The love of mountains



Durga Pujo is around the corner. When I was a kid, the very thought used to make me go weak in the knees with happiness. Tired as I grew of it, Cal’s pujo is still something to behold. In my opinion, it is the closest one comes to a carnival in this country, apart from the actual Goa carnival of course. Great memories, happy memories.

Right now, all I can think of is one thing- going to the mountains. If anything can be said to have usurped Durga Pujo’s place in my affections, it has got to be the mountains. In fact, the joy I get from altitude far outstrips my childhood fondness of Pujo.
Why? Well lots of reasons really. But if I were to really put my finger on it, it would be this- the Himalayas- and other hills and mountains- are the only places which are truly spiritual to me. I mean, to walk for hours up or down mountains, through the humming quiet of the roads and forests and rocks and fields; to see geography crumpled up and refashioned on such a gigantic scale; to see the high peaks glistening unimpeachably in the sky, and to look down to see deep blue valleys emerging as if out of some primordial dream of belonging- that is the closest I come to any sort of religious epiphany. I mean, if the beauty of the land can bring tears to your eyes, isn’t that something to cherish? Outside of the Bengal-Bihar countryside, where I grew up- no other place affets me as deeply.
Hence, not a month goes by without me feeling eternally grateful for my life- to be able to live and work in a place from where the mountains are just six hours away; and the high Himalayas a mere 14 hours.
My parents travelled ceaselessly, or so it seemed to me as a child. From our home in Purnea in North East Bihar, Siliguri via Kishanganj was only a six to eight hour drive away, so I’d been going to Darjeeling from the age of two. Puri was the other favourite, us being Bongs, so many a holiday was spent there as well.
But some of my favourite trips with my parents has been to the mountains. I remember the December jaunt to Manali- my first snowfall!!- in 1996 and the absolutely superlative Kedarnath-Badrinath trip of 1999. That’s when I really started to see the mountains as something beyond the promise of cool climes and snow peaks. The sheer sensory experience of the Garhwal was something. I’ll never forget the Kedarnath massif rising out of a cloudy dawn behind the temple of Kedarnath, or Nilkantha floating like a shark’s tooth in the air above Badrinath. But it wasn’t just the peaks. What I loved best was the journey to get there.
Kedarnath from Gaurikund was the first trek of my life and quite unforgettable. You start among the thick forsts of Gaurikund, and over the next 14 km, you rise up inexorably to finally emerge into the high valley above the treeline, springy turf under you and exhilirating vastness all around you.
While in college, me and some friends made our way to the Valley of Flowers in 2001. A magical land if I’ve ever seen one, this was high altitude all right, and I realised that the Himalayas are a most happy addiction.
Imagine my plight then, when for five long years various circumstances kept me apart from my love. Only in 2006 could I go again, this time to Mussoorie. I was aghast to find the same spoilt Delhi brats whining in a Cafe Coffee Day store on the Mall Road, but heck I could not argue with the bits of clouds playing hide and seek with me around the lush mountains of Tehri Garhwal.
Another long wait of two years. By 2008 I’d had enough of all this dicking about in the city, trying to earn a livelihood and all that. So I took off to McLeodganj to meet my friend KP who was staying there. Took another friend of mine, Debo, along.

Pic: Dharamshala and Kangra Valley shrouded in clouds, seen from McLeodganj
This was it, mountain madness had finally caught up with me and had claimed me for its own. In fact I can pinpoint the moment when it happened. The first was when I awoke at dawn on the bus to Dharamshala to find us in the middle of the Shivalik highlands of Himachal Pradesh, going past a beautiful river, on the way to Kangra. In the distance, through the clouds I could see the giant ramparts of the Dhauladhars sweeping up to the sky. At that moment, I knew exactly what I’d been missing all this time.

Pic: Triund, on the ramparts of the Dhauladhar Range.
The second moment came a few days later. Debo had returned to Delhi, and me and KP were making our way up to Triund on the shoulders of the Dhauladhars, on the way to Indrahar Pass.
Trekking up after so many years with a spoilt body full of smoke and repose was always going to be hard. The fact that I was shit stoned didn’t help much either. In fact, considering the difficulty, I insisted on getting even more high, and KP was only too willing. Half way up Triund, at around 2 pm or so, wheezing and pulling my tired, screaming legs up the next boulder with my heart threatening to jump right out of my body, the clouds which had surrounded us for much of the trip burst and rain came pouring down. My predicament just got worse. Not only did this meant that the going got even tougher, as veritable rivers of mud were flowing down the quagmire of a track but my dope paranoia made me imagine that the mountain was for some reason trying to shrug me off its back. Still, we kept trudging, past immense boulders and even larger dead tree trunks in a shadow land of cloud, thunder and rain. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we came around a bend and-Triund! A high altitude meadow, with a gentle mist hanging over it and myriad little flowers blooming in the grass. That’s when I was convinced that this was the life for me.
Fortunately, that trip pretty much opened the floodgates. Next I went to this place called Viratkhaai above Chakrata in Western Garhwal for an adventure sport camp. I lost a tooth falling off a bike and got ravaged by leeches, but the place was magical.

Pic: The Yamuna coming down from the mountains north west of Mussoorie.
The monsoon had just hit and the various valleys were wrapped up in a shroud of mystery, as our Press bus went up along crumbly roads over horrid precipices up to the camp, past beautiful waterfalls and entire river systems swollen into floodwaters thanks to the incessant rain.

Pic: Mountains of Tehri Garhwal at Dhanolti near Mussoorie.
Next I went to Mussoorie again, which was pleasant. Come October, and I was off to Bhuira, this charming hamlet in the Shimla hills of eastern Himachal.

Pic: A cairn atop a hill in the Shimla hills near Bhuira

While there, us friends trekked up this local hill top. Crisp in the fall sunshine, I tugged at my beard and spaced staring off into the middle distance.
Early this year, in March, while it was still cold enough to discourage tourists, me and a friend of mine, Priyo went off to Binsar, a forest sanctuary above Almora in the Kumaon hills. Having missed a bus, and then having travelled for a full 12 hours through North UP (hell on wheels), when we woke up to a stunning Himalayan panorama (pic below) it was all worth it.

Pic: Nanda Devi and other giants at dawn, seen from Binsar.
Each and every moment of my time there was sublime- whether it was staying in a century-old forest guest house in the middle of an oak and rhododendron forest with some immense cedars for company, or the sight of the majestic Kumaoni peaks- Trishul, Nanda Devi, Nanda Ghunti, Panchachuli among them- or a fabulous trek of some 20 km through the beutiful valleys and ridge-tops of the Almora hills to the ancient temple town of Jageshwar from there.
Another trip to McLeodganj followed in April. This time there were quite a few of us, and the pace was less frantic. Indeed, for once, I was happy not to try and cover too much ground and just relax instead (I still forced them up to Triund though!).
Then in May, on my birthday along came the big trip to Tunganath and Chandrashila, again in the Kedarnath mountains of Garhwal.

Pic: The high Himalayas of north Garhwal, Tunganath.
I’d never been this close to the Greater Himalayas before, and although because of unseasonal bad weather I couldn’t do the extensive trekking that I’d planned, climbing up to the top of Chandrashila at over 4000m was heady enough.
Over the next month, making my way through work and bad news I felt so horrible in Delhi, that I made another quick jaunt to McLeodganj. I have friends there now- especially a group of young locals who run home stays for European and American backpackers in the villages of upper Bhagsu and Dharamkot, above McLeodganj.
That was in June. Haven’t been back to the mountains since. All I’ve been able to do to keep my mountain-starved mind from going insane is to read countless fabulous books on the mountains, my favourite ones among these being my hero Eric Shipton‘s collected travelogues and Journals, and the travel writings of my other mountain hero Umaprasad Mukherjee- some of whose peerless Bengali essays, I’ve tried to translate.
So, why all this talk about mountains at the end of September? Well, it ties in with what I said at the beginning of the blog. Durga Pujo is around the corner again, and this time, I hope to be back in Tunganath, staying in Sujaan Singh’s lovely choti– with probably one of the best alpine views in the world- and meeting the irrepresible Biru.

Pic: The view outside Sujaan Singh’s unassuming choti at Tunganath.
I intend to hijack him and make him take me to Madhmaheshwar and Deoria Tal, two absolutely fantastic places in the deep valleys and high ridges of the Kedarnath mountains along one of the greatest watershed areas on earth.
I’ve got my fingers crossed.
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Tunganath Part 5

5.

Chopta is about a mile from Baniyakund. Along the way are a few tea shops and flophouses. The trail to Tunganath starts at Chopta. The main road carries on to the right and below from Chopta to Bhulkona, a mile away. From there, the road descends to Pangarbasa. The way lies through a deep forest, undulating like a giant snake through the dense canopy. The forest ends at the village of Mandal. From there the road carries on via Gopeshwar to meet the Badrinath road at Chamoli. However, those who venture up to Tunganath need not retrace their steps to Chopta. A pilgrim trail runs down over a pass below the Chandrashila summit, connecting Tunganath to Bhulkona below. It’s a steep, zig zag route down which you hurtle as if someone were pushing you off the mountain. From Tunganath, Chamoli is some18 miles.

The Pilgrim trail from Tunganath (courtesy Rudraneil)

The trail to Tunganath winds up relentlessly. It’s an ascent of some three thousand feet, though the actual distance you cover is only about 3 miles. However, it is a beautiful route, and time passes by like a lazy river without you realizing it as you marvel at the scenery. Through the trees you see far away a gallery of snow peaks- the Kedarnath-Badrinath ranges. It seems as if the green leaves frame this portrait of loveliness. I feel like I’m walking down the corridor of a massive gallery of sublime paintings by the Great Artist mounted against an azure wall. After a while the tree-line ends, and lush meadows carpeted with a riot of flowers make their appearance. Occasionally you pass little streams of snowmelt. Above, the wide dome of the sky. In the distance, the long, massive wall of the Greater Himalayas. It reminds me of that passage- “White swans unfurl their wings and sit- their eyes raised up- floating in the blue ocean of the sky.”

Panorama from the trail to Tunganath

We cross a waterfall just before we reach the temple- the Akash-Ganga. A few houses, a couple of tea shops and a dharamshala. Foregrounded by the distant snow-giants lies the beautiful temple of Tunganath, looking like a giant Shiv lingam.

The lingam worshipped here is of natural origin- a swayambhu lingam. It looks like the rear end of the mythical buffalo form that Shiva took to escape underground. The deities of the other four Kedars are also worshipped here.

The tiny hamlet of Tunganath, with the temple in the background

Tunganath is a still, peaceful place. It is over 12,000 feet in height- the weather is biting cold. Hardly any yatri stays the night here. They pay their respects to the deity and go down to Bhulkona or Pangarbasa, sometimes even all the way to Mandalchoti.

Further above the temple lies the peak of Chandrashila.

Chandrashila Peak

You follow a thin track up to the top. At places, even this excuse of a track vanishes. The peak is about a mile or so from the temple, and a good thousand feet higher. The track passes through little patches of grass, jumbles of boulders and the occasional thin stream. Small flowers dot the grass like a patchwork of colour. You can also find deep crimson rhododendron flowers- the nectar from these flowers taste divine.

Cairns atop Chandrashila

On the peak, there’s a short clearing dotted with cairns. Some of the stones are so placed that they remind me of the ruins of an old village or a castle. On the way to Tibet or in the higher reaches of the Himalayas, I have come across colourful cloth and paper flags. Similar flags fly here. At over 13,000 feet, Chandrashila is the highest mountain in the area. The uninterrupted 360 degree view you get from here is breathtaking.

Chaukhamba as seen from Chandrashila

In the distance, you can see an unbroken wall of snow peaks- Bandarpooch, Gangotri, Kedarnath, Chaukhamba. On the other side, Nanda Ghunti, Trishul, Dunagiri, Nanda Devi. They look unreal, like figures etched in a white chalk over a blue slate.

From here you look down into valleys so deep that it feels like you’re peering into the underworld. You can make out the faint white ribbon of a gushing mountain river; deep forests cloak the sides of some mountains; other slopes are barren- covered in hard, rough granite. Many thousands of feet below, you can see little villages and farms that look like miniature carpets. The dolls’ houses make me feel like I’ve stumbled into the playpen of the Nature. Somewhere there in those villages a dog barks. To me it seems the mountains themselves are speaking.

Heavily forested river valley below Chandrashila

The same pilgrim paths from where I could see the massive peak of Tunganath are lost to view from here. The enormity of the mountains of the Himalayas swallows up the trail to Kedarnath.

I sit still and look at this majestic scene, and my mind dances out of time. How can I describe the perfect silence of that height? A deep, pervasive sense of peace fills me.

Chandrashila is the best reward of the hard trail to Tunganath.

Concluded.

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Tunganath Part 4

4.

I leave Ukhamath and carry on. From here a gentle road winds up the mountain. In front of me rises the tall peak of Chandrashila. To my right, far below me, lies the valley of the Akash Ganga. It flows down from Tunganath to the Mandakini stretched out far behind me like a ribbon.

The Mandakini valley

They seem to me like two daughters of Paradise, fast friends, re-uniting on Earth. Up the mountain on the other side of the Mandakini I see stray houses of a village- Mukhimath or Mukumath. The Pandas (priests) of Tunganath live there and worship the deity in the winter months.

Five miles down the road, on a turn of the mountain, lies Ganeshchoti. You come down to the riverbed and cross a bridge here. On the other bank begins the climb to Chopta, following the road to Tunganth. A beautiful forest starts a little way above. The still, peaceful path climbs up relentlessly under the shadow of gigantic trees.

The road up to Chopta (courtesy Rudraneil)

Two miles above Ganeshchoti lies Goliyab-garh. Three miles further lies Poukhibasa. A mile and half from there lies Dogalbitta. My destination, Baniyakund, is a mile from Dogalbitta. The chotis are evenly spaced by the mile but even then, the uphill trudge seems endless, like days of hardship refusing to end. But far from feeling despondent, I feel coccooned by the cool shadows of the deep forest.

At a point on the shoulder of the giant of Chandrashila, the road makes a massive turn. Going around it, we suddenly arrive at Baniyakund. The climb to Chopta ends here, much to the relief of the exhausted traveler. In front I see a wide bugiyal (meadow) in one corner of the mountain- green grass with roots in small, flowing streams. A peaceful place of great beauty. It makes me want to stay here for a few days.

A view of Chandrashila from Baniyakund

Baniyakund must be about eight to nine thousand feet above sea level. Its quite cold here. There’s a dharamshala maintained by Kalikamliwala, so boarding is not a problem. Let me tell you about an interesting little thing that once happened here.

I was staying by myself in a room on the second floor. Not too many other yatris. I heard a voice from a nearby room, a man chastising someone hard in Bengali. Occasionally I heard a woman’s muted voice in reply. The man’s harsh words cast a pall on the perfect peace of the Himalayan scene.

I got to meet the man soon after. He was storming down the stairs when he saw me and approached. “You’re Bengali, aren’t you?” he asked. “Have you seen how these coolies behave? You look like a Bramhin, let me pay my respects.”

I stopped him. When I got him to tell me what had enraged him so, it turned out to be nothing substantial. Apparently his porter got late getting his luggage up to Baniyakund due to the steep climb. The discomfiture this caused to the gentleman was the reason for his anger. While telling me his story, he grew ashamed of his behaviour. He said, “I know, it must be pretty hard for him. I had resolved that I wouldn’t lose my temper, but I can’t help it. Human nature is so weak.”

He was a thin, dark man wearing a traditional black-edged dhoti. Must’ve been about 60 years old. His eyes and cheeks sunken, he was swathed from head to toe to keep out the cold. His teeth were dark red from betel juice.

He was from Calcutta, and looked it too. Financially secure, he was now out on pilgrimage. He confessed without guile, “I have lived the good life, and never paused to think about effects of my actions. But these past few years have been very hard on me, and now that I’m aware, I’m trying to reform myself. Every pilgrimage I make, I give up a vice. One day, I’ll be able to give up all of them.”

I smiled and remarked that he still hasn’t given up the betel leaf.

“That’s true,” he laughed, “but I’ll give it up in the end. Its my earliest vice you see. I go to sleep with a paan (betel leaf) in my mouth.” Then he became grave. “You see, I have grown tired of life. I mean, God has made me aware that its ephemeral. My wife died a few years ago. I lost my only son a few months back. Since then I’ve been a pilgrim. The Bramhin girl accompanying me- she’s not my relative. She’s been in my household since she was a child- a child widow. Her mother used to work in our house. Since she passed away, the girl takes care of our hearth god- Govinda. Takes care of me as well.Now she’s out on pilgrimage with me, as is Govinda. You tell me, how could I leave her behind, alone?”

He became silent for a while, thinking about something. Then he said, “I was telling you about giving up things. Well, I am leaving my material life behind, but I’m also getting entangled in my affection for the girl. How do you transcend the grief of losing your child?”

I looked at him and wondered. You can never guess a man’s inner demons, his struggle for self-transcendence from his demeanour.

So I told him a story. Not of a pilgrimage, or of the Himalayas, but of something that occurred at my house in Calcutta. A kirtan (devotional songs of Krishna) had been organized- a famous Vaishnav percussionist was to play the Srikhol (a double ended percussion instrument played at such soirees). The programme was about to start, but there was no sign of the man. Time was going by. People started wondering if he’d forgotten all about it. Someone from the audience started singing, and the programme began. A few hours later, the Vaishnav gentleman arrived. A small man, he joined his hands, and with an air of supplication made his way to the stage through the crowd. He touched the khol to his forehead and picked it up. The singing of kirtans resumed, and the man started playing the Srikhol. In an instant, the performance reached a different level. The Srikhol started singing in a sweet voice redolent with faith. The player looked overcome with emotion, immersing himself in the rhythm. As one, everyone stared at him, their faces and hearts transformed with joy at the divine music.

A traditional image of a kirtan (courtesy ISKCON)

To see him was to imagine the Srikhol come to life and in the intricate rhythms and melodies singing the praises of Radha and Krishna. The player, his instrument and song fused into one organism. The stunned audience joined him in an otherworldly place of great beauty. No one seemed to notice the passage of time. The night deepened, and the audience came out of its trance as the kirtan ended. People mobbed the khol player, telling him how deeply his music touched them. Everyone agreed that they’d never forget this performance as long as they lived. Then one man remarked how we had all waited for him to come play…

The Vaishnav raised his eyes at the remark. A wry smile passed over his blissful face. “Oh, yes, I know I was very late. My youngest son suddenly died today- I had to cremate him. I came here as soon as I could.” Nobody said another word. Neither did he. The hall fell silent again.

to be concluded…
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