Category Archives: people

Roerich’s Himalaya

The National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi is a place I love going to, although I must also say that I don’t visit it as often as I should. One of India’s few- and the best by a long shot- state-owned art galleries, NGMA’s collection is a medium sized but fascinating one. Leaving aside the Gallery’s collection of contemporary Indian art- which is sizable- its the permanent exhibits of the Bengal School of Art and those of other artists related to it like Amrita Sher-Gil, that keep drawing me back. There’s a degree of inventiveness and boldness to the work of this large body of artists that I find lacking in most of our contemporaries.
The collection that I never miss, however, is that of the Russian artist-philosopher-mystic-anthropologist-archaeologist-traveller Nicholas Roerich. His mountain paintings are unmatched in their breadth, depth and scope. Its almost like stepping into an alternate universe where mountains perform the roles of deity, habitat, scenery and a spiritual challenge all at once.

Pic: Kuluta 1936 (courtesy

And that’s just on one level. At another, they are masterful studies in light and tone.

Pic: To Kailas, Lahul, 1932 (courtesy

Although Roerich has as distinct a style as any painter, no two mountain studies are similar, even when he’s painting the same mountain from essentially the same vantage point, as these superlative studies of Kanchendzonga show.

Pic: Kanchendzongka 1936 (courtesy

Pic: Kanchendzongka 1944 (courtesy

In no other artist’s depiction of mountains have I seen geography consistently appearing as fully fledged characters. To look at a painting like Nanda Devi is to drown in that mountain’s divinity, sheer physical beauty, as well as the immense psychic power that she wields on the people who live in her shadow.

Pic: Nanda Devi 1944 (courtesy

The 6 prints I have from NGMA are part of Roerich’s Himalayas series, which he contributed to sporadically over a period of roughly twenty years. This mammoth series alone has over 2,000 paintings- a testimony to Roerich’s prolific output. All, this master painter created over 7,000 paintings over many other series, which is staggering by any standards. However, the quality of his work never suffered.

Pic: Krishna (Spring in Kulu) 1929 (courtesy

Pic: Sunset 1931 (courtesy

Roerich’s interest in the range took many forms, each one mirroring one of his many pursuits. As a dedicated chronicler of culture both indigenous and shared, the plethora of disparate cultures and yet close cultural borrowings on both sides of the Himalayan crest fascinated him. He wrote,
“The Himalayas, in their full might, cross these uplands; behind them, rises the Kailasa, and still farther, Karakorum and the mountain kingdom crowned in the north by the Kuen Lun. Here also are the roads to the sacred Manasarowar: here are the most ancient paths of the sacred pilgrimage. In this region is also the Lake of the Nagas, and the lake Revalsar, the abode of Padma Sambhava. Here also are the caves of the Arhats, and the great abode of Siva, the Amarnath Caves; here are hot springs; here are the 360 local deities, the number of which testifies how essential are these very sites of the accumulation of human thought through many ages.”
The Himalaya’s greatest hold on Roerich, though, was in matters of the spirit. On completing his epic 1923-1928 expedition through Sikkim, Tibet, Kashmir, Ladakh, Siberia, Altai and Mongolia to collect and preserve cultural texts, he was so drawn to the great range that he set up both his home and his Himalayan Research Institute in Naggar in the Kulu valley. He considered the Himalaya a  symbol of humanity’s inherent hunger for transcendence through beauty and knowledge, a common cultural thread that he’d observed in his wide ranging travels. He called the range the “Treasure House of the Spirit.”
His paintings do justice to that claim, like his study of the Chandrabhaga river or the unforgettable Ice Sphinx.

Pic: Chandrabhaga 1932 (courtesy

Pic: Ice Sphinx 1938 (courtesy

People appear only at the margins of his mountain canvases, but they’re an important part of the whole, both grounding the soaring majesty of the backdrop as well as well as providing context for the allusive stories that he tells through his canvases.

Pic: Remember 1934 (courtesy

Some of them bear strong influences of his earlier Iconographic art- tropes and symbolism that he adapts marvelously for his latter paintings.

Pic: The Messenger, 1946 (courtesy

Over the years, you can see his style change. From real, tangible geography, his paintings seem to turn inwards, as he washes the paintings more, giving more of a hint of indistinctness and interpretive haze. They become even more metaphorical, but even then they’re never anything other than mountains, because that’s all they need to be in Roerich’s paintings. It reminds me of the Zen Buddhist saying, “You look at the Void, and the Void looks back at you.”

Pic: The Himalayas The Earth Yetis 1947 (courtesy

Even without delving too deep in his symbolism, its impossible not to come away from this huge and varied body of art without a profound sense of peace.

Pic: Castle in Ladakh 1933 (courtesy

And to think he did all this, as well as create the Roerich’s Pact, and the theatrical designs for Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring!

An edited version of this appeared in the Trek World magazine.


A Remarkable Man

Here’s something I came across on Project Gutenberg. This is a book published in 1899 by the English adventurer/painter/traveller/raconteur called Arnold Henry Savage Landor– an account of his somewhat alarming, but extremely interesting travels and travails in Southern Tibet in 1897 called In the Forbidden Land.

Pic: The Tibetan weather and Landor’s hardships leave their mark (early 1897 and late 1897)
Taking place shortly after Francis Younghusband’s legendary overland spying trip and preceding the Younghusband-led invasion of Tibet, this is a fascinating account. Two things I’d like to share here, the first one a painting of the classic lower Eastern Kumaon view of the Himalayan crest, with the famous contours of Nanda Devi, Trishul and Nanda Kot rearing up like a feverish dream. The funny thing is, the peaks really do look like this in real life.

Pic: Landor’s painting of the Kumaoni peaks of Nanda Ghunti, Trishul, Nanda Devi and Nanda Kot 
The second thing is the author’s map of his travels, which is fascinating in the number of Indo-Tibetan passes it maps, as well as routes and natural features stretching parallel to the Tibetan-Nepalese border all the way to Everest.

Pic: Landor’s map of his travels in Southern Tibet
He was working under the aegis of the Royal Geographical Society– definitely as a surveyor, maybe as a spy- and made many important discoveries on this trip, which included finding the sources of the Indus and the Tsang Po (Bramhaputra) rivers.

In approaching Tibet, Landor takes the traditional trading and pilgrim route to Tibet from Kumaon, which lies along the Kali river- it forms the natural boundary between India and Nepal- following the route from Nainital, via Almora and Pithoragarh to Garbyang on the Indo-Tibetan border, which is crossed via the high Lipu-Lekh Pass.

Pic: Two views of Lipu-Lekh pass; (above) the southern face, India and (below) the northern face, Tibet

Near here the Kali river forms a fearsome, rain-lashed and dark gorge, which is at its worst beyond the village of Nirpani. I’d first read about it in Umaprasad Mukherjee’s 1934 account of his trek to Kailash-Mansarovar. His description of the gorge is hair raising and it feels great to come across Landor’s photographs and paintings of this fearsome place.

Pic: Landor’s photograph and painting of the fearsome Kali river gorge at Nirpani
Then there is a striking painting of Taklakot, the first fortified village on the Tibetan side of the pass, where the local Tibetan border and tax officials resided.

Pic: Landor’s painting of Taklakot fort in Tibet
There’s plenty more, including two very atmospheric renditions of of the twin holy lakes of Hindus and Tibetans- Rakhshas Tal (Langa Tso) and Mansarovar (Mapham Yutso). In the background of the Rakhshas Tal painting, you can see the Holy of Holies Mt Kailash (Gang Rinpoche) rising like a mystical lightning rod.

Pic: Mansarovar lake (above) and Rakhshas Tal with Mt Kailash in the background (below)
Landor was a fascinating man. Grandson of a British poet settled in Florence, he painted world leaders- from US President Benjamin Harrison to Czar Nicholas- and regularly hobnobbed with many more, including Queen Victoria and Franklin Roosevelt.

In the main, he was an inveterate traveller from 1889 to 1915, exploring the remaining blank frontiers of Western knowledge in Tibet, Japan, China, Nepal, Abyssinia, Philippines, Persia and the Amazon river- painting and writing lively travelogues. What’s more, he did the overland route from Holland to Calcutta through Persia with a posse of cats. One of them suffocated in the heat of a train carriage in India, and he never quite forgave the country for it.

Pic: Landor with his cats Kerman and Zeris who accompanied him on his overland Persian trip
Almost certainly an agent of Empire in the Great Game, he was a success both on the trail and on the printed page, his best-selling books getting him lucrative lecture tours all over the world, and further travel opportunities, which suited this raconteur just fine. He seems to me that quintessential roving Englishman of the Empire, a witness to history.

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Map Woes Part 4

(…continued from Map Woes Part 3)
A recent visit to the Survey of India map sales office in Delhi was most frustrating. The people there were extremely reluctant to show me any maps without me first telling them the exact sheet number- they probably even need the latitude and longitude- and even then could only give me some large but pretty useless trekking maps of the Gangotri, Badrinath, and Shimla hills regions.
Pic: The impressive looking but ultimately disappointing trekking map from SOI (Bibek Bhattacharya)

They were careworn and mothballed, and the contour maps were kept firmly out of sight. I had made the mistake of going there without the sheet names and they effectively used it against me. And of course there’s that eternal suspicion. Just who is this person, they think. Why does he want topographical maps of border areas?

I had to settle for the trekking maps. Next time I go, I’ll take a sheet of paper with ALL the sheet names I can think of, and then some. And this time, if they demur, I will HAVE to do the unethical thing and wave my press card at them!

But then, a few weeks ago, I found this! I’d heard of it before, but I had no clue that it was freely available.

These amazingly detailed topographical maps are the legendary Series U502, made by the US Army Map Service for, yes the US Army, back in 1955. That makes them 55 years old, but boy are they out of this world. These sheets are the real thing- at least in the absence of SOI sheets. And the sheer scope of it is massive too, covering the entire subcontinent, including India, Pakistan, East Pakistan- ah the period piece ring of that- and Ceylon.

From what little of this vast map I’ve seen, most of the Himalayan regions seem to be pretty accurately mapped, at least after checking them against the others. And I can’t begin to describe the joys of learning the names of the many unforgettable places that I’ve seen in the mountains, and all that I’m yet to see. Entire ridge systems, rivers, towns have their names. Now these names might have gone out of use since all those years ago, but many of these I’ve managed to verify. The trend seems to be that of pretty accurate nomenclature.

Pic: The Dehradun Sheet of the AMS Series U502 (Bibek Bhattacharya)
The maps trip up in some places. For example, in the ‘Simla’ (sic) sheet, there’s a blank spot beyond the Pin Parvati pass where Spiti should be. It could be that the region had not been surveyed at the time. Then there are problems with the deeply contentious Indo-Chinese international border north of Gangotri. According to these maps, the entire Mana Gad (Gad is Garhwali for river) valley and its tributaries belong to China, although a glance through Kapadia’s Across Peaks and Passes in Garhwal gives us the real picture. At the end of the day there is no substitute for actually visiting these places.

Pic: Compare the section of the Chini sheet with Kapadia’s map for the Mana Gad area in upper Central Garhwal. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

However, it must be said that where unsure, the Series U502 mentions it. They even have a handy ‘Reliability Diagram’ to the right of the map, where they rate the available information in that particular sheet from ‘Good’ to ‘Fair’ to ‘Poor’, and even list out the dates when the ground was surveyed. The oldest survey on the ‘Chini’ sheet, for example, are Medium Scale Topographical Maps from 1905!

Anyway, I’m completely in love. Oh, and finally, to end where I began, I now know the names of the eminences you see when you stand atop Chandrashila on a clear October day. It might be a meager victory, but to me that’s momentous!

And so, my map woes are at an end- at least until I renew the saga of SOI Topographical maps.

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I sat beside a cairn atop Chandrashila watching clouds rise. Freezing in Sujaan’s choti at Tunganath, a combination of sleep deprivation and oxygen depletion had effectively ruled out my much cherished ambition of making it to the peak before sunrise that day. Feeling a little better as the day wore on, I decided to make a try for it. After all, it was a beautiful sunny day.
At Tunganath, the weather changes every ten minutes. This a local saying, and absolutely true. I definitely didn’t want to tempt the weather while the sun was still shining. So I told Biru to wait a bit for Sujoy and Debo- the friends I was travelling with- to wake up and struck off on my own. I had last climbed it in May this year. I was way fitter then, so I had very little hopes of making it up there without huffing and puffing my lungs out. As it turned out, the mountain paid me a huge compliment. Probably because I was a lot better used to breathing on this altitude, even with stops to make calls to people (high up the peak I was getting a signal from Gopeshwar on the other side of Chandrashila!) and admire the scenery, I still managed to get up there in half an hour. I was about to ring the bell at the tiny temple of the moon, when I happened to look beyond, and time literally stood still. Far away, yet strangely near, on the North Eastern horizon rose a gaggle of sharp peaks.

Pic: Nanda Devi and her sisters hold court on the far horizon
Two I could immediately recognise because of their distinctive shapes- the mighty Nanda Devi, and Hathi Parbat, the presiding peak of the Bhyundar Valley.
The temple was forgotten. Mindful of the fact that soon either my camera’s going to freeze or that the batteries are going to give up, I quickly took as many snaps of this magnificent scene as I could. In the not-quite-noonday sun, the distant white peaks look like translucent chalk sketches against a blue 3D sky. Needless to say, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, except maybe in some dream.
The immediate patch of rocky ground behind the temple (the highest point on the peak) is covered with cairns. These vertical structures of various sizes are made from slabs of stoes from the peak and seem to be constantly made and re-made. In May I had asked Biru what these structures signify and he’d said that these were memorial stones. To my fevered imagination they look more like portals into some other world. Amongst them, a Japanese man was singing.
It was a surreal sight. This middle aged man had planted his walking stick upright, slung his thick ski jacket and hat over it, and was lying in its shade reading a book, and occasionally breaking out into song. He grinned at me and went back to reading and singing.

Pic: A Japanese sun-worshipper on Chandrashila

A few feet from him, at another part of the peak behind some other cairns, another of his compatriots was sitting still in a lotus position with his face towards Nanda Devi, deep in meditation. In all there were three of them. I was to bump into them over the next few days, either meditating on tatami mats on the peak, or wandering about wearing a lost look in Tunganath, where they were staying at a different choti.
Making sure that I wasn’t disturbing them, I plonked myself down on a rock face overlooking a deep precipice. Down below, through the haze and rising wisps of clouds I could see the wooded valley that had so caught my fancy the last time I was here. In front of me, still visible clearly, rose the distant panorama.
It felt just so exhilarating to finally see Nanda Devi, unencumbered, in all her glory. The other time I’d seen her, it wasn’t this sideways view. Rather I’d seen her head on, part veiled by the Mai ki Toli ridge, but with both her twin peaks visible. This was from the Binsar sanctuary in the Almora hills of Kumaon, from where its much closer. From the peak though, she looked serene, detached from the dramatic, wild beauty of her environs. Its easy to see why people revere her so.
But my view of her and the other distant giants depended purely on the whim of the clouds. By nine thirty, the day’s heat had had its effect on the sub-tropical climate in the valleys which were giving rise to a succession of little pillow like clouds. While many dissolved in the cooler air above, many more started to form little gangs, which then became bigger gangs.

Pic: Cloud-eye view

Clouds change shape better than any con artist. Constantly forming, disintegrating, reforming, flowing into, out of, over and around ridges, they form an elaborately graceful ballet of carefully choreographed chaos. And so they roamed about me, avoiding this high peak, but erecting and dismantling teasing curtains between me and the distant peaks. So every now and then, all evidence of the far vistas would vanish, leaving me to wonder at what I’d seen. The first time Nanda Devi was cloaked, two Monal took wing, circling overhead while uttering mournful cries, as if in her memory. Then there were the giant Himalayan Gryphons, their backs glinting in the sun, gliding from one air current to another, circling the upper air. They seem totally at home, yet impervious to the beauty of the place.

Pic: Massive Himalayan Gryphon flying high

As the sun climbed higher, the ever present buzzing of large , laggardly flies increased. I’m absolutely not well informed on insects, but the sheer variety I saw on this lonely peak was breathtaking. And then there were ravens. Massive black birds, graver and more ominous than your average crow. They seemed to be constantly watching, flying from one impossible rock overhang to another, squawking, and making these strange half conversational sounds. They are mysterious birds, who indeed hold parliaments when there is a quorum. I can’t think of a more appropriate word to describe a group of these birds.
When there was nothing to see, I simply closed my eyes. Immediately my ears pricked up. The wind blowing; a sensation of cool moisture on my cheeks; rustling, buzzing insects; an occasional avian cry. But above all, silence. Every now and then, a sound from a distant village, many thousands of feet below. Startling and funny, like rocks talking to each other.
After a spell, I opened my eyes, and the clouds had shifted. I could see Nanda Devi and her sisters holding court again in the bright sunshine. To my right, above the great green valley that leads to the Anusuya Devi temple in the jungle, huge plumes of clouds were forming. In front of me, due north, Neelkanth was suddenly revealed in all her glory. Further North East small tufts of clouds hung in the air between Chandrashila and the Kedar Massif, casting little shadows on the rich bugyals (high altitude meadows) below the range. At moments like these, I stared in vain at my notebook, struggling to find words evocative enough to describe this beauty. I smiled to myself, imagining the poet Coleridge on this peak, startled out of his opium haze into a fresh appreciation of the sublime. He was a staunch lover of mountains, sometimes recklessly so. One one occasion, he managed to get himself trapped in an impassable grotto in the Lake District. With dusk coming on, and risking exposure, he decided to shut his eyes, take a deep breath and will his way out of there. Opening them, he realised that there indeed was a way- through a difficult and dangerous rock scramble. Sure enough he did. A fascinating story. My guess is, he’d have loved this place.
Bang in front of me, between Chandrashila and Neelkanth, rose a bleak naked rocky ridge, which the local people refer to as kala paththar. An evocative enough name. Back in May, it was covered in snow and ice, but now there were just rocks, and the occasional huge gash signifying the path of a winter snow-field. But it says something about the enormity of the geography here that these same locals believe that there’s nothing there. Wrong. Behind and beyond that ridge lies Nandi Kund, an enormous lake from which rises the Madhyamaheshwar Ganga, as well as the huge green hanging valley of Pandosera. That way lies a high track that crosses a couple of high passes under the toe of mighty Chaukhamba to gain access to the Bansi Narayan temple on a massive ridge further to the East overlooking the Alakananda Valley. According to Biru, many sheep-herders often go that way, as do other local people to collect Bramhakamals or the huge lotuses that the high Himalayas are famous for. Someday I’ll get to see the place, I hope.

Pic: The forested river valley below Chandrashila, with a snow covered Kala Paththar in the background.
Chandrashila is the highest peak on a long, high and incredibly serrated ridge that runs south to north from the forested valley of Chopta to the highlands below Chaukhamba, running parallel to the Sari and Madhyamaheshwar ridges. Some of the other high ridge-points that I’d been climbing over the last few days with Biru now lay below me- awesome mountains in their own right, but somehow dwarfed by their magnificent setting. As I gazed, some ravens took wing, circling lazily in the morning haze.
Through all the shifting weather, the four white pillars of Chaukhamba rose imperiously, as if above human concerns, glinting severely yet reassuring in the sun. To think that just behind its massive ramparts lay the Gangotri glacier and all those fabled peaks.

Pic: Chaukhamba

Some of them I could see from there- Thalay Sagar and Shivling, beautiful spires both, are visible slightly behind the Kedar Massif. Then come the peaks of Meru, Mandani, the Bhagirathi group. Many peaks, of which I am not sure of the names. In those fabled lands had travelled both my heroes- Eric Shipton and Umaprasad Mukherjee. Both had also come here. In his journal on the 1934 Nanda Devi expedition and the subsequest crossing of the Kedar-Badri watershed under Chaukhamba, Shipton wrote about a zig-zag high altitude pass he took to get to Chamoli back on the way to Joshimath on the road to Badrinath. There it is below me, rushing down the eastern face of Chandrashila on its way down to the forests of Mandal to join the motorable road to Gopeshwar and Chamoli.

Pic: The old pilgrim trail
Mukherjee made special mention of this pass, extolling its natural beauty and bemoaning the unwillingness of pilgrims to take this harder but more enjoyable old route just because there was a tarmac road passing below through Chopta. He was writing in the early 60s. Now, it has fallen even more into disuse. While in the dry cold weather of May, I could easily make out the contours of the path, now in verdant October, just a memory of the path existed. Mukherjee was a deeply religious man, but even he acknowledged that the true reward of making the long and arduous climb to Chandrashila was this view of the high peaks. Amen.
This land is so old. It fills you with a deep awe that’s beyond simple religiosity. As I sat in that private paradise of mine, I prayed that I’d never forget it.

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Tunganath Part 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.


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Tunganath Part 3


There’s a certain charm in passing the night at a temple town. Outside, the great silence of the Himalayas. The night has still not passed. Suddenly, a sound of drums. The priest is opening the doors of the temple. At dawn, the deity is woken up with a morning arati. From deep inside the blanket I hear the sweet sound of the temple bells. Its not quite like an earthquake, but it seems like the mountain booms with the deep sound of those bells, and my heart is filled with a sudden joy. I listen intently. A sense of contentment comes over me.

The puja ends. Silence returns.

Lying there, I suddenly remember Ben Jonson’s words- “Bells are profane, a tune may be religious.” But is that really true? I wonder. In those bells I hear the voice of divinity.

Again, bells ring outside, this time from the street. A flock of sheep and goats make their way down the road, carrying loads on their back. Little bells tied to their necks ring out as they move. In the still night, this is another beautiful Himalayan tune- the merry melody of the open road, like sudden birdsong in a still forest. Just as a single stringed instrument will play different tunes, or as different ragas compete for the mind with diverse emotions, the suggestive sounds of bells evoke different feelings.

I lay there and reminisce.

Childhood. Calcutta. The three-storied building of the Bhawanipur police station just opposite my house. On its terrace a large wooden shamiyana. A massive bell hangs there. Through the day, a red-turbaned policeman would be posted there, to ring it on the hour. I remember waking up suddenly in the middle of the night. My room is vaguely lit by the streetlamps outside. Everyone in the house is fast asleep. Suddenly the bell rings twice. Its 2 a.m.! The two gongs light up in the darkness like the twin eyes of a tiger. I turn to one side and try to sleep. In the day, the sound of the bell is subsumed by the roar of the city. In the morning, I hear the bells of a passing horse-drawn carriage. I can always pinpoint those distinct chimes despite the surfeit of sounds surrounding me. It’s the sound of my father returning from a round of the maidan at dawn. The carriage turns off the main road. The sound of bells cease. Now I hear my father’s footsteps. In a little while he will enter his massive book-lined study and work through the day. I sit in my little study with a small book. The blinding light of his intellect lights up the tiny toy lamp of my mind.

Pic: Old Calcutta

The ringing bell at school. The bell that signals the beginning of a class sounds so different from the one signalling its end. If it’s a class that I’ve enjoyed, I feel a sense of loss. The bell at the end of a class that doesn’t interest me brings relief. As I lie in my blanket, the sound of the school bell slowly fades from memory. I remember a class of my college professor. Animatedly reading Shakespeare. I listen to him with rapt attention. My imagination flies to the Bard’s world. The characters and events bloom vividly in my mind. The bell rings, but nobody seems to hear it. Another professor waits outside for the next class. Our reverie breaks. The chime of the bell fades away.

I remember various different bells at the Railway station or at the port. The bells ring and travellers hurry busily. People run to and fro, worried about missing their train. The chaos of the station bell enters language as a metaphor.

The sweetest bells are heard along the track-filled expanse of the Himalayas. A silent path. A still forest. Suddenly I hear bells, like a swelling invisible music. Far away I see a flock of approaching sheep. I stand to one side. Hundreds of furry bodies pass- some tripping on my feet- a massive flock crowding a narrow mountain path, trailing the sound of hundreds of tinkling bells.

I remember another set of bells on my way to Kailash-Mansarovar. A postman goes on his way, a sack of mails on his back. He holds a long stick, crowned with a bunch of tiny bells. He walks with long strides, and the bells keep up a steady rhythm. I stare at his burden of letters. He runs on from one village to the next. His sack reminds me of home, and I miss it so very much.

The chimes of the morning arati at Ukhimath remind me of bells at the banks of the Ganges in Haridwar or Benaras.

Pic: Evening arati at Benaras (courtesy Shonedeep)

Evening shadows lie on the great river. All around me, near and far swells the sound of a million bells. Thousands of temples all ring their bells together. The river is suddenly filled with hundreds of floating flowers. Little earthen lamps glitter amidst the blooms as they float gently on the river. It seems to me as if the night comes to honour the river bearing thousands of lamps to a symphony of bells.

to be continued…

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Tunganath Part 2

Ukhimath Temple (courtesy Trek Earth-

Ukhimath is to Kedarnath what Joshimath is to Badri. Both these towns, founded by the Hindu seer Shankaracharya, serve the same purpose. When Kedar and Badri hibernate under the winter snows, the deities are worshipped at Ukhimath and Joshimath respectively.

Ukhimath is the local name for Ushamath. Legend has it that Usha, the daughter of King Bana- a political adversary of Krishna- fell in love with Krishna’s son, Aniruddha. This led to war between the king and Krishna, apparently near the town of Shonitpur in this region which was the capital city of King Bana. Local people can still point out the remnants of a fortress attributed to the legendary monarch.

The temple at Ukhimath looks like a fortress itself. You enter through a massive gate into an open court lined on all sides by houses. The temple lies at the centre- the classic layout of an ancient temple town. The deity is a silver-moulded idol of Shiva. Other gods and goddesses too are worshipped here. The ceremonial seat of Kedarnath resides here and

Ukhimath is where the head priests of Kedarnath- the Rawals- live and work. I used to know a previous Rawal here extremely well, and had spent many days at Ukhimath on my various trips to this region. In fact, he was the one who took me to Madhmaheshwar for the first time.

Another time I trekked to Deoria-tal from here. This beautiful lake lies atop a mountain North-East of Ukhimath, a leisurely day’s walk away. To get there, you proceed a little way along the road to Tunganath, and then leave it to climb the mountain on your left. You need a guide to navigate up this thin track through some dense forests. The priest had got one of his own men to accompany me. It is difficult to gauge the distance. Some say it is a mere 5 km from Ukhimath, others contend that its 10 km. It is a steady climb through the forest, with occasional stretches of level ground. Its very peaceful here. After a while, suddenly you hear the animated chatter of countless birds, and soon after you walk around a bend and the forest ends. In front lies the massive lake, at a height of 8,000 feet. I’m told the lake is about a kilometre in length and half a km across. In the distance you see the peaks of the Chaukhamba, Kedarnath and Badrinath (Neelkanth). The reflection of the peaks sways gently on the surface of the lake, as if the king of the mountains is admiring his own image.

Deoria Tal (courtesy Trek Earth-

A hermit used to live by the banks of this lake in his little hut. A Bengali, he used to meditate here in peace, living on water-chestnuts. I never got to meet him as he had passed away a few years before I went there. I saw his deserted hut in ruins. There’s a lovely description of this man in the book Letter from the Himalayas by Ghantakarna.

I spent so many peaceful nights at Ukhimath. But once, I remember being woken up in the middle of the night by a strong quake. Everything was shaking. I could hear a distant ominous rumble, as if the mountain itself was moving. In the dark room I could feel my bed shaking. The wooden furniture started vibrating, the window was shaking. The tin roof over my head was rattling and I could hear the nasty, grinding sound of large rocks rolling down the slope somewhere close.

This was my first brush with an earthquake in the Himalayas. I remember I refused to move to safety. In the plains, during an earthquake you leave the building to gain the relative security of open ground. There’s no such security in the mountains where the ground itself might shift from under your feet. Then there’s the fear of avalanches. I lay there and gave myself over to fate.

There were other, smaller tremors during the night. Periodically I would hear the rattling tin roof mixed with that strange rumble from the bowels of the mountain.

The next morning everyone was talking about it. Fortunately, the town’s buildings had escaped with minor losses.

Over the next few days, the mild tremors persisted.

to be continued…

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