In the Mountains

I was born just thirty years ago,

but I’ve wandered a million miles already.

Along the River through the green grass on the banks,

out to the borderlands where the red dust roils,

Chewed herbs, cooked up alchemical elixirs,

trying to become an Immortal.

Read all the Writings, chanted the Histories aloud,

trying to learn them all by heart…

Today I’m on my way

home to Cold Mountain.

There, I’ll bed down in the creek, just to wash out my ears. 

-Han Shan, from Cold Mountain Poems

In the Mountains

In the mountains, sometimes there’s a sudden dampness when my feet stick in the mud I didn’t know was there. A sudden little field of small fronds sticking their heads up over the wet earth. Soon enough I’ll hear a trickle, insects buzzing and the fluttering shimmer of butterflies over it, especially at noontide.

If there’s a descending stream nearby, then I can tell of its imminent arrival by the appearance of a shadowy deep gully or a gulch. I can tell that there’s one just around the corner by the way the trees clinging to rock faces seem to bend inwards, trying to hide.

Much before I see the stream, I see the flycatchers, flashes of colour out for a meal over the running water. They hop, they leap, they’re beautiful little precise killers. But while they’re full of life, I’m languorous. There’s nothing I would like better than to sit on a large boulder beside the stream, and be hypnotized by the sight of flowing water over rocks.

Mindfulness. Mountains demand mindfulness. Look up. I hear a high, shrill screetch. A dot circling in the clear sky above. I step into a wet puddle. Shit. Look up again. What is it? An eagle or a griffon, or is it a lammergeier? I envy its perspective.

But the view from the high ground is grand too, just in a different way. From up high, I’d never be able to tell that at the root of all mountains lies dust, fine powder that sometimes glints as the sun catches infinitesimal minerals. The ever-present future of all pinnacles, right there, nestled in a lazy pile between boulders, or blowing in the keen, biting wind. I can feel this promise of mortality between my teeth, fine grit I can chew on. What does the lammergeier see?

The Pass

When I’m not in the mountains, which is often, I dream of long, hard descents from some high pass. At the high breach in the massive wall, the world seems pristine—a promise that’s been fulfilled. Look at those peaks, just look at them! Have you ever seen anything finer?

Passes are empty spaces, filled with thoughts that flow like a stream that’s burst its dams. My ragged breaths make me high. Maybe a tiny mouse hare will give me company. Mostly, it will just wait for me to leave. A pass. That notch in a sky full of notches; that gentle dipping depression in a sea of white ice and snow, forever receding; that succession of incredible, titanic, human-hewed staircases of rock that are re-built every year, so the goats and sheep can pass, accompanied by their herders. What ingenuity, to fashion a path through a field of piled boulders as big as houses. When high civilizations crash, this knowledge, this ability remains. Other things might come and go, but we’ll always need to cross mountains.

But then my eyes lead me back to the immediate thrills—the peaks I’ve been dying to meet all these days, whose photos I’ve looked at again and again—the view I’d been dreaming about for months and years. The magnitude of the peaks always defeats my imagination. They exist to undermine all the exalted images in my head. I often dream of famous mountains viewed from a pass. They rise towards me in a slow-moving wave, one that will crash down on me in a million years. After living with their photographs for years, the mountains in all their resplendent granite leaves me dumbstruck. They’re often too near, making me jump out of my skin, or much farther away than I’d imagined—a goose bump horizon of serrated teeth, the jaws of the world.

But a pass must always pass. I can’t live on the threshold. Sooner or later I will have to move on. I will need to descend, over snow, ice and rocks, over cliffs made slippery by rain or rotting ice, piercing through the cloud canopy, down to the promise of green grass and flowing water.

Descending

And so, I descend, on a sloping ridge, where the only gait possible is at a gentle run. I’m sliding on the edge of the void, down a giant rocky rib poised in the air. The clouds stand still below, the wind picks up and screams in my ear. Move, or you’ll fly, scream the spirits of the empty sky. I move.

And yet, the urge to stop and stare again around me is always strong, even at this uninhabitable altitude. Too soon, my soul protests, too soon will this view be lost. Why don’t I just sit in the lee of that boulder and let the mountains soak through? I do stop, for a few minutes, maybe half an hour, perhaps for the time it takes to smoke a biri, drink some water, munch on some sweet biscuits, get a sugar rush, and move on down.

How to climb down a mountain.

Step. Hop. Stop.

Move one leg down a tall slab.

Swing your butt about, pivoting.

Lunge down to a rock.

Descend five feet.

Rinse and repeat.

For a few hours.

I enter the sea of clouds. It’s like entering a vast hall, with no bottom. Everywhere there’s thick mist. The world is a cloud, and dark, shadowy, echoing giant rock slabs. They careen over me, loom over me. The world is vertical. I descend like demons are on my back. I’m terrified, but also exalted. My blood beats in my ears, a dull thud inside my brain. A thick flap of wool traps all sound within my head.

The biting wind is like the insane flute of Azathoth, the demon sultan. My feet thumping on rocks—a bass rhythm that keeps time, varying its beat constantly. Sometime there’s the wild, high, piercing scream of a bird of prey, out there in the world-cloud, looking for a thermal to rise on.

Hands move assuredly—palm on a bit of soil, a sharp flint shard of shale, a cold rock millions of years old, semi-frozen moss, slippery to the touch. Arms like pistons, the two of them doing what a tail does for the snow leopard­­—find meaning in an ever-shifting world. The body creates its own little bubble of gravity to depend on as the world is constantly giving contradicting signals.

My eyes show me a dark vein of rockfall gully to my left, descending some 100 visible feet into the cloud. The guide has started traversing and has disappeared. He knows that he needs just show the way. After all these days together, he’s sure that I will follow, at my own pace, according to my own level of expertise.

I move as fast as I can. It isn’t just about making time, or the haste to get out of a dangerous zone. The speed is just a function of the way our bodies use the inexorable pull of the void. The animal brain takes over. My eyes look for a zigzagging route through the vertical scree, convincingly fooling the brain into believing that there’s a path, and lo, there is a path. There is always a path. Rocks and boulders might confuse. A devious goat trail might bring me to the edge of a precipice, or an impassable wall. But it’s just a small mistake because a path does indeed exist—I’ve just left it two rock moves ago, missing the small cairn made of one solitary pebble that marked it, not noticing the true trail, faint but still there. There’s nothing else to do but to grin, climb up and then down again, the euphoria of a jigsaw solved.

Falling off a Mountain

Many hours have passed, I suddenly realise with a start. It’s like waking from a meditative trance, knowing that I’ve been doing exactly what the yogic methods prescribe: centre your concentration, focus on your breath, let your mind go blank of conscious thought. The only difference? I’m flying down the cold mountain like Han Shan all the while. Han Shan is Cold Mountain. Cold Mountain is Han Shan.

There’s a Zen saying that I hold very close to my heart. It’s impossible to fall off a mountain. Of course, people still do. I think I came across the aphorism in The Dharma Bums. It’s possible that Jack Kerouac might have just made it up. No matter. What you believe in grounds you. In this perpendicular world, more than at anywhere else, the mind and body need to be grounded. That’s the key.

Sometimes it’s necessary to just stop and go still. Catch up with the racing mind, close my eyes, sway gently, and let the pounding of blood accelerate, chasing the lost momentum of my body. Then it slows, massively, until its barely there. A sudden rush of intense emotions overwhelms me. I look around, what a miracle this world is, it always exceeds my wildest dreams. I think back on just a few hours ago…to when I was standing on the pass. It was another life, another universe. Those huge white peaks, deities all, are still out there somewhere, beyond this cloud that contains me. The vastness of airy distances between my mountain and the rest of phenomena—peaks, valleys, suns, galaxies—break down all my defences. I’ve always cried on descents, out of the sheer wonder of it all; out of gratitude for my brief admittance.

Then I start to feel cold, through my layers. It’s time to begin the dance, again.

Down to the Valley

As I climb lower and the impossible angle of the scree slope levels off somewhat, my descent becomes a loping run. The rock trail is more visible now, the shepherds have tended it well. I can see it snaking down the mountain, in wondrous array of sloping angles. Sometimes I run around the turns, though there might be a thousand foot fall just six inches beyond my widest turning point. It’s impossible to fall off a mountain, I tell myself. And on my merry way I go. Ho, Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!

Sometimes I can’t run, because then I’d definitely slip, or twist my knee. I break my run suddenly, come to a standstill. Then I gingerly twist and reach down to the next rock ledge, a few feet below. Then I traverse sideways, a gigantic crab. I’m too exposed to the windy void. I turn my back to it, hug the mountain and gingerly step down. I’m conscious that for perhaps a few seconds I have just three points of contact between the earth and the sky, but I can’t think about it. I concentrate on finishing the move. My face is so close to the rock that I can see the grains of quartz. I’ve never concentrated this hard. It’s a giddy feeling. I complete the move and laugh out loud at the audacity of the human body. It’s the best feeling in the world, climbing mountains.

The trees begin now, just the bare stumps of cold rotting tall pines. They stand as the defeated outliers of the treeline, beaten back by the natural history of altitude. There’s not so much rock under me than turf. At some point I’ve left behind the perpendicular slabs of rock and brittle scree and now I’m trotting along on a boulder-strewn meadow. It’s still treacherous going though, because the ground is now disguised by grass and soil. Little blue flowers distract with their sudden beauty. A hidden gap between two boulders might well twist my ankle, hurl me face-first into ruin. My brain adapts yet again, racing ahead with the calculations, trying to maintain the balance between speed and caution. Right then, I’m the greatest mathematician in the world.

The pleasures of the boulder-hop. The pirouetting leaps from one ball of granite to another. Between them lies grass, soil, flowers, beetles and flowing tendrils of water. The valley floor is here at last.

I emerge from the cloud that has been my world for the past six thousand feet of descent. Boom! The universe expands rapidly. I can suddenly see for miles and miles. A green world of undulating meadows punctured through with dark thick groves of pines and rhododendrons. The trees soon become denser, the vanguard of high Himalayan forests. Behind me, lies the giant perpendicular rock cirque that I’ve just come down from, disappearing into the waiting cloud above.

The chitter of birds begin. The buzz of insects. The dull echoing void is replaced by the song of the bees. I leap over runnels of water that will coalesce into a small lake before debouching down the valley in the form of a mountain river. Behind me, my sky-path is lost in a kilometre-wide jumble of boulders. My body is weary. The knees hurt, the back aches, the head thuds. All that constant impact on my poor insignificant body, just a speck in this ocean. I look forward to the lake ahead, beside which will be our camp, and fire and heat and food.

In the Mountains

In the mountains, sometimes there’s a sudden dampness when my feet stick in the mud I didn’t know was there. A sudden little field of small fronds sticking their heads up over damp earth. Soon enough I hear the muted splash of tiny waves as I reach the lake, flies fussing over dung and the fluttering shimmer of butterflies over anemones, out for a last sally as evening rolls in.

The runnels are wide now. I can’t leap over them. Instead I skirt, certain that I will find a useful rock to use as a bridge. I let my weary feet take me where they will. Cows and ponies from the shepherds’ encampment mill about in the sloshing meadow, with gambolling, friendly bear-dogs for company.

Smoke rises from cookfires. I can’t walk anymore. I want to sit down right where I am and go to sleep. But after my solitary descent, I think of the company of the camp…the tales of miraculous snakes, of napping bears in spring. There will be tea! There’s rain coming on. The spectral cloud above is ready to give up its secrets in a torrent. Soon I’m home.

fin

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The Supersonics: Mach 2

 

This article first appeared in the August-September 2014 issue of Time Out Delhi

****

First, the news. Calcutta’s finest, The Supersonics, have an album out, Heads Up, and it’s the best thing you’ll hear all year. Five years since their scene-making debut, it’s been a long wait for the band once dubbed the future of rock’n’roll in the country. When I asked Ananda Sen (vocals and guitars) about it in May, just after the band had finished recording the songs, he gave a wry smile and nodded. “Yes it has been a very long time,” he said, “but I’m glad we waited. Unlike that album we went in this time knowing the kind of sound we were looking for, and how to get it. I think it shows.” It did, even in the first mixes that I heard back then.

Way back in 2009, when Maby Baking came out to wide acclaim, the band were the pick of a scene of pop-punk bands across the country trying their own spin on the sound pioneered by The Strokes, The White Stripes and Franz Ferdinand. Sen, Rohan Ganguli (guitars, vocals), Avinash (Chotu) Chordia (drums) and Nitin Mani (bass) went on to tour the album and get a sizable nationwide following on the back of some incendiary shows, before disbanding in 2010. That hiatus lasted a couple of years, while the band members followed their own interests. They remained friends through it all though, which made coming back together easier.

Although they’ve played fewer gigs since they re-formed, they’ve certainly gone hammer and tongs at writing songs. “Our focus has been this second album,” says Sen. “Although I have hundreds of songs to work with, we had to find the right songs for the band.” According to Rohan, most of them came about with him and Sen sitting around with acoustic guitars, trading licks and ideas. “We did most of our composing on acoustic guitars. This helped us get away from the more simplistic vibe of the first album, and helped give the songs more space to breathe,” he said on the phone, while the band rehearsed behind him in Sen’s house.  This ‘space’ that Rohan talks about has resulted in vastly more nuanced songs. Even When the Sun Don’t Shine would have been out of place on their debut, yet on Heads Up it’s the centrepiece, a soaring, yearning song that’s both a sophisticated bit of songcraft, and  a touching tribute to the persistence of love. An instantly infectious chiming guitar leads the way to Sen singing, “You can fly, even if you can’t get high, you can shine, even if there ain’t no light, not a crime if you really do feel, lost at sea,” over a sea of pretty arpeggios to a lover who needs reassuring. The crack team of simpatico players that they are, the band changes track completely when the middle eight gives way to a gorgeous slide solo from Rohan over a cut up reggae beat and a sinuous, rolling bass. Then the whole band floats off into the ether following the wafting solo, before it leads the melody over a precipice and brings them back to earth. In the outro, the band tries to ride its arpeggio magic bus far out, and again a short, stabbing series of shrieking licks from Rohan’s guitar, like swooping seagulls, brings them up short. In this ebb and flow that lasts just a shade over 3 minutes, the band embodies the unsure narrator, who loves his partner, wants to tell her so, and yet… “Most of these songs are deeply personal, they’re about me,” laughs Sen. “I think I wrote eight to ten verses for each song, and then I junked them. I had to hide some of it, I didn’t want to give away too much. Everyone feels these things you know. That’s what I’m trying to communicate.”

The album starts off with one of their newest songs, Come Around, where, over sharply caroming guitars, Sen intones, “You come around me, I come around you, And everything you do is oh so true.” That’s one hell of a way to kick off an album! Especially from someone who’d previously written such Spinal Tap gems as, “I want to touch your thigh, honey pie, honey pie”. “Right there in your face, I see my place, and everything leaves just a beautiful taste, I think it’s time to draw a line, leave the past behind, look for another good sign,” croons Sen, throwing down the gauntlet. In a sense this is as true for the relationship he’s singing about, as for the band’s new approach. Smack in the middle of the song lies one of Rohan’s most beautiful guitar solos, a swaying, swooning slide guitar that channels George Harrison to deepen the song’s emotional heft. When Come Around closes out with a chiming guitar figure that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Buddy Holly song, you realise that this band’s in love, with pop.

Almost always billed as ‘post punk’—a favourite shorthand used by all music rags to describe their songs—what most observers failed to notice was that The Supersonics were a band that’d swallowed the rock songbook whole. “We were, and still are fed up of these labels. I mean all this pop punk stuff. It’s true, that was our self-image for a while too. But then again, bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead mean as much, if not more, to us. In a way, this set of songs shows our love for classic rock,” says Sen. While that’s certainly true, Heads Up ultimately sees The Supersonics re-invented as a peerless pop band. Where their debut clocked in at almost 45 minutes, Heads Up is a trim 34 minutes long, much like the Sixties’ albums that the principals in the band, Sen and Rohan, are so fond of. Strawberry, a rousing, jagged new rocker is a case-in-point. Last year, when the band were still writing the song, Rohan told me that it’s their tribute to Revolver. And he’s correct: interlocking guitar lines move round and round in a circle like mean hunters, sparring with Mani’s galloping bass and Chotu’s thin, airy snare snaps while Sen sings in his best acid voice about his need for an enigmatic Strawberry. The song is quite the bastard child of Dr. Robert and And Your Bird Can Sing. When the band breaks this crepuscular circle with the bonkers chant of “Strawberry! Strawberry! Strawberry!”, you can’t help but pogo up and down. I ask Sen about Strawberry’s genesis. “It started out with Nitin’s bass riff and a basic melody. One day after practice, Rohan, Chotu and I were playing around with it. And we decided to make a Beatles song of it. Once we started, we had it written pretty fast.” Lending it that added Beatlesque touch are the carnivalesque organ figures played by the ex-Mavyns keyboard player Vivek Nair from Mumbai.  “He understands our music, has pretty much the same tastes, so using him on the album was a no-brainer,” says Sen.

Nair is on some of the other tracks, including another of the band’s recent songs, It’s Alright. It started out life last year as a Dylan-inspired song that Sen wrote for a future solo album. “I played it to Chotu and he liked it. So we decided to draft it in for the album.” Another departure from The Supersonics sound, a short organ-trilling, low-rumbling guitar intro pauses for a heartbeat and dives into a Beatles-meets-Shirelles “bop shuwop, bop bop shubidowop” refrain. Bolstered by double-tracked acoustic guitar, Mani’s tasty bass and Chotu’s hi-hat-galloping beat, Sen has another conversation with a lover. Imagine a swooning Bob Dylan-Lou Reed hybrid crooning I Want You to the accompaniment of a billowing and warm cloud of harmonies and a woody old Hammond tone. “You felt the ticking clock, speed up every time; With all the masks you wear you still can’t get it right,” they sympathise in the a cappella bridge, before the whole band give a big hug, “So remember it’s not a crime, to be in a certain frame of mind, oooooh it’s alright.”

The song is a shorthand the abiding endurance of The Supersonics’ music. There’s such a tight understanding and emotional connect between Sen, Rohan, Nitin and Chotu that the constant flirtation with a descent into inept, maudlin derivativeness never materialises. Instead, a supremely confident, musically arrogant band marches right across your auditory spectrum for 35-odd minutes, pulling off every cool guitar rock move with incredible aplomb and that elusive thing, originality. Rohan says this ease is down to everyone in the band being in the same head-space. “The basic tracks were recorded live, and everyone’s performances were very good. It’s more subtle than in the previous album, not everyone just bashing away. There’s more happening in songs although they’re actually shorter than the last time. It was more open, more relaxed.” Sen agrees, “When we went into the studio in 2009, we didn’t know anything. How to place vocal mics, get the correct guitar tones, how to mic a guitar. We basically would go in and try to get a groove going. This time around, we played to the song.” “When we took the songs to the studio, they were basically complete. Just bits were missing here and there. The big question was how to treat the songs,” he adds. “Because we were more confident, we didn’t use as many pedals as we did the last time,” says Rohan, “most of the songs have very clean guitar tones.”

All this adds to the richness of the sound. As do harmonies. Almost every other song has extensive backing vocals, again in a big departure from their earlier songs. “That’s because the songs breathe more now. We filled up the spaces with voices,” says Rohan. “In songs like Heads Up, Strawberry, the chords and melodies were written with harmonies in mind,” he says. So are they more comfortable trying to recreate this live? “That’s what we’ve been working towards in our practices since completing the album,” says Sen, “We’d like our performances to stick as close to the album as possible.”

Ostensibly their first single, Into the Dark is the most Supersonicy song on the album. It channelises a flawless Franz Ferdinand vibe, from the jagged two-guitar intro onwards. It builds up a head of steam on the back of a locomotive riff before the band’s trademark angular, judderingly infectious interplay of interlocking riffs kick in. Over which Sen launches plaintive laments in his typical array of found phrases that convey perfect sympathy. “You know I’ve got no virtues, you know I got some issues…” Sen sings. A four-to-the-floor disco beat makes it almost campy. “It had been around for a while, just a chord progression with a disco beat, and we didn’t know what to do with it,” says Rohan. No wonder it was known as the ‘Disco Song’ till a couple of months ago. He continues, “So we heightened the beat, played with it for many hours, and once Ananda wrote the lyrics, we had the song.”

To The Mall, an anti-consumerist arsonist daydream, is another gem, and it sees the band at their innovative best. “Me and Rohan were playing together,” says Sen, “when I played him this Elvis Mystery Train riff I had. Then he said he had a Chet Atkins lick, since we were trying for an old rock’n’roll sound.” “Yeah, we got to a point where the song wasn’t going anywhere, then we got the idea to transition it into a Velvet Underground kind of song,” says Rohan. The song is a history of rock in 3 minutes, where a jangly, slapback-echo tinged first half segues into a monolithic drone in the second half. It’s a bit Velvet Underground with a “There she goes…” refrain, and a bit Ramones, but the effect is quite transporting.

The album has a few such re-tooled old songs, though their treatment is completely in keeping with the new ethos. The two-year-old Evil Fly which in its earlier avatar was never a particularly impressive song is here transformed into a tour de force. From their earliest live days, The Supersonics had been distinguished from other bands by their ability to don various musical skins during the course of one song. Evil Fly reflects this ability. If a great song is shaped by effective decisions, then Evil Fly’s hook after devastating hook, driven on the laconic genius of Rohan’s guitar, is the epitome. The band cast a Blur-like jaundiced pop eye cast on the smug square and then proceeds to transform into a Sticky Fingers-era Stones barnstormer. “You better lay down and die, ‘cause everything’s just a lie, and I’m the fly watching you from the corner of my eye,” they rebuke with a hip sneer. Guitars are deeply mined for dense interplays of melodic arpeggios and riffs and a duelling guitar outro sees the song out.

The elegant title track, Heads Up, which closes the album, is The Supersonics’ Moonlight Mile, their magnum opus. Rohan reckons it’s one of the first few songs the band ever wrote, which means it’s about eight years old. Sen says they’d played it live many times. And yet I can’t remember ever hearing it before. “Not surprising,” he says, “it didn’t sound anything like it does now. It used to be a very straight, rock rhythm guitar based thing.” It’s anything but that now. A delicate, spiralling Travis-picked figure gives way to a heavy legato guitar line which leads to Sen singing about identity and dreams before the band resolves the tension with a joyous and affirming harmony-laden “Gotta get our heads up, gotta get our heads up, gotta get our heads up now,” and achieves lift up. But then Sen utters a sardonic “Try to,” and a dissonant, atonal bend of notes, reminiscent of what Wilco do in Via Chicago, briefly disrupt proceedings. The rest of the song is a mini suite of stabbing notes, interweaving guitar figures, delicate two-part harmonies and hammered on and chiming notes that never repeat the same trick twice. It all finally resolves to the opening figure, and ends in a small musical sigh.

The five years between albums had many of their fans feeling forlorn, but for the band the time had flown, caught between personal projects, education and, of course, the work necessary to become better musicians, better songwriters. What remains the same since then is the small, tight team of friends and well-wishers who the band have always turned to for tea and sympathy. Today, The Supersonics are a tiny cottage industry with friends producing lovely artwork, and shooting videos, all in tune with the aesthetic values of the scene that the band had emerged from. This keeps the music fresh, and gives the band the space to grow. If in 2009 there weren’t too many other bands playing original music—barring a few honourable exceptions—today there are hundreds. The Supersonics may never receive the same hype that many of their contemporaries receive, but one thing’s a fact— they are India’s finest band.

HeadsupThe Supersonics- Heads Up

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The Secret Society

This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of The Taj Magazine.

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I dispelled the three worlds by means of amorous play
And I fell asleep in the sport of sexual union
How lovely, o Dombi, is your coquetry
The twice-born is outside, the kapalika is inside your hut
By you, o Dombi, the whole world has been disturbed
And for no reason, the Moon has been agitated
Some are there who speak ill of you
But those who are discerning do not remove you from
their throat
Kanha sings of the amorous Chandali
There is no greater harlot than you, o Dombi

***

This song, written sometime around the 10th century CE by the Buddhist siddhacharya Kanha or Krishnapada, is from the earliest collection of folk-songs in what was then the proto-Bengali language. Called the Charyagiti or ‘Songs of Realisation’, these songs were performed by a new kind of Buddhist adept, the tantric siddhas or ‘the perfected ones’ who weren’t monks. Followers of the esoteric ritual doctrines of the Vajrayana (the Way of the Thunderbolt), the siddha community of men and women rejected conventional society, and even the popular Mahayana Buddhism, for a life of intense yogic practice and ritualised sexual union.

Roughly speaking, the 8th to the 13th centuries CE were a great time for Buddhism in eastern India (and in some other regions like Kashmir). Under the patronage of the powerful Pala monarchy of Bengal and Bihar, the monastic universities of Nalanda and Vajrasana (Bodh Gaya) were flourishing, and new viharas like Vikramashila in Bihar and Somapura in Bengal (now Bangladesh) brought in fresher perspectives on popular Buddhism, especially the tantric way of Vajrayana.

In terms of folk culture, what the Vajrayana ushered in was revolutionary. Over a period of about 500 years, the arts boomed. From stone sculptures and metal casting to miniature paintings, mural paintings as well as large canvases on cloth, the effects were seismic, and international. As art historians Susan L. Huntington and John C. Huntington depict in their book Leaves From a Bodhi Tree: The Art of Pala India and Its International Legacy, under the Palas, the Buddhist heartland of Magadha in Bihar became a melting pot of Asian and Southeast Asian cultures, with monks and lay worshippers coming to worship, and carrying away with them examples of this burgeoning religious art, which would go on to influence their own countries.

This period was brought to an abrupt and tragic end, as the viharas first fell victim of the religious iconoclasm of invading Afghan armies and thereafter, without the institutional support of the monasteries, Buddhism was entirely eclipsed by a resurgent Hinduism.

However, while a unique religious and artistic way of life perished in the country of its birth, it continued to thrive elsewhere, most notably in Tibet and in Nepal. It is in this context that I came across an 11th century painting on cloth, from the Kathmandu Valley, in the online archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This gorgeous painting of the Chakrasamvara Mandala is called a paubha by the Newar people of the Kathmandu Valley. Master craftsmen and artists for over a millennia, the Newars have always been part of the same cultural continuum as norther and eastern India. As traders who traversed the lucrative routes from the Gangetic plain to the Tibetan plateau and China, their role in transmitting Indian artistic styles—especially Buddhist art traditions—to Tibet is second to none. The famous Tibetan cloth painting style called the thangka, is basically the paubha by another name.

A paubha of the Chakrasamvara Mandala, c.11th century, distemper on cloth. Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
A paubha of the Chakrasamvara Mandala, c.11th century, distemper on cloth. Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Paubha itself is the Newar word for the eastern Indian pata, and the painting of the tantric deity Chakrasamvara in an erotic embrace with the goddess Vajravarahi, is one of the earliest surviving examples of a style that, in the 11th century, was thriving in contemporaneous Indian culture, especially in Bengal, Bihar and Odisha.

The patachitra or painting on cloth, had been popular in India since at least the time of king Harsha Vardhana of 7th century Kannauj. Bana Bhatta, the author of Harshacharita, speaks of cloth banners being carried in processions, or being used by itinerant storytellers, as a visual guide to their tales. Indeed, the 8th century Buddhist tantric text, the Manjushrimulakalpa, even describes the process by which a pata of the Bodhisattva Manjushri should be made. Evidently then, this was a major form of painting style in India.

In fact, it still is, as the thriving cultural practice of patachitra production, especially in Bengal and Odisha, shows us. The end use of such painted scrolls too remains the same—a visual guide to telling a story. The only aspect of this that no longer exists in India is the Buddhist context of this praxis. In India, one could say that the Buddhist paintings of the Pala era were the high cultural incursion of a folk form that has since returned to its roots.

In fact, the trends were already there. A beautiful 12th century painting of the Buddhist goddess Shyama Tara (Green Tara) dispensing boons is actually a miniature watercolour illustration on a palm-leaf manuscript of the Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita, an important Mahayana sutra. This manuscript was executed in Bengal as a royal commission of a Queen Vihunadevi. More so than any large-scale painting, this miniature, with its rural setting, its depiction of dense foliage, the group of ecstatic devotees and benevolent, larger-than-life Tara—probably modelled after the commissioning queen—belongs more to a folk medium.

A close-up of 'Green Tara Dispensing Boons to Ecstatic Devotees'; Folio from a palm-leaf manuscript of Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita, c.12th century, Eastern India
A close-up of ‘Green Tara Dispensing Boons to Ecstatic Devotees’; Folio from a palm-leaf manuscript of Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita, c.12th century, Eastern India

What is remarkable, however, in this miniature’s relationship to the Nepali paubha, is not the deity, but the worshippers. In the Tara painting, these people aren’t monks, but seem to be a group of tantric adepts, led by a white-haired guru. Their ecstatic poses, ranging from the dancing figure in the bottom left corner to the supplicating figures closest to the deity, give a sense of utter immersion and profound bliss.

The Buddhist technical term for supreme pleasure is mahasukha or the ‘Great Bliss’, which is, in tantric terms, the same as nirvana. In this extreme yogic state, the adept is cut off from the ties of samsara, and perceives the world hidden behind the false
dualities of human sense perceptions. It is just such an adept who can lay claim to being called a siddha, and in turn continue the siddha lineage by becoming the Guru to his or her own disciples. The Vajrayana was primarily propelled by this community, some of whom were monks, while many others weren’t. When we look at the painting of the Chakrasamvara mandala, what catches the eye is the depiction of the siddha community in the background, those who are simultaneously visualizing and worshipping Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi through their tantric practice in cremation grounds.

And these aren’t just any cremation grounds, but the eight great Indian charnel grounds (maha-smasana) that are both actual spaces and internalised fields of meditation—Chandogra, Gahvara, Jwalakula, Subhisana, Attattahasa, Lakshmivana, Ghorandhakara
and Kilakilarava—with their own sacred trees (vriksh), protectors (dikpatih), serpents (naga) and clouds (megha). This cremation ground iconography, as well as the reference
to the kapalika in the song quoted at the beginning, serves to highlight the cultural realm and technical terms that tantric Buddhism shared with its great rival—tantric Shaivism.

Detail of the painting, showing Chakrasamvara and Vajrayogini in their tantric embrace, while trampling on Shiva and Kalratri
Detail of the painting, showing Chakrasamvara and Vajrayogini in their tantric embrace, while trampling on Shiva and Kalratri

Indeed, the myth of the tantric Buddha Chakrasamvara is predicated on his defeat of Maheshwara in a straight battle on Mount Kailash and the latter’s eventual conversion to
Buddhism. You can see this in the painting too: Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi can be seen trampling on Shiva and his consort, Kalaratri.

But let us return to the scenes depicted in the periphery of the mandala. In fact, the cremation ground scene can’t really be referred to as a ‘background’ in the conventional
sense. The figures and the locales underpin the entire mandala, as it is this community of divine creatures, siddhas, yogis and yoginis are the ones that are creatively giving form to the deities through their activities. In later Tibetan traditions, depictions of deities, mandalas and cremation ground communities became more rigidly stylised, as can be seen in the 15th century Tibetan thangka of the exact same scene, preserved in The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in California.

A 15th century Tibetan thangka (made by Newar artists) of the Chakrasamvara Mandala with a more stylised siddha iconography on the periphery. Mineral pigments and gold on cloth. Courtesy: LA County Museum of Art
A 15th century Tibetan thangka (made by Newar artists) of the Chakrasamvara Mandala with a more stylised siddha iconography on the periphery. Mineral pigments and gold on cloth. Courtesy: LA County Museum of Art

In these latter depictions, and indeed in modern thangkas that are being produced even today, the deities at the centre of the mandala overpower the periphery, and the community of freewheeling, anonymous tantrikas are replaced by rigid iconographic forms of well-known Indian mahasiddhas who formed tantric lineages to which all the different sects of Tibetan Buddhism owe their existence.

So who were the people depicted in the 11th century painting? They remain anonymous, lost to us as distinct individuals. To my mind, they best exemplify the community mentioned in the 8th century tantra called Guhyasamaja, which translates to ‘the secret society’. What were these anonymous men and women doing, convinced as they were of the efficacy of the tantric path to enlightenment looking for?

From texts such as the 9th century Hevajra Tantra, which is dedicated to the tantric deity Hevajra and his consort Nairatma and the slightly later Samvarodaya Tantra dedicated to the deities in the painting under discussion, we read about ganachakras or the ‘secret communion’ of like-minded yogis and yoginis in liminal spaces away from mainstream society. In these gatherings, adepts would seek out other members of the ‘secret society’
by means of choma or secret signs. Thereafter, under the leadership of the Guru, the men and women would perform ritual dances, eat ritual feasts of ‘impure’ substances like meat and alchohol, and engage in ritual sex, to the accompaniment of Charya songs and music. All of these activities would be celebratory and help the adepts to try and reach the state of the Great Bliss.

When we look at the 11th century painting, we see this is exactly what is being depicted—men and women dancing, having sex, talking, engaging in ritual meditation with skull arches and corpses and feasting, all the while surrounded by the pyres, human remains, jackals and skulls of the charnel ground, an ‘impure’ space, and thus perfect for such congregations.

Detail of yogis and yoginis in the charnel ground from the 11th century paubha
Detail of yogis and yoginis in the charnel ground from the 11th century paubha

The fact that the historical Krishnapada, with whose song we opened, was a prolific writer of tantric texts and commentaries, a notable pandita, and a prime disseminator of both the Hevajra Tantra and the Chakrasamvara Tantra as well as the cult of Vajrayogini/ Vajravarahi, goes to show the eclectic nature of this community. Some of them were also monks, but most were lay householders who studied the tantras with lineage Gurus, tantric priests (Vajracharya) and with monks in the viharas. To find echoes of that time, we need only visit a modern tantric sacred site like Tarapeeth in West Bengal or Kamakhya in Assam. Both sites are renowned for their powerful tantric female deities (the Tara of Tarapeeth, though under a Hindu guise, has the same core mantra as the older Buddhist Tara), and also for their adjacent cremation grounds, where even today you will find yogis and yoginis residing as members of a liminal community of tantric seekers.

In the popular Newari Buddhist imagination, the Kathmandu Valley is but a gigantic mandala presided over by Chakrasamvara. In the monasteries of Patan, one of the three main cities of the Valley, you will still find painters making similar paubhas, reciting Sanskrit tantras and sutras, and undergoing secret tantric initiations with their partners. Indeed, at the bottom right of the 11th century painting, you can see a depiction of the Newari couple who commissioned the painting of this paubha, so that they could, together, gain the paradise of Chakrasamvara. Although, we will never know who these people were, they live with us still, a guhya-samaja immortalised in art.

Select Bibliography

Per Kvarne Buddhist Tantric Songs: A Study of the Caryagiti

Rob Linrothe Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art 

Elizabeth English Vajrayogini: Her Visualizations, Rituals, And Forms

David Barton Gray The Chakrasamvara Tantra

David Snellgrove Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Indian Buddhists & Their Tibetan Successors

Ronald M Davidson Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement

Christian K Wedemeyer Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism: History, Semiology, and Transgression in the Indian Traditions

Nihar Ranjan Ray Bangali’r Itihash (A History of the Bengali People)

Nupur Chaudhuri and Rajat Kanti Ray Eros and History: Sahajiya Secrets and the Tantric Culture of Love

David Templeton Taranatha’s Life of Krishnacharya/Kanha

David N Gellner Monk, Householder and Tantric Priest: Newar Buddhism and its Hierarchy of Ritual

 

 

Madhya Pradesh: On the Ken

The Ken River in Madhya Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region boasts of an unique eco system. This pretty river rises in the uplands of the Vindhya plateau and flows through the Panna Tiger Reserve and upper Bundelkhand for 427km to join the Yamuna at Chilla in Uttar Pradesh. Often called the cleanest river in central India, the reason for its purity is that it passes through less-populated forested areas, at least in its upper reaches. As a result, the river plays host to many bird species. But, like all good things, the fragile beauty of the river is threatened by egregious development, in the form of a plan to link the river with its neighbouring sister stream, the Betwa.

I took a boat ride up the river in the cool dawn of a December day last year, for a spot of birdwatching. But more than that, sailing in the Ken was a reminder of how beautiful and easy a lazy boat ride can be on India’s beautiful, bountiful rivers.

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Our little boat waits in the reeds by the river. The forested ridges of the Panna Tiger Reserve in the distance. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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A tiny crab stands alert against the intruders (us). Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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Our boatman, Raju, steers the boat into the main channel of the Ken. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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A cormorant sits pretty on a rock stained by bird droppings. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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A stork flies off into the reeds with its breakfast. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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A stork crouches before take-off. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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A cormorant suns itself on the river. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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A white-throated kingfisher peeks out over a river-side rock. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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An egret on the river. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

 

The Great Wide Open: A Trek in Ladakh

Emptiness can be beautiful, and intensely terrifying. To get a an idea of just what I mean, go to the Changthang plateau in Ladakh, climb up one of the many 5,000m passes that dot the landscape, look, and hear the blood pounding in your head. But even in the dun emptiness, there are sounds—the whistling cries of a marmot, the distant neighing of wild horses, and the wind, the ever-present wind that burrows through your clothes right into your soul, wailing like a thousand dakinis.

The walk across the Changthang plateau is a profoundly eerie and wonderful trek to the vast inland lake of Tso Moriri. Marking the important pashmina trade route from Leh to southeast Ladakh and then to the Tibetan plateau further east and to Spiti to the south over the Parang La, the trail lies across a marvellous desolation, the like of which I’d never seen before. We walked with and without our mule trains across seven passes over 4,800m high, across the vast lands where Changpa nomads live with their pashmina  goats and yaks, kept company by the small, silvery antelope Kiang, marmots, wolves and horses. We crossed the giant bowl of the salt lake of Tso Kar, past piles of salt washed up by the blue-black waves, while behind us rose a barrier of scree and rock peaks 6,000m high, dividing us from the vast Morey Plains—over which passes the Manali-Leh highway—maybe the vast dusty bed of a giant lake itself.

Strong, fresh, cold ice-melt streams punctuated our walk over extensive high and wide valleys of grazing grounds. These reminded more of Arctic Tundra landscapes than anything else. In other valleys we saw packs of wild horses running in braided patterns, their manes flying, hooves kicking up the water in the stream. Above in the passes, beautiful large grey wolves lurked, disappearing in a flash quite astounding for such large animals. Almost for the entire stretch the clicks and whistles of the marmot dogged our steps, while their furry fat heads played peekaboo from their burrows. After over a week of hallucinatory walk over surreal landscapes of menace and beauty, we finally reached a pass higher than all the rest, perched high up on the the Mentok range, and looked down for our first, breathtaking view of the storied Tso Moriri. Covering a distance of some 100km, this is probably the most quintessential trek in all of Ladakh. The trek takes in no less than seven passes over 4,800m high, thus living up to Ladakh’s name—the land of passes.

This was my first visit to the trans-Himalaya, and I found that just like the landscape, all the other rules of trekking change in the rain-shadow of the Great Himalayan Range. Whereas south of the Himalaya, the trails wind up from semi-tropical regions to the tree-line and then to high alpine areas, the Changthang seems to hang in the air. It seems not quite of the earth—the skies are panoramic and big, the clouds low and stretched out. There are hardly any steep, craggy cliffs here, just unending slopes of gravel and coarse scrub, loose scree and marshes that look like rolling meadows. The general desolation and the extreme altitude here places immense strains on the human body, so trekking here can only be done with full bundobast, which means pack mules, muleteers and a guide with at least one helper.

We started our walk from Rumtse, on the Leh-Manali highway, before veering off up the Kyamar Chu valley, over marshes dotted with orderly groups of Changpa flocks. The first of the passes, Kyamar La, marks the divide between central Ladakh and the Changthang. Look west and the peaks of the Zanskar range like Kang Yatse stand out. Further east, the rolling ranges that punctuate the high plateau come into focus. These run more-or-less parallel to each other, separated by either large lake beds like that of the Tso Kar, or intensely fast-flowing streams. On some days, we crossed not just one pass, but two, which meant ascending some 2,000 feet, and then descending another 1,500 feet, only to repeat this again. Panting for breath in that wide wilderness, unable to realistically gauge distances in the shimmering air, the landscape seemed ripe with intent, brooding and alien. Was that flock of Kiang five km away or ten? Was that skyline the true pass? Was that an enormous shaggy dog or a wolf? Was that stiff-limbed figure lurching towards me a Ro-Langs, a zombie?

The day would wax sunny—and by sunny I mean sunlight that flays the skin off—and come afternoon, that high, shrill wind would start again, scoring our faces with a million tiny pinpricks of dust. In that phantasmogoric landscape, it was difficult to tell fact from fantasy. The whistles of our constant companions, the marmots, sometimes took on a distinctly sinister, unearthly pitch. As we walked, the moon waxed every night until at the Changpa camp of Rajungkharu, it rose above a far mountain like a gigantic searchlight, turning the black night into an eerie bone-white landscape.

Then there were the Changpa people. The entirety of the Changthang are dominated by them and their flocks. At major Changpa camps like Pongunagu and Nuruchen on the Tso Kar, Rajungkharu and Gyamalhoma, were raised their ubiquitous black and white tents. Their traditionally the black yak-hair tents are slowly giving way to the newer white ones made of a sort-of parachute material, there were signs of growing prosperity on the back of their pashmina trade. The most startling of these were their SUVs. I felt it was a trick of the mind when, wile approaching Rajungkharu, I saw far off, the beetling shape of an SUV crawling over what seemed like a perpendicular slope. I learnt later that it was jeep service to ferry people to Leh to attend the visiting Dalai Lama. At these camps, eery morning would begin with the bleating of sheep and goat as the flocks were herded and milked, before setting off for the day’s grazing. On Horlam La, a Changpa on a horse appeared suddenly, riding towards us full tilt. It was quite a charge. At the last moment he wheeled his mount around, shouted a “Juley!” and galloped off. Later that day, we saw another band of horsemen cross a small pass, again at full speed. I felt I’d wandered onto a set of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The final day’s walk was probably the most euphoric one. Starting out from our highest camp yet at the 5,150m Gyamalhoma, we threaded our way through a deep rocky defile, with surreal overhangs and a chilly stream passing through. As the valley climbed higher the peaks of the ice-plateau of the Mentok range came into view. We walked up through the gravely hills and up to the Yarlung Nyau La, a whopping 5,450m high. And there, spread out some 3,000 feet below us, were the waters of the Tso Moriri,  all 120sq km of it, a deep lilac carpet laid across a vast valley.  Across it darted a multitude of low clouds, and across the lake rose the summits of Chamser and Lungser Kangri, the highest peaks in the Changthang.  It felt like I’d walked into a Roerich painting. We raised a toast to the lake with some rum, and stumbled down the dusty slopes for the long walk into the void.

Tantric Buddhist Dance in a palm-leaf Manuscript

In the Himalayan regions, there exist many kinds of popular Buddhist dance forms, usually performed during festivals or harvests. Some of these, like the one at the Hemis Monastery in Ladakh or the ‘Lama Dances’ of Sikkim are known the world over. Specifically, they are forms of tantric dances, performative manifestations of the highly ritualised Vajrayana Buddhism.

Many lesser known forms of Tantric Buddhist dances exist, none more so than those recorded by the Newar Buddhists of the Kathmandu valley. Their’s is an unique culture: the Newars are the sole remaining Buddhists who follow the Sanskritic Indic Mahayana tradition of Bihar, Bengal and Kashmir, complete with an artistically complex system of Vajrayanic modes of worship whereby  tantric Vajracharya priests officiate over community rituals as well as devotional and life-cycle ceremonies.

As is evident with Tibetan Buddhism, the Vajrayana lays great emphasis on the creativeness of religious ritual, incorporating vividly visual sadhanas or meditational techniques, as well as the use of theatrical gestures and the ritual art creation of mandalas and thangkas (‘paubha’ in Newari; ‘pata’ in Sanskrit). This mastery of religious art ties in perfectly with the Newars’  continued excellence in the plastic, decorative and performative arts, with master craftsmen producing stunning works of sculpture and painting for at least a thousand years now.

Professional artists, many of whom also double up as religious specialists, have, as a rule, assiduously maintained a corpus of sketchbooks, filled with line-drawings of models, annotated instructions, as well as their religious and spiritual interpretations.

Many of the historical ones have been collected and published, and recently I came across some stunning sketches of tantric Buddhist dances from the 18th century, in the scholar Gudrun Bühnemann’s book Buddhist Iconography and Ritual in Paintings and Line Drawings from Nepal.

These sketches were made on palm-leaf manuscripts, and they portray the Parikramavidhi, the ritual dance around a site to purify it before the construction of a mandala. Highly influential in Nepal, the Parikramavidhi was a detailed ritual manual written by a Newari Vajrayana monk named Kuladatta sometime in the 13th century, as a part of his book, the Kriyasamgraha-panjika, in which he outlines the rituals required to consencrate a vihara (monastery). The manual was in turn based on a older texts like the famous Mayajalatantra and the renowned Bengali tantric monk Abhayakaragupta’s ritual compendium, Vajravali, written in the early 12th century CE.

Making full use of forms from the Indian classical dance tradition of the Natyashastras, the sketchbook visually shows the various mudras (gestures), abhinayas (stances) which are to be performed with prescribed mantras, by the officiating monks/priests. Dressed in full ritual regalia, they are to assume the roles of various tantric deities, Bodhisattvas and directional guardians in order to purify the space.

Works of art like this manuscript, helps us get a deeper sense of the vibrant cultural and artistic lives of a people. So the next time you visit Patan, and see the wonderful Newari viharas like the Hiranyavarna Mahavihara (popularly known as the Golden Temple), know that prior to the building of that monastery or the various three-dimentional mandalas in its courtyard, many hundred years ago, Buddhist tantric adepts had probably performed a beautiful dance like this, to consecrate the site. The  performance must have been as arresting a sight as the Cham dance of Hemis.

Here are some panels from this beautiful manuscript.

In this panel, we see eight of forty-two stances or abhinayas to be performed by the principal master (Mulacharya) of the ritual. These are:

9. Vajraghantabhinaya in the Kurmapada stance facing east (of the mandala), evoking the Buddha Vajrasattva.

10. Vajrotkarsanabhinaya in the Vaisakhapada stance facing south, evoking the Buddha Akshobhya.

11. Vajravilasabhinaya in the Vaisakhapada stance facing west, evoking the deity Vajrakarman.

12. Garvadvayabhinaya in the Ekapada stance facing north, evoking the deity Krodhalasya.

13. Bhramarijalabhinaya in the Ekapada stance facing the centre, evoking the Buddha Vairochana.

14. Simhapadabhinaya in the Alidhapada stance facing the centre, evoking the deity Yamantaka.

15. Simhavijrambhitapadabhinaya in the Alidhapada stance facing the centre, evoking the deity Takkiraja.

16. Vajrasphotabhinaya in the Samapada stance facing the centre, evoking the deity Vajrasphota.

Each of these stances are adapted from the Natyashastra, where they are specified as standing postures for male performers.

Here’s another panel showing one abhinaya performed by an assisting adept, and seven abhinayas that evoke seven goddesses of ritual puja offerings, performed by the Mulacharya, while sitting in the yogic lotus posture, or padmasana.

65. Abhayabhinaya performed by the officiating adept in the north of the mandala.

66. Vajralasyabhinaya, evoking the goddess of beauty, Vajralasya.

67. Vajramalabhinaya, evoking the goddess of the garland, Vajramala.

68. Vajragitabhinaya, evoking the goddess of song, Vajragita.

69. Vajranrityabhinaya, evoking the goddess of dance, Vajranritya.

70. Vajradhupabhinaya, evoking the goddess of incense, Vajradhupa.

71. Vajrapuspabhinaya, evoking the goddess of flowers, Vajrapuspa.

72. Vajradipabhinaya, evoking the goddess of the lamp, Vajradipa.

Many such  examples of the beautiful artistic traditions of the Newars exist. It’s a pity these aren’t better known.

Finally, these dance forms remain a vital part of Newar cultural life, as can be seen in this recent video of the dancer Raj Sakya performing the tantric text Manjusri-Nama-Samgiti in a Buddhist courtyard in Patan.

Nepal Trek Part 3: To Namche Bazaar

Continued from Nepal Trek Part 2

Next day to Namche. We start early, before the sun has found us, and we begin our walk in the shadow of Kwangde’s sheer granite east face as it stands out against a clear blue sky. Just outside Phakding, we cross the first of the famous suspension bridges. Bouncing alarmingly some 100ft over the raging river, Sonam assures me that these lifelines come with a fifty-year guarantee from the engineers, and the engineers are men who are held in high esteem. Watching a big herd of dzopkyos (yak-cow hybrids) crossing the bridge, I can see why.

The granite wall of Kwangde's eastern face lights up in the morning sun. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
The granite wall of Kwangde’s eastern face lights up in the morning sun. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

The track crosses and re-crosses the river quite a few times, as the river narrows into a gorge, through the villages of TocToc, Benkar and finally Chumoaa, where Sonam lives with his young wife Lakhpa, and tiny daughter Tenzing.

Sonam with his wife and baby boy in their house. Photo by Puneet K Paliwal
Sonam with his wife and baby girl in their house. Photo by Puneet K Paliwal

Refreshed by a powerful bowl of Sherpa broth courtesy the lovely Lakhpa we cross a small bridge over the Chumoaa Khola that comes down from the silvery heights of Thamserku- the tower of gold- and stop for lunch at the Monjo Yeti Mountain Home, just before the entrance to the Sagarmatha National Park. Tuna sandwiches! In Monjo! I still couldn’t get used to the shock of such everyday luxuries.

Thamserku towers over the Chumoa Khola valley. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
Thamserku towers over the Chumoa Khola valley. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Just outside the village is the entry post of the National Park where you register yourself, and then across another suspension bridge to the tiny village of Jorsale or Thumbug where an army post checks your papers. This is one of the many times on this trip that I thank my lucky stars that I’m from a SAARC country, as we’re casually waved through without any real check. Apart from the fact that it costs me only NPR100 a day to be in the national park, there seems to be great goodwill in the fact that me and Puneet are Indians. And I can see why as a few days later when I come across an incredibly high and ambitious water pipeline project financed by the Indian government. Add to that the fact that we are the only Indians in all of Solu Khumbu, and no wonder we get wide disbelieving grins everywhere, often mistaken for Nepalis. Despite the joys of Visa-less travel and our currency actually being stronger (if only 1.6 times so), rarely do Indians- apart from army climbing expeditions- venture here for their holidays. As a result, even Africans are considered less exotic than Indians in Khumbu, even if many generations of Sherpas have had close relations with Indians in havens like Darjeeling.

The forest walk past the Dudh Kosi outside Jorsale. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
The forest walk past the Dudh Kosi outside Jorsale. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Out of Jorsale, after a pleasant walk beside the river as it passed through a heavily forested gorge, we come to the most famous suspension bridge of them all- the Larja Dobhan bridge. Hanging precariously from one rock face to another rock face almost a kilometre above the junction of the Dudh and Bhote Kosi rivers, it’s a scary, windy place, especially when the bridge starts bouncing under the hurried stride of nervous tourists rushing to get to the other side. Huge numbers of kathas (blessed scarves) and prayer flags flutter in the breeze, despite the fifty-year guarantee, as spiritual, just in case. From here the track climbs a steep and dusty 1600ft through pine forests to Namche.

The Larja Dobhan suspension bridge above the Dudh Kosi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
The Larja Dobhan suspension bridge above the confluence of the Bhote and Dudh Kosi rivers. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

As we climb over the deep gorge of the Bhote Kosi, Thamserku and Kusum Kankharu get bigger behind us, and in front, the three peaks of Kwangde. But the pride of place on this trail is reserved for the Big E, viewed through the pines on a little spur halfway up the climb. When we got there, a gaggle of British and Japanese pensioners were oohing and aahing at the sight of their lives while a no-nonsense Sherpani sold oranges at NPR 80 a piece. There was Everest, it’s black summit pyramid looking like glass in the harsh noonday sun, smoking behind the stupendous curtain of the Nuptse ridge, with Lhotse for company. It is quite a sight. Just below the crest I could see the Hillary Step, that famous rock outcrop which is the gateway to the summit ridge. In less than a month, it would be the site of major traffic jams as scores of would-be summiteers paid through their nose to be hauled up to the patch of snow and rock that was the highest point on earth. On May 23, 2010, 169 climbers reached the summit of Everest.

A first view of Everest, peeking above the Nuptse ridge. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
A first view of Everest, peeking above the Nuptse ridge. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

An hour and some later we’re up in Namche, the horsehoe-shaped metropolis of the Sherpas, in the loving arms of the Yeti Mountain Home. Along with us are a Dutch couple who’ve been haring around the region for a while and a French group on their way to Gokyo. We have our customary round of the reviving hot lemonade and coffee and cookies in a wood panelled lounge that is a joy for mountain lovers. Full of books on Nepal’s mountains and surrounded by old pictures of the region, one could spend hours here. But we had the sunset to catch. So we rush to our room, this time blessed with bay windows overlooking Namche the towering Kwangde Ri (Ri means peaks) beyond.

Another (hot) bath later, we head out to the view-point a short way above the lodge inside the headquarters of the Sagarmatha National Park. And here I see the mountain I’ve been longing to see the most- the eerie Ama Dablam.

he western face of Ama Dablam shining in the sunset. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
he western face of Ama Dablam shining in the sunset. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

The classic South West view of the peak has to be one of the most beautiful and aesthetically pleasing mountain profiles in the world, alongside Matterhorn in the Alps and Changabhang in the Nanda Devi sanctuary. Although much lower than the Everest-Lhotse group at the head of the valley, Ama Dablam’s (which means ‘mother’s blessed pendant’) proximity to the viewer make it appear larger than life. It appears bathed in the soft orange glow of sunset, its famed hanging glaciers looking much like the congealed flourishes of an oil painting.

The twin peaks of Thamserku. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
The twin peaks of Thamserku. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Right above us hung the twin peaks of Thamserku, looking like a gigantic Viking helmet, and far to the north, yet so close it took my breath away, there was Chomolungma, ‘Mother Goddess of the Earth.’

To be continued…

My travels in words and pictures