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The call of the Himalayas !

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Book Review

By Dr Sanjeev Chopra

Neha Mittal’s debut offering about the fascinating cultures of Himalaya makes for an engaging read for all those interested in knowing about the legends, myths, history, geography, economy, social mores, kinship, rituals, flora, fauna, trek routes and cultural tropes of the picturesque and pristine areas of Devbhoomi Uttarakhand.

In her own words, she wrote this book as ‘the available texts oscillated between two extremes of a spectrum: they were either jargon laded difficult to understand research papers or simple tourist guides containing long lists of places to visit’.

Divided into three distinct parts, the first deals with the Char Dhams, or the sacred geography of the state, the second with the local cultures ‘Being Pahadi’, and the third details the shades, shapes, colours and contours of the Himalayas.

Let us start from the very beginning. The first entry is on Badrinath, also known as Badri, Badrika or Badrikashram, the holiest of the holy shrines of Sanatana Dharma, the abode of Nara and Narayana – Arjuna and Krishna- the prime heroes of the epic of Mahabharata.  Nara represents the enlightened human soul who has achieved eternal companionship with Narayana, the Supreme God. We also get to know about traditions established by the great Shankaracharya in the eighth century as well as the ancient practices associated with the opening and closing of the kapats (temple gates), the significance of the Dimri priests as well as of the Rawal who comes all the way from Kerala.

Of equal significance is Kedarnath, the abode of Shiva, which also finds multiple references in the Skanda Purana as well as the Mahabharat. This was also the final resting place of Shankaracharya. Having asked his followers to stay back in Badrinath, he reached the beautiful valley of Kedar, and left the mortal world by laying down his staff at a place called the Dandi Sthal and attained Samadhi at the young age of thirty-two.

Gangotri: the descent of the Ganga, is not just about the legend of Shiva catching Ganga in his hairlocks during her descent  to the mortal world at the request of the sage, Bhagirath, but also about  the expeditions launched by the Surveyor General of Bengal – the predecessor to the Survey of India – to map the source of the Ganga. The expedition, undertaken in 1808, to coincide with the Haridwar Kumbh, was led by Captain Felix Raper, who was accompanied by Lieutenant William Webb and the artist, Hyder Hearsey. However, they could not reach Gangotri. As such, the first person to give an account in English was the EIC official, James Baillie Fraser, who wrote, ‘We are now in the centre of the stupendous Himalayas, the loftiest and perhaps the most rugged mountains of the world. We are now at the source of that noble river, equally an object of veneration and a sucre of fertility, plenty and opulence in Hindustan; and we had now reached the holiest shrine of Hindu worship which these holy hills contain.’

Yamunotri, the source point of Yamuna, can be traced to the Champasar glacier which melts to give birth to the river. Surrounded by steep slopes, the glacier is extremely difficult to access and, even today, professional trekkers are advised to exercise restraint. And, then, there is Haridwar, the gateway town which is also one of the four places where the Kumbh Mela is held after every twelve years – the others being the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna (as well as the mythical Sarswati) at Prayagraj, on the banks of Godavari in Nasik, and Shipra in Ujjain.

The second section has three chapters, the first of which is on Nanda Devi, the Mountain Goddess. It begins on an eerie note about the various theories about the abundance of skeletons in Roop Kund, as well as the legend of Nanda Raj Jat (the pilgrimage). We learn the famous Pahadi song: Bedu pako bara masa, O Naraina, Kafal paako chaita, meri chhaila (the fig tree fruits all round the year/But O Naraina, Kafal berries only blossom in the month of Chaitra’. The next entry is on Bhotias: the alpine traders who do not accept the Tibetan origin ascribed to them by the anthropologists, but trace their ancestry to the Chadravanshi and Raghuvanshi Rajput clans. Their forebears had gone to Tibet (Hun Desh) many generations ago, and had returned to settle in the country of their origin. The Tons Valley has the Mahasu Devata – actually four brothers – who protect the land and her people. The eldest – Pabasik or Pavasi has his abode at Thadiyar; Bautha, who has a limp, resides at Hanol; Basik at Maindrath, and the fourth, Chalda, is always on the move! Their status as the oracle kings baffled Major Young, the longest reigning administrator, as well as the post independent revenue officials, who finally decided to make peace with the oracle kings. Then we have the Tharu and the Boksa tribes of Terai, whose oral history puts them as descendants of soldiers who fought valiantly by the side of Maharana Pratap, the legendary sixteenth century Rajput king who took on the mantle of resistance against the Mughals.

The last section begins with the Bugyals, the enchanting meadows carpeted with herbaceous grasses in the higher reaches of the Himalayas. The term Bugyal comes from Bug or Bugi, a collective term for several dwarf grasses which grow at an altitude of 3,600 to 4,500 metres above sea level, where the treeline ends, and continue up to the snowline. About one fourth of the geographical area of Uttarakhand is Bugyal territory! The forests of the state abound in Deodar and the Oak – both of which are considered sacred – with the most well known among them being the one associated with the Jageshwar Temple complex. But, she also narrates the story of Fredrick (Pahadi) Wilson, the most famous deserter of the first Anglo- Afghan war of 1842, who introduced apples and kidney beans to the areas around Harshil and later made his fortune as the principal supplier of 65,00,000 wooden sleepers for the railways. We also learn of the origins and spread of the Chipko movement, the world’s first and foremost ecofeminist movement. Last, but not the least, is the story of Edward James Corbett, better known as Jim Corbett, who also made his fortune as a railway contractor. He had started life as a hunter who rose to fame when, in 1907, he shot dead the Champawat maneater, the tigress who had devoured over 400 people. In his later life, he became a committed conservationist, and the tiger reserve at the foothills of Kumaon is named after him.

The best part about the book is that it also gives the reader an idea of how to access the places mentioned in the book. The maps, illustrations and the anecdotal recall of her personal journeys to these iconic centres are indeed a call to undertake the adventure in the enchanting lands of the central Himalayas.

(Sanjeev Chopra superannuated as the Director of the LBS National Academy of Administration after thirty-six years in the IAS. He is now the Festival Director of Valley of Words (VoW) and a Visiting Professor of History, Public Policy and Knowledge Management at the Swami Rama Himalayan University, Dehradun. He has held the Hubert H Humphrey, Robert S McNamara, Twenty First Century Trust and the Royal Asiatic Society Fellowships.)