Nepal Trek Part 2: Up The Dudh Kosi

Continued from Nepal Trek Part 1

Although it is now the most visited region in the entire Himalaya, until 1949, Nepal and by extension the Khumbu region was closed to the outside world. Whatever little information existed about this wonderful land enclosed by some of the highest peaks in the world came from the prolific Sherpas. From the turn of the twentieth century, the Sherpas had been arriving at Darjeeling in search for work. At first as labourers and then increasingly as high altitude porters working under successive British Everest expeditions, by the 1930s they had distinguished themselves as climbers of real skill. Naturally acclimatised and used to the rigours of harsh terrain, the people soon became synonymous with the elite of Himalayan mountaineering. If you take a look at the significant early milestones of Himalayan mountaineering- the ascent of Kamet in 1933, the German attempt on Nanga Parbat in 1934, the ascent of Nanda Devi in 1936, the ascent of Annapurna in 1950 or the ascent of Everest itself in 1953- and you will find a bunch of renowned Sherpas at the heart of it all.

Mani walls on the trail out of Lukla. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
Mani walls on the trail out of Lukla. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

The Sherpa people follow Tibetan Buddhism and soon after we start our walk there’s ample evidence of this in the intricately carved mani walls and chortens that litter the trail. Taking care to pass them on the left, we leave the upper ridges and start descending to the valley, passing through fields of wheat and barley, with the young river flowing swiftly to our left.

The Dudh Kosi valley. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
The Dudh Kosi valley. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

Crossing a subsidiary stream coming down from a deep valley to the east, we passed under the soaring Kusum Kankharu towering some nine and a half thousand feet over us.

The spire of Kusum Kankharu in the early morning sun-haze. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
The spire of Kusum Kankharu in the early morning sun-haze. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

Phakding is a short, two-hour walk from Lukla. We arrive a little before eleven, after a slow walk in the blazing sun, with much of the rest of the day remaining. And a good thing that was too. The first day’s walk is always the hardest. My legs feel like lead, and my much-abused sea level lungs gasp for breath at every little rise. Usually by the next day the situation improves. So I feel extremely glad when the red roofs of the Phakding Yeti Mountain Home swing into view under a rocky outcrop beside the river. Two smiling Sherpanis welcome us with warm glasses of lemonade and unending mugs of coffee and tea. Well, one could get used to this sort of thing.

The Mountain Home at Phakding
The Mountain Home at Phakding. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

The Mountain Homes certainly are lavish. In Phakding, the buildings are clustered around a wide courtyard. Inside the cosy drawing room, the walls are adorned with lovely portraits of Sherpa families and pretty decent paintings of some of Nepal’s famous peaks. Our room overlooking the river offers more luxury. Not least of which are a top-notch bathroom with a glass shower cubicle running hot water! I think the gratuitous bath and shampoo I enjoyed here has to be the first I’ve ever had on a trek. The electrically heated bed with its generous pile of blankets were beckoning, but we decide to go for a little acclimatisation walk instead in the forests on the other side of the river. But first lunch. And what a spread that is! Chicken sweet corn soup followed by spaghetti and fries and then a lovely buckwheat cake and coffee. If this is how one eats here, I might actually return fatter from the trek.

An hour’s happy scramble past a lower secondary school guarded by the eyes of all-seeing Buddhahood and Rimijung village’s potato farms brought us to Pemachoeling monastery, one of the oldest in the region. Surrounded by an old growth pine and birch forest, I hear the monastery before I see it.

Monks offer evening prayers at the Phakding monastery. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
Monks offer evening prayers at the Phakding monastery. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

A prayer meeting was in progress and the deep thud of drums reverberated through the hillside. Inside, a young trainee abbot conducted the rituals under the watchful eyes of the head lama of the village of Nurning in front of a huge stern statue of Padmasambhava (the patron saint and guru of the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism). Around the prayer hall lit up by lamps and surrounded by bright vivid murals of Bodhisattvas, local deities and row upon row of old manuscripts, monks chanted in rising and falling cadences, every now and then pausing to blow on the sandung and gyaling, or clash large hand cymbals, while a crumpled, ancient nun blew powerfully on a huge conch shell. The old couple from Rimijung who had requested the prayer were also present, sipping glasses of tea with their eyes fixed on the Buddha.

Giant statue of Guru Padmasambhava occupies pride of place at the altar. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya
Giant statue of Guru Padmasambhava occupies pride of place at the altar. Photograph by Bibek Bhattacharya

We wandered around for another hour in the forest under lowering skies, while far to the north floated the temple-like spire of Tawecho. Later that evening as we sit around the wood fired oven in the lounge and sip our ‘happy hour’ drinks of hot rum toddy and leaf through mountaineering books, Sonam explains out how camping has died a painful death in the Khumbu region. If the Yeti Mountain Home is on the upper end even for the wealthy Europeans who make up the bulk of the tourists in this area, lodges with perfectly good facilities now stretch all the way up to Gorakshep, the last settlement of any kind on the Everest trail at a height of 16,942ft. No one wants the rough and tumble of camping any more, certainly not the guides. And since the trekking establishment of the region only promotes lodges, camping has actually become a more expensive option. Retiring to my electrically heated furnace of a bed, later that night, I shed a quiet tear.

To be continued…

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Tara in Art

This isn’t a travel post. This is more my attempt to record my fascination with the great Buddhist goddess Tara, and her representations in art that I’ve come across in my travels and readings.

First a brief biography of this major Mahayana goddess. The ‘Mother of Liberation’, when she first appeared in art and literature in India around the 7th century AD, Tara represented a radical departure from previous conceptions of Buddhahood. While the great Bodhisattvas  had not achieved ‘Nirvana’ in the sense that they ‘postponed’ their Buddhahood to help all sentient beings achieve the same, Tara was a full-fledged Buddha herself. She came to represent the manifestation of a union of Karuna (compassion) and Prajna (perfect wisdom); or, in tantric terms, sunyata (emptiness) and mahasukha (great bliss). She became, in a sense, an embodiment of the very thing, the principle of being a Buddha. On an earthier level, she came to be venerated with a bhaktic intensity that rivalled that of the Bodhisattvas and the Buddha.

There are two major manifestations of Tara, the Green Tara and the White Tara. The former, also known as Shyama Tara or Khadiravani Tara, was the more popular manifestation. Her wilder, tantric aspect of Mahachinakrama Tara or Ugra Tara was a great favourite of artists, as she rewarded her tantric sadhak with felicity of artistic expression.  Tara as durgatitarini, deliverer from all evils, sealed her early popularity, and this has continually grown through her historical existence.

Tara first appears in carved reliefs in Ellora, but her immense popularity properly began with the rise and the long reign of the Pala monarchy of Bengal and Bihar. The emblem of the Palas was an umbrella and their banner had a figure of Tara. From the 8th to the 13th centuries, while Mahayana Buddhism flourished in eastern and northern India, Kashmir, the Kathmandu Valley and Tibet, along with its popular tantric means or upaya, the Vajrayana, there was a tremendous explosion in artistic expression in all of these regions—in stone and metal sculpture, music and painting. Fuelled by her popularity, Tara, with her benevolence, wisdom and beauty emerged as a favourite subject of art.

Sadly, very few examples remain of the mural art and watercolour miniatures that Indian Buddhism was renowned for, but a precious number of artworks survive. A few folios of Sanskrit palm-leaf Prajnaparamita manuscripts from Bengal and Bihar are scattered over the world, providing a precious example of miniatures. These are supplemented by copies and originals from around the same time from the Kathmandu valley and Tibet. The mural tradition is best represented by Ajanta and Ellora, Alchi and Tabo, and Chinese versions of current Indian styles at Silk Route sites like Dunhuang in China. Stone sculptures are most numerous from  north and eastern India; while metal sculptures in the Indian mode are more numerous in the Kathmandu valley and Tibet, though some survive from buried hoards in India as well.

Strong traces of the Pala art heritage can still be seen in places like the Kathmandu valley, Tibet, China, south-east Asia and Japan,  hugely enriched by the subsequent developments in the art traditions of those countries. Indian Buddhism in its final avatar perished a long time ago, and along with it artistic representations of Tara. However, she lives on in the popular cultural memory, especially in Bengal, Assam and Orissa, where the fleet-footed saviour—she who ferries us over from our mundane existence—in a Hindu garb, continues to fulfill the same functions in the affections of the people. An artistic heritage of that era still flourishes in rural areas of eastern India, e.g. the patachitras. And Tara remains the doting mother of all creation, Jagattarini. Even her tantric manifestation, Ugra Tara, retains her cremation ground mystique at the famous Tarapeeth in Bengal.  

Here are some examples of the great Tara in art. Note, I’ve only listed artworks in the Indian tradition. The Tibetan tradition which branched off about 800 years ago, deserves its own post.

There are some great online resources which go much deeper into this fascinating subject. See

Miranda E. Shaw: Buddhist Goddesses of India

Gudrun Buhnemann: The Goddess Mahacinakrama Tara (Ugra Tara) in Buddhist and Hindu Tantrism

There are some great collections in various museums in the west. In India and Nepal, many museums, including the following, maintain priceless collections of Pala-era art and its descendants:

The Indian Museum, Kolkata

The Asiatic Society Museum, Kolkata

State Archaeological Museum, Kolkata

Ashutosh Museum of Indian Art. Kolkata

Orissa State Museum, Bhubaneshwar

Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi

Archaeological Museum, Nalanda

Archaeological Museum, Bodh Gaya

Patna Museum

National Museum, New Delhi

Patan Museum, Patan, Nepal

National Museum of Nepal, Kathmandu

Bangladesh National Museum, Dhaka

Shri Partap Singh Museum, Srinagar

Top: Seated Tara, bronze, Bengal, 10th century. Bottom: Seated Tara, bronze, Bengal, 8th century.
Top: Seated Tara, bronze, Bengal, 10th century.
Bottom: Seated Tara, bronze, Bengal, 8th century.
A sandstone Tara stele from Nalanda from the 10th century, at the Indian Museum, Calcutta
A sandstone Tara stele from Nalanda from the 10th century, at the Indian Museum, Calcutta
Standing Tara, bronze, Kashmir, 11th-12th century
Standing Tara, bronze, Kashmir, 11th-12th century
Standing Tara, gilt copper alloy with inlaid precious and semi-precious stones Nepal, 11th-12th century, from a private collection
Standing Tara, gilt copper alloy with inlaid precious and semi-precious stones Nepal, 11th-12th century, from a private collection
Seated Tara, brass, copper and silver inlay, 12th century, Pala-style
Seated Tara, brass, copper and silver inlay, 12th century, Pala-style
Seated Tara, sandstone, 11th-12th century Lalitagiri, Orissa
Seated Tara, sandstone, Indian museum, Calcutta, 11th-12th century Lalitagiri, Orissa
Bust of Vajra-Tara, sandstone, 11th-12th century, Pala-style.
Bust of Vajra-Tara, sandstone, 11th-12th century, Pala-style.
Tara dispensing boons, opaque watercolour on palm leaf; from a folio of an Ashtasahsrika Prajnaparamita palm leaf manuscript. 12th century, Bengal. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Tara dispensing boons, opaque watercolour on palm leaf; from a folio of an Ashtasahsrika Prajnaparamita palm leaf manuscript. 12th century, Bengal. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Seated Tara, mural, Alchi, Ladakh, 12th century.
Seated Tara, mural, Alchi, Ladakh, 12th century.
Folios from an Ashtasahsrika Prajnaparamita palm-leaf manuscript, the middle folio showing Tara. 11th-12th century, Bengal, Pala-style.
Folios from an Ashtasahsrika Prajnaparamita palm-leaf manuscript, the middle folio showing Tara. 11th-12th century, Bengal, Pala-style.
Seated Tara, opaque watercolour on palm leaf, from a folio of Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript, 12th century, Bengal
Seated Tara, opaque watercolour on palm leaf, from a folio of Ashtasahasrika Prajnaparamita manuscript, 12th century, Bengal
Sketch of Mahachinakrama Tara, a terrible manifestation of Tara said to be the tutelary deity of artists and musicians, Nepal. Note Aksobhaya on her crown.
Sketch of Mahachinakrama Tara, a terrible manifestation of Tara said to be the tutelary deity of artists and musicians, Nepal. Note Aksobhaya on her crown.
Pahari watercolour of Mahacinakrama Tara, without Aksobhaya and now turned into a Saiva goddess. Her function remains the same.
Pahari watercolour of Mahacinakrama Tara, 18th century without Aksobhaya and now turned into a Saiva goddess. Her function remains the same.
Watercolour of Mahacinakrama Tara or Ugra Tara, 18th century, Nepal.
Watercolour of Mahacinakrama Tara or Ugra Tara, 18th century, Nepal.

Nepal Trek Part 1: Plane to Lukla

I’ve made a bit of a habit of going for treks in the off-season. I never planned to do so, but that’s the way it seems to work every year. One of the advantages of doing so is that it’s cheap. Guides and porters come at half the rates, the trails aren’t cluttered with trekking flotsam, and you feel like you’re ‘out there’ somewhere, with just your wits to help you in a harsh terrain.

That’s an idle fantasy of course. In this day and age, there isn’t anything really life-threatening about walks in the Himalayan wilderness, as long as you watch your step and don’t take foolish risks. You might suffer with slippery rocks on a high pass, or spend days waterlogged but you certainly won’t have to fight off the bears for a dinner of boiled bamboo shoots.

Even then, when I get an offer to trek in the Khumbu region of Nepal ‘in style’, and what’s more, ‘in season’, I jump at the chance. After all, who doesn’t want to take a look at Everest, that menacing, squat pyramid of black rock that towers over all the other mountains of the world? And that’s not all. Apart from Everest and its sister eight thousanders Lhotse and Cho Oyu, even a casual stroll in Khumbu brings you face to face with some classic mountain scenery. And it’s home to the Sherpas, probably the most legendary mountain people in the world.

Flying in from Kathmandu to Lukla, high in the Dudh Kosi valley, somehow the idea of a comfort trek doesn’t seem so outlandish. The very fact that I am covering in a forty-minute flight a distance that not so long ago took a week, and that almost all my co-passengers seem to be retired Europeans, makes me feel many worlds removed from the modest joys of trekking in the Indian Himalaya. But what a flight! We take off from Kathmandu one cold morning, with me nervously glancing at the propellers of the rickety Twin Otter aircraft and wondering if it’ll hold up. I don’t like flying, and I’d foolishly watched far too many YouTube videos of wobbly landings on the airstrip for my comfort. But once the die is cast and we are airborne, there is little to do but trust in the nous of the pilots and enjoy the ride. My friend Puneet and I manoeuvre to the front of the plane so we end up with the much coveted left hand seats. We fly with the sunrise, towards a blood red dawn, over the tiny houses and streams of the Kathmandu valley.

Flying over high kharkas to the Dudh Kosi valley. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
Flying over high kharkas to the Dudh Kosi valley. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Soon after taking off, the aircraft banks slightly to the left and the shadowy wall of the Great Himalayan Range falls into step. Soon we are swooping over high kharkas (grazing grounds) and higher aiguilles while the main range looms in the haze of the angled sunbeams. A little while later a deep valley appears bathed in a thick golden mist, and the plane begins a rapid descent towards a little sticking plaster at the bottom of an onrushing mountain, the Lukla airstrip. We have arrived at the Dudh Kosi valley.

Dudh Kosi valley glows in the early morning sun. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
Dudh Kosi valley glows in the early morning sun. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

A smooth landing and cries of “Bravo” from assorted passengers later, we are found in the melee of porters and baggage by our guide for the trip, Sonam Tenzing Sherpa, a young, affable man in his late twenties. We are guests of Yeti Holidays, one of Nepal’s biggest travel groups, and Sonam is to take us to our day’s stop at a luxury lodge on the outskirts of the small village of Phakding on the edge of the Dudh Kosi river.

Chaurikharka village above the Dudh Kosi gorge. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya
Chaurikharka village above the Dudh Kosi gorge. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Lukla’s airstrip stands on a long artificial clearing above the village of Chaurikharka, one of the largest Sherpa villages of the Khumbu region. The sun hadn’t yet escaped the shackles of the high ridges to the east, but across the Dudh Kosi, Numdur, a 22,000foot peak of the Rolwaling Himal was glistening in the sunshine. Further north, cloaked in cloud banners stood the southern face of Kwangde. Talk about arriving bang in the middle of the Himalaya. The mountains of the Khumbu Himal form an extensive elevated region. Not only does the main range extend in it’s normal North West to South East axis, here gigantic subsidiary ridges run down in a north south direction as well, enclosing the deep valley of the Dudh Kosi and it’s tributary rivers.

To be continued…

Studies in Form: The Hiranyavarna Mahavihar, Patan

Ah, Patan. The glories of this magical Newari city are too numerous to do justice. I could only spend a few hours when I visited earlier this year, but even after all these months, thinking about the place and its gorgeous Durbar Square sends a shiver up my spine.

It isn’t often that you get to visit a place this old and this richly decorated which is also a part of a living city. Under the shadows of the deliciously carved eaves and under the magnificent spires of its splendid medieval architecture, people sit and pass the time of day; children on the way back from school spend a few truant minutes, old men chat and lovers whisper. Although, historical sources suggest that Patan (or Lalitpur as it was previously known) had been a bustling town anteceding even the Kirata dynasty of the early 1st millennium AD, as well as the Lichchavi dynasty of the 3rd to 9th centuries AD (when it was called Yala); it was only under the Malla dynasty of the 13th to 18th centuries that the city saw an efflorescence in art and architecture, that remains even today. The historical part of the town, with its centre at the Durbar Square is a marvellous warren of medieval wooden houses and linked courtyards, punctuated by intricately carved water reservoirs called hiti.

Too numerous are the wonders of Patan, so I will restrict myself to just one, the Hiranyavarna Mahavihara, or the Kwa Baha- a Buddhist monastery more commonly known as the Golden Temple. It is one of the older extant temples in the city, dating back to the 11th century AD. One of the most ornate monasteries that I’ve ever seen, it is a temple of Vajrayana Buddhism or the ‘Diamond Way’, the great Tantric Buddhist tradition that began in India, especially in Kashmir and Bengal, but died out along with the great Buddhist universities of Bengal and Bihar in the 13th century. Some of its teachings and worldview survived in the mother country in the works of Saiva and Sakta Tantrics, along with the Vaisnav Sahajiyas and the Bengali Sufi tradition. However, as a living tradition, it continues to this day in Newari Buddhism.

Like in all Vajrayanic temples, the priests here are called Vajracharyas, householder monks who are the last Buddhist community whose liturgical texts are in Sanskrit. Echoing the final development in Indian Buddhism between the 9th and 12th centuries, the ideal Vajracharya is a Siddha or a Realised One. Like most of the main Newari temples, both Hindu and Buddhist, it is built around a courtyard.  Again like all Vajrayanic shrines, it has multiple deities representing Buddhist history at it’s three main stages of philosophical and religious development. There is the Sakyamuni, representing the oldest Theravadic origins, the Bodhisattvas of the Mahayana and Vajrasattva and the other Tantric deities of the Vajrayana.

The principle and non-Tantric deity, called the kwabaju, is Sakyamuni Buddha, is housed in the main shrine across the courtyard from the beautifully carved doorway. Before it is the ceremonial caitya arguably the most important object in the courtyard, probably older than Kwa Baha itself, with its own elaborate temple. This is a thing of beauty, with carved images of the five Buddhas as well 12 amazing metal-cast sculptures of various Lokeshvaras, some of them distinctly Tantric ones. The main Tantric shrine, this one to Vajrasattva is on the first floor of the monastery. He is identified with the Adibuddha representing the Absolute, but also as the ideal Siddha or Vajracharya. He holds the bell and the vajra or thunderbolt of wisdom, the chief symbol of the Vajrayana.

In Kwa Baha, there is also a Tibetan shrine modeled on a classic gompa on the first floor devoted to the eight-armed Amoghapasha Lokeshvara, one of the 360 forms of Avalokiteshvaras (or Lord of the World)  popular in Nepal and Tibet. Indeed, all around the courtyard, you can see sequences of the Tibetan prayer wheels, very recent in origin, which speaks of the growing importance of these Newari shrines to the Tibetan population, who first came to Nepal as refugees following the Chinese invasion. Standing in the courtyard, surrounded by Tibetans, as well as Newaris worshipping these Buddhist deities who first came into being in northern India, I felt strangely ecstatic in the middle of this modern confluence of a flow of traditions that has been going on between India, Nepal and Tibet for over a thousand years!

The other object of reverence at the Kwa Bahah is an old Sanskrit manuscript of the Prajnaparamita Sutra, properly called the Astasahasrika-prajnaparamita or the Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines. Probably the greatest Mahayanic sutra, composed in India around the 2nd century AD, the Perfection of Wisdom is often ceremoniously read at the monastery for merit as well as for worldly gain. The earliest historical record is that of a monk called Ananda Bhikshu who first copied the manuscript to preserve it in 1225 AD. Legend has it that it was brought to Nepal from India by a Brahmin widow sometime towards the end of the 1st millennium AD. The goddess Prajnaparamita, a form of Tara, is worshipped here.

The entire courtyard is like a public art gallery, full of beautiful things which stand testimony to the highly advanced aesthetics of the Newars, from metal cast sculptures to ones made of gold and stone. Here’s a slideshow of the courtyard. (Press Pause to see it at your convenience)

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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…

My travels in words and pictures