A Festival for Nanda Devi

“Nanda’s chaya maya is all around us,” said Raghubir Singh, as we gazed out towards the giant cloud banners forming over the narrow gorge of the Dhauli Ganga river. “We live by her grace, we will die when she says our time is up.”

Raghubir wasn’t being morbid, he was simply stating the facts of life as he saw them. Dusk was now settling over the gorge, far in the north of the Garhwal Himalaya, beyond the temple town of Joshimath. In the Niti Valley, as the valley of the Dhauli is known, north of the main line of the Great Himalayan Range, the dry, empty air gives off a hint of the Trans-Himalaya, of Tibet. It isn’t actually very far away. The valley is, after all, named after the pass into Tibet that lies at its head.

Raghubir’s ancestors used to trade with Tibet till 1962, when the war with China closed borders that had been fluid for millennia. The Bhotias, as they are called, were a people apart from the predominantly Khasi people of the western Himalaya. Their origins are shrouded in the mists of time, but this much is known: they are a people who lived on both sides of the mountain passes that connected the Himalayan valleys with Tibet, and that the Bhotias were largely traders. Living as they do in precipitous valleys that aren’t wide or stable enough to sustain profitable farming, their vocation lay in transhumanism, and trade. In return of Tibetan salt, gold and woolen yarn, the Bhotias traded cattle and goods from the Indian plains. They had families living on either side of the borders, and are either nominally Buddhist or follower of Hindu cults. What they are, in the main, is animists.

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

Looking around the gargantuan vista of plunging cliffs, dark deodhar and bright chestnut groves and incredible rock pinnacles, it’s easy to see why. Raghubir himself had an answer, “if rock and water and tree doesn’t cooperate, how do we live our lives?” And rock and water and tree were the children of the same mother Nanda Devi.

I was in Lata village for a trek, a long-standing dream to climb into the Nanda Devi National Park, one of the most inaccessible wonders of the Himalaya. A vast sanctuary of 380 square kilometres of glaciers and meadows, it was ringed around by an impregnable line of high peaks, a circular ridge system 110 kilometres in length with an average height of some 18,000 feet. Some of Garhwal’s most famous peaks lay on this ring.
In the centre of this natural mandala rose the twin peaks of Nanda Devi, the main peak almost 8,000 metres high. A soaring mass of heaped white granite, Nanda Devi is easily one of the most beautiful mountains in the world. Flanked on the west by the Gauri
Ganga river, and on the east by the Dhauli Ganga, the Nanda Devi massif is
a geologically unique mountain fastness.

The summer village of Lata lay about a thousand feet above the Dhauli Ganga, on the forested north-western slope of a ridge that culminated in the 7,066 metre peak of Dunagiri, one of the sanctuary’s major peaks.

The winter village, which was lying boarded up at the time, was on the main road, skirting the river. My photographer friend Parth and I reached Lata early one September
day a few years ago, a day later than we had planned, due to the fury of the retreating monsoon on the fragile Himalayan highway that winds up from Rishikesh to Joshimath.
Along the way, the closer we got to Joshimath, we’d encountered jeeps full of merrily chatting women, dressed in full Bhotia finery, with black robes, scarves on their heads and bedecked in jewellery. When I asked a jeep driver what this was about, I was informed that the women were on their way to their mait or natal villages for the Nandashtami festival.

At Lata, the celebrations were in full swing. As we climbed up from the road with our guide, Narendra Singh Rana, we could hear the sound of drums and trumpets wafting down the mountainside. Lata was bedecked in flowers and decorative tinsel. At the entrance to the village, a couple of skulls of rams stood on a cairn. Women in their Sunday best were walking up to the centre of the village towards the Nanda Devi Temple.

Narendra said that we were right on time for the main event of the festival, and that we should hurry to  the temple if we didn’t want to miss it. We quickly deposited our rucksacks at the balcony of a pretty blue and white house, where we’d be staying, and joined the throng of villagers to the temple. Very few villages in upper Garhwal and Kumaon have a Nanda temple.

Most of these are basic shrines, sometimes just a stone or a concrete enclosure. Some others, like the Nanda Devi temple in Martoli in Kumaon, sits in sight of the peak. The one in Lata is quite unique in that it is a beautifully carved temple in the shikhara style of the Western Himalaya. Although no one is quite sure of the temple’s antiquity, it looks like a product of the architectural style of the Katyuri dynasty-era temples of Jageshwar in Kumaon, dating from about the 10th century CE.

Lata’s temple, though small, is quite famous and a source of great pride for the locals. “We are the people of Nanda, so of course we have her temple here,” said Narendra, a young man, then in his early twenties. He lived and worked in Dehradun, and had returned to his village to be a part of the festivities. The temple is made of grey granite, some 15-feet-high and crowned with a carved wooden roof with wide awnings. Just in front stands a whitewashed smaller temple, dedicated to the trickster deity Latu, who’s considered Nanda’s sidekick and messenger. A large, hollowed out courtyard lay in front of these two shrines, in the middle of which was a knee-high altar of granite architectural pieces from some ancient temple.

The entrance to the shrine was covered in brahma kamals. This beautiful flower, the Saussurea obvallata, is also called the orchid cactus, and grows high up on cliff faces above 4,000 metres near the Dharansi pass. “Before the festival begins, designated
young boys and girls drink a glass of water, take off their shoes and run from here to Dharansi to get the flowers,” said Narendra. A few days later, when I was labouring some seven thousand feet above Lata, near the pass, I would recall Narendra’s story and marvel. The rest of the year, Narendra said, the flowers were left unmolested.

Brahma kamals also adorned the ceremonial kalash or urns that stood atop the altar, where the main puja was taking place. An open-air shrine to one side of the courtyard held the image of the devi, covered in cloth, so only her face was visible. This was in the form of a silver-plated mask common to all deities across the Western Himalaya, from snake gods to female spirits. All around the courtyard, the women of the village, from ancient matrons to young girls in their twenties were sitting, holding flowers or children. These were dhiyanis—a daughter of the village who has married and left—who had returned to their homes for the duration of Nandashtami. The goddess Nanda Devi, in her identification with Parvati, too is a dhiyani. She too is considered to have moved away from her natal village to live with her husband Shiva atop the peak of Kailash.

For many Bhotias, Lata, with its Nanda temple, is the goddess’s natal home. Other villages with temples to Nanda, especially older ones like Chandpur and Nauti, are also believed to be natal homes of Nanda Devi. These villages, due to their dominance by upper caste hillmen, usually win the battle of perception about being the true ‘home’ of Nanda Devi. Even so, Lata’s ancient temple, and its observance of older and more animistic rites gives it a quiet pride of place.

Just as Nanda returns home for the few days, so had Lata’s dhiyanis made the journey from the various villages and towns they’ve settled in. Looking at all the fanfare and bundobast, this was as much their festival as Nanda’s.

This being the last day of the festival, it was time for the oracles. Just like in almost all other Himalayan animist traditions, the role of the oracle is very important. Through them Nanda Devi and several other minor deities communicate with the villagers, gives auguries and grants boons—and on rare occasions, curses.

A young man dressed in jeans and a t-shirt was weaving around the altar in the courtyard, with all of the women egging him on. He was singing snatches of songs, making yelping sounds, rolling his eyes and grinning like a happy drunk. Then he picked up a couple of large vegetables that looked like a cross between a watermelon and a cucumber. Called khira, these are the seasonal vegetables grown by the Lata villagers in the terrace farms behind the village.

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

Everyone watched with rapt attention as he ran around the circle, garlanded with  brahma kamals and eating fruits, vegetables and rice offerings from a large copper plate.
Sometimes he would toss a fruit or a bit of puffed rice towards the cheering dhiyanis, who would try to catch it. The women who did were congratulated by their neighbours. Everyone strewed flowers in his path. Meanwhile, the menfolk, including the priest, were looking on from the side, their hands clasped in devotion. I asked a villager sitting beside me who the oracle was. “Latu,” he whispered.

Now the oracle took off his t-shirt and with a mallet and a ceremonial dagger, proceeded to mime stabbing himself. He looked a little sober now. Red hibiscus flowers fell in his wake like drops of blood. Little boys stood on a platform and blew on massive trumpets garlanded with marigolds and cloth. These looked, for all the world, like the Tibetan
gyaling trumpets that I’ve seen being used on festive occasions in Ladakh. In fact, the dress of the dhiyanis strongly resembled the festive robes of Ladakhi women, the latter’s
jewel-encrusted perak similar to the Bhotia women’s colourful headscarves.

While Latu was regaling the women, the men were busy dressing up the priest. He stood with Nanda’s ceremonial swords, while the men gathered around him and put on
necklaces and other jewellery from Nanda’s hoard. Then the older men of Lata held up a sari and made a makeshift enclosure in front of the temple. Some others brought out a choli (blouse) and a long skirt and scarf and dressed up the priest as the devi, while he stood with his sword, swaying slightly as if in a trance. In a few moments the transformation was complete, and the rakish young man had been turned into a slightly dazed looking, moustachioed young woman.

The dhiyanis were laughing and joking amongst themselves through all this, but as soon as the priest was unveiled as the devi, everyone fell silent and clasped their hands in prayer. The men carried the priest/devi up a rampart and held him up so he was visible to everyone. Although sunny, a wind was rising, and huge clouds were racing across the narrow sky. A vast deodhar forest, almost perpendicularly above the temple, turned black in their shadow. As the crash of the drums and the trumpets grew louder, everyone bowed their heads to Nanda, who was now in possession of the body of her priest.

He was then lowered and taken before the entrance to the temple. The priest dressed as Devi now stood and swayed, his right hand cupped in front of his mouth, as he blew into it and murmured mantras. A few villagers brought two large rams up to the priest, who touched them once each with his sword and blessed them. They were then taken away and slaughtered for the communal prasad to be cooked and shared by the whole village. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief. Nanda had accepted the village’s offerings and had blessed them. Lata could look forward to a year of peace and prosperity; the devi had guaranteed it.

Dhiyanis dance and sing in the main courtyard of the Nanda Devi Temple in Lata. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
Dhiyanis dance and sing in the main courtyard of the Nanda Devi Temple in Lata. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

This was the cue for the dhiyanis, young and old, to get up and break into a slow, lingering song. Its cadences rose and fell in melodic call and response. The women made a ring around the altar, and clutching a brahma kamal in each hand, along with other flowers, they started dancing a rhythmic yet slow dance. The priest was carried away by some of the men to a private room where he could take off Nanda’s dress, and slowly let the devi leave him. Meanwhile, her divine image had been carried back into her temple from the open-air enclosure where she’d been worshipped the past few days. Her days at her natal village were at an end, and she was now ready to go back to her husband’s abode, atop Kailash.

Only that Nanda never really leaves Lata, not in any real way, just as the dhiyanis, who would start departing the next day in shared jeeps, wouldn’t ever really be separated from their mait. Once the serious ritual was over, unadulterated jollity descended upon the village. The women sang and laughed, hugging their friends and neighbours at the
successful end to the Nandashtami. The children, who had been waiting all this while, the perfect picture of disciplined patience, now started clambering up the ramparts of Nanda’s temple. Sure-footed climbers all, the boys and girls had a brief speed climbing contest to get to the various brahma kamals that studded the upper reaches of the temple. To the winners went the spoils.

An old image of Nanda Devi. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
An old image of Nanda Devi. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

It was then that I saw another statue of Nanda Devi, displayed on an upraised pedestal at across the courtyard from her temple. This was a very old image, likely made from black basalt. Age had wiped all features from her carved face, save her eyes. Seated in a regal posture, she looked very different from the demure depiction of Nanda as the goddess Parvati, the perfect bride. “Is this Parvati?” I asked an old woman sitting beside the statue. At first, she couldn’t understand my question and consulted with a younger woman next to her. Then she turned to me and said, “Oh no, no. Parvati has left. This is Nanda Devi.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 2018 issue of The Taj Magazine.

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