The mystique of the mountains

Print edition : December 05, 2003

A trek to Har ki Doon and the foot of the Svargarohini in the Garhwal Himalayas.

VIKRAM SONI SANTOSH KUMAR KHARE KAMALINI SENGUPTA

The snow-capped Svargarohini, irradiated by sunlight.-

ALL seekers of spiritual quiet seek the hallowed land. All such quests in northern India move almost by reflex to the Char Dham, or the four pilgrim centres of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri - the glacial sources of great rivers. An older reference point perhaps is `Svargarohini', literally, the heavenly ascent, where the heroic cast of the Mahabharata takes a final bow and departs in a celestial mist.

On the Pandavas' long trek to heaven, Yudhishtira is the sole survivor, all the others having fallen en route. When Yudhishtira's faithful companion, a dog, is refused entry into heaven, the great hero refuses to abandon it. The dog manifests as Dharma, the hero's heavenly father, and Yudhishtira enters heaven in a blaze of glory.

Geographically, Svargarohini is popularly identified with the western-most catchment area of the Garhwal Himalayas, rising from the Har ki Doon valley. Fortuitously, the valley has been ignored, except by the Doon School boys' hiking club and some intrepid Bengali families. And the peak itself, with its daunting height of 6,200 metres, has seen no human footprint in ages. Local lore has it that an Englishman who once pitched his tent on her sacred slopes left hurriedly when hail fell in the form of metal bullets. So, though it is not a pilgrim destination, we choose to go on our pilgrimage to the foot of the mountain this Deepavali.

Three days before Deepavali, a car picks us up at the Dehra Dun station. Across the ridge of Mussourie, down to Yamuna Pul, and the aqua-jade Yamuna receives us, gliding sinuously. The baffle of the mountains rise menacingly with clumps of pine on its brows, scattered trees intensifying in its folds. At Naugaon, Yamunotri beckons, a mere 50 km upstream. Alas, here we part company with the river to head west to Parola through an expansive valley.

In Parola, the bazaar is alive. The people are already of different stock and their colloquy has a distinct slant.

Gangarh, a pretty village.-

We run the crest of the hill and descend into a pine forest. In the distance rises a mist of light clouds and through a gap, the first mountain range with fresh snow. We are behind schedule and cannot reach the roadhead at Taluka by nightfall. We must look for a resting place tonight. We pass a clutch of teashops lit by kerosene lanterns and hissing stoves. Darkness has come and we pick up the sound of a mountain river - the Tons - which we follow to Netwar. A faint light comes up from below the road. After a torchlit descent, Vikram enters a room lit by a sooty lantern to face a portly man, the forest officer, glowering at him. Vikram asks for the use of the Netwar Forest Bungalow. The portly man regards him balefully and swells into a litany against the Forest Department; the staff had not been paid for three years. Vikram expresses his useless sympathy. After some cajoling, the officer grants permission. Having heard of the dereliction of the local rest houses, we are pleasantly surprised to find neat rooms, a bright fire, and a lantern and candles for navigational aids.

We make an early start. At the forest office at Sankri, we get an early morning view of Chaukhamba, a spectacular ensemble of four sharp snowy peaks. Svargarohini proves more elusive and remains hidden throughout.

At Taluka, after baggage and backpacks are organised, and porters appointed, we take off on foot. Distances get revised - Osla is not 11 km away as we thought but 14 km. We begin our walk along the Tons, loitering through fields of almost-shocking-pink Ramdana stalks. On the flanks are high ranges as the river's tributaries glisten white. Fallen leaves carpet long tracts of the path. Our walk will take us through a rich forest full of oak, walnut, chestnut, chinar and willow. By our side, the river roars and gushes, turning a pale mint when it foams over rocks. The spirit expands and we exhilarate on spotting a soaring eagle.

The slushy path climbs up and down, crossing runnels of water and fallen tree trunks. The regular path was washed away by huge floods following a cloudburst three years ago. Passing mules are far from respectful, and we had to be cautious on the slithery slopes. One little shove could send us tumbling down. We scramble out of the way. But the mules add colour with their exotically embroidered trappings.

After five hours our shoes are too tight. Osla is still four distant kms away. It is getting cold. At nearly 5 p.m. the sun is setting behind us, casting a quenched but special amber light on the slopes ahead. Osla becomes visible way above the river. At the resthouse in Seema, we quickly get rid of our boots and socks and plunge our sore feet into a bucket of hot salted water, a preventive against blisters.

Children and some other residents in front of the Duryodhana temple in the village.-

Deepavali day dawns. We cross the river and undertake a steep climb with a herd of sheep, guarded by fierce, long-haired sheep dogs. They sport sharply pronged wide metal collars to protect their vulnerable necks from leopards. A fair match for any leopard, we feel. The legendary dog must have protected Yudhishtira from the monsters and demons of those times.

The fiercer animals in these forests are bears, leopards, civet cats and martens. Then there is musk and other forms of deer, blue sheep and mountain goat. Although we are unlucky with sightings, we see proof of the leopard's reality as we pass a group of people with scythes, trying to build a thorn barrier around their flock.

Santosh is the only one to sight a pair of yellow-throated martens loping up a hillside. Of the mustelid or otter family, martens are the size of civet cats, elegant with triangular black faces, a yellow covering on their throats, and long tails. They run with a forward-backward springing action. We are told later by Bill Aitken that martens have sometimes reared up and threatened him when he suddenly turned a corner. Balbir, our porter, tells us they attack small animals by biting the Achilles tendon and thus laming them. The yellow-throated marten actually looks like a cross between a cat and an overgrown squirrel.

We meet Bengali families with little children. A young Swiss trekker comes down supporting himself with ski sticks to balance the weight of his backpack. We arrive at a wonderful bugyal (meadow) with two inviting wooden huts. And a new snow peak comes into the frame. Svargarohini! Here it is at last, gleaming before us, the mountain that has brought us this far.

A high saddle of snow, sunlight forming a radiant white ribbon.-

Shadows lengthen as we walk diagonally up the mountainside to the edge of Kalkatia Dhar, looking way down into gorges 1,500 feet (450 metres) below. The step-like shape of Svargarohini slowly reveals its magnetic presence, beckoning us to follow the Pandavas' example. The mind, lightened by the rarefied air, feels fading away from this world might even be pleasant at the hypothermic peak.

Vertigo makes the altitude palpable. We slacken our pace and take deep breaths. But Har ki Doon is still far away and darkness is descending. Onward, the air gets thinner and the cold gets to us. We pull on our windcheaters. Sweat drips. We strip off our windcheaters. The sweat chills. And so it goes on, until tiny pinhead-sized snowdrops gently brush our cheeks. We approach a great belt of towering conifers heralding the meadow of Har ki Doon. We walk in, piercing their mystery. Under the trees is a dark magic, intensified as the head spins and the wind soughs. Around us, the trees rise, with their green-black foliage, and their resinous trunks, and the cone-strewn ground is imbued with a beauteous gloom. The spirit of the mountain pushes us gently into the light.

We pass two little stone shrines perched on top of the rocks. Their steeples are studded with coins. The river is still at our side, brimful, and shining grey-blue by the green meadow; busily flowing but not as tumultuous. The villagers complain the rivers are always trying to escape from them, tumbling over themselves to get away fast to the plains.

We labour up the last steep and unkindly rocky path as Yudhishtira did on his ultimate trek to heaven, and reach the forest retreat. The gap-toothed Balbir comes running out to greet us. It is enviable, this nimble grace of the mountain people, as they effortlessly climb the roughest, steepest inclines. Yet, they express little impatience, only a charming courtesy and concern for the weaker people from the plains, as they extend their gnarled hands to help us. We collapse in our rooms. We trekked seven hours today as we did yesterday. The body must be protesting.

The banks of the Tons river lined with almost-shocking-pink Ramdana.-

But there they were, the mountains! Rearing up by the side, the snowy expanses of Har ki Dhar, Black Peak, and Svargarohini! There seems to be nothing between us and them!

How many people have spent Deepavali at Har ki Doon! There is no sound of fire crackers here, only the roar of the river and the wind. And there are no rows of diyas (earthen lamps) outlining city verandahs. Lakshmi's celestial lamps are dimmed by clouds. But above the clouds, the sky will be brilliant with the silver of those lamps. Would Lakshmi want to come down to our dark night? We place welcome candles by the door.

Devi, Present in the form of Lakshmi, In all beings, I bow to her. I bow to her. I bow to her.

We share the prasad of sugar grains. The porters who have joined in the puja spot the whisky. They hold out glasses for their prasad and down it in a gulp. Lakshmi has been invoked and Deepavali celebrated.

We spend a restless night, and during a snatch of sleep, Kamalini feels tiny fingers playing the piano on her head. A mouse! When torches are switched on it has vanished.

The Duryodhana temple in Osla.-

How can we describe the morning, so dazzling that we cannot sight the mountains? Then, as the sun distances itself, they appear - the awesome peaks are right beside us, a hand-span high through half-closed eyes. A mere frolic, and we shall be atop Svargarohini! The cold at 3,500 metres has completely evaporated. The sun soaks through our bodies, heating them to a rightness only achievable in the mountains in autumn. We are in the promised land.

But we must return. With protesting limbs we plunge down, down, down. Six hours later, just before we reach Seema, a sprightly woman laughingly accosts us: "You stay here with me! Come on!" she tells Kamalini, thrusting an enormous bundle of grass onto her back. Kamalini doubles up under it and the woman cackles heartily. "Give me your shoes!" she then demands. We look at her tattered sneakers. Her wrinkled face, and unstinting smile, which bares damaged teeth and gums. She cannot have reached 40 yet. Santosh gives her his spare shoes. Those very shoes had carried him to Mansarovar-Kailash some years ago. There, a Tibetan monk had demanded them from him as the reward for saving a pilgrim's life. Santosh had no spares and could not comply. The gift of the same shoes to our Garhwali friend gives him great satisfaction.

We are in the magical village of Gangarh. Tiered, harmonious ochre and brown, with rows and rows of pretty carved wooden houses, rose-coloured Ramdana cushioning verandah rails, slate roofs. People in traditional woollen garments. We are struck by the way animals are taken care of. Well fed, well clothed and groomed. In contrast, the village is dirty. The people are not as clean as their animals. Their beauty - and they are very beautiful - deteriorates prematurely under the harsh conditions. There is no electricity, no sanitation, no piped water, no greens, no candles and no onions. But there are solar-powered lights in every house. And there is Ramdana, daal, raajma, and wild berries full of vitamins. No horticulture, and no systematically grown vegetables here, a contrast to its more prosperous neighbour, Himachal Pradesh. Yet the people seem healthy. Why has only solar lighting grabbed their imagination? Contradictions.

We come to the outre contradiction of the area. The Duryodhana temples. Whereas Svargarohini is venerated for its Pandava connection, the region's temples are dedicated to their antagonist cousins, the Kauravas, and Karna, King Shalya... The idols are called Pokhu devtas and are to be worshipped with the back towards them!

The garbagriha or inner sanctum at Gangarh is empty of idols. The Duryodhana and Someshwara (Siva) idols have been taken out in a rotational routine. Each time they are present in a village, a festival is held.

Little stone shrines studded with coins, in Har ki Doon.-

We question the fact that an island of Kaurava worship has survived in the midst of the surrounding Pandava myth. After all, history, whether factual or mythical, is the preserve of victors. Could it be that the Kauravas actually came to this area?

The valley is not far from Jaunsar Bawar, where the Pandavas spent their exile. Neither is Lakha Mandap, the Palace of Lac, which Duryodhana built to house the Pandavas, intending to burn them alive while they slept.

We wonder if a Garhwal lake was the place of Duryodhana's icy retreat, where, before the final terrific battle with Bheema, he nursed his myriad wounds. "Dwaipayana lake, as white as the ocean itself, was delightful to the eye, and its water cool and transparent. Making the waters solid by means of wonderful power of illusion, our son Duryodhana, O, Bharat, lived within that lake." What stories! The Himalayas resound with them, and the Pandavas and Kauravas had mighty seven-league boots as their history unfolded on every mountain peak and in every valley.

Recent excavations point to the antiquity of civilisation in Garhwal. There are ancient burial sites, distinct altars and pottery and other artefacts dating back to 3,000 years. The Mahabharata itself contains early references to tribes with Subahu as their overlord, and his capital Sripur, which is identified with present day Srinagar of Garhwal. In the Mahabharata, Subahu received the Pandavas when they came to Haridwar. Polyandry is still practised in Jaunsar Bawar, reflecting Draupadi's tale of multiple marriage. A traditional Pandava Nritya is regularly performed. And in the `jagar', the spirit of a personality from the Mahabharata is invoked in a medium.

Rising in the background, the Svargarohini.-

Downstream are Kurukshetra to the west of the Yamuna, Indraprastha to its southwest, and Hastinapur not too far due east. So, after their rout in the great war, would the remnants of the Kaurava army not have retreated up river to the refuge of the thickly forested terai region, and then to the mountains?

Or, could they perhaps have been banished here by the victorious Pandavas in a revenge-reversal of their own earlier exile? And, to keep Kaurava prestige alive, why not deify their ancestor and hero Duryodhana? His divine status might be later strengthened by aligning him with the established Someshwara-Siva cult. All this seems plausible, as we sit before the fire-place in Taluka. The truth is as elusive as the flickering flames.

Vikram Soni is a Professor at the National Physical Laboratory.

Santosh Kumar Khare is a member of the Indian Foreign Service.

Kamalini Sengupta is a writer and a former member of the Indian Administrative Service.

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