A Different God – Uttaranchal/Himalayan North India/India

A Different God
Uttaranchal/Himalaya North India/India

Have you seen God, met Him?

Perhaps, neither have I. “Perhaps”, because I don’t know if the one I met (or rather, could not meet) qualifies as being a God.

Up in the hills of Uttaranchal, Uttarkashi, on the way to Har-ki-Doon, a glimpse of Swargarohini peak is a quaint (in the truest sense of the word) village that is built up of wooden houses, perched high up on a mountain, home to exactly a hundred families, many times more cattle and in the center opposite the panchayat ghar, the temple of Duryodhana!

The village is called Osla and one of the village elders is named Savitri, which incidentally was the name of my father’s mother.

Her eyes were light, smoky gray and hazel, keen and sharp – in contrast to her frail frame and measured gait. Poverty, hardship and beauty – thy name is Osla, is Savitri, or is it Duryodhana?

Maybe HE did not like our motley group of twenty, consisting of a democratic mix of ages, gender and backgrounds – the youngest being thirteen and the oldest, fifty four – tramping about all over His hilly kingdom and ticked us all off with the most incessant and severe hailstorm we had ever encountered. Almost three hours of ice bullets ripping into us, piling up hail ice more than six to eight inches under and around us, as we as we gasped and shuddered from the shock, the cold, the punishment for impinging on His territory. The locals had never seen anything like it, at least at this time of the year. Freak weather. Sorry, but I didn’t know that Duryodhana (a Kaurava) could still be God. You live and learn. During the hailstorm the balance was out and out in favor of the latter, though.

We started out from Delhi on a terrible May evening, muggy and blazing at the same time, on to a bus bound for Dehradun: the only fun part of this journey being getting on to the roof of the bus, hauling up our rucksacks, kitchen provisions and tying it all down. Br(e)aking with the dawn at Dehradun, we commandeered a local bus that would take us, lurching almost twelve hours to Sankri via Vikas Nagar, Naugaon, Purola and Mori. Well, three buses actually. We changed once at Naugaon (steering problems) and once before Sankri (the forest department would not allow in a different bus than the one registered with it). Sankri, finally. The end of telephones, electricity, metalled roads and city life. Welcome solar power, spring and stream water, jeeps, wood fire smoke – and Chintu. Chintu, the huge white woolly ram who was so tame and inquisitive that he literally butted through most of our luggage and some of OUR butts as well, for good measure.

Hopping on to two jeeps, we rode over rocky hill roads (trails?), river beds, through dense jungle and into Taluka, that place where I went out for jungle-paani in the dark and in the open, after an interminable and lulling gap of five to six years. They told me bear tales but I managed the field trip quite well, thank you!

Got together the support team – wonderful and hardworking Balbir, the cook; the eminently forgettable and cocky Vijay, his assistant; Main Singh the sober and gentlemanly pack-mule driver – and got the dinner fires going.

Waking up before dawn, we got ready for the first trek into the hills, up to a little hamlet called Seema, fourteen kilometers away, on the opposite side of the hill from Osla, separated by the Shoopen river. Hoisting our rucksacks, we strode out into the morning sun, walking along a wooded and craggy path, next to a river. Ah, the rivers. There are rivers and streams everywhere here. The bigger ones � Shoopen, Roopen and Tons (or Tamsa) loud and belligerent, sounding a warning to anyone foolhardy enough to ignore them. The Shoopen and Roopen are made up of many small tributaries from springs and melting ice and glacier waters, themselves merging into Tons and on to the Yamuna. The locals have names for all of these. But then, these are all they have, all their life. There is no Jal Board or Water Department here. From a height of 5000 feet to approximately 8000 feet above sea level, we walked and even then I could not realize we were in the land of a different God.

The hills, the mountains, the streams, the rivulets, the climb, the dirty but pretty children along the way asking for candy, the rickety wooden bridges, the driving rain every evening, the panchakki, the view of the majestic Maajikaata beyond – all this could only be in the land of a different God. This part of the trek is not completely uninhabited and one meets local people, especially the children herding their cattle at regular intervals. But take heart, every once in a while, a beautiful hill damsel will appear around a bend, her smile pushing you to climb higher into the hills.

The journey is a minimum six hours trekking to Seema, at least for the first timers. But it is enough to start the mutation. Stark beauty takes over manicured city malls, standing by to let the mule train pass takes over traffic lights at intersections, chuckling brooks and streams take over from fizzy colas and bottled mineral water, hard breathing, sweat and hammering heartbeats take over from air conditioning, road rage and angst. I did not yet know that I was in the land of a different God. That would come later. I only knew I was in a different land.

Tramping up to the forest rest house at Seema in the rain, we paused momentarily at the small temple (no, not Duryodhana’s) and to talk with some of the locals who ran the couple of dhabas there. One in particular, Mahendar Singh, was an affable man and took an immediate liking to us. So much so, that he invited us to a meal on the house and bade us sample some kutchchi (the local brew) and cholai (local vegetable). We barely escaped his hospitality that evening as we chatted in his shop with the school teacher from Delhi, who was backpacking and travelling alone up into the hills (he was almost my father’s age!). it rained heavily that night and we sang songs and told jokes in the light of the kerosene lamp, over the brazen cacophony of the Shoopen racing past just outside.

Hmmm…there was soup, rice, rotis, daal, and yes, dessert (suji halwa). Maybe we were in His kingdom.

We had a terrible night. The doctor in our group woke up screaming. Someone or something had been tugging at his sleeping bag. Groggy, fumbling and cold we searched by torchlight and smashed up all the creepy crawlies we could find. They were all we could find. The doctor would have none of it though, and was convinced it was something much larger that had tugged at his sleeping bag that night. That mystery was never completely resolved and we settled by “common” consensus that it was probably a mongoose that had got in through a storm drain in search of food, or maybe, warmth?

A harbinger of things to come. The next morning was bright and sunny, lulling us all into a false sense of ease. A late start at eight a.m. and a bad night’s sleep soon became two worlds coexisting as one. A steep, steep climb almost 3,500 feet, almost total lack of humans and habitation, the sensuous and tough beauty of the terrain, the view of the Bandarpoonch peak, the deep valleys and gorges, the first views of snow on the peaks, the dearth of oxygen in the air, the getting knocked over by a mule – brains fuddled enough by the hard climb and low oxygen to not step aside and let it pass, the sudden attacks of vertigo at the edge of the precipice, the stumbling upon a tea shop (my apologies to the real thing) in the middle of nowhere, where the only items on the menu were tea (apologies, again) and a passable stew of Maggi noodles!

Up, up and on to the Kalkattiya Dhaar, rugged, rocky and sharply inclined. We had been told this was a moderate trek!

One foot ahead of the other, step-by-step, ten kilometers to the waterfall. Break out the packed lunch. Fill up the water bottles. Reload the cameras. No one could really eat. We shared the packets of glucose biscuits and huffed and puffed. Four kilometers to go. Har-ki-Doon seemed just there. Hah! Duryodhana had other plans. A switch was thrown. From bright sunlight to shade to semi-darkness. From the crash-whooze of the waterfall to the ominous clap of thunder. From the cool spray of the water to the heavy, fat drops of rain. It all changed suddenly. Scrambling for rain sheets, raincoats, plastic, we started plodding ahead, thinking foolishly for it to be a passing shower. Hardly half a kilometer on, the raindrops hardened, got colder and speeded up. The hail started out small and light and by the time we had trekked a little less than a kilometer from the waterfall, the fury began. Hard hailstones, as big as marbles, loud as gunshots, stinging like fire ants, made us stop. Within minutes, the landscape turned white. At first we could see the trail, the big rocks, the path. Soon all was gone. Only the whiteness, the hailstones, the cold and the pain remained. After about half an hour of this, we found the Bengali couple struggling towards us with their rain sheets that they made us share. There were six of us under there holding up the blue plastic sheets like an impromptu roof against the hail, our fingers getting cut and bruised from where they were exposed. As we stood, the ice crept up two, four, six inches around our feet. It kept climbing up higher and higher. “Jai Gurudev!”, I called out from my heart, exhorting Him to cease this disciplinary action against us unknowing humans, begging Him to spare our loved ones and us the agony of a cold, cruel mountainside. “Jai Gurudev!”, I cried louder and louder, the words echoing in the hearts of the other five, as they stood with heads down and eyes closed. “Jai Gurudev!”…and slowly, very slowly the hail started easing up. It slowed and almost stopped. Taking heart, we started walking again, but the trail was gone! Everything was white; our feet sank inches into tightly packed hailstones. Now what? Blundering about, up ahead two hundred meters or so we found fresh tracks in the snow. They looked like mule tracks. Faithfully, we followed them, trudging along in the ice, slipping sliding and sinking alternately into it, until at last we saw the Forest Rest House up on the ridge at Har-ki-Doon.

A warm fire and welcoming cheers started to thaw us out as one-by-one we all staggered into the small wooden structure. I could have hugged each person present there. I think I did. I can’t remember now, not anything except the fire. Who cared about the smoke – Delhi had worst pollution.

Because the place was small, I volunteered to spend the night in the kitchen, some distance away, along with our group leader and our Bengali Babu. Slept on the counter and woke up smelling of spices and smoke. The weather continued to be unhappy. The entire next day was spent indoors in front of the fire; singing songs and pulling legs in a state of bonhomie and togetherness.

A small patch of sunshine in the morning saw our shoes, socks, underwear, rucksacks and sleeping bags dotting the white landscape outside the cabin like flotsam from an ocean liner gone under, frozen in ice and time.

God knows we needed the break, the rest. Next morning, it was a trek down into the valley – the bughiyaal – walking up towards Swargarohini and the Jaundhar glacier. But the weather started closing in again and we had to beat a hasty retreat to the cabin. That afternoon, we ventured out again, this time up the slope to the undulating grassy hillsides. It was like living your favourite summer dream. Cool winds, fresh air, icy streams. I wanted to die there, so my soul could live there forever.

Back to the kitchen to sleep. This time around it was our group leader, a young lady who found the cold unbearable and myself. Two nights in a row we took turns to ensure she survived the night. She did. So did we – barely.

Morning dawned bright and beautiful. Ironically, it was time to return. I felt woozy from a bout of mild altitude sickness, lack of proper warm clothing and not enough sleep. But all this wasn’t enough to take away from the most gratifying part of the trek.

As we started out back towards Seema, what had once been covered by hail and ice was now clean, crisp and clear to see. The sharp silhouettes of snowy peaks against azure and powder blue skies against rolling grasslands and verdant valleys against the shadows of racing clouds. It was like a wrap around National Geographic series unfolding around us, in real time. The boundaries between here and now and someplace else blurred softly, someplace else being the dreamlike ideal where one always wanted to be.

The descent was much faster and our group leader took us down some paths we would have thought nonexistent, at least on the way up. Sure, it was so much easier doing it in the sun. Almost to Seema, but not down, moving further on the trail, less than a kilometer or so ahead – to Osla.

A village rising up out of nowhere, around a bend in the trail, nailed in wood to the mountainside, smelly but aesthetic. The energy of human life, of enterprise and hardship, of His being permeating everything, hit us immediately, along with a group of cute and filthy children.

Almost like Dr. Livingstone and the natives, we trooped into the center of the village – the temple of Duryodhana! Savitri, smiling and limping, waving us on to the portals, asking for offerings to Him and telling us the deity was in another village. He was not there, but yet, I could feel His presence clearly – His land, His people, His mountain. We surrendered completely for the next hour or so and the young lady of our group sang songs with the children in the temple courtyard.

Threatening weather finally took us back down to Seema, back to other Gods. In my heart, I quietly thanked Him for allowing us to share His world, His pride as we headed back, back to life, back to reality as we knew it. Preparing to brave our return, to risk our lives � back home.

There remained one little question though – did we bring something with us from His kingdom or did we leave something of ourselves back there?

I don’t think I will ever know the definitive answer – and, to me, that is the true beauty of Har-ki-Doon.

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