Sunday, 23 March 2014

Going Local, in Kumaon!



On a tiny hill but one teeming with temples, I caught myself sitting on a parapet scribbling a little letter to Golu Devta. He accepted petitions for fulfilment on stamp papers, post-its or behind business cards tied around bells with red threads. Of course, to do as He pleased with them. I looked around and then I said to myself – ’Am I really doing this? Was I home only yesterday?’

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One fine summer vacation, I was jolted out of all-things-Delhi-college-vacations-are-made-of-in-Dehradun by a certain Prof. Kiran Sood. Now, when it’s your mother’s colleague from the local girls’ college and a reputed Professor of Political Science you have to sit up, no matter how your vertebral column craves to go back on the folding bed under the sky. But sometimes, it takes no time for all sloth to leave them bones. 

She asked me to accompany her on a road trip across the Kumaon hills. We were to visit a few key places of divine interest to forward her Ph.D, pass through the rest and reach a small village called Gangolihat to address a gathering of village women – about local problems, awareness, education, livelihood, etc. I was to assist her in a few surveys she wanted to conduct. My head nodded an 'of course' with such excitement that the tree joined in and sprinkled a little aam bor on our heads.

Clocking four days, the trip was to involve more time on the road than off it and at any time of the day or night. With a trustworthy driver bhaiya behind the wheel and two ladies in the back seat, our white Ambassador left the Doon valley behind even before it had opened its eyes.  How ashamed I was to notice how little I knew about the towns around my home town. At what point I left the Garhwal Hills and entered Kumaon I knew not, but what I did realize was that two camera reels would not be enough. I had under-estimated the marvels which would cry to be etched in my memory through my point-and-shoot. Not beauteous hills and snow-clad peaks peeping from behind them. They were there too, regal in their glory. But the local flavours that every bend on the hilly roads made me see. 


Now, we from the hills are quite strange. The site of a lake amidst the mountains can excite us no measure, so what if it’s a 2 feet deep man-made tank en route concretized Mussoorie. We paddle excitedly nevertheless, as if crossing the English Channel in a swan shaped two-seater. And matching that boating excitement in magnitude is the pride we feel for those real tals which may adorn our hamlets. What you see in the picture below is the lake in Bhimtal. Half a day on wheels and this is where our knees finally stretched, and where an animated red-cheeked passer-by took this picture. Not a word he shared, just a ‘come quickly’ wave of his hand that made us cross the road, another gesture to show us the expanse proudly and then taking the camera to shoot his lake, with a little bit of us in the picture too, thankfully. A strange guilt he made us feel, for thinking him a con. Does he want to offer us hotel deals? Guides? Run off with our camera? Nothing! He just stopped in his tracks to shoot his lake. For us. And suddenly, we felt we had indeed come a long way from home already. 

Bhimtal

Our halt for the first two nights was Sri Aurobindo Ashram, built on the highest hill top of Nainital (or so the deadly ride up made me believe, just like it made me pray to the complete pantheon of Gods.) To be honest, I was not comfortable. Was it the bleak grey edifice standing alone or the faulty door lock to our room I know not. But the spooky silence of the empty corridors disturbed me. Nothing came for me at night, but neither did sleep. If it wasn’t for the early morning meditation I shared with students I had eaten a humble breakfast (and washed used plates) with, I would have missed noticing the humility writ large in every corner of the famous establishment. Something I was not used to, coming from a college famous for pampering its girls. The second night I slept a sound sleep. After all, the silence that was gnawing at a city-bred me was actually only Peace, walking softly. 

At sunrise; Book-reading and meditation

The next day was both long and curvaceous. We reached Almora around noon for a 30 minute break no more, for we still had to make it to Jageshwar before twilight. The eateries dotting the roads did not promise you facilities, but they all assured you splendid views of the hills beneath your feet. A very sumptuous meal over-looking disciplined terrace farming was had. That dal was new to me, as was eating some green leafy vegetable without gawking at it. But the rotis were piping and the sight of the dessert inspiring. Almora is famous for Bal Mithai a sweet which may remind you of Homeopathic pudiyas, but is a delicious combination of soft and crunchy, and hardy enough to last you a lifetime. It took inane super power to keep my eyes open post this culinary experience. But then my being awakened, when Jageshwar Mahadev Temple happened. 

Bal Mithai

Gulping it down, admiring the dessert 

I have always loved the sound of temple bells playing catch with the morning Sun. It calms me and reminds me of a simpler life which I have never known, but which the chimes make me wish for. But to hear bells and see nothing but glades upon glades of trees is a different feeling altogether. As if your mind is playing tricks with you, turn after turn. Cocooned, as if by choice, away from all eyes was the Jageshwar Mahadev Temple. The trees had formed a green shell around the place, gathering the temple in their arms like a protective mother. As I took in the numerous structures, for the first time ever a place of worship felt real to me. Perhaps how it was made, and how the public was allowed to pray – fuss free, frills free and fees free, added to it. There was something very primal about it's simplicity. Most magically and so unlike me, in the middle of the forest with no habitation around and rumours of leopard sighting, I sat on a stone exposed to uncertainty yet feeling safe and secure. Very secure.



I remember being really tired when we reached Gangolihat very late in the night. We were to be housed at the Forest Guest House which rejected our bookings for election candidates and left us on the road, literally. Ganga Devi, who worked at the Lodge as a cook, took us home. What ensued is what I never imagined myself a part of. Ever. Her two-room house transformed into a flurry of excited activity it had never seen before. For two city women with nowhere to sleep is not something the mountains get to see very often. With her husband away in CRPF, her children beamed curious smiles as they made themselves useful. We cooked over her chulha, and slept on the divan you see in the group picture below (behind our driver bhaiya), while the woman and her kids huddled together on the bed. I remember waking up with a bursting bladder, asking her where the loo was. She opened the room door just enough, asking me to cross over the gravel and use the 3-walled-no-roof brick structure. She seemed scared. It was 3 am, and when I came back I found the door open just enough to let my whiskers in. Only the next morning I was told how leopards walk the night in this area, looking for peeing prey and open doors. While the gathering around the food laughed, I swallowed hard and swore to have a bladder made of steel the next time around. 

Ganga Devi, our Goddess, in the purple shawl

Kitchen, and smoke
By 9 am at the village commons, women had walked from all the surrounding hamlets, some miles away, to be a part of this day. I wondered awe-struck where from came that stamina in those frail bodies and the will to wake up before sunrise and walk in worn out rubber slippers to this ‘hall’ to meet us. It is only when they started sharing their tales and pleading for deliverance from drunkard husbands, no electricity, wayward children, diseases and an unheeding administration, I realized why they were here in droves. In the group of ‘speakers’ they saw hope. I looked around at the natural beauty, of mountains a mix of shades of green with brown in between, of lazy clouds stopping to admire the scenery and tiny brooks criss-crossing the vales wildly and I realized – Within the folds of Kumaon hills are lives barely living. The beautiful peaks seem like a charade, veiling the reality of these women away from the visitors’ eyes and lenses. The irony of the names painted on the wall in the picture did not escape me. Goddesses they were but sans any worshippers, it seemed!      

The four who chatted with me, about everything. Sent them this picture.

In the hall
I promised to send Ganga prints of pictures I had taken, and Ganga's daughter promised to wear my blue drop earrings. The look in her eyes when she saw them on me assured me that she would prove a better lover to those than I had been. It was time to turn back and retrace our steps to where we came from. So far removed from these people and their places, but to Life as we knew it.

But we couldn’t have gone without seeing Patal Bhuvaneshwar. We were right at its mouth. A most interesting series of caves with a gut-wrenching tumble down a narrow tunnel as its doorway. It made me want to scream ‘oo’ and ‘oye’ to hear my echo telling me, Dear child grow up! So I did not. But all blasphemous lessons from Geography came tumbling out my brain as I saw stalactites and stalacmites in the shape of Gods and Goddesses. Try as I did, I could not see Shiva’s hair in stone or Ganesh’s trunk in rock. What I did see were the miracles the natural marriage of water and rocks could create together over aeons. Marvellous and a sculptor’s delight! But I climbed back into daylight before the pujaris read my geographical mind. The apparently healing ability of the divine cave would not have been able to save me from their wrath for such unholy thoughts. While wrath I did not pick, I did find a bunch of tourists to trail all the way to a rest house in Mukteshwar, owned by the Professor’s friend and where I found myself some good friends, including the most handsome one in black!

Travellers around a table

The best one
I remember reaching home quite spent. It was a most unusual holiday, or off-beat as they are called. For the first time I had experienced at close-quarters not just the natural beauty my hill state is famous for but the daily struggle of those who live in those very mountains, even as divinity continues to be worshipped in the many temples. It’s been a decade since the trip, but I will never forget the flavours the unbeaten path got my way!

Mukteshwar
Post script – I apologise for the bad quality pictures. A travel post without good photographs is like chai without tea leaves. Plus, such a long post! But then, too many places and too much to tell is not bad for a traveller’s health. Do Wiki interesting details about some of the places I mention. I also saw, most coincidentally, this piece of news in TOI around when I wrote this. I am hoping the coincidence means Golu Devta remembers what I wrote on a post-it 10 years ago, even if I have forgotten what I requested him for!

[Written for WordPress Daily Prompts : 365 Writing Prompts aimed at posting at least once a day, based on the prompts provided. The prompt for today was: Local Flavour - Write a piece about a typically “local” experience from where you come from as though it’s an entry in a travel guide.]




60 comments:

  1. Wow! I have been to almost all of these places and so reading this post was a trip down the memory lane. The Golu Devta temple was introduced to us on our first trip to Nainital by our taxi driver and ever since we travel to meet him at least twice a year. Such is the peace that we find in those mountains and in the sound of the thousands of bells. Your pics compliment your words very well. Beautiful travelogue! :-)

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    1. Oh of course. Vikesh is from Uttarakhand, right? Good to know I took you down memory lane, Rekha. And very happy you liked this piece. :) Thank you so much!

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  2. Sakshi, congrats on your foray into this new "category" of writing. Though I personally havent been to the place, your lovely words and beautiful images helped me picture everything, as how you would have experienced. I can almost hear those bells ringing. Yes, it was a tad long which is about the only drawback. But then again, you couldn't have done justice to this entry in any shorter form.

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    1. Yes, Sid. I experienced it unlike more tourists do. I mean, who goes to stay in Sri Aurobindo Ashram and not paddle in the lake in Nainital? Or stay in a village house and not book a hotel? I couldn't have kept this any smaller, for I couldn't have skipped a place without mentioning it. Perhaps, later, each place will occupy a post of its own. For now, brought forth the most personal and the most off-beat parts. Maybe I got carried away by your post lengths. Or maybe I read the 'how to' of travelogue writing and was told it can be 2000 words long without a crime. ;) Thanks a lot for linking this. This trip is very close to my heart!

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  3. You truly are a gifted writer! From the heart, funny, engaging and the ability to take the reader along on the trip!

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    1. Sonal didi, you make me super happy! I don't know a more discerning and evolved reader than you. I did try to mix in funny with engaging, without sounding like Wiki-Travels. :D Thank you. You made my day. :)

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  4. This was quite a lovely trip, especially for someone like me who has had all of one trip from Delhi to Ladakh on the road as my only foray into the Himalayan foothills to talk of as a similar experience.

    You effortlessly bring in your usual style of writing and pen down this post with the same amount of class and effortless elegance with which you usually write.

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    1. That must have been lovely, Jai. Ladakh will happen to us, maybe after N grows old enough to not tire in low O2 climes. I am happy you liked this. This is as local as it could get in my neighbourhood. Feeling class-y now. ;)

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  5. After reading this i definitely want to go there! :)
    Beautifully written :)

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  6. A travel post without pictures can indeed be insipid. You made me go back in time when we used to bike to Haldwani from Pantnagar and then take a bus to Nainital. And where did you get the picture of Balmithai. I used to love this- it has sugar granules stuck on something like a Doda Barfi.. Right?

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    1. I got Balmithai and Jageshwar off the net. I sure hope you did not find this post insipid. I can see how old-world pictures no longer can stand up to the new-world digitisation. Thanks for reading this, Alka.

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    2. Oh, I just noticed I forgot to reply to your complete comment. You are absolutely right about the doda comparison. We get this mithai in Doon too. But I think Almora should hold the GI for it. Let me get you a box when I go to Doon next!

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  7. I guess i am a regular at your blog ,,, and you just nailed it with this post ! how well you described the journey with your ever so charismatic way was just admirable ! and yes the images helped the flow !

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    1. Thanks a lot. I know you have been dropping by ever since I started writing reviews. Your words help. :)

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  8. Nice elaborate post Sakshi. :)

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  9. wow such an interesting travelouge!! now my sasural is in haridwar and we often take road trips to Uttarakhand, keeping haridwar as our base, so i could identify with a lot of local elements you talked about in here...

    http://www.myunfinishedlife.com

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    1. Nice. I belong to Dehradun, and so does my sasural. Good to know we are "neighbours", so to say! :D Thanks for reading and liking this. :)

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  10. Nicely written travelogue.
    Thanks for letting us know about Kumaon Sakshi..

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    1. You are welcome, Krishna. Glad you liked it. While I have given you my experience here, do check out details about Kumaon online too. Very interesting History, among other aspects.
      Thanks a lot! :)

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  11. Very nice travelogue! Mesmerised! Wonderful!

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  13. Very nicely written,Sakshi :) Even though my hometown is in Almora and I have visited these places many times,I don't think I can write like like you.You just woke the Kumaoni out of me.You are a garhwali,right ?
    PS : I was born in Delhi !

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    1. Hi Tarun,
      Good to see you here. :)
      I am a Punjabi whose parents were born in Dehradun, so I call myself a Garhwali/Doonite, or however you want to put it. You are from Kumaon? Well, you liking this piece makes me very happy, Tarun. If I had known a Kumaoni will be reading it. I'd have been nervous. :D
      Thank you for reading this. I am sure you too can do justice to your beautiful home town in words. :)
      Best.

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    2. No need to be nervous :D It was really great read.Maybe I will visit hometown this summer after 2010.

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    3. Oh 2010? Well, I thought our 5 months gaps visiting Doon were a shame. I am glad to feel less guilty. :D Have a happy trip, whenever it comes about. Hope to see you here more often.

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    4. Actually Kumaon word catched my glimpse on my Indiblogger account and here I am :) Currently reading all your popular posts/gems.

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  14. This was one great read Sakshi.
    About seeing divine figures in stones and trees, I find it quite strange.
    I find it difficult to say no or yes to the guide pointing it to me. :)

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    1. Thanks, Indrani. Coming from an evolved travel blogger like yourself, your words are like dollops of ice cream. About that guide-situation, I often don't understand the accents and hunt for key words to string together and make sense. Otherwise, I just Google before going to a new place. :D So that 'difficult to say yes or no' I understand totally!
      Thanks for reading!

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  15. OKAY! This post officially made me nostalgic (and sad). I recently came back to my home after spending a complete year (well, almost a year - 10 months and 13 days to be precise) and I can relate to almost everything in this post. I have been to every place that you have mentioned here. And personally, of all these places Mukteshwar was one of them that took my breath away. It will always be special to me. Kumaun for me became more than just a place. It is a feeling :)
    You have narrated all the instances so beautifully here, and the picture added an extra essence in the post. I couldn't stop myself from dropping by to leave a comment here.

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    1. Bhavya, you just made me add a picture of Mukteshwar. The last one, and a view from the resort where we stayed. I was too conscious of the quality of the picture taking away from the real beauty, but your comment made me add it. Especially because, I agree with you that it does take our breath away! When you call a place a 'feeling', you need no more words to describe your love for it. It is a part of you.
      I am happy you read this. Double happy - you are from Kumaon and you travel.
      It took a travel post to get you here to comment. Expect many more in the series - not about our 'homes' but about our 'homes away from home' now onwards. :)
      Many thanks!

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    2. No. I'm not from Kumaon. I'm from Rajasthan (which is well, AMAZING itself), but I went to travel at the Kumaun region alone. I believe we stayed at the same resort at Mukteshwar (considering the fact that there are only 2 resorts at Mukteshwar), since I have a very similar picture like this. I have an album dedicated to my visit at Mukteshwar on my FB account :)
      I absolutely love traveling. I have always believed that we all have different definition for the word "HOME". Home for me, can never be a place of a thing. Home for me, is something different. It is an emotion :)
      Will be waiting for your next post :)

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    3. This resort was under construction when I went. 2004. Will see you album on FB.
      I like what you say about Home. I agree. :)
      Thanks so much, Bhavya. This interaction was great!

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  16. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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    1. Thank you for reading it, Pankaj. :)

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  17. The travelogue conveyed how fulfilling and meaningful this trip must have been. No worries about the pictures - I think they were great even if not in digital format originally.
    I remember the leopard story. :)

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    1. :) Thanks a lot, Rickie. And thanks for reading.

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  18. Such a beautiful post Sakshi. I love how you use language as if it plays on your finger tips. You don't have to worry about the pictures when it is accompanied by such a vivid write-up.

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    1. Thanks. Not worried any more at all. :)

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  19. Thanks for sharing your travel experience..:-)

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  20. It's interesting to note how open are to newer experiences when we were younger, unmindful of the inconveniences. And it is experiences like these that stay with us for life.

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    1. How right you are. We know nothing of creature comforts, or concepts like privacy and privilege when younger. And then, Life happens. :)
      Good to see you here! :)

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  21. Certain trips not just impact you, they impact you for life. This trip had so many moments that i feel if you had gone Snip snip you wouldnt have done justice. I like a complete post so what if its a few words long. Loved the post, hey you should go again to get the pics that you missed.

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    1. This was indeed that kind of a trip, Athena. I had nothing exotic or even adventurous to boast about. But the first travelogue had to begin with this post for me, somehow. I am happy the length did not bore you and you read this through. You would not have realised otherwise how much these 4 days meant to me. I am sure I will go again, and I swear I have a better camera to accompany me now. :D

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  23. Such is the charm of traveling ! And you described this breathtakingly beautiful place in such a mesmerizing manner. What a read !

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    1. Thanks a lot for stopping by, Yashi.

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  24. I am so late in reading this but then how can I miss a travelogue! I have been to Bhimtal and Nainital and your descriptions brought back so many memories! But the best part about this post was your experiences in Gangolihat.
    I don’t think travel means anything unless it makes you more insightful and aware of the world around you.
    And this trip seems to have left exactly such an impact on you ! Great Read Sakshi !

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    1. You are absolutely right. A meaningful travel and not one which hops you from site-to-site is what one really carries ahead in time - as memories, or experiences to write about. You saying great read means a lot to me. I guess I followed the right person in her travelogues and made her break the coconut on my blog too. :)
      Thank you!

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  25. I have only been to Nainital and not to the other lovely quaint places that you describe so well. It actually makes me nostalgic to take a bus and walk to places less seen. With kids, sadly we often do the touristy route. But in Coorg last year, we did a lot of 'close to the soil' stuff which was so much fun. I loved the pics a lot. Look at you in them and especially the one with that handsome furry friend! Loved this read, Sakshi! Looking forward to my trip to the North with even more vigor :).

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    1. So happy you liked this, Rachna. I'm looking forward to your trip too. :)

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  26. i loved the post , and i have this wanderlust too , i never leave any any any chance to go to places especially into the woods and near mother nature.
    bah! got ti8me after so many days to come back here and read youuu...i was just scrolling down to see what to read first and then "bal mithai" catched my eye , i loveeee bal mithaiiiiiii!!! pleaseee ma'am gift me few kilos ..:D i didn't find it here in Delhi.. i can only have it when any of my garhwaali friend go there and bring me :) and for sure i am going to these places just an year moreeee , i finish off my engineering .. i will get back to this post when i am done with visiting them all..:)

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    1. :) I will carry Doon-ki baal mithai for you. Not the original thing, but close enough. At least iss bahaney we will get to meet too! :D

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