Our search began in Dehradun, home to the Great Trignometrical Survey of India, this is where in the 1860s, in Hathibarkula, Colonel Montgomerie had trained his handpicked explorers in ingenious secret surveying techniques to let them loose into the unmapped parts of Central Asia; this is where they hadcrafted ‘special’ Buddhist prayer wheels, pilgrims’ staves to conceal compasses, notebooks and thermometers for the old pundits’ to carry. You have to evoke memories of Nain Singh, Kishen Singh and Kintup, all remarkable men who risked their lives in unchartered lands.
Pics & Text by: GANESH SAILI
‘The night does indeed have ‘a thousand eyes’ if you look down at the valley of the Doon from the foothills. But I look north towards the mountains of Uttarakhand from where my father, a sixteen-year-old came carrying little more than his dreams. He was a part of the exodus from the village in the remote hills of border district of Chamoli, looking for a job – anything that would help make a living.
If time travel were possible, you would have found a strapping lad, with no baggage, undecided what to do?
‘I had no money, so I stood at the Rishikesh bus-stand,’ he would tell us years later. ‘I looked at the charts for the cheapest ticket.’ The die was cast and the foothills of Mussoorie won that lottery.
Half a century later, I set out on a walk about – a journey back to my roots – back to the same mountains that my father had wanted to escape.
Uttarakhand is a place where every cave, rivulet or brook, is dedicated to some sage or saint, who had a fondness for the area. I worked my way through the travelogues of Padma Bhushan Rahul Sanskritayan, Kaka Sahib Kalelkar, Dr Govind Chatak and Vidyasagar Nautiyal.
In Hardwar at a secondhand store I found a battered copy of ‘La Prima Catholica Net Tibet.’ I find that in 1624 a Jesuit monk, Father Antonio de Andrade became the first European to enter Uttarakhand, having travelled from Goa, to arrive here in 1600. Andrade, and his companions, Father Manuel Marques and two Indian helpers, joined a group of pilgrims in Delhi, who were going on a pilgrimage to the shrines of Badri-Kedar.
Mistaking them for runaways from Mughal rule, the Rajah’s Garhwal Guards took them to be spies wanting to infiltrate the area. Days lapsed before they convinced the authorities of their real mission. Plodding through snowdrifts in the Mana Pass, on 11th April 1626, intrepid Andrade arrived in Chaprand in Tibet.
I go past Adi Badri to Gairsain, the home to Chander Singh Garhwali (who had refused to open fire on unarmed civilians during the struggle for freedom). And in Ranikhet I met the legendary Thakur Surbir Singh of the Tehri Durbar to get a glimpse of his personal library. Sheer bad luck was that the crumbling parchment scrolls were in Prakrit, which he generously donated to Kashi Vidyapeeth, Benares.
In Hursil, in the Bhagirathi valley I saw the nineteenth century mansion of the English freebooter Pahari Wilson or Rajah Wilson. Posterity remembers him for everything else: entrepreneur, shikari, logger, raconteur who had once minted his own coins.
It was left to Baille Fraser, an accomplished amateur artist in the first quarter of the 19th century to give us our first sketch of Gangotri in1815, printed five years later in 1820 as ‘Views of the Himachal Mountains’ in 1820. Following him, forty years later was Simpson, a professional landscape artist, who resurrects this scene, in the course of his travels to the Gaumukh glacier, the source of the Ganga, where he says: “I had my morning dip below the glacier, and I drank a little water.”
Above the waters of the Alaknanda river in Srinagar-Garhwal was an old bridge painted by the two Daniels: Thomas and William in 1789. They had arrived with an escort of fifty sepoys to find the bridge of ropes crammed with panic stricken folks fleeing with pots and pans from a pursuing army. They waded through crowds of curious locals who had never set their eyes on a white person before and presented Raja Praduman Shah, a watch and a pair of pistols. But the artists did not linger long. They were afraid to get embroiled in a local skirmish.
After them came Thomas Hardwicke, a soldier, zoologist in 1796. He was a botanist and to him we owe the first images of the Himalayan rhododendrons. Though the flowering mandar or the magnolia here were a favourite of the seventeenth century painter-poet Mola Ram. During this time, Rajah Shyam Shah ruled Garhwal – a liberal ruler but an impatient man, who ordered the disarming of some Naga sadhus.
Tales survive that after morning court, he would ride a caparisoned elephant to the home of ‘the other lady’. One sultry monsoon day of July 29th, l631 while out with his entourage, boating on the swollen Alaknanda, his boat capsized and he drowned.
Afterwards, a tale began to do the rounds. It is said his ghost in royal regalia took to wandering around the town. On one such outing, the ghost bumped into the son of one of his old teachers to whom he gave a bag full of gold coins, asking him not to whisper a word to anyone. To make doubly sure, he left the boy with a permanent stutter.
As for E. T. Atkinson there was no turning back, as the Himalayan Gazetteer remains a ready reckoner on these hills. It never ceases to amaze me how little we know about the man behind the work himself. He probably was the atypical self- civil servant who was judged solely by his work.
Cut from the same matrix was G. R. C. William, whose imperishable record of the Battle of Nalapani gives us a vivid account of both the victor and the vanquished: the British and the Gorkhas.
Other victors from the First War live on –or their names do –near windswept Chamba, above Tehri, is what was once home to Naik Darwan Singh Negi, a rifleman decorated with the Victoria Cross.
Who can home to go past Tehri without remembering our martyr Sridev Suman who blazed a trail into the history books with an eighty-four day hunger strike; or who can go past Maletha, without memories of the warrior Madho Singh Bhandari: ‘Ek singh ran koh/ ek singh bann koh, ek singh Madho Singh/ Aur singh kai koh?’ (One lion to the battle, one to the forest, one called Madho Singh, are there others?)
To catch some of the magic of the mountains, a dip into Frank Smythe’s (pub. 1931) ‘The Valley of Flowers.’ He wrote: ‘I met a true civilization, for I found contentment and happiness. I saw a life that is not enslaved by the time factor; that is not obsessed by the idea that happiness is dependent on money and materials.’
Near Rudraprayag’s Gulab Rai, is spot where the legendary Jim Corbett shot a man-eating leopard on May 1,1926. It had killed a 125 people and caused a great uproar. Many years later, he met a soldier from Uttarakhand who had been crippled in the Great War and was a little boy on that momentous day years ago.
Corbett wrote: ‘A typical son of Garhwal, of that simple and hardy hill-folk; and of that greater India, whose sons only those few who live among them are privileged to know. It is these big-hearted sons of the soil, no matter what their caste or creed, who will one day weld the contending factions into a composite whole, and make of India a great nation.’
Sitting under the shade of a huge rock, snatches of Lama Govinda spring to my mind: ‘Pilgrims are religious nomads, people who go with a purpose, think as they go, move for a reason. They have constancy in flux, patterns in variety, knowledge of the void.’
Poets tell us that there are treasures buried deep within the mountains and I too had set out to look for them. We have to realize our full potential to ensure that this scourge is reversed. No longer must men like my father, Mukand Ram Saili, que-up at bus-stands looking for a cheap fare. Fortunately the tide has begun to turn. Very soon abandoned villages would be no more than a passing phase for we in Uttarakhand are custodians of pilgrimage destinations in ecologically fragile zones.
What is the need of the hour?
We need water in the villages; teachers in our schools; proper health facilities; structures in harmony with our surroundings; clean public facilities; proper sewage control; regular electricity and employment for the young. As the sages of the old have told us: ‘In a thousand ages of the God’s one cannot tell you of the glories of Uttarakhand!’