All over Uttaranchal, Lord Shiva is worshiped with his consort Parvati. Even nature celebrates their embracing in the merger of sky (Lord Shiva) with earth (Parvati). It is Parvati’s incarnation as Nanda Devi that is omnipresent in Kumaon. She represents her icy, unmoving form in endless anticipation of her beloved. Her abode is atop a high mountain peak and its surrounding peaks are her vassals, her kitchen and tend to her other needs.
23rd May 2010, our first destination was one of the, all pervasive, Nanda Devi Temple. The vehicles brought us at the entrance gate and from there it was an easy twenty minutes walk to the temple. After paying obeisance at the temple we continued on a trail with a steep descend. It unfolded stupendous views of the Gauri Ganga Valley. The steep mountain sides were dropping several feet into the comfort of step farms. Kids were having helluva time, running and racing upward-downward, enjoying their youth and agility.
Please allow me to divagate here and recall my first embarrassing encounter with the word helluva. I was in Europe and my friend wrote me about helluva time they had while watching Anil Kumble taking ten wickets in the second innings of a cricket match. I thought that they had “halva time” and feasted on Anil Kumble’s feat (though even at that time, I found helluva a strange spelling for halva). My reply and subsequent responses left me red faced. In retrospect, perhaps it was not my fault. After all, when one is in a foreign country for a long time, halva sounds much more appealing than cricket :-)
Dragging myself back to the trail from the umpteen distractions I have while I write …
Walking on that trail at a reasonable pace, enjoying the glorious surroundings, we reached a plateau, sat there and contemplated trekking further or returning back.
The challenges while trekking downhill is always to keep a check on your trekking enthusiasm, evading the luring of beautiful surroundings and to stop just at the right moment when you have enough energy to bring yourself up again.
It is easier said now than done at that time. We were hypnotized by the nature’s magical charm. There were inner voices of subdued explorer. “What? Return! So early! Perhaps this trail leads to the Gauri river gorge, do you want to miss that?” And then there were rebellious inner noises as well. “I am not tired. I have enough energy to walk down further and come up again.”
Sanity prevailed. We did not succumb to those (fatal) attractions and returned.
While trekking uphill, my Brother-in-law and I took turns to lift Tanmay. Still, when we reached above both of us were huffing and puffing. Towards the end it started to drizzle intermittently and came out our umbrellas.
From Nanda Devi Temple, we drove towards the bank of river Gauri, with a desire to spend some time wandering along its bank.
On the way, there were a few newly built mansions facing deep valleys. Living there would surely be an experience!
Then it started to rain moderately and if the overcast sky was an indication, possibility of heavy rains could not be ruled out. After driving down in those conditions for some time, senior driver stopped and cautioned us, “We should not drive further. The weather in hills is unpredictable and if there would be heavy rains, it would be difficult to return.”
The suggestion was disappointing. However, we had to pay heed to the experienced driver’s advice. A meek and dispirited, “Ok, let’s return” was the response.
While returning, we passed through Darkot village and stopped there to wander in the village.
There we found a place with beautiful views of the ravishing valley. While looking for a vantage point to capture it in our camera, we descended on stairs around and found ourselves in a school compound. It was Sunday and there was no one around. We roamed without restrictions. Imagining kids gaining worldly knowledge, in that blissfully located school, enthralled us.
|Education with a vision|
There we met Raju Martolia, a local guide, who told that Darkot is famous for its hundred years old houses and homemade Pashmina. He invited us to his home to have a look at Pashmina. All of us followed him with immense curiosity.
Traditionally, Bhotia women are skillful weavers of Pashmina along with carpets and blankets. For generations this art is handed over to daughters by their mothers. Nowadays the non-availability of raw wool from Tibet has severely affected the tradition and only older generation is involved in the trade.
At Raju’s home, his mother welcomed us and took us to a small room where she did all the weaving. She then invited us to their first floor room to have a look at some ready material. We removed our shoes and walked upstairs to a small cozy room and looked at the stuff.
Hand-woven Pashmina garments are expensive, in-fact very expensive. It was tough when we could not find anything interesting and returned empty-handed. We retracted quickly without looking at their faces. Perhaps that’s the reason I still retain the impressions of those warm welcoming faces rather than disappointed host.
The grey-black nimbuses that were butting along the horizon for long were now dispersing giving some visibility of snow-capped peaks. Our visit to Nanda Devi Temple, revered in Kumaon as Goddess of bliss, had born fruits and the Goddess has chosen to smile.
The drive back to Munsyari was filled with shrills of excitement as the clouds were lifting curtains over the hidden treasure of Munsiyari and there emerged the awe-inspiring, pristine Panchachuli peaks that held everyone’s gaze. In a short span of time, all the five peaks were visible. It was as if one by one all the five Pandavas were lazily waking up from their profound sleep, throwing away the quilt of clouds and showing their young-determined faces to their admirers, reassuring them of their presence.
|The Panchachuli peaks|
Panchachuli peaks owe their name “five cooking hearths” to their plumes of wind-blown snow that get reddened in the evening sun. Legend is that Pandavas cooked their last meal on these peaks before ascending towards heaven. In reality there are seven high snow peaks among the group, but only five of them are visible from any direction and distance.
We took a break from Panchachuli peaks to halt at the tribal heritage museum. It had a small yet good collection of artifacts, traditional clothing and accessories of the region and is established by Dr S.S. Pangtey, a PhD from Kumaon University, who belongs to Shauka tribe. When we visited the museum, he was not there and his younger brother was guiding tourists. Anyway for our information hungry minds even he was a treasure trove.
Mr Pangtey told us in detail about Pashmina. The winters of the Himalayan region are very harsh. To survive in these extreme conditions, nature has gifted animals of that region with Pasham. Pasham is a fine and soft wool that grows between long hairs of hill-animals. The warmest quality of Pashmina is mainly procured from goats and wild deer though it grows on Yaks and dogs as well. As extreme winters give way to pleasant spring, Pasham if not removed manually, starts falling on its own.
He added that Pashmina woolens are very warm though costly and cautioned that they are vulnerable to moths in plains.
At one occasion he disapprovingly commented about Shauka women leaving traditional knitting/weaving and blamed it to modernization and westernization. I believe western way of living provides women more options. There are always positives and negatives. Nevertheless, in the name of tradition and culture, it is the woman who gets tied down. I am proud that we in India are progressing. Today’s generation has stars in their sight and wants to grab moon.
At the time of our visit to Munsiyari, there were wide-spread rumors of a special worm, found in Malla Johar region, having worth its weight in gold. Mr Pangtey threw more light on ‘Yartsa Gunbu’ (the special worm) and confirmed that those stories were not lore but reality. Yartsa Gunbu’s literal translation is “summer-grass, winter-worm”. It is the result of germination of one of the world’s most ghoulish parasite, caterpillar fungus, on moth caterpillar and in some cases on its larvae. This fungus devours its host, mummifies the insect and the cordyceps grow from the body of the insect. In west this insect is known as the medicinal mushroom.
It is considered valuable and effective in traditional Chinese medicines because of its excellent balance of yin and yang (contrary forces that are interconnected) as apparently this worm is both animal and plant. It is considered effective in cancer and due to its aphrodisiac qualities it is also known as ‘Himalayan Viagra’.
The expansion of traditional Chinese medicine has increased the value of Yartsa Gunbu manifolds in current decade itself. In 2008, one kg of Yartsa Gunbu was sold from US $3000 (most inferior quality) to US$18000 (the best quality one). It has created a globally unique “rural fungal economy”.
Mr Pangtey told that initially Indian Government tried to stop its collection and confiscated bags full of them. However, later it gave up on putting restrictions after realizing the futility of their efforts. This worm has no utility in Indian medicines.
While guiding us, Mr Pangtey jokingly claimed that the British had destroyed two popular traditions of the region, hookahs and the salty tea. These are now replaced by cigarettes, and the Indian chai.
I have read about salty tea, in “Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson” and “यात्रा के पन्ने by Rahul Sankrityayan”. Salty tea is still common in Tibet and hilly provinces of Pakistan and perhaps of India as well. It is prepared by churning butter with salt. It not only gives warmth to the body but also protect throat from infections.
We then moved to the first floor of the museum. It had old photos, letters/stamps/permits exchanged between Tibetan and Bhotia traders.
Here, we came to know about the Pundit explorers of the region.
By 1860, the increasing Russian presence in central Asia or perhaps the imperialistic greed, made British aware of a compelling need to gather accurate surveys and intelligence on Tibet. For them, it was next to impossible to enter into Tibetan territory, even in disguise, let alone survey it. Shrewd enough, they realized that the villagers of Johar valley were apt for the task as they had strong trading relationships with Tibetans for generations and knew the region very well. They decided to provide them training to survey it on their behalf.
In 1863, Pt Nain Singh, born in Milam village, was chosen for the role. He was trained in various survey techniques like the usage of sextant, compass, and measuring altitude by recording the temperature of boiling water and calculating distances by taking exact steps.
Pandit Nain Singh successfully completed his landmark journey from Kathmandu to Lhasa and from there to Mansarovar Lake and then returned back to India. He used Buddhist prayer wheels to drop a bead after every hundred steps and also concealed his notes and calculation in that. His gusty exploration won him accolades of geographers all across the world. Prior to his exploration, the upper reaches of Himalayas and beyond, were shrouded with mystery and no map existed of that region.
There were a few more such individual expeditions to know more about Tibet.
On flip side, these expeditions of ‘explorer-spies’ generated general distrust among Tibetan authorities about Indians. Centuries later, Rahul Sankrityayan noted in his diaries how Tibetan Authorities suspected Indians and curbed their movements in the interiors.
There were a few pictures of Tibetan traders in Munsyari. Mr Pangtey got nostalgic while talking about the time when Johar valley was reverberating with Tibetan trade. He told that it used to take around twenty to twenty five days for the Tibetan nomads to reach Munsiyari with their flocks of pack goats, sheep and ponies navigating through innumerable ridges, passes and valleys of Tibet and Kumaon, braving the wind and the weather.
On their arrival at Munsiyari, the meeting between them and Bhotia traders was like a reunion of age old friends, living across in two different countries, shaking hands and settling down with a cup of salty tea, discussing the woes-triumphs and happenings-mishappenings of the past year.
In those days the salt consumed in the entire Himalayan valley came from Tibet only and so these traders also brought the salt.
Mr Pangtey was describing everything in such a detail as if all was of recent past.
There were a few books on the sale. We bought, “Munsyari – a gem in the Indian Himalaya by Dr S.S Pangety”. The book was a disappointment. However, I would highly recommend a visit to the museum, if nothing else, then to appreciate the efforts of Pangtey family and to get glimpses of old, traditional Munsiyari in their sweet-vivid narration.
As we came out of Museum and moved towards our vehicle a rooster sitting on the roof of a house like a weather-cock started crowing “Kookroo-koo, Kookroo-koo”. It amused Tanmay. We told him that it was crowing, “Tanoo-Tanoo” and congratulating him for allowing us to listen to Mr Pangtey peacefully.
As we returned to Zara resort, the fortune of staying in the special room of Zara was waiting. The peaks glowing in the setting sun were visible from the big windows of the room as if someone has hung a life size photograph. My Brother-in-law praised the awesome views from the room and every time he praised them, Jaishree reminded him, “Nothing comes for free. We have spent hours for this meticulous planning. You must pay your tour operators (us) for it.” And at every sigh and word of praise the charges increased in denomination of thousands.
|The golden rays on Panchachuli peaks|
|Rat race, stress, corporate friction. Rise above it all|
The next day morning, it was time for us to return from Munsiyari. The manager of the hotel suggested us to trek from the back of the hotel, boarding the vehicles at the end of the trek. We love trekking and believe that as in a camera, scenery can be best captured by increasing the exposure time, similarly, mind also make powerfully etched memories if you provide it time to absorb the surroundings. Perhaps trekking is the best way to do so.
Walking at a slow pace, listening to the mellifluous sound of the stream flowing through the verdant green of the trek, exchanging smiles with the occasional locals, as we reached to the top, the valley was echoing with the tinkling of bells tied to two horses.