Experienced travelers know that the true value of a pilgrimage lies not so much in reaching a destination, but in the journey itself. One young man learns this valuable lesson when he embarks on an unplanned excursion in Climbing Chamundi Hill: 1001 Steps of a Storyteller and a Reluctant Pilgrim, a unique new book by Hindu scholar Ariel Glucklich that combines a fictional adventure with 30 ancient Indian stories.

Chamundi Hill, a sacred site in southern India near the city of Mysore, is a 4,000-foot hill topped by a towering 12th century temple honoring the goddess Chamundeswari. This monument is a much-visited pilgrimage site, reached by ascending 1,000 steps an arduous climb pilgrims traditionally make barefoot, their pain eased by companionship and storytelling. Glucklich's protagonist, a young American biologist, is mysteriously drawn to the hill. At its base, he meets an elderly Indian man who offers to guide him up the mountain, tempting him with this paradox: "If you pay attention . . . the stories might turn you into a true pilgrim and give you pleasure at the same time!" Their odyssey begins, a slow ascent punctuated by the 30 allegorical stories. These deceptively simple parables, as colorful and vivid as ancient temple paintings, are alive with the exploits of mere mortals and kings, animals, demons and gods. From the first story that of a healthy but misguided man who becomes a suffering leper to the last tale of a truth-seeking fellow confused by the paradoxes of life, they form a thematic endless circle, the classic metaphor for the cycle of human life.

Glucklich has used the time-honored conceit of a dialectic between a wise guide and unrealized seeker to showcase these marvelous stories, many translated from Sanskrit for the first time. The narrative's young hero remains appropriately nameless throughout the climb, which may be an obvious symbol for everyman, but Glucklich's thoughtful explication of the quest, through the careful selection and progression of each tale, is not so transparent. Though there are 1,000 steps up Chamundi, the extra step referenced in the book's title leads to a surprising destination, the epiphany of this entrancing work.

For those who love literary fable, along with a dash of spiritual spice, Climbing Chamundi Hill will prove to be a pleasurable, thought-provoking exercise.

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