Devi: A Forest Walk

Continued from Devi: The Village of Stories

We woke up early the next day to a cloudy dawn. The sky was thick with clouds, especially up the valley and above us on the Lata ridge.  Dhauli Ganga’s roar had subsided to a persistent murmur. Mountain rivers are at their calmest at dawn, before the sun has had a chance to melt the higher glaciers that add to the volume of water. A little later, as the sun rose to blow away some of the surrounding gloom, obstinate tendrils of vapour still clung to the stupendous aiguilles up the valley that formed the outrunners of Dunagiri. The peak itself couldn’t be seen from Lata due to the Lata Kharak ridge above us, but these needle-like rock pinnacles framed the gorge beautifully. Parth and me were packed and ready. Raghubir was overseeing the rations, the stove and fuel being packed.

Rocky pinnacles that lead up to Dunagiri cloaked in clouds. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

In a little while the sun broke through the upper reaches of the gorge, and slanting rays of sunshine illuminated the rich forests above Lata. I learnt from Narendra that this was the first trek in the sanctuary since a couple of treks in June, before the monsoon had set in. Those didn’t go too far, only till Lata Kharak and further till Jhandi Dhar, before turning back. So if we managed to get through to Dharansi, it would be the first time in about a year anybody in the village would have gone that far.

Our little trek was also an opportunity for Lata’s men to go clear some of the upper parts of the trail, collect wild herbs that are necessary for their culinary and medicinal needs, and also check up on supplies and belongings that had been stashed at various points on these trails earlier in the year. So our party was going to be fairly large, at least up to Lata Kharak. There was Narendra and Raghubir, as well as Narendra’s childhood friend, a green-eyed handsome man called Lakha Butola; the quiet and stoical Inder Singh, and a relative of one of them- a quiet, schoolmaster-looking man.

After a quick breakfast, Narendra, Parth and I left around 8. The others, would catch up with us later- not a particularly difficult task, given our as-yet unacclimatised legs and lungs. Parth was carrying only his photography equipment, I was carrying my full rucksack, and Narendra had his own rucksack as well as Parth’s. From Lata, a path climbs steeply through the forest to cover the 12 km to the top of the ridge at the bugiyal of Lata Kharak, a brisk 5338ft. That’s enough to knock the wind out of even a seasoned pair of lungs, so we aimed for Kanook, a cliff top clearing roughly halfway up the ridge in the middle of the forest.

It was a bright, beautiful day. The sun had burned out most of the clouds, and the air was fresh and invigorating. The Nandashtami celebrations over, the village children were on their way to school, a neat large one-floor building surrounded by a yard a little way above the village. Beyond this, the path climbed leisurely through a grove of deodar trees. These kings of Himalayan flora rise to an average of 80 feet from the ground, casting long shadows across the slope. Like most such groves in the region, this too is considered sacred and and felling is strictly frowned upon by the village. These magnificent trees had been saved a generation ago by the women of these villages, and walking in their cool shade, I felt a great sense of well-being wash over me. Occasionally the peace was shattered by the deep, rolling explosions. The ITBP were dynamiting the mountains somewhere below us to widen the road to Malari. It’s a deeply worrying things to do, especially in precipitous gorges, as it weakens the rocks and leaves these very roads open to landslides. Needless to say, the noise can’t be a good thing for the animals in these forests.

The magical forest above Lata. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Beyond this belt began a higher belt of mixed pine trees, and the keen scent of resin increased. As did the humid heaviness of monsoon. Soon I was perspiring freely as we climbed up through the dappled sunlight of this magnificent forest. Slender spider webs twinkled like jewels in the sun. Pretty little alpine flowers dotted the track low-lying bushes exploded in a burst of primary colours. Beetles buzz around on short wings, describing pretty parabolas in the sunshine. Forests in the monsoon come alive with an ardour that is so strong and grasping that it can be pretty overwhelming. Amidst all this beauty, insects bite you and lick you, unseen creepers try to trip you up, stinging nettles jump up at you at uncomfortable moments and the strong noonday scent of resin gives one a headache.

One undeniably good result of the national park status has been the boost in the area’s wildlife. Along with the vegetation being given a fair chance to regenerate itself, vastly reduced human interference has boosted the numbers of many animals indigenous to these Himalayan upland forests, from black bears to leopards and bharal. However, these monsoon months often lead to problems. As Raghubir and Narendra never ceased to tell me, this fecund season is when their territorial struggle with the numerous black bears and jackals and leopards is at its most intense. However, since this is nothing new, all that the villagers do is to lock up securely at night, and if necessary band together in groups and create enough of a ruckus that drives the bears away from their fields. Despite being competitors, the affection and knowledge that the Bhotiyas possess for their wildlife is incomparable.

A clearing in the forest near Bhelta nala. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

We stopped for lunch in the forest glade of Bhelta, beside the little nala of the same name. In drier months, this is a campsite, but in this riot of vegetation, it’s not a particularly comfortable place to camp. It’s a lovely spot for lunch though, right next to the flowing brook. We were already quite high up. From breaks in the foliage, we could look back at Lata village, now a small group of white buildings further down the ridge. Further east, the bugiyals below Kuari pass were cloaked in clouds. Birch, walnut and pine trees crowded around the brook, and the buzzing of large, lazy flies grew more intensive as the afternoon drew on.

Lata village and the Dhauli Ganga, from Kanook. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Lunch over, we shouldered our packs for the final steep rise to our camp for the day. Kanook, at 9400ft, commanded a fine view of the Dhauli valley. A thick haze hung on the noonday forest that stretched away under us towards the distant Lata village. Stray sounds occasionally floated up the valley. Flies lay sluggishly on warm rocks as we stamped down a wild outgrowth of weeds to make a clearing for a tent. Above us rose the jagged boulder strewn ridge of Saini Kharak that divides the Rishi and Dhauli valleys. Just beyond that serrated ridge boiled a massive sea of rain clouds, not quite spilling over. Meanwhile small tufts of valley cloud drifted up from the gorge and catching a breeze they’d then start grouping together in dense little clusters, gradually covering the valley floor. By sunset all was invisible under thick layers of purple clouds.

Monsoon clouds fill up the Dhauli valley at dusk. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

To be continued…



Devi: The Village of Stories

The road to Shu is hard, harder than climbing to the sky.

Leaning, I stare into the west and utter a long sigh…

Swift rapids, wrestling cataracts descend in roaring spasms,

Pound cliffs, boil over rocks, and thunder through ten thousand chasms.

– Li Bai

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 in Satyajit Ray’s Eko Shringo Abhijan (The Unicorn Expedition) to Oz and El Dorado; I wanted to see them all, if only a glimpse. These places had their rules. You would never find them on a map, at least not a real one; you’d have to endure many hardships; and you could never hope to reach there without a large amount of grace. Over the years I’d been to some unimaginably lovely places, and lonely places, and places that could well have been Faerie. But then, last year, I went to Nanda Devi.

The West face of Nanda Devi as seen from Chandrashila peak above Tunganath. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

The goddess’s secret garden has held sway over me for what seems like forever. A few years ago I’d chanced upon an excellent book by the journalist Hugh Thomson called Nanda Devi: A Journey to the Last Sanctuary. This led me to Eric Shipton’s classic Nanda Devi, an extraordinary book that has to be one of the most romantic mountain travel books ever. In 1934 Shipton along with his partner Bill Tilman and three of the best sherpas of the day spent the summer, monsoon and autumn wandering about central Garhwal, living off the land and accomplishing some unbelievable mountaineering feats, the biggest of which involved finding a way into the Nanda Devi sanctuary, an impenetrable mountain fastness that had repelled all earlier attempts by locals and mountaineers alike. I’d been dreaming ever since, and through a convenient coming together of luck and circumstance, I was finally going there, to pay my respects to a great mountain.

The Nanda Devi Sanctuary lies across the Great Himalayan Range in the form of a cirque of high mountains in the centre of which sit the twin peaks of Nanda Devi, looming over some 380 sq km of ice and snow. Nowhere, in its 110 km length, is this mountain wall less than 18,000ft high. At a single point in this chain, the Rishi Ganga cuts a frighteningly deep gorge through the mountain barrier and flows west to meet the larger trans-Himalayan Dhauli Ganga. The only practicable route into the inner reaches of the sanctuary is by outflanking the outer gorge of the Rishi Ganga by crossing the 4252m Dharansi pass to the hanging valley of Dharansi and then down to the upper Rishi Ganga gorge.

My friend Parth and I arrived at Lata on a sunny day in early September- the final day of the annual Nandashtami festivities. Originally a tribal nature cult, to outsiders Nanda is just a stand-in for Parvati, but to the Bhotias, just as to the rest of Garhwal and Kumaon, Nanda is herself, the powerful queen of her mountain realm, the bliss-giving goddess. In an old temple in Kumaon, Nanda’s image is that of a tribal woman. Many are her legends, too numerous to put down here, but the entire area is consecrated to her- the forests and the animals are her children, as are the Bhotias, who celebrate the end of the monsoon harvest season with nine days of songs and dancing, ending in the ritual sacrifice of rams in honour of the devi who inhabits the body of her priest to bless the day with her presence.

A young man from Lata village possessed by the trickster god Latu, Nanda's deputy. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

We caught the final day’s rituals before Nanda was carried back to her temple from an antechamber where she had been residing the past few days amidst great fanfare and rejoicing. It was one of the few truly animist rituals I’d ever seen.  The stone Nanda temple dominated a courtyard, studded with bramha-kamals to mark the occasion. Women in Tibetan-looking long black robes and white cloth headgear danced slowly in a circle while chanting a plaintive song of regeneration and permanence. Then the spirit of Nanda’s deputy, the trickster god Latu, invaded the body of a designated medium. Latu lurched around the compound to frenetic drumming, tasting all the fruits of Nanda’s bounty- from sheep’s heads to barley. Then he flung the rest of the prasad into the delighted crowd, who took what they could. 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 bramha-kamal.

Women of the village sing a song of regeneration and pray to Nanda to bless the village with her bounty. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

Narendra of Mountain Shepherds, my guide, is a charming young man in his mid-twenties. We stayed at a modest home-stay that he runs for his father Dhan Singh, the former village sarpanch. Dhan Singh and his friend Raghubir Singh were much-feted guides in the hey-day of mountaineering in the sanctuary in the 1970s. It was in Lata and the nearby village of Reni that the famous Chipko movement began in 1974 to prevent the felling of sacred deodhar groves by forestry contractors.  Since the closure of the sanctuary in 1982 for environmental reasons, a generation of Lata men had lost out on a lucrative source of income, especially since the 1962 war had terminated their earlier trade with Tibet. Dhan Singh, who was a young man during the Chipko movement, organised the villagers of this area into an effective body of activists during the Jhapto Cheeno movement in the late Nineties in an effort to get back their land that was shut to them with the advent of the National Park and it’s subsequent notification as a World Heritage Site. Its success led to more elbow room for the Bhotias, and now a few trails were allowed to be kept open in the national park for small groups of trekkers with permits. Men from Lata and the enarby village of Suraithota acted as guides. We were to leave the next day, with Raghubir Singh and Narendra acting as our guides.

To be continued…