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…

Nepal Trek Part 2: Up The Dudh Kosi

Continued from Nepal Trek Part 1

Although it is now the most visited region in the entire Himalaya, until 1949, Nepal and by extension the Khumbu region was closed to the outside world. Whatever little information existed about this wonderful land enclosed by some of the highest peaks in the world came from the prolific Sherpas. From the turn of the twentieth century, the Sherpas had been arriving at Darjeeling in search for work. At first as labourers and then increasingly as high altitude porters working under successive British Everest expeditions, by the 1930s they had distinguished themselves as climbers of real skill. Naturally acclimatised and used to the rigours of harsh terrain, the people soon became synonymous with the elite of Himalayan mountaineering. If you take a look at the significant early milestones of Himalayan mountaineering- the ascent of Kamet in 1933, the German attempt on Nanga Parbat in 1934, the ascent of Nanda Devi in 1936, the ascent of Annapurna in 1950 or the ascent of Everest itself in 1953- and you will find a bunch of renowned Sherpas at the heart of it all.

Mani walls on the trail out of Lukla. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
Mani walls on the trail out of Lukla. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

The Sherpa people follow Tibetan Buddhism and soon after we start our walk there’s ample evidence of this in the intricately carved mani walls and chortens that litter the trail. Taking care to pass them on the left, we leave the upper ridges and start descending to the valley, passing through fields of wheat and barley, with the young river flowing swiftly to our left.

The Dudh Kosi valley. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
The Dudh Kosi valley. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

Crossing a subsidiary stream coming down from a deep valley to the east, we passed under the soaring Kusum Kankharu towering some nine and a half thousand feet over us.

The spire of Kusum Kankharu in the early morning sun-haze. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
The spire of Kusum Kankharu in the early morning sun-haze. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

Phakding is a short, two-hour walk from Lukla. We arrive a little before eleven, after a slow walk in the blazing sun, with much of the rest of the day remaining. And a good thing that was too. The first day’s walk is always the hardest. My legs feel like lead, and my much-abused sea level lungs gasp for breath at every little rise. Usually by the next day the situation improves. So I feel extremely glad when the red roofs of the Phakding Yeti Mountain Home swing into view under a rocky outcrop beside the river. Two smiling Sherpanis welcome us with warm glasses of lemonade and unending mugs of coffee and tea. Well, one could get used to this sort of thing.

The Mountain Home at Phakding
The Mountain Home at Phakding. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

The Mountain Homes certainly are lavish. In Phakding, the buildings are clustered around a wide courtyard. Inside the cosy drawing room, the walls are adorned with lovely portraits of Sherpa families and pretty decent paintings of some of Nepal’s famous peaks. Our room overlooking the river offers more luxury. Not least of which are a top-notch bathroom with a glass shower cubicle running hot water! I think the gratuitous bath and shampoo I enjoyed here has to be the first I’ve ever had on a trek. The electrically heated bed with its generous pile of blankets were beckoning, but we decide to go for a little acclimatisation walk instead in the forests on the other side of the river. But first lunch. And what a spread that is! Chicken sweet corn soup followed by spaghetti and fries and then a lovely buckwheat cake and coffee. If this is how one eats here, I might actually return fatter from the trek.

An hour’s happy scramble past a lower secondary school guarded by the eyes of all-seeing Buddhahood and Rimijung village’s potato farms brought us to Pemachoeling monastery, one of the oldest in the region. Surrounded by an old growth pine and birch forest, I hear the monastery before I see it.

Monks offer evening prayers at the Phakding monastery. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
Monks offer evening prayers at the Phakding monastery. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

A prayer meeting was in progress and the deep thud of drums reverberated through the hillside. Inside, a young trainee abbot conducted the rituals under the watchful eyes of the head lama of the village of Nurning in front of a huge stern statue of Padmasambhava (the patron saint and guru of the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism). Around the prayer hall lit up by lamps and surrounded by bright vivid murals of Bodhisattvas, local deities and row upon row of old manuscripts, monks chanted in rising and falling cadences, every now and then pausing to blow on the sandung and gyaling, or clash large hand cymbals, while a crumpled, ancient nun blew powerfully on a huge conch shell. The old couple from Rimijung who had requested the prayer were also present, sipping glasses of tea with their eyes fixed on the Buddha.

Giant statue of Guru Padmasambhava occupies pride of place at the altar. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
Giant statue of Guru Padmasambhava occupies pride of place at the altar. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

We wandered around for another hour in the forest under lowering skies, while far to the north floated the temple-like spire of Tawecho. Later that evening as we sit around the wood fired oven in the lounge and sip our ‘happy hour’ drinks of hot rum toddy and leaf through mountaineering books, Sonam explains out how camping has died a painful death in the Khumbu region. If the Yeti Mountain Home is on the upper end even for the wealthy Europeans who make up the bulk of the tourists in this area, lodges with perfectly good facilities now stretch all the way up to Gorakshep, the last settlement of any kind on the Everest trail at a height of 16,942ft. No one wants the rough and tumble of camping any more, certainly not the guides. And since the trekking establishment of the region only promotes lodges, camping has actually become a more expensive option. Retiring to my electrically heated furnace of a bed, later that night, I shed a quiet tear.

To be continued…

Tara in Art

This isn’t a travel post. This is more my attempt to record my fascination with the great Buddhist goddess Tara, and her representations in art that I’ve come across in my travels and readings.

First a brief biography of this major Mahayana goddess. The ‘Mother of Liberation’, when she first appeared in art and literature in India around the 7th century AD, Tara represented a radical departure from previous conceptions of Buddhahood. While the great Bodhisattvas  had not achieved ‘Nirvana’ in the sense that they ‘postponed’ their Buddhahood to help all sentient beings achieve the same, Tara was a full-fledged Buddha herself. She came to represent the manifestation of a union of Karuna (compassion) and Prajna (perfect wisdom); or, in tantric terms, sunyata (emptiness) and mahasukha (great bliss). She became, in a sense, an embodiment of the very thing, the principle of being a Buddha. On an earthier level, she came to be venerated with a bhaktic intensity that rivalled that of the Bodhisattvas and the Buddha.

There are two major manifestations of Tara, the Green Tara and the White Tara. The former, also known as Shyama Tara or Khadiravani Tara, was the more popular manifestation. Her wilder, tantric aspect of Mahachinakrama Tara or Ugra Tara was a great favourite of artists, as she rewarded her tantric sadhak with felicity of artistic expression.  Tara as durgatitarini, deliverer from all evils, sealed her early popularity, and this has continually grown through her historical existence.

Tara first appears in carved reliefs in Ellora, but her immense popularity properly began with the rise and the long reign of the Pala monarchy of Bengal and Bihar. The emblem of the Palas was an umbrella and their banner had a figure of Tara. From the 8th to the 13th centuries, while Mahayana Buddhism flourished in eastern and northern India, Kashmir, the Kathmandu Valley and Tibet, along with its popular tantric means or upaya, the Vajrayana, there was a tremendous explosion in artistic expression in all of these regions—in stone and metal sculpture, music and painting. Fuelled by her popularity, Tara, with her benevolence, wisdom and beauty emerged as a favourite subject of art.

Sadly, very few examples remain of the mural art and watercolour miniatures that Indian Buddhism was renowned for, but a precious number of artworks survive. A few folios of Sanskrit palm-leaf Prajnaparamita manuscripts from Bengal and Bihar are scattered over the world, providing a precious example of miniatures. These are supplemented by copies and originals from around the same time from the Kathmandu valley and Tibet. The mural tradition is best represented by Ajanta and Ellora, Alchi and Tabo, and Chinese versions of current Indian styles at Silk Route sites like Dunhuang in China. Stone sculptures are most numerous from  north and eastern India; while metal sculptures in the Indian mode are more numerous in the Kathmandu valley and Tibet, though some survive from buried hoards in India as well.

Strong traces of the Pala art heritage can still be seen in places like the Kathmandu valley, Tibet, China, south-east Asia and Japan,  hugely enriched by the subsequent developments in the art traditions of those countries. Indian Buddhism in its final avatar perished a long time ago, and along with it artistic representations of Tara. However, she lives on in the popular cultural memory, especially in Bengal, Assam and Orissa, where the fleet-footed saviour—she who ferries us over from our mundane existence—in a Hindu garb, continues to fulfill the same functions in the affections of the people. An artistic heritage of that era still flourishes in rural areas of eastern India, e.g. the patachitras. And Tara remains the doting mother of all creation, Jagattarini. Even her tantric manifestation, Ugra Tara, retains her cremation ground mystique at the famous Tarapeeth in Bengal.  

Here are some examples of the great Tara in art. Note, I’ve only listed artworks in the Indian tradition. The Tibetan tradition which branched off about 800 years ago, deserves its own post.

There are some great online resources which go much deeper into this fascinating subject. See

Miranda E. Shaw: Buddhist Goddesses of India

Gudrun Buhnemann: The Goddess Mahacinakrama Tara (Ugra Tara) in Buddhist and Hindu Tantrism

There are some great collections in various museums in the west. In India and Nepal, many museums, including the following, maintain priceless collections of Pala-era art and its descendants:

The Indian Museum, Kolkata

The Asiatic Society Museum, Kolkata

State Archaeological Museum, Kolkata

Ashutosh Museum of Indian Art. Kolkata

Orissa State Museum, Bhubaneshwar

Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi

Archaeological Museum, Nalanda

Archaeological Museum, Bodh Gaya

Patna Museum

National Museum, New Delhi

Patan Museum, Patan, Nepal

National Museum of Nepal, Kathmandu

Bangladesh National Museum, Dhaka

Shri Partap Singh Museum, Srinagar

Top: Seated Tara, bronze, Bengal, 10th century. Bottom: Seated Tara, bronze, Bengal, 8th century.
Top: Seated Tara, bronze, Bengal, 10th century.
Bottom: Seated Tara, bronze, Bengal, 8th century.
A sandstone Tara stele from Nalanda from the 10th century, at the Indian Museum, Calcutta
A sandstone Tara stele from Nalanda from the 10th century, at the Indian Museum, Calcutta
Standing Tara, bronze, Kashmir, 11th-12th century
Standing Tara, bronze, Kashmir, 11th-12th century
Standing Tara, gilt copper alloy with inlaid precious and semi-precious stones Nepal, 11th-12th century, from a private collection
Standing Tara, gilt copper alloy with inlaid precious and semi-precious stones Nepal, 11th-12th century, from a private collection
Seated Tara, brass, copper and silver inlay, 12th century, Pala-style
Seated Tara, brass, copper and silver inlay, 12th century, Pala-style
Seated Tara, sandstone, 11th-12th century Lalitagiri, Orissa
Seated Tara, sandstone, Indian museum, Calcutta, 11th-12th century Lalitagiri, Orissa
Bust of Vajra-Tara, sandstone, 11th-12th century, Pala-style.
Bust of Vajra-Tara, sandstone, 11th-12th century, Pala-style.
Tara dispensing boons, opaque watercolour on palm leaf; from a folio of an Ashtasahsrika Prajnaparamita palm leaf manuscript. 12th century, Bengal. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Tara dispensing boons, opaque watercolour on palm leaf; from a folio of an Ashtasahsrika Prajnaparamita palm leaf manuscript. 12th century, Bengal. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Seated Tara, mural, Alchi, Ladakh, 12th century.
Seated Tara, mural, Alchi, Ladakh, 12th century.
Folios from an Ashtasahsrika Prajnaparamita palm-leaf manuscript, the middle folio showing Tara. 11th-12th century, Bengal, Pala-style.
Folios from an Ashtasahsrika Prajnaparamita palm-leaf manuscript, the middle folio showing Tara. 11th-12th century, Bengal, Pala-style.
Seated Tara, opaque watercolour on palm leaf, from a folio of Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript, 12th century, Bengal
Seated Tara, opaque watercolour on palm leaf, from a folio of Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript, 12th century, Bengal
Sketch of Mahachinakrama Tara, a terrible manifestation of Tara said to be the tutelary deity of artists and musicians, Nepal. Note Aksobhaya on her crown.
Sketch of Mahachinakrama Tara, a terrible manifestation of Tara said to be the tutelary deity of artists and musicians, Nepal. Note Aksobhaya on her crown.
Pahari watercolour of Mahacinakrama Tara, without Aksobhaya and now turned into a Saiva goddess. Her function remains the same.
Pahari watercolour of Mahacinakrama Tara, 18th century without Aksobhaya and now turned into a Saiva goddess. Her function remains the same.
Watercolour of Mahacinakrama Tara or Ugra Tara, 18th century, Nepal.
Watercolour of Mahacinakrama Tara or Ugra Tara, 18th century, Nepal.

Nepal Trek Part 1: Plane to Lukla

I’ve made a bit of a habit of going for treks in the off-season. I never planned to do so, but that’s the way it seems to work every year. One of the advantages of doing so is that it’s cheap. Guides and porters come at half the rates, the trails aren’t cluttered with trekking flotsam, and you feel like you’re ‘out there’ somewhere, with just your wits to help you in a harsh terrain.

That’s an idle fantasy of course. In this day and age, there isn’t anything really life-threatening about walks in the Himalayan wilderness, as long as you watch your step and don’t take foolish risks. You might suffer with slippery rocks on a high pass, or spend days waterlogged but you certainly won’t have to fight off the bears for a dinner of boiled bamboo shoots.

Even then, when I get an offer to trek in the Khumbu region of Nepal ‘in style’, and what’s more, ‘in season’, I jump at the chance. After all, who doesn’t want to take a look at Everest, that menacing, squat pyramid of black rock that towers over all the other mountains of the world? And that’s not all. Apart from Everest and its sister eight thousanders Lhotse and Cho Oyu, even a casual stroll in Khumbu brings you face to face with some classic mountain scenery. And it’s home to the Sherpas, probably the most legendary mountain people in the world.

Flying in from Kathmandu to Lukla, high in the Dudh Kosi valley, somehow the idea of a comfort trek doesn’t seem so outlandish. The very fact that I am covering in a forty-minute flight a distance that not so long ago took a week, and that almost all my co-passengers seem to be retired Europeans, makes me feel many worlds removed from the modest joys of trekking in the Indian Himalaya. But what a flight! We take off from Kathmandu one cold morning, with me nervously glancing at the propellers of the rickety Twin Otter aircraft and wondering if it’ll hold up. I don’t like flying, and I’d foolishly watched far too many YouTube videos of wobbly landings on the airstrip for my comfort. But once the die is cast and we are airborne, there is little to do but trust in the nous of the pilots and enjoy the ride. My friend Puneet and I manoeuvre to the front of the plane so we end up with the much coveted left hand seats. We fly with the sunrise, towards a blood red dawn, over the tiny houses and streams of the Kathmandu valley.

Flying over high kharkas to the Dudh Kosi valley. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
Flying over high kharkas to the Dudh Kosi valley. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Soon after taking off, the aircraft banks slightly to the left and the shadowy wall of the Great Himalayan Range falls into step. Soon we are swooping over high kharkas (grazing grounds) and higher aiguilles while the main range looms in the haze of the angled sunbeams. A little while later a deep valley appears bathed in a thick golden mist, and the plane begins a rapid descent towards a little sticking plaster at the bottom of an onrushing mountain, the Lukla airstrip. We have arrived at the Dudh Kosi valley.

Dudh Kosi valley glows in the early morning sun. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
Dudh Kosi valley glows in the early morning sun. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

A smooth landing and cries of “Bravo” from assorted passengers later, we are found in the melee of porters and baggage by our guide for the trip, Sonam Tenzing Sherpa, a young, affable man in his late twenties. We are guests of Yeti Holidays, one of Nepal’s biggest travel groups, and Sonam is to take us to our day’s stop at a luxury lodge on the outskirts of the small village of Phakding on the edge of the Dudh Kosi river.

Chaurikharka village above the Dudh Kosi gorge. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
Chaurikharka village above the Dudh Kosi gorge. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Lukla’s airstrip stands on a long artificial clearing above the village of Chaurikharka, one of the largest Sherpa villages of the Khumbu region. The sun hadn’t yet escaped the shackles of the high ridges to the east, but across the Dudh Kosi, Numdur, a 22,000foot peak of the Rolwaling Himal was glistening in the sunshine. Further north, cloaked in cloud banners stood the southern face of Kwangde. Talk about arriving bang in the middle of the Himalaya. The mountains of the Khumbu Himal form an extensive elevated region. Not only does the main range extend in it’s normal North West to South East axis, here gigantic subsidiary ridges run down in a north south direction as well, enclosing the deep valley of the Dudh Kosi and it’s tributary rivers.

To be continued…

Secret Garden

Dharansi. A hanging valley. I savour those two words. What a delicious idea! I close my eyes and try to remember if I’ve seen one before. There was that small hanging plateau on the northern marches of the Indrahar pass in the Dhauladhar. But this was massive. I was sitting in the middle of a large smooth bowl, covered in turf and little splashes of tiny alpine flowers. Running through the grassy side were long, shallow gullies, filled with the rubble of boulders—the giant moraines of winter snowfields. Right in the middle of the bowl, where our camp was pitched, lay the longest and widest of the moraines. It was also the lowest point in the curve of the valley, almost a hollow. It continued for a little way below the tent. Then, from a cutoff, the valley dropped a couple of hundred feet into another bowl, less wide, more hemmed in by serrated cliffs. The valley then wound down gradually, like a lazily flowing river, then it suddenly ended, as if someone had sliced it off with a very large knife. A tortured, broken precipice plunged dramatically for 5,000ft into the spectacular gorge of the Rishi Ganga. The Bhotias believe that demons live here, and none but holy men may pass through. Thus the river gets its name.

The hanging valley of Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

It was up this gorge, in 1934, that two English mountaineers and three of the greatest Sherpas of the day forced the only—and till then uncharted—passage into one of the most unique mountain fastnesses in the world. Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman’s adventure was an improbable one, one of the last heroic journeys into the unknown. Shipton’s elegantly romantic book, Nanda Devi, had warmed my heart for many years. Here at Dharansi, the furthest I could get into Nanda’s secret garden after days of incessant rain, landslides and storms, I could hardly believe my luck.

I’ve always been big on hidden paradises. Right from the lonely little lake in a mango grove in my native Bihar where I spent many solitary afternoons to Dung Lung Dor and Oz; I wanted to see them all, if only a glimpse. These places had their rules. It would have to be a perilous realm; you’d endure many hardships trying to get there; and you could never hope to reach without a large helping of grace. Over the years I’d been to some unimaginably lovely places, and lonely places, but I had yet to see a place like Dharansi.

Above me, the bugyal stretched upwards at a gentle incline. Directly above the rim of the bowl lurked Hanuman, a prickly black mass of heavily compacted rocks, leering down at me like a nightmare fortress. A modest 19,931ft high, it is best known as one of the standard climbing peaks for trainee mountaineers. But the mountain has a local reputation that is somewhat more sinister. The villagers of the Niti valley, especially those of Dunagiri village, don’t take too kindly to the monkey god. In fact, many despise him, and consider him a thief. When Hanuman flew to the Himalaya to find the magic herb that would cure Lakshman, this is where he is said to have come. Not knowing which the correct herb was, Hanuman hedged his bets and made off with an entire mountain

A little way up the slope, a herd of bharal, the famous Himalayan blue sheep, stood watching us. There were nine individuals. Three sprightly youngsters pranced about unsurely on the massed jumble of boulders. Three ewes, their long black eyes watchful, were licking salt off a large table-shaped boulder. One of them had a single short horn, making her look uncannily like a unicorn. Last of all were the three rams, aloof and sporting impressive curving horns, extremely skittish and keeping their distance. When Shipton and Tilman had broken through to the inner sanctuary, they had been pleasantly surprised to find large herds of bharal grazing on the meadows of the sanctuary, absolutely unperturbed by their presence. That was seventy-eight years ago. By the time all entry into the sanctuary was banned in 1982, the widespread hunting of these beautiful animals to provide meat for mountaineering expeditions had resulted in a near wipe-out. That had also affected the bharal’s chief predator, the snow leopard. I’m sure there was one around, but of course I’d never be able to see this Himalayan ghost unless he wished to be seen.

I had met another such famously shy animal a couple of days ago on the upper slopes of the meadow of Lata Kharak. I’d gone walking to the adjoining ridge of Saini Kharak to get my first glimpse of the legendary Rishi gorge and, if lucky, Nanda herself. We were traversing the cliffs of the junction of these two ridges when Raghubir Singh, one of our porters, clutched my jacket and pointed to a massive rock face and said “Kasturi!” I had to focus before I could make out the distinct brown shape of the musk deer, surprisingly close, looking at us with some alarm, twitching his black nose. It looked like a cross between a deer and a kangaroo, the startling feature being the animal’s vampiric canines. In a few seconds he was off, bounding straight down the sheer cliffs with dizzying speed.

A musk deer in the distance preparing to leap off and away. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Raghubir Singh of Lata is a legend from a legendary village rife with legends. He and his friend Dhan Singh Rana, my guide Narendra’s father, were highly feted high-altitude guides and porters during the heyday of mountaineering in the sanctuary in the 1970s. Even earlier, from the time Shipton first came to Nanda Devi, the people of Lata have featured prominently in the history of mountaineering in this area. The villagers of Lata are Bhotias, like the rest of the denizens of the Niti valley who live by the banks of the trans-Himalayan Dhauli Ganga river. Of mixed Tibetan stock, these tribal people of upper Uttarakhand had been successful traders, carrying on a millennia-old summer trade with Tibet. The 1962 war put an end to that. Later, when the national park came into being and all entry was closed, even the local people who’d led a symbiotic relationship with Nanda Devi and her valleys and grazing grounds, found the way barred, and their rights superceded.

It was in Lata, and nearby Reni, that the famous Chipko movement began in 1974 to prevent the decimation of sacred deodar groves around these two villages. In the late 1990s, these same villagers fought a long-drawn-out campaign for community participation in the management of the national park. Dhan Singh was a part of both these efforts. In the former he was a defiant boy standing up to forest contractors. During the latter, he was the village sarpanch who cannily organised the villages into a formidable body of activists. An offshoot of this movement was the opening and maintenance of certain trails within the park where local men could act as guides.

The Dhauli Ganga valley with Lata village in the distance. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Narendra is a shy, soft-spoken man in his mid-twenties. However, the last few days in the wilderness seemed to have wrought a subtle change in him. In addition to the deepening stubble on his angular face, there was a flashing brightness in his eyes, a sharpness of sight. He was beaming as he hid behind a rock and took pictures of the bharal. He loved being here, back after many years. He mostly works in Dehradun now. The last time he’d come this way, he was accompanying a scientific expedition to the inner sanctuary. He still hadn’t forgotten the awe he felt in the presence of Nanda Devi, a mountain that was also a goddess.

And with good reason. My companion Parth and I had arrived in Lata five days before, on a sunny day in early September. It was the last day of the annual Nandashtami celebrations. The devi’s origins lie in ancient nature cults. Indeed, in the older temples of Kumaon, her image is that of a tribal woman. Today, to outsiders she is just another reincarnation of Parvati or Durga, but to the Bhotias Nanda is herself, the powerful queen of her mountain realm, the bliss-giving goddess. Sitting in front of Nanda’s medieval temple, studded with brahma-kamals to mark the occasion, I felt as if I was watching something unfamilar, something special. This wasn’t Hinduism as I knew it. Women in Tibetan-style long black robes and white cloth headscarves danced slowly in a circle while chanting a plaintive song of regeneration and permanence. Then Nanda herself entered the body of her priest, who, dressed in her ceremonial regalia, blessed the villagers and two large rams brought as offering. These were then summarily sacrificed. The sun gradually sank to the west, and the puja was over. The children of the village who’d been waiting patiently all this while swarmed up the walls of the temple, clambering up with the agility of sure-footed cragsmen to get at their prize—a brahma-kamal.

The Nanda Devi puja in progress in Lata village. photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

The Nanda Devi Sanctuary lies across the Great Himalayan Range in the form of a ring of high mountains. Bang in the middle of the eastern curve of this cirque sit the twin peaks of Nanda Devi, looming over some 380 sq km of ice and snow. Nowhere in its 110km length is this mountain wall less than 18,000ft high except at a single point in this chain, where the Rishi cuts through the barrier and flows west to meet the larger Dhauli. The only practicable route into the inner reaches of the sanctuary is by outflanking the precipitous outer gorge of the Rishi Ganga and crossing the 13,950ft Dharansi pass to Dharansi and then down over the Malathuni Pass to the upper Rishi Ganga gorge.

The broken jagged precipices of Satkula cunningly hide the valley. The only way through is over an exceedingly steep goat track. From that initial notch, it descends right down to a gully before trudging back laboriously up to the next cliff face to another notch in the skyline before plunging down the next gully. It’s beastly hard in the rain, especially in the middle of a heavy fog; one misstep will send you hurtling some 8,000ft into the Rishi gorge. The pass itself is the last link in this chain of convenient notches in the broken ridge-system. But to me, the true entrance was the impressive stone goat arch of Ranikhola, one that the writer Bill Aitken memorably described as a goat’s Arc de Triomphe. It is said that when the shepherds brought their charges to Dharansi, a Bhotia maiden dedicated to Nanda would stand guard here, counting each goat and sheep as it passed through the gateway.

Traversing the Satkula ridge to Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

That evening in Dharansi proved to be the first thawing of Nanda’s suspicion of this motley group of out-of-season trespassers. Along with the shockingly tame bharal came a spectacular sunset. The sky had cleared in the direction of the Dhauli valley and the sun was setting above the distant peaks of Chaukhamba, painting the film of clouds on the western horizon an angry red. Steady streams of thick vapours were flowing down over the strangely shaped pinnacles overhanging the Rishi gorge. Other clouds formed impossibly long banners that draped themselves over the prominent peaks to the south—Bethartoli Himal and Ronti. Up east the sanctuary was still cloaked in heavy clouds. But as I looked up the slope I was mystified to see what looked like a luminous mist playing on the uppermost reaches of the bugyal. Glowing orange and yellow, the mist was the last to disappear, leaving us with a dark night so still and silent I could hear my own heart beat.

The Rishi Ganga gorge from Dharansi at sunset. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

I rose early, only for my jaw to drop as soon as I stepped outside the tent. Everything was unbelievably clear. Beyond the Dharansi cutoff the distant Dhauli and Alaknanda valleys were drowning in a low layer of clouds. But above that all was clear. Far to the northwest ran a set of peaks I was very familiar with—the Kedarnath group and the Chaukhamba massif that contain the Gangotri glacier. A little to their right rose the triangular southeast face of Neelkanth, the peak that towers over Badrinath.

Dunagiri from Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

To my right, the delicate ice flutings of Bethartoli Himal were a blushing pink in the diffused light of the rising sun. Even the Devistan peaks that formed the dividing ridge between the inner and outer sanctuary were out. Would Nanda be revealed at last? Her peak couldn’t be seen from camp so Narendra and I ran around to the southern enclosing wall of the valley. We drew up to Malathuni pass, panting, with our boots soaked by the heavy dew. There she was, Nanda Devi, her west face in shadow, but her pinnacle proud and true, sailing through the heavens without any wind. The people of Lata were right. She was herself and no other. Looking at her strange, fearful symmetry it is no wonder that Nanda Devi the mountain and Nanda the goddess are considered one and the same, indivisible.

Nanda Devi from Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

At the lovely alp of Dibrughati, 2,000ft below us, it was still night. Yet, across the gorge, the green side valley of Dudh Ganga—that descends from the combined snows of Trisul and Bethartoli—looked exactly like a sun-kissed CGI valley. To my left Dunagiri’s peak was lost in a maelstrom. But the majestic shoulders of this giant stood out, the snow glinting in the sunshine. The sun started peeking out from behind Hanuman, and slowly the Dharansi alp started shining a bright emerald green, of a kind I don’t remember seeing before. Lammergeiers flew overhead in slow arcs while tiny swallows leapt down into this amazing scene of wild gorges and snow peaks. A mouse hare emerged to sun himself. I sat there for hours, staring, until swirling mists from the Rishi slowly hid the world again.

-Bibek Bhattacharya

This article appeared in the January 2012 issue of Outlook Traveller.

Studies in Form: The Hiranyavarna Mahavihar, Patan

Ah, Patan. The glories of this magical Newari city are too numerous to do justice. I could only spend a few hours when I visited earlier this year, but even after all these months, thinking about the place and its gorgeous Durbar Square sends a shiver up my spine.

It isn’t often that you get to visit a place this old and this richly decorated which is also a part of a living city. Under the shadows of the deliciously carved eaves and under the magnificent spires of its splendid medieval architecture, people sit and pass the time of day; children on the way back from school spend a few truant minutes, old men chat and lovers whisper. Although, historical sources suggest that Patan (or Lalitpur as it was previously known) had been a bustling town anteceding even the Kirata dynasty of the early 1st millennium AD, as well as the Lichchavi dynasty of the 3rd to 9th centuries AD (when it was called Yala); it was only under the Malla dynasty of the 13th to 18th centuries that the city saw an efflorescence in art and architecture, that remains even today. The historical part of the town, with its centre at the Durbar Square is a marvellous warren of medieval wooden houses and linked courtyards, punctuated by intricately carved water reservoirs called hiti.

Too numerous are the wonders of Patan, so I will restrict myself to just one, the Hiranyavarna Mahavihara, or the Kwa Baha- a Buddhist monastery more commonly known as the Golden Temple. It is one of the older extant temples in the city, dating back to the 11th century AD. One of the most ornate monasteries that I’ve ever seen, it is a temple of Vajrayana Buddhism or the ‘Diamond Way’, the great Tantric Buddhist tradition that began in India, especially in Kashmir and Bengal, but died out along with the great Buddhist universities of Bengal and Bihar in the 13th century. Some of its teachings and worldview survived in the mother country in the works of Saiva and Sakta Tantrics, along with the Vaisnav Sahajiyas and the Bengali Sufi tradition. However, as a living tradition, it continues to this day in Newari Buddhism.

Like in all Vajrayanic temples, the priests here are called Vajracharyas, householder monks who are the last Buddhist community whose liturgical texts are in Sanskrit. Echoing the final development in Indian Buddhism between the 9th and 12th centuries, the ideal Vajracharya is a Siddha or a Realised One. Like most of the main Newari temples, both Hindu and Buddhist, it is built around a courtyard.  Again like all Vajrayanic shrines, it has multiple deities representing Buddhist history at it’s three main stages of philosophical and religious development. There is the Sakyamuni, representing the oldest Theravadic origins, the Bodhisattvas of the Mahayana and Vajrasattva and the other Tantric deities of the Vajrayana.

The principle and non-Tantric deity, called the kwabaju, is Sakyamuni Buddha, is housed in the main shrine across the courtyard from the beautifully carved doorway. Before it is the ceremonial caitya arguably the most important object in the courtyard, probably older than Kwa Baha itself, with its own elaborate temple. This is a thing of beauty, with carved images of the five Buddhas as well 12 amazing metal-cast sculptures of various Lokeshvaras, some of them distinctly Tantric ones. The main Tantric shrine, this one to Vajrasattva is on the first floor of the monastery. He is identified with the Adibuddha representing the Absolute, but also as the ideal Siddha or Vajracharya. He holds the bell and the vajra or thunderbolt of wisdom, the chief symbol of the Vajrayana.

In Kwa Baha, there is also a Tibetan shrine modeled on a classic gompa on the first floor devoted to the eight-armed Amoghapasha Lokeshvara, one of the 360 forms of Avalokiteshvaras (or Lord of the World)  popular in Nepal and Tibet. Indeed, all around the courtyard, you can see sequences of the Tibetan prayer wheels, very recent in origin, which speaks of the growing importance of these Newari shrines to the Tibetan population, who first came to Nepal as refugees following the Chinese invasion. Standing in the courtyard, surrounded by Tibetans, as well as Newaris worshipping these Buddhist deities who first came into being in northern India, I felt strangely ecstatic in the middle of this modern confluence of a flow of traditions that has been going on between India, Nepal and Tibet for over a thousand years!

The other object of reverence at the Kwa Bahah is an old Sanskrit manuscript of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, properly called the Astasahasrika-prajnaparamita or the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines. Probably the greatest Mahayanic sutra, composed in India around the 2nd century AD, the Perfection of Wisdom is often ceremoniously read at the monastery for merit as well as for worldly gain. The earliest historical record is that of a monk called Ananda Bhikshu who first copied the manuscript to preserve it in 1225 AD. Legend has it that it was brought to Nepal from India by a Brahmin widow sometime towards the end of the 1st millennium AD. The goddess Prajnaparamita, a form of Tara, is worshipped here.

The entire courtyard is like a public art gallery, full of beautiful things which stand testimony to the highly advanced aesthetics of the Newars, from metal cast sculptures to ones made of gold and stone. Here’s a slideshow of the courtyard. (Press Pause to see it at your convenience)

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My travels in words and pictures

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