Tag Archives: Travel

Madhya Pradesh: On the Ken

The Ken River in Madhya Pradesh’s Bundelkhand region boasts of an unique eco system. This pretty river rises in the uplands of the Vindhya plateau and flows through the Panna Tiger Reserve and upper Bundelkhand for 427km to join the Yamuna at Chilla in Uttar Pradesh. Often called the cleanest river in central India, the reason for its purity is that it passes through less-populated forested areas, at least in its upper reaches. As a result, the river plays host to many bird species. But, like all good things, the fragile beauty of the river is threatened by egregious development, in the form of a plan to link the river with its neighbouring sister stream, the Betwa.

I took a boat ride up the river in the cool dawn of a December day last year, for a spot of birdwatching. But more than that, sailing in the Ken was a reminder of how beautiful and easy a lazy boat ride can be on India’s beautiful, bountiful rivers.

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Our little boat waits in the reeds by the river. The forested ridges of the Panna Tiger Reserve in the distance. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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A tiny crab stands alert against the intruders (us). Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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Our boatman, Raju, steers the boat into the main channel of the Ken. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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A cormorant sits pretty on a rock stained by bird droppings. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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A stork flies off into the reeds with its breakfast. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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A stork crouches before take-off. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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A cormorant suns itself on the river. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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A white-throated kingfisher peeks out over a river-side rock. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
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An egret on the river. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

 

The Great Wide Open: A Trek in Ladakh

Emptiness can be beautiful, and intensely terrifying. To get a an idea of just what I mean, go to the Changthang plateau in Ladakh, climb up one of the many 5,000m passes that dot the landscape, look, and hear the blood pounding in your head. But even in the dun emptiness, there are sounds—the whistling cries of a marmot, the distant neighing of wild horses, and the wind, the ever-present wind that burrows through your clothes right into your soul, wailing like a thousand dakinis.

The walk across the Changthang plateau is a profoundly eerie and wonderful trek to the vast inland lake of Tso Moriri. Marking the important pashmina trade route from Leh to southeast Ladakh and then to the Tibetan plateau further east and to Spiti to the south over the Parang La, the trail lies across a marvellous desolation, the like of which I’d never seen before. We walked with and without our mule trains across seven passes over 4,800m high, across the vast lands where Changpa nomads live with their pashmina  goats and yaks, kept company by the small, silvery antelope Kiang, marmots, wolves and horses. We crossed the giant bowl of the salt lake of Tso Kar, past piles of salt washed up by the blue-black waves, while behind us rose a barrier of scree and rock peaks 6,000m high, dividing us from the vast Morey Plains—over which passes the Manali-Leh highway—maybe the vast dusty bed of a giant lake itself.

Strong, fresh, cold ice-melt streams punctuated our walk over extensive high and wide valleys of grazing grounds. These reminded more of Arctic Tundra landscapes than anything else. In other valleys we saw packs of wild horses running in braided patterns, their manes flying, hooves kicking up the water in the stream. Above in the passes, beautiful large grey wolves lurked, disappearing in a flash quite astounding for such large animals. Almost for the entire stretch the clicks and whistles of the marmot dogged our steps, while their furry fat heads played peekaboo from their burrows. After over a week of hallucinatory walk over surreal landscapes of menace and beauty, we finally reached a pass higher than all the rest, perched high up on the the Mentok range, and looked down for our first, breathtaking view of the storied Tso Moriri. Covering a distance of some 100km, this is probably the most quintessential trek in all of Ladakh. The trek takes in no less than seven passes over 4,800m high, thus living up to Ladakh’s name—the land of passes.

This was my first visit to the trans-Himalaya, and I found that just like the landscape, all the other rules of trekking change in the rain-shadow of the Great Himalayan Range. Whereas south of the Himalaya, the trails wind up from semi-tropical regions to the tree-line and then to high alpine areas, the Changthang seems to hang in the air. It seems not quite of the earth—the skies are panoramic and big, the clouds low and stretched out. There are hardly any steep, craggy cliffs here, just unending slopes of gravel and coarse scrub, loose scree and marshes that look like rolling meadows. The general desolation and the extreme altitude here places immense strains on the human body, so trekking here can only be done with full bundobast, which means pack mules, muleteers and a guide with at least one helper.

We started our walk from Rumtse, on the Leh-Manali highway, before veering off up the Kyamar Chu valley, over marshes dotted with orderly groups of Changpa flocks. The first of the passes, Kyamar La, marks the divide between central Ladakh and the Changthang. Look west and the peaks of the Zanskar range like Kang Yatse stand out. Further east, the rolling ranges that punctuate the high plateau come into focus. These run more-or-less parallel to each other, separated by either large lake beds like that of the Tso Kar, or intensely fast-flowing streams. On some days, we crossed not just one pass, but two, which meant ascending some 2,000 feet, and then descending another 1,500 feet, only to repeat this again. Panting for breath in that wide wilderness, unable to realistically gauge distances in the shimmering air, the landscape seemed ripe with intent, brooding and alien. Was that flock of Kiang five km away or ten? Was that skyline the true pass? Was that an enormous shaggy dog or a wolf? Was that stiff-limbed figure lurching towards me a Ro-Langs, a zombie?

The day would wax sunny—and by sunny I mean sunlight that flays the skin off—and come afternoon, that high, shrill wind would start again, scoring our faces with a million tiny pinpricks of dust. In that phantasmogoric landscape, it was difficult to tell fact from fantasy. The whistles of our constant companions, the marmots, sometimes took on a distinctly sinister, unearthly pitch. As we walked, the moon waxed every night until at the Changpa camp of Rajungkharu, it rose above a far mountain like a gigantic searchlight, turning the black night into an eerie bone-white landscape.

Then there were the Changpa people. The entirety of the Changthang are dominated by them and their flocks. At major Changpa camps like Pongunagu and Nuruchen on the Tso Kar, Rajungkharu and Gyamalhoma, were raised their ubiquitous black and white tents. Their traditionally the black yak-hair tents are slowly giving way to the newer white ones made of a sort-of parachute material, there were signs of growing prosperity on the back of their pashmina trade. The most startling of these were their SUVs. I felt it was a trick of the mind when, wile approaching Rajungkharu, I saw far off, the beetling shape of an SUV crawling over what seemed like a perpendicular slope. I learnt later that it was jeep service to ferry people to Leh to attend the visiting Dalai Lama. At these camps, eery morning would begin with the bleating of sheep and goat as the flocks were herded and milked, before setting off for the day’s grazing. On Horlam La, a Changpa on a horse appeared suddenly, riding towards us full tilt. It was quite a charge. At the last moment he wheeled his mount around, shouted a “Juley!” and galloped off. Later that day, we saw another band of horsemen cross a small pass, again at full speed. I felt I’d wandered onto a set of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The final day’s walk was probably the most euphoric one. Starting out from our highest camp yet at the 5,150m Gyamalhoma, we threaded our way through a deep rocky defile, with surreal overhangs and a chilly stream passing through. As the valley climbed higher the peaks of the ice-plateau of the Mentok range came into view. We walked up through the gravely hills and up to the Yarlung Nyau La, a whopping 5,450m high. And there, spread out some 3,000 feet below us, were the waters of the Tso Moriri,  all 120sq km of it, a deep lilac carpet laid across a vast valley.  Across it darted a multitude of low clouds, and across the lake rose the summits of Chamser and Lungser Kangri, the highest peaks in the Changthang.  It felt like I’d walked into a Roerich painting. We raised a toast to the lake with some rum, and stumbled down the dusty slopes for the long walk into the void.

Tantric Buddhist Dance in a palm-leaf Manuscript

In the Himalayan regions, there exist many kinds of popular Buddhist dance forms, usually performed during festivals or harvests. Some of these, like the one at the Hemis Monastery in Ladakh or the ‘Lama Dances’ of Sikkim are known the world over. Specifically, they are forms of tantric dances, performative manifestations of the highly ritualised Vajrayana Buddhism.

Many lesser known forms of Tantric Buddhist dances exist, none more so than those recorded by the Newar Buddhists of the Kathmandu valley. Their’s is an unique culture: the Newars are the sole remaining Buddhists who follow the Sanskritic Indic Mahayana tradition of Bihar, Bengal and Kashmir, complete with an artistically complex system of Vajrayanic modes of worship whereby  tantric Vajracharya priests officiate over community rituals as well as devotional and life-cycle ceremonies.

As is evident with Tibetan Buddhism, the Vajrayana lays great emphasis on the creativeness of religious ritual, incorporating vividly visual sadhanas or meditational techniques, as well as the use of theatrical gestures and the ritual art creation of mandalas and thangkas (‘paubha’ in Newari; ‘pata’ in Sanskrit). This mastery of religious art ties in perfectly with the Newars’  continued excellence in the plastic, decorative and performative arts, with master craftsmen producing stunning works of sculpture and painting for at least a thousand years now.

Professional artists, many of whom also double up as religious specialists, have, as a rule, assiduously maintained a corpus of sketchbooks, filled with line-drawings of models, annotated instructions, as well as their religious and spiritual interpretations.

Many of the historical ones have been collected and published, and recently I came across some stunning sketches of tantric Buddhist dances from the 18th century, in the scholar Gudrun Bühnemann’s book Buddhist Iconography and Ritual in Paintings and Line Drawings from Nepal.

These sketches were made on palm-leaf manuscripts, and they portray the Parikramavidhi, the ritual dance around a site to purify it before the construction of a mandala. Highly influential in Nepal, the Parikramavidhi was a detailed ritual manual written by a Newari Vajrayana monk named Kuladatta sometime in the 13th century, as a part of his book, the Kriyasamgraha-panjika, in which he outlines the rituals required to consencrate a vihara (monastery). The manual was in turn based on a older texts like the famous Mayajalatantra and the renowned Bengali tantric monk Abhayakaragupta’s ritual compendium, Vajravali, written in the early 12th century CE.

Making full use of forms from the Indian classical dance tradition of the Natyashastras, the sketchbook visually shows the various mudras (gestures), abhinayas (stances) which are to be performed with prescribed mantras, by the officiating monks/priests. Dressed in full ritual regalia, they are to assume the roles of various tantric deities, Bodhisattvas and directional guardians in order to purify the space.

Works of art like this manuscript, helps us get a deeper sense of the vibrant cultural and artistic lives of a people. So the next time you visit Patan, and see the wonderful Newari viharas like the Hiranyavarna Mahavihara (popularly known as the Golden Temple), know that prior to the building of that monastery or the various three-dimentional mandalas in its courtyard, many hundred years ago, Buddhist tantric adepts had probably performed a beautiful dance like this, to consecrate the site. The  performance must have been as arresting a sight as the Cham dance of Hemis.

Here are some panels from this beautiful manuscript.

In this panel, we see eight of forty-two stances or abhinayas to be performed by the principal master (Mulacharya) of the ritual. These are:

9. Vajraghantabhinaya in the Kurmapada stance facing east (of the mandala), evoking the Buddha Vajrasattva.

10. Vajrotkarsanabhinaya in the Vaisakhapada stance facing south, evoking the Buddha Akshobhya.

11. Vajravilasabhinaya in the Vaisakhapada stance facing west, evoking the deity Vajrakarman.

12. Garvadvayabhinaya in the Ekapada stance facing north, evoking the deity Krodhalasya.

13. Bhramarijalabhinaya in the Ekapada stance facing the centre, evoking the Buddha Vairochana.

14. Simhapadabhinaya in the Alidhapada stance facing the centre, evoking the deity Yamantaka.

15. Simhavijrambhitapadabhinaya in the Alidhapada stance facing the centre, evoking the deity Takkiraja.

16. Vajrasphotabhinaya in the Samapada stance facing the centre, evoking the deity Vajrasphota.

Each of these stances are adapted from the Natyashastra, where they are specified as standing postures for male performers.

Here’s another panel showing one abhinaya performed by an assisting adept, and seven abhinayas that evoke seven goddesses of ritual puja offerings, performed by the Mulacharya, while sitting in the yogic lotus posture, or padmasana.

65. Abhayabhinaya performed by the officiating adept in the north of the mandala.

66. Vajralasyabhinaya, evoking the goddess of beauty, Vajralasya.

67. Vajramalabhinaya, evoking the goddess of the garland, Vajramala.

68. Vajragitabhinaya, evoking the goddess of song, Vajragita.

69. Vajranrityabhinaya, evoking the goddess of dance, Vajranritya.

70. Vajradhupabhinaya, evoking the goddess of incense, Vajradhupa.

71. Vajrapuspabhinaya, evoking the goddess of flowers, Vajrapuspa.

72. Vajradipabhinaya, evoking the goddess of the lamp, Vajradipa.

Many such  examples of the beautiful artistic traditions of the Newars exist. It’s a pity these aren’t better known.

Finally, these dance forms remain a vital part of Newar cultural life, as can be seen in this recent video of the dancer Raj Sakya performing the tantric text Manjusri-Nama-Samgiti in a Buddhist courtyard in Patan.

Secret Garden

Dharansi. A hanging valley. I savour those two words. What a delicious idea! I close my eyes and try to remember if I’ve seen one before. There was that small hanging plateau on the northern marches of the Indrahar pass in the Dhauladhar. But this was massive. I was sitting in the middle of a large smooth bowl, covered in turf and little splashes of tiny alpine flowers. Running through the grassy side were long, shallow gullies, filled with the rubble of boulders—the giant moraines of winter snowfields. Right in the middle of the bowl, where our camp was pitched, lay the longest and widest of the moraines. It was also the lowest point in the curve of the valley, almost a hollow. It continued for a little way below the tent. Then, from a cutoff, the valley dropped a couple of hundred feet into another bowl, less wide, more hemmed in by serrated cliffs. The valley then wound down gradually, like a lazily flowing river, then it suddenly ended, as if someone had sliced it off with a very large knife. A tortured, broken precipice plunged dramatically for 5,000ft into the spectacular gorge of the Rishi Ganga. The Bhotias believe that demons live here, and none but holy men may pass through. Thus the river gets its name.

The hanging valley of Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

It was up this gorge, in 1934, that two English mountaineers and three of the greatest Sherpas of the day forced the only—and till then uncharted—passage into one of the most unique mountain fastnesses in the world. Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman’s adventure was an improbable one, one of the last heroic journeys into the unknown. Shipton’s elegantly romantic book, Nanda Devi, had warmed my heart for many years. Here at Dharansi, the furthest I could get into Nanda’s secret garden after days of incessant rain, landslides and storms, I could hardly believe my luck.

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 and Oz; I wanted to see them all, if only a glimpse. These places had their rules. It would have to be a perilous realm; you’d endure many hardships trying to get there; and you could never hope to reach without a large helping of grace. Over the years I’d been to some unimaginably lovely places, and lonely places, but I had yet to see a place like Dharansi.

Above me, the bugyal stretched upwards at a gentle incline. Directly above the rim of the bowl lurked Hanuman, a prickly black mass of heavily compacted rocks, leering down at me like a nightmare fortress. A modest 19,931ft high, it is best known as one of the standard climbing peaks for trainee mountaineers. But the mountain has a local reputation that is somewhat more sinister. The villagers of the Niti valley, especially those of Dunagiri village, don’t take too kindly to the monkey god. In fact, many despise him, and consider him a thief. When Hanuman flew to the Himalaya to find the magic herb that would cure Lakshman, this is where he is said to have come. Not knowing which the correct herb was, Hanuman hedged his bets and made off with an entire mountain

A little way up the slope, a herd of bharal, the famous Himalayan blue sheep, stood watching us. There were nine individuals. Three sprightly youngsters pranced about unsurely on the massed jumble of boulders. Three ewes, their long black eyes watchful, were licking salt off a large table-shaped boulder. One of them had a single short horn, making her look uncannily like a unicorn. Last of all were the three rams, aloof and sporting impressive curving horns, extremely skittish and keeping their distance. When Shipton and Tilman had broken through to the inner sanctuary, they had been pleasantly surprised to find large herds of bharal grazing on the meadows of the sanctuary, absolutely unperturbed by their presence. That was seventy-eight years ago. By the time all entry into the sanctuary was banned in 1982, the widespread hunting of these beautiful animals to provide meat for mountaineering expeditions had resulted in a near wipe-out. That had also affected the bharal’s chief predator, the snow leopard. I’m sure there was one around, but of course I’d never be able to see this Himalayan ghost unless he wished to be seen.

I had met another such famously shy animal a couple of days ago on the upper slopes of the meadow of Lata Kharak. I’d gone walking to the adjoining ridge of Saini Kharak to get my first glimpse of the legendary Rishi gorge and, if lucky, Nanda herself. We were traversing the cliffs of the junction of these two ridges when Raghubir Singh, one of our porters, clutched my jacket and pointed to a massive rock face and said “Kasturi!” I had to focus before I could make out the distinct brown shape of the musk deer, surprisingly close, looking at us with some alarm, twitching his black nose. It looked like a cross between a deer and a kangaroo, the startling feature being the animal’s vampiric canines. In a few seconds he was off, bounding straight down the sheer cliffs with dizzying speed.

A musk deer in the distance preparing to leap off and away. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Raghubir Singh of Lata is a legend from a legendary village rife with legends. He and his friend Dhan Singh Rana, my guide Narendra’s father, were highly feted high-altitude guides and porters during the heyday of mountaineering in the sanctuary in the 1970s. Even earlier, from the time Shipton first came to Nanda Devi, the people of Lata have featured prominently in the history of mountaineering in this area. The villagers of Lata are Bhotias, like the rest of the denizens of the Niti valley who live by the banks of the trans-Himalayan Dhauli Ganga river. Of mixed Tibetan stock, these tribal people of upper Uttarakhand had been successful traders, carrying on a millennia-old summer trade with Tibet. The 1962 war put an end to that. Later, when the national park came into being and all entry was closed, even the local people who’d led a symbiotic relationship with Nanda Devi and her valleys and grazing grounds, found the way barred, and their rights superceded.

It was in Lata, and nearby Reni, that the famous Chipko movement began in 1974 to prevent the decimation of sacred deodar groves around these two villages. In the late 1990s, these same villagers fought a long-drawn-out campaign for community participation in the management of the national park. Dhan Singh was a part of both these efforts. In the former he was a defiant boy standing up to forest contractors. During the latter, he was the village sarpanch who cannily organised the villages into a formidable body of activists. An offshoot of this movement was the opening and maintenance of certain trails within the park where local men could act as guides.

The Dhauli Ganga valley with Lata village in the distance. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

Narendra is a shy, soft-spoken man in his mid-twenties. However, the last few days in the wilderness seemed to have wrought a subtle change in him. In addition to the deepening stubble on his angular face, there was a flashing brightness in his eyes, a sharpness of sight. He was beaming as he hid behind a rock and took pictures of the bharal. He loved being here, back after many years. He mostly works in Dehradun now. The last time he’d come this way, he was accompanying a scientific expedition to the inner sanctuary. He still hadn’t forgotten the awe he felt in the presence of Nanda Devi, a mountain that was also a goddess.

And with good reason. My companion Parth and I had arrived in Lata five days before, on a sunny day in early September. It was the last day of the annual Nandashtami celebrations. The devi’s origins lie in ancient nature cults. Indeed, in the older temples of Kumaon, her image is that of a tribal woman. Today, to outsiders she is just another reincarnation of Parvati or Durga, but to the Bhotias Nanda is herself, the powerful queen of her mountain realm, the bliss-giving goddess. Sitting in front of Nanda’s medieval temple, studded with brahma-kamals to mark the occasion, I felt as if I was watching something unfamilar, something special. This wasn’t Hinduism as I knew it. Women in Tibetan-style long black robes and white cloth headscarves danced slowly in a circle while chanting a plaintive song of regeneration and permanence. 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 brahma-kamal.

The Nanda Devi puja in progress in Lata village. photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

The Nanda Devi Sanctuary lies across the Great Himalayan Range in the form of a ring of high mountains. Bang in the middle of the eastern curve of this cirque sit the twin peaks of Nanda Devi, looming over some 380 sq km of ice and snow. Nowhere in its 110km length is this mountain wall less than 18,000ft high except at a single point in this chain, where the Rishi cuts through the barrier and flows west to meet the larger Dhauli. The only practicable route into the inner reaches of the sanctuary is by outflanking the precipitous outer gorge of the Rishi Ganga and crossing the 13,950ft Dharansi pass to Dharansi and then down over the Malathuni Pass to the upper Rishi Ganga gorge.

The broken jagged precipices of Satkula cunningly hide the valley. The only way through is over an exceedingly steep goat track. From that initial notch, it descends right down to a gully before trudging back laboriously up to the next cliff face to another notch in the skyline before plunging down the next gully. It’s beastly hard in the rain, especially in the middle of a heavy fog; one misstep will send you hurtling some 8,000ft into the Rishi gorge. The pass itself is the last link in this chain of convenient notches in the broken ridge-system. But to me, the true entrance was the impressive stone goat arch of Ranikhola, one that the writer Bill Aitken memorably described as a goat’s Arc de Triomphe. It is said that when the shepherds brought their charges to Dharansi, a Bhotia maiden dedicated to Nanda would stand guard here, counting each goat and sheep as it passed through the gateway.

Traversing the Satkula ridge to Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

That evening in Dharansi proved to be the first thawing of Nanda’s suspicion of this motley group of out-of-season trespassers. Along with the shockingly tame bharal came a spectacular sunset. The sky had cleared in the direction of the Dhauli valley and the sun was setting above the distant peaks of Chaukhamba, painting the film of clouds on the western horizon an angry red. Steady streams of thick vapours were flowing down over the strangely shaped pinnacles overhanging the Rishi gorge. Other clouds formed impossibly long banners that draped themselves over the prominent peaks to the south—Bethartoli Himal and Ronti. Up east the sanctuary was still cloaked in heavy clouds. But as I looked up the slope I was mystified to see what looked like a luminous mist playing on the uppermost reaches of the bugyal. Glowing orange and yellow, the mist was the last to disappear, leaving us with a dark night so still and silent I could hear my own heart beat.

The Rishi Ganga gorge from Dharansi at sunset. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

I rose early, only for my jaw to drop as soon as I stepped outside the tent. Everything was unbelievably clear. Beyond the Dharansi cutoff the distant Dhauli and Alaknanda valleys were drowning in a low layer of clouds. But above that all was clear. Far to the northwest ran a set of peaks I was very familiar with—the Kedarnath group and the Chaukhamba massif that contain the Gangotri glacier. A little to their right rose the triangular southeast face of Neelkanth, the peak that towers over Badrinath.

Dunagiri from Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

To my right, the delicate ice flutings of Bethartoli Himal were a blushing pink in the diffused light of the rising sun. Even the Devistan peaks that formed the dividing ridge between the inner and outer sanctuary were out. Would Nanda be revealed at last? Her peak couldn’t be seen from camp so Narendra and I ran around to the southern enclosing wall of the valley. We drew up to Malathuni pass, panting, with our boots soaked by the heavy dew. There she was, Nanda Devi, her west face in shadow, but her pinnacle proud and true, sailing through the heavens without any wind. The people of Lata were right. She was herself and no other. Looking at her strange, fearful symmetry it is no wonder that Nanda Devi the mountain and Nanda the goddess are considered one and the same, indivisible.

Nanda Devi from Dharansi. Photo by Bibek Bhattacharya

At the lovely alp of Dibrughati, 2,000ft below us, it was still night. Yet, across the gorge, the green side valley of Dudh Ganga—that descends from the combined snows of Trisul and Bethartoli—looked exactly like a sun-kissed CGI valley. To my left Dunagiri’s peak was lost in a maelstrom. But the majestic shoulders of this giant stood out, the snow glinting in the sunshine. The sun started peeking out from behind Hanuman, and slowly the Dharansi alp started shining a bright emerald green, of a kind I don’t remember seeing before. Lammergeiers flew overhead in slow arcs while tiny swallows leapt down into this amazing scene of wild gorges and snow peaks. A mouse hare emerged to sun himself. I sat there for hours, staring, until swirling mists from the Rishi slowly hid the world again.

-Bibek Bhattacharya

This article appeared in the January 2012 issue of Outlook Traveller.

Studies in Form: The Taj Mahal

In all my travels this year, the one constant feature has been the dazzling array of art that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. The red sandstone arches of Agra fort and Fatehpur Sikri; the marble splendours of Dargah-e-Salim Chisti and the Taj Mahal; the sculpted courtyards of Patan; the animist sculptures of Unakoti and Chabimura; the charchala temples of Udaipur and the luminous murals of Alchi are all wondrous creations. More than that, they’re the repositories of something fine, an elusive enquiry into the nature of form.

I’m no art historian or an aesthetician, but the one common thing to these diverse artefacts seem to me to be a certain combination of taste, and an intrinsic understanding of context and harmony.

I started the year with a trip to Agra, that eternal harlot of tourism fetish. I came away amazed at the self-confidence and nous of the Mughal artisans and a feeling of overwhelming sadness at the extent to which we have debased this once-magnificent imperial capital. The one thing I learnt wandering through the pavilions of the Agra Fort and the gardens around the Taj is that for artistic expression to achieve greatness, context is everything.

Thus, the best views of the Taj Mahal in all its ethereal glory really do come from two places- the eastern ramparts of the Agra fort, situated across the great bend of the Yamuna, and from the charbagh—the garden—surrounding the monument.

From the fort, the Taj looks like a fever dream of Haroun al Rashid­, its bulbous dome rising up to meet the sky. During sunset, it positively glows, gigantic, dominating everything around it. It hovers like a vision, somewhere between the parallel lines of earth and sky. The takht or throne of Jahangir, which forms the focal point of the eastern court of the fort, obviously existed before that emperor’s son and successor Shah Jahan had even thought of building the Taj. So, when Jahangir held court hear, in the Diwan I Khas, the horizon had looked very different. Just bare ground perhaps, or a grove of trees. From here, it really does look just the way Rabindranath Tagore had described it, “A teardrop on the cheek of time.”

The Taj Mahal at sunset, from the eastern pavillion of the Agra Fort. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

The view from the charbagh is something else, showcasing the Taj in a completely different light. I visited the monument very early in the morning, and walked around the complex, as the frosty soft light of dawn gave way to a golden glow as the sun climbed higher. A few hours later, the Taj shone white and majestic, the only time it seemed to transcend all context, a peerless special effect peeking out from behind the canopy of the garden.

The Taj from the charbagh. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

Something that’s often forgotten, is that the Taj is a sum of its various gorgeous parts. Take the pishtaqs for example. These giant arched gateways frame the four sides of the monument, crowned by slender spires called guldastas. Within each pishtaq are smaller windows, with stunning marble lattice work on their façade that serve as curtains. If you stand just under an arch and look up, the marble positively flows up from the surrounding walls to a tip. It’s a stunning visual trope, one of delicate lines of marble somehow defying gravity, and becoming fluid. I was again by this sense of the infinite, as if these tangible lines somehow continue into space, never meeting. Repeated on all four sides, this sublime trope adds an extra dimension to the Taj’s already fearful symmetry.

The flowing lines inside the pishtaq. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

If the pishtaqs give it form, then the florid calligraphy, the geometric shaped tiles and the pietra dura inlay work on the spandrels framing the tops of the arches give it depth. Words fail me to describe the delicate beauty of these individual elements, although these are wrought on a gigantic scale. The flower motifs droop and swoon, the pietra dura motifs run like sinuous three-dimensional tendrils; and when these are recreated elsewhere on the monument in fine lines of marble, the effect is the same.

Pietra Dura work on the outer wall of the Taj. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
Marble inlay work on the outer wall of the Taj. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

Inside the mausoleum, on the walkway around the octagonal innermost chamber that house the false tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, these designs are recreated on a more intimate scale. The slanting rays of the rising sun filter through the marble jail or screen to light up the motifs, inlaid with semi-precious stones. I was lucky to have gone on a day when the crowds weren’t huge, but there were enough people there. Yet the sheer beauty of the surroundings hushed everyone present, and again I was struck by the reason for the art- you’re supposed to stop and stare, and keep staring till you’re head swims.

Marble carving inside the mausoleum. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
A carved pillar inside the mausoleum. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya

The mosque to the left (west) of the Taj, is more in the spirit of the peerless red sandstone work of Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri. It is architecturally balanced on the other side of the Taj by another building, identical in form, but serving the function of a guesthouse. The mosque is a marvel in itself, divided into three distinct hall areas, with the middle one with the mihraab or the niche that faces Mecca being the largest. The same motifs recur here, but here the inlay work is either in red sandstone, as towards the base of the many arches, or in the form of inlaid painting that play games of visual illusion with your eyes. The central hall again evokes architectural ideals of the infinite. Three steps facing the mihraab disappear into a wall, the concave inside of the main dome a marvel of capricious lines and circles as they, like their marble brethren on the Taj’s pishtaqs, flow upward and onwards into space.

Detail from the entrance arch of the western mosque. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya.
A flower motif in red sandstone on the entrance arch of the western mosque. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya
A view of the main hall of the western mosque. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya.
Detail of the domed ceiling of the central hall of the western mosque. Photo: Bibek Bhattacharya.

The Taj may have become a cliché, but my visit reminded me that it is, surrounded by a vanished world of broad river, woods and a handsome city, a physical representation of the ineffable, an articulation of the inexpressible.

Where the Creatures Meet

“Camel ride sir? Great camel”

Nahi ji

“Why nahi ji sir?”

What could I say? There’s only so much camel I can take, and I’d been catching myself staring at these strange, disdainful beasts all day. I can’t think of any other animal that carries off such studied insouciance, even when doing nothing more demonstrative than chewing cud. But I definitely had no intention of riding one.

I had never been to Pushkar before, and at the risk of sounding gauche, I have to admit that nothing had prepared me for this. Despite being one of India’s prime tourist magnets, Pushkar has a strange feeling of isolation. This may be purely geographic- the town is situated in a valley between parallel rows of the Aravalli range, cut off from it’s larger neighbour, Ajmer, and indeed from the rest of the world. The Aravalli are, of course far older than the Himalaya, and it’s fascinating to imagine how these mountains must have looked in their pomp in the depths of geologic time.  Secluded in the desert, Pushkar and its cosmic lake are indeed timeless.

The crowded Bramha ghat and Gaumukh ghat by Pushkar lake. Photograph: Bibek Bhattacharya

This is in part due to a self-reinforcing alliance between the medieval architecture of the town and an even older religio-cultural tradition. Pushkar has to be one of the oldest holy towns in the country, second only to Varanasi. Yet it’s different too. Bramha is worshipped here, as is well known, but his wives also get precedence. The Bramhin Savitri and the tribal Gayatri, both boon-granting goddesses, occupy two prominent hill-top shrines on either side of the lake, keeping a watchful eye on their husband. Even in the context of the pantheon, this is Hinduism at its most basic: Bramha and the holy cow- rather, the cow’s purifying mouth- get the two main ghats by Pushkar lake.

The entrance to one of the 52 ghats. Photograph: Bibek Bhattacharya

The 52 white washed ghats rise up from the lake in that familiar cluster of layered balconies, chattris and terraces that is common to many old pilgrim towns around the country. These provide enough nooks and crannies for bathers to preserve their modesty, or for the bahurupiya to don his make-up while he transforms into Hanuman or Shiva.

Photography is understandably banned here, considering the number of people in states of casual nudity as they dip themselves repeatedly in the lake’s sacred waters. Every day brings more anxious pilgrims, clutching single carry-bags, the women with the ends of their saris firmly tucked into their mouth, and looking for a dharamshala to stay. Of these there are plenty, some of which specify caste affiliations, providing their patrons ‘full service’ – lodging, food and ease of worship. When the waxing moon reaches its zenith on the night of Kartik Purnima, in a re-enactment of Bramha’s mythical yagna attended by all the gods of the pantheon, thousands of people from around the country jostle here for just that one, cathartic dip in the lake’s sacred waters.

A pilgrim in Pushkar. Photograph: Bibek Bhattacharya

Apart from the pilgrims who come here to wash off their sins, there are as many reasons to visit Pushkar as there are people. Take Marie, a fifty-something Frenchwoman I met in a charming old haveli next to the lake. Now a converted guest-house and restaurant, its frayed grandeur matches Marie, who looks like an evacuee from one of Lou Reed’s songs of the fading demi-monde. Once an actress, Marie has been making an annual trip to India for the past three years, and she invariably finds herself in Pushkar. Did she ever visit when she was younger? “No, I used to think my hippie friends were stupid, babbling on about spiritual India.” She pauses to take a deep drag on her cigarette before spreading her spidery fingers open as if she’s trying to grasp some elusive thing. “But now,” she says, exhaling, “I get it.”

It’s easy to see how the intensity of an exotic faith and the sheer physical splendour of a landscape can combine to such effect on a jaded, urban mind. But while those like Marie are in search of the ineffable, others are here for more tangible reasons. I’d been noticing a young man in a keffiyeh all day, wandering about town, his sharp eyes darting; his bulging arsenal of lenses on the ready to capture the colourful and the serendipitous. I finally corner him at one of the large dining tents for camel-herders, while he’s shoving his camera into the impressive moustache of a peanut vendor. His name is Vikram, and he’s from Mumbai.

“Are you on an assignment?”

“No man, I’m here to shoot my portfolio.”

“Portfolio?”

“Yeah man. Your portfolio is incomplete without Pushkar. Look around man, isn’t this place great?”

Yes it is, I agree, and he lopes off towards the makeshift tent city that sprouts up every year in the wilderness just outside town. It houses the camels, horses and cows, as well as their grooms, minders and sellers. Its carnival time for the local tribal people; busily chewing sugarcane, buying farm implements, hukkas and kitchen utensils while an army of photographers shadow their every move, shooting fifteen frames a second. If you discount the camels and the holy city vibe, Pushkar is curiously like Shantiniketan’s Poush Mela– essentially an annual local fair that politely ignores its well-heeled city patrons.

A woman walks past a gaily decorated camel at the fair. Photograph: Bibek Bhattacharya

In another category are the ‘Pushkarites’- decidedly more urban than their nomadic brethren- who go about their day in the cheerful knowledge that it’s one long holiday. When the slanting sun paints everything gold late in the afternoon, they emerge in finery to ride the ferris wheels, eat whatever junk they can get their hands on, visit the temples and the ghats and generally have a good time.

Ferris wheels at the fair. Photograph: Bibek Bhattacharya

However, to many jaded Pushkar hands, there aren’t any real ‘Pushkarites’, just nomads and tourists. It’s a highly reductive world-view. Walking through the surging throng of pilgrims down the Badi Basti road next to the lake, I bump into a tall young American Hare Krishna proselytiser. He grabs my hand and says, “Hey there my man, where’re you from?”

“Um, here,” I say.

“Oh cool, a genuine Pushkarite! There aren’t many left you know!”

“Um, no, I meant I’m Indian.”

“Oh, from where?” says he, while trying to push a Bhagwad Gita into my hand.

“Calcutta, and I don’t want this.”

“Really? Cool, I live in Mayapur. You must take it.”

“I’ve been there a few times. I really don’t want it, I have one at home.”

“You must visit again, ciao.”

Hare Krishna people at Pushkar. Photograph: Bibek Bhattacharya

The serious business is transacted at the camel fair. The camel is to the Rajasthani nomad what the yak is to a Tibetan- support system, a source of sustenance as well as a principal mode of transport. So buying a good camel makes everyone happy. Everywhere I stop for a cup of tea or a smoke, there’s invariably a gaggle of wiry, weather-beaten men in dusty white shirts and large colourful pagdis conspiratorially discussing camels. And in this regard, the notorious Rajasthani preference for all things male seems to fall through. “A female camel or a male, what difference does it make? I want a good camel,” admonishes a bidi-smoking elder to a harried flunkey, who rushes off to seal the deal.

But if camels constitute the bulk of the business, horses fetch the higher prices. Pushkar Mela is the place to buy and sell thoroughbreds, especially the Sindhi and Marwari varieties. The horse enclosures are usually peopled by minor Rajput potentates, or their agents dressed sharply in riding breeches, jodhpurs and sporting royal crests on their stylish jeeps. A hub for both race and polo horses, some desirable animals can fetch really high prices, going up to anywhere between Rs 3 and 5 lakhs. Mohar Singh of Kherla village was busy brushing the coat of his dashing brown horse, Badal. Is it true, I asked him, that apparently a horse had sold the previous day for 95 lakh rupees? He hadn’t heard of such a thing, but he asked me to beware the sellers of non-Marwari horses. They were spreading misinformation. How much was Badal for? He studied my face a full five seconds and said, “four lakh.”

A prized mare and her colt at the camel fair. Photograph: Bibek Bhattacharya

Later as I walked towards the car-park, I thrilled to the mystical charge of an almost-full moon in this oasis under eldritch stars, surrounded by hills over 200 million years old. Who knows maybe on kartik purnima the Old Ones themselves might descend? Pushkar would probably take it in its stride.

Bibek Bhattacharya

You can find a shorter version of this in Outlook Traveller magazine.