Tuesday, July 13, 2010

(Random) Musings on Sojourn in Kumaon, Himalayas

Sojourn in Kumaon, Himalayas. It originated from a story that Gen Chatterjee shared about his experience of traveling like a nomad once in a while. Simple travel, with the intention of experiencing the real India. I chose Kumaon, the Abode of Gods. My real intention was to be in Himalayas. Just Be. When Prof. Ravichandran asked me “What are you doing in Himalayas?, I replied that I was doing ‘Nothing’. The next question can be guessed: “Then, why are you there?. My reply was ‘To Be in Himalayas. Just to be.” It may not sound intelligent, but it was an honest answer.

Despite the famous saying about a picture conveying more than a thousand words, I do not include any pictures in this blog as I want to avoid reducing the infinite dimensional experience of being in Himalayas to two dimensions. In fact, I avoided taking pictures on many days so that I can just be with the nature rather than doing photography. Anyway, I am sure you can find tons of pictures and even videos on the net.

I avoided the so called tours as they are antithesis to ‘Being’. My itinerary was rather randomly decided, solely based on the availability of accommodation. I was not very choosy of the places on the itinerary as something kept telling me that it is the first of many. I was pleasantly surprised that Kumaon appears to be crime free and I experienced a warm, caring friendliness from almost everyone that I met – so much so I wondered whether it is the same humanity or a different kind of species. I also saw more beauty not just in the nature, but in the people and it was a beauty beyond outward appearance. There is also music in the air and a dance all around; music of the birds; the gusts of wind, the omnipresent tall deodar and pine trees whistling and swaying gently and the clouds creating a light and shadow show that is never static. The landscape is an unending range of mountains and valleys, with a view that is extremely dynamic and ever changing with the sun light, clouds and the angle of view. The landscape is dotted by what are called ‘roads’ , which are in reality hairpin bends and potholes strung together and wrapped around the three dimensional contours of the mountains like an infinite snake. All in all, I experienced the infiniteness of nature and my own infinitesimal-ness.

The first experience I want to share is what happened on our way back from Ranikhet, where I and Sadhana (an Ashramite who participated in my earlier retreat) went for a day trip form Ramgarh. We were stuck in Bhowali from 5pm onwards. What we did not know was that no vehicles ply after 5pm. We were wondering what to do after trying hard to find a vehicle. At 6:20pm, a Maxx stopped and the driver grinned at us and asked us to get in. His name is Viru and he told us that he will drop us at a point form where we could walk to Madhuban in about 20 minutes, a maximum of one kilometer. Off the highway, he took us through a narrow pathway to his father-in-law’s house, from where he picked up his bike to go on a 100km drive to attend a marriage. His father-in-law invited us to stay the night at his home and go early in the morning the next day. When we insisted on leaving, he reluctantly agreed (after ascertaining that our mobiles can be used as torches) and sent a guide to escort us through the jungle till we reach the pathway to Ramgarh. We started at 7 pm and the guide left us around 7:20pm, showing a pathway. We started walking, expecting to reach the well known junction of Ramgarh in a few minutes. The sky was slightly over cast and the visibility was just adequate to keep going. As it became darker, the sky cleared and a three quarter moon started showing the way to us. We walked and walked, sometimes feeling quite scared as I know we were in the habitat of king cobras and leopards. It was an eerie, yet intensely enjoyable experience with total focus on the moment: the pathway, every sound and movement. Finally, we reached Madhuban just after 9pm, totally exhausted but very happy to be in the Ashram and the prospect of a meal with plums and apricots for dessert. I would have perhaps declined to go this way if we had known the distance and the terrain. Ignorance led to the bliss of a moonlight trek, an unforgettable adventure.

I was coming back from Jageswar to Almora and put my thumb up to a Maruthi 800 to go to Almora. Mr. Arya, a teacher, was driving to a nearby town about 10km away to type a document on a computer. He found an internet center and told me to keep my eyes open for any vehicle that could give me ride to Almora. He finished his work in about an hour and I was still waiting as I found no vehicles to go. He explained to me that it was a big day for weddings and many vehicles were commandeered to ferry the marriage parties. He invited me to his home for the night and go to Almora the next day! Just then, a fully loaded Leyland truck came along and the driver agreed to take me to Almora. If you ever want a thrill just short of bungee jumping and the like, go for a truck ride in the mountain terrain. I was amazed at the skill of the driver when he cajoled his monstrous truck to pass another equally monstrous truck at places where I had doubts whether our truck could pass! And, he did this many times while talking on his mobile.

I met this 80 year old ex-army soldier D.S. Chital. He was discharged from the service after being in the hospital for a couple of years and had to be escorted to Bageswar (his native place) as he could not travel or walk on his own. The mountain air healed him and he started a tea stall during a three day carnival in Bageswar. Luck smiled on him and now he is a multi-crore pathi and has several business interests including a 3 star hotel and business complex.

The public vehicles are like the legendary Pushpak Viman. There is always place for one more person to squeeze in. It is not the driver alone who wants to take more people out of pecuniary interest, the people inside are also more than willing to accommodate more co-passengers. This is very different from my usual experience of the “inside-outside-divide” and a very interesting demonstration of community consciousness, fraternity and compassion. When the vehicle reaches its elastic limit (if ever there is one), the driver opens the balcony of the vehicle (provided there is no big risk of being caught by a lurking cop, who is looking for something to happen as no major crimes happen. Apparently there are some safe “time and space” corridors that are well respected by all) and after he balcony fills up, seating becomes non-linear in three dimensional space-time of the cab. When we were coming from Patal Bhuvaneswar to Berinag, I opted to travel balcony class and enjoyed an exhilarating ride with clean cool air beating on my face, sun shining brightly and an uninterrupted and very pleasant view of the hills and valleys. One of the young co-passengers had some plums and pears that made the journey even more enjoyable.

Despite the dust, congestion and confusion, the public transport scene is a happy one, full of bonhomie and good humor. There is no credible information system and whatever information you get may not be your best friend as a bus may decide not to turn up on that day due to one of the many reasons or decide to leave even thirty minutes earlier, again for unfathomable and inexplicable reasons. I developed an algorithm that was simple. Get ready early, go to the bus stop and wait for the bus or share taxi to show up. People appear to have philosophically accepted waiting for unpredictable amounts of time. People get in with a smile, they are happy just to begin their journey, as it is not uncommon to abandon journeys on some days. The smile widens if they get a seat. Children may start their journey in a seat (if one is vacant), but they get soon upgraded to lap-top class and appear to be quite comfortable and happy to be in the lap of a stranger. The adults start a conversation with the child and a pleasant time is had by all. Some times, the conversations are held across the length and breadth of the vehicle, over the blaring music (the songs and the volume at which they are played is sole prerogative of the driver and is part of the package). When pieces of the conversation are lost, they are relayed by willing co-passengers in an atmosphere of goodwill. Some people who suffer from motion sickness throw up and no one has any issues about it. In fact, motion sick people get window seats and are helped in any which way and vehicles usually have tarnished sides soon after they begin their first trip in the morning. I was amazed by the mutual understanding between drivers and the road rage, which is so common in the plains, is very uncommon in the mountains. Then there was this driver who drove for 30 hours with just three brief spells of rest. I am sure that he could get into the Guinness book. I once was in an Alto along with nine other passengers. Yes, nine.

I was partial to lonely paths that appeared to beckon to me for exploration. I met this young man on one of the many occasions I lost my way. He took me to his home which was built using in the vernacular architecture, offered me a delicious cup of tea and walked with me to the Mall road. He is an ITI trained electrician, jobless and wants to go to a city in search of a job. I recalled the beautiful landscape around his house in an idyllic setting, with a couple of goats and a cow, his children and felt sad that he could soon end up in a ghetto in one of the so-called cities.

In this region, there is considerable liberty taken with spellings and grammar on the few sign board which use English. A sign board said ‘Test Restaurant – Brekfast, Launch and Diner’ and I did not feel at ease to try out these interesting offerings. I had to brush up my rather rudimentary (and much rusted) Hindi and try to read the sign posts and converse in Hindi. The conversations usually provoked a smile and on a couple of occasions I was advised to speak in Hindi, not an easy advice to follow when I was already speaking in Hindi as best as I could. However, the people of Kumaon went out of the way to understand me and help me despite my unintentional mangling of Hindi. They appeared to seem transcends the barrier of language to understand me.

It is amazing to see the porters who are all pervasive, without whom life would not move even at the slow pace that it is moving now. They cart everything with such skill and adroitness that it is almost like watching a circus or magic show. They just use a rope slung over their forehead and the load is balanced on their back. With this simple but universal technique, a saw them carry bricks, a full sized steel cup board, two gas cylinders, carets of soft drinks and what not.

I did see some amazing small, beautiful wild flowers that grow in abundance. I don’t know the names but not knowing the names was in no way a barrier to enjoy their delicate beauty. There were many birds and on the many walks I enjoyed their uninterrupted, orchestrated melodies. Wherever there are tall pine trees (an almost ubiquitous scene), the wind provides an accompanying humming music, not unlike the familiar harmonium in Indian classical music. I did not meet any fauna except a very large toad (I would like to call it a Himalayan toad). I spent about an hour wandering in the scrub forest of the deer sanctuary in the hope of meeting a musk deer. I was disappointed in not meeting a deer bust was quite appointed that I met no one. I met a huge monkey in Mukteshwar, about 4 to 5 feet tall. If its face was not so black and the tail not so long, I would have been tempted to claim seeing Yeti.

I had brief and dreamy glimpses of the glaciers from Almora, Bageswar, Berinag, Chakouri, DidiHat and Mukteshwar. There is a special quality to these ‘Darshans’ as the glaciers were playing hide and seek and when they do peep out of the veils of clouds and mist, there is an ethereal beauty in their brief and unexpected appearance for an unpredictable time. The rains in the mountains were very special, presenting a magical experience before the rain, during the rain and after the rain. The sun used to somehow manage to come out towards the end of the day, showering golden sun shine on the vast expanses of green; as if nature took a beauty bath and is basking in golden sun shine; many a time unveiling the a glacier. On a couple of occasions, a rainbow made the scene unforgettable. The view from the Malainath Temple in DidiHat is very special. It is a high peak with a 360 degree view of the valley. You see hundreds of green mountains as far as the eye can reach in every direction with the grey shadows of higher and farther peaks. The entire northern horizon in adorned with glaciers peeping out of the clouds. I would love to be here in November and experience what could be the best view of Himalayas.

The one sad note in the whole experience is the damage I perceived in the plundering and pollution. The towns themselves are blots on the landscape, an aberration created by man in something which is otherwise perfect. The rapid deforestation is throwing up red patches (I don’t like them) in the infinite green-scape and most of these patches occur around the towns. The beautiful vernacular architecture which appears to blend with the nature is giving way to RCC structures. Most of the perennial streams and legendary rivers are dry. Almora appeared to be particularly dirty and the first heavy shower woke up the municipal authorities into clearing the clogged drains. The next day, the whole city was stinking (even more) with the trapped odors being liberated long with the fished out debris waiting clearance.

The Himalayas are so infinite that the damage done appears to be small but if unchecked could tip the delicate natural balance of this age old monument to the glory of Earth. I was happy that plastic bags were banned in Bageswar and the ban is actually operative. I wish we would learn from Switzerland, Chinque Terre in Italy and Rothenberg in Germany in preserving the best and most vast natural beauty that nature has gifted us.

Inspired by Mrs. Alice Syam, I started watching birds and tried taking a few pictures. The birds appear to be photo shy with a sixth sense, moving away just as you click.

Mukteshwar was one of the most charming places I stayed in. An idyllic small town of a beauty so pristine and rare that it defies description. I stayed in the beautiful campus of IVRI and I am grateful for their warm hospitality. They have a cool room carved out of a cave in the face of the mountain, where the temperature stays below 5 degrees centigrade naturally, all around the year. Research in virology requires a cool room facility and this was the original reason why Mukteshwar was chosen as the location for IVRI. It was a privilege to be shown around the institute by Dr. Shukla, a doyen of Indian Veterinary science.

A special place I want to mention is Patal Bhuvaneswar http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patal_Bhuvaneshwar. It is an amazing place where you can see the natural formations with an uncanny appearance so much like the many Hindu Gods, mythological creatures and events mentioned in the Puranas. It is said that this cave is described in the Manasa Khanda of Skanda Purana. I intend to add some pictures and notes to the article on Wikipedia.

I did visit many temples on hillocks seeking Divine Grace as well as great views. The mountain next to the Kamakshika temple in Pithoragarh is very special. It is shaped like the back of a giant elephant and you walk with interesting and contrasting views on both sides of the elephant.

In terms of culture, the life, dressing and food appear to be very similar to those in the plains. I enjoyed the occasional ‘Pahadi’ music amidst the usual film music. The marriages are almost identical to the functions we are familiar with except that the band wears dresses which are claimed to be ‘Pahadi’ and the basic beat is ‘Pahadi’. I enjoyed the vibrant beat but I did not appreciate the addition of a vocalist who is given a mike and unleashes his lung power (which seems to be the sole criteria for the job) on the public. They put the band and vocalist along with a generator on a vehicle and share the joy of the marriage party all over the town without so much as ‘by your leave’. I was quite amused in the beginning but gradually it wears you down.

One of the points that I kept pondering over was the connection between Himalayas and Auroville. I found the insight on the day of my departure. Auroville is the cradle of Human Unity. Kumaon is the cradle of Human Spirituality. Spirituality is about transcending ego and discovering your true being. In that state of being, you are ONE with all beings  Unity and Oneness. So, the cradle of Human Unity, Auroville is just another facet of the Himalayas.

An interesting offshoot is that I will be offering the Personal Growth Lab course at IIM, Indore in the Himalayas. We call it Integral Development Lab and will be conducted at the Van Nivas Ashram at Nainital. Nothing like this has ever been done and I am excited and grateful that I am the chosen instrument to facilitate this event. I intend whole heartedly and pray that this becomes an annual event and I get the opportunity to be in Van Nivas every year and keep exploring and experiencing Himalayas.

This is, by far, the longest blog I posted. I better stoop now as no amount of writing can actually capture the infiniteness of Himalayas. I am grateful for the experience that I enjoyed so much and hold with awe and reverence in my consciousness.

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