Category Archives: Umaprasad Mukherjee

Map Woes Part 2

(…continued from Map Woes Part 1)
So I looked for other maps. Some of these I found in books, and the information I tried to locate with the help of GE as well as Wikimapia (which is better marked but not always trustworthy). It’s a painstakingly slow process, but at least I was making progress.

The Eric Shipton Anthology possessed his superlative book Nanda Devi, which had a reasonably good map (which was great to get my bearings) of the Nanda Devi-Bhyundar- Joshimath-Badrinath-Madhmaheshwar area; basically central Garhwal.

Pic: Central Garhwal Himalaya from Shipton’s Nanda Devi (Bibek Bhattacharya)

An infinitely better plotted set of maps soon emerged out of mountaineer and photographer Kekoo Naoroji’s book of photo essays Himalayan Vignettes. It also had a very good set of maps of Western Sikkim, the area around Kanchenjungha and Nepal Gap glacier. What’s more, the book also included sizable chunks of lower Garhwal.

Pic: A plate from Kekoo Naoroji’s Himalayan Vignettes (Bibek Bhattacharya)
A third resource was Frank Smythe’s book Valley of Flowers. That book has some nice trail maps, especially of the classic Garhwal “approach trek” from Gwaldam to Joshimath via Kuari Pass and of his explorations around the Bhyundar Valley.

Pic: Map of the Bhyunder-Kamet region in Central Garhwal from Smythe’s Valley of Flowers (Bibek Bhattacharya)

The problem with this was age. It was written in 1938- he made the journey in 1937- and that area was only in the process of being properly surveyed, so names of lesser peaks, glaciers and villages wasn’t exactly fixed. But it felt great to compare maps and accounts of these early writers- for a profoundly Indian point of view of the Uttarakhand Himalaya in that era, see Umaprasad Mukherjee’s travelogues.

Pic: Map of the Gangotri Glacier region from Umaprasad Mukherjee’s travelogue (Bibek Bhattacharya)
Needless to say, I was devouring all this.

But I longed to get my hands on some serious maps of the Western Himalaya. Being quite hidebound as well as anal in my pursuits, I especially looked out for maps of Uttarakhand, as this was the region I wanted to explore first.

(to be continued)

Chandrashila

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

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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Tunganath Part 3

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- http://www.trekearth.com)

2.
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- http://www.trekearth.com)

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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Tunganath Part 1

A very favourite travel writer of mine is the late Umaprasad Mukherjee. An avid traveller, he probably popularised the Garhwals to a good three generations of Bengalis. Its criminal that his beautiful travel pieces are available just in Bengali, his native language. So I’ve decided to (unofficially) translate some pieces by him and publish them here. Its impossible to do justice to the man’s way with language, his deep humanism and spiritual attachment to the Himalayas. Hope you like it. It was written sometime in the early Sixties.

Umaprasad Mukherjee- Himalaya Chronicles.


Tunganath Temple

Tunganath

1.

On the way to Kedarnath, soon after leaving the town of Guptakashi, you can often see, in the distance, a massive blue mountain. Sometimes, towards the end of winter, its peak is covered with a light dusting of snow. Sometimes there’s snow even after the rains. The mountain then looks like a frail old man swathed in a white blanket to shut out the cold. At other times, it is hidden by clouds and mist. Then the mists part and it appears again- a monarch among mountains.

This is the third of the five kedars- Tunganath.

At some 12,072 feet, Tunganath is the highest temple in the entire Kedar-Badri circuit, making the name a highly appropriate one. The peak itself looms like a massive hooded cobra another thousand feet above the temple- it is called Chandrashila.

Chandrashila Peak

At approximately 13,000 feet this is higher than both Kedarnath (11,750 feet) and Badrinath (10,244 feet). Not many pilgrims who come to these parts have heard of Madmaheshwar, Rudranath and Kalpeshwar. However, many do know of Tunganath. In fact, it used to be quite popular once upon a time.

On the way to Kedarnath lies Guptakashi. Just outside Guptakashi is the village of Nala. This is where a side-track leaves the main road, and branches down to the Mandakini river valley below. You cross the river on a pretty iron bridge, and then climb up to Ukhimath.

That was many years ago. Now, a motorable highway has swallowed the track whole, like a big snake swallows a smaller one. This highway bypasses Nala, effectively shutting off the old approach to Ukhimath. Nowadays, you head off to Ukhimath directly from Guptkashi.

Before the road came, pilgrims descending from Kedarnath would take the Nala route to Ukhimath. From there they would go further up to Tunganath, cross the mountain and head off towards Gopeshwar. From there, some more hiking would bring them to Chamoli on the Alaknanda river valley. This is where they would find the road to Badrinath. Back then there was no need to come all the way down to the confluence of the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers at Rudraprayag to get on the road to Badrinath. The Ukhimath-Tunganath-Chamoli route was a much shorter one. And that way, pilgrims would get to pay their respects at the temples of Ukhimath and Tunganath.

But this is the era of buses. So most pilgrims nowadays descend to Guptkashi from Kedarnath and get on a bus, which takes them all the way to Badrinath. You get off the bus, pay your respects at Badri, and get back on the bus. Travellers sigh with relief at being spared a long hike up and down mountains.

It is less tiring for sure. After all, the ascent to Tunganath is nothing to sneer at!

However, I feel that to come to the Himalayas and then to trade in this 3 day trek for the convenience of a bus is to deprive yourself of an unique experience. After all, the view of the Greater Himalayan peaks that you get from Tunganath is unmatched.

The track down from Tunganath affords other pleasures.


Pilgrim Road to Tunganath

It passes through a thick forest, another thing you don’t find often on the bus route. There’s nothing to fear here, as there are hardly any wild animals, and a clear track ensures that you don’t lose your way. It winds down gently under the cool shade of the trees past many waterfalls of various sizes. This ancient forest has its own charms.

And yet, nobody comes to Tunganath anymore. Even the famed pilgrim town of Ukhimath wears a deserted look.

Recently though, a motorable road has made its way to this area. This one comes down from across the village of Kunda, and makes its way under Ukhimath and Tunganath and meets the road to Badrinath at Chamoli. Perhaps in a few years buses will ply this route too. But will that be enough to lure the convenience hungry traveller from the comforts of the bus to make the difficult trek up Chandrashila to see the Himalaya in all its glory?

to be continued…