacred river, along with an ocean of people. All thought was dissolved and I was one with the current of divine energy. Overwhelmed by a sense of being blessed, we returned to Prayag Giriji’s tent. 

Again, we were greeted by a gesture of welcome and hot  masala tea that felt  like nectar. In a short while we asked his permission to leave. This was granted with a precious blessing in the form of a Shaligram he had with him. It was moving to hold a Shaligram, that we had read so much about, and we resolved to be worthy of its blessings. Narayan promised Maharaj to maintain the sanctity of this blessing. I accepted it as a Prasad. I remembered Gorakh Babaji saying after completing the Bhagwat at our home, “Bhagwat abhi bhi chal raha hai, Akhand hai. Seva badhti rahe.  Bhagwat Chalta Rahe”. 

I feel ever grateful to Swami Prayag Giriji, who left his body on 30th April 2021. Initially I was saddened by the thought that we had not visited him at his ashram, where he had invited us.  He would occasionally call Narayan to gracefully shower his blessings. But almost immediately I realised that a saint is not bound to the body, or this birth, which must culminate in death. I can still feel the warmth of his shining twinkling eyes. 

My heartfelt Pranam and Shradhanjali to his pious soul. 

Passing through this World ~ Romola Butalia (Sriji)

Reaching Bhojbasa from Gangotri, after the briefest rest, exhausted, we walked on to Gaumukh, as the rain turned to sleet. It had been a few years since I had paid homage to Ma Ganga where she emerges from her glacial home. The weather having turned, there was no time to tarry. As we took the path back, Hari Baba, a solitary, still figure, wrapped in a blanket, watched us from where he sat.  “Om Namoh Narayan”. 

He invited us to step in to his makeshift shelter, for a rejuvenating cup of warm herbs brewed in Ganga jal from its very source, and for protection from the snowfall which was becoming heavier. As we sat talking, about sant-mahatmas we knew, watching the snowfall, drinking the welcome cup of tea, and the prasad given, Hari Baba looked at the sky and said, the sun would soon appear before sunset. He walked with us till the next bend on the path before our paths diverged. 

Prayag Giri Mahant Awahan Akhara

As we were setting camp at the Mahakumbha at Prayag, Hari Baba and a small band of people, hurried past our camp, in the early evening. His distinct voice caught my ears, or I would not have recognised him as the same mahatma who was doing tapasya for over 12 years at Gaumukh, when we last met. Invited, he stayed at our camp that night, while he himself set up camp at his allotted site nearby. Memories of that Kumbha are inextricably interwoven with Hari Baba, known as Swami Prayag Giriji, Mahant of the Pancha Dashnama Avahan Akhada. I had the good fortune to meet him almost daily during my tapasya-kaal at this Kumbha. 

One morning after I came out of my dhuna, the nada of the shankha and ghanta reverberated on the shores near the sacred conjunction of Ganga, Yamuna and the subtle Saraswati. Hari Baba’s familiar voice greeted me, “Om Namoh Narayan, Mataji”. In the presence of a tapaswi Himalayan yogi of the Juna Akhada, he took out a sacred Gauri-Shankar rudraksha from his jhola, similiar to the one he always wore,  and carefully strung it on a yagyopavita. Both mahatmas together put it over my head, with the blessings of the Gauri-Shankar rudraksha, of Ganga mai, and of the respective deities of their akhadas. I wear it as an ultimate symbol of the unspoken. 

I spent time with him again when we maintained anushthan together at Vrindavan during Navaratri. The quiet strength of his presence and warm greetings is what remains of that time.

The years passed. It was the Haridwar Kumbha of 2010. Several days passed and I had not met Hari Baba. Eventually, one day, I scoured the camps in the area where the Ahawan akhada was based, and asked several sanyasins about him, but could not locate him. Eventually, I was told to check at the Akhada itself, and was happy to find Hari Baba. He had not set up separate camp, but was staying at the Akhada. I told him where our camp was, and invited him to visit. As always, through this Kumbha, the meetings with him were of timeless joy and caring. 

Sometimes, rarely, we spoke on the phone, it was the briefest exchange of greetings, Om Namoh Narayan. A reminder of a spiritual connection we shared. That is all.

The day my grandson was born, he called, saying, “humein bahut chinta ho rahi thi”. He was one of the first to get the happy tidings and to give his blessings to the newborn, and his parents, in whose name he had done a pukar at the jhanda of his akhada during the Kumbha, when we visited him there.  

Every single meeting with Swami Prayag Giri was at a sacred teerth. There was no exchange with him that was of the world. I am not particularly conscious that he has left his body and merged with the Ganga that was his prana, because I never knew him as a mortal being. I only knew him as one who passed through this world. Om Namoh Narayan.

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