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?’
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.
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.
|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!
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.]