NANDAKINI IN THE RAINS
WILLIAM McKAY AITKEN
THE MONSOON is the silly season in Garhwal and to prove it our first parav was called Silli Buggiar (the shady rocks). Happily re-emerging from the upper reaches the first village that we saw was called Good Buggiar, for who can feel silly after crossing the Silli Samuder glacier (ocean of rocks) ?
1984 was the golden jubilee of Shipton's discovery of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary and vindication that lightweight is beautiful'. So as a personal tribute to the early explorers I set off for Joshimath on 10 July to meet my three Lata porters Natha Singh Butola, Govind Singh Rana and Harminder Singh Rawat. Though they lacked the technique of Ang Tharkay, Pasang and Kusang, their confidence and cheerfulness made for a memorable if gruelling trek to the sources of the Nandakini.
I let the porters make the decision about how to approach our goal. They vetoed lugging loads up to Kuari pass in the rains and then descending to Sutol. I vetoed pushing up to Chanoniya-ghat from Sutol for I had heard several horror stories about this route qualifying one for a doctor's degree in masochism. It is a botanist's paradise but an expedition's logistic nightmare, reminding me of machete and elephant country more than perhaps the most magnificently forested source of the Ganga.
The quickest and easiest way to Homkund, the true source of the Nandakini is from Gwalda the route taken by the Bara Nanda Jat, the traditional twelve-yearly pilgrimage in honour of Nanda Devi which starts from Nauti village. But the most beautiful is to follow the river from Ghat, the road-head, to Sitel and , then climb steeply through fine conifers to join the Curzon Trail at Kanol. Wan is only a few miles away along a thickly cypressed ridge. If I don't give distances it is because I took no map. It is much easier to make one's own rather than get involved in official neuroses. I find maps ink-fingered on whitewashed village primary-school walls perfectly adequate for my religious and cultural interests. It was amusing to be consulted by a Survey officer on our way back from Homkund whether a temple shown on the old maps still stood. We saw no traces and I suspect like the fair marked on old maps of Rupkund these are residual illusions of the pukka sahibs who actually functioned on hearsay.
At Wan I took Gopal Singh Bisht, son of the forest bungalow chowkidar, along as guide; hardly a Tilman but adequate to identify the geography. Not that we could see much in the monsoon clouds. Incidentally the Wan guides call Ronti 'Remti'. But this was on condition Gopal procured some kerosene for us. Those omniscient delegates to Himalayan environment seminars who trot out thei necessity of using kerosene have obviously never tried to buy it in a-hill bafcar. (Plains bus conductors won't allow you on thei bus with it.) District headquarters, queues, father's name, sub-divisionar magistrates and sanctions of half a litre per 0.75 (or every two-thirds) of a pilgrim are some of the mumbo-jumbo we avoided by paying Gopal extra to use his initiative. This involved raiding any stove or lantern that came his way. Since he had to, go as far as Bakrighat I had to carry his load up to Bedni Buggial through the leech-infested oak jungle.
Next morning Trisul: was clear but unaccountably I didn't leap up for a photograph. After three extra hours in bed I decided I must be ill. The porters made elaborate plans to carry up firewood to Bhagubasa but when I next woke at midclay they were still playing carts. A sadhu staying at Bedni Kund advised us to forget the firewood atid instead make extra rotis stuffed with dal for a push over to SilliSamuder camp straight from Bedni.
Lcuckly next day the weather held and we were able to do this stretch easily. A year ago and later in July, Nathu and I had 'With great difficulty to reach Jyura gully. 1984 by hardly arty snow but the disadvantage was Rupkund resembled a grey puddle and the surrounding cliffs a curtain. We scuttled down the other side with tantalizing glimpses of Trisul looming over us in the mist. Suddenly an opening in the clouds played on the emerald triangle made by the Nandakini falling from either side of Homkund. Above was Snowfleld of Ronti Saddle (over 17,000 ft) between the rugged grandeur of Nahda Ghuhti and the impossibly steep ramparts of the Devi’s trident. The tantric symbolism of the Nanda Devi yatra is confirmed by the existence of a Sri Yantra buried at Nauti and its replica at Homkund. The four-horned ram that leads the procession is donated by the Chandrapur Garhi raja. Interestingly this little fort has some characteristically Bengali architectural details. It is also curious that Bengalis visit this area in large numbers and one wonders if there is still a cultural link at work. Luckily for us a Bengali group had preceded us by a week and we were able to escape thanks to their birch bridge over the Nandakini at Chanoniyaghat.
The big bonus of being there in the rains is to experience the intense colour of the flowers. Every valley seemed to have a different carpet of colour and favoured species. Silli Samuder around the big rock camp was blue, perhaps Moorcroft's gentian. Higher were really lush stands of rhubarb and acres of white anemone. Rupkund was distinguished by the presence of Brahm, and the candy-floss Sem kamal (Saussurea gossypiphora). The blue poppy was common all the way from Bedni but in small groups. On the banks of the Nandakini under Chota Homkund however I saw several dozen growing together on the hillside.
Bedni in July is particularly stunning. ‘When you see colour, think of Bedni.' Against the Wimbledon green the Bistorta mac-rophylla (dock) runs in a pink to purple riot with the hardy wild geranium. Buttercups vie with bloodred potentilla in lining the paths and when the grazing horses gallop by, manes flying, in their hundreds, you feel this is what they meant by the Elysian fields.
One of the most striking colour effects was to come across the lush magenta Willowherb growing among the white rocks of the Silli Samuder glacier. For a moment I thought of renaming it 'Garibaldi glacier' in view of all the red shirts in bloom. Just as we left the glacier I was delighted to come across clumps of what appeared to be a close relation of the Californian poppy but in brilliant yellow, growing on a bare sandy slope. The porters fell to digging the exquisite mauve Dactylorhiza hatagirea for its finger-shaped white root. Dried, this plant is a miracle healer and hath-jari currently fetches two hundred rupees a kilo on the market.
The climax to the flower show was to find a sheltered corner below Chota Homkund which seemed to possess some secret growth hormone. Umbelliferae were already shoulder-high and growing thick and strong giving an extraordinary sense of natural exuberance. And high above these stood out almost in ecstasy the striking sulphur-yellow poppy Mecanopsis paniculata. Further on we saw the exotic wine-purple Morina thistle but the exciting blues of Aconite and Delphinium were still to unfold.
By contrast the bird life was disappointing. Snow cock were in evidence between Bedni and Rupkund and the porters spotted the female Monal at Ali Buggial where they went for milk. But between Silli Samuder and the lower reaches of the Nandakini valley we saw nothing. The same was true for wildlife. Apart from the tailless mouse-hare which had taken up its abode in the Bedni Buggial tiny temple of Nanda Devi (two of them, tame enough to be photographed) and a weasel that dashed along the bank of the river for 200 yards at Chota Homkund, we saw nothing. No doubt the weather dampened our resolve. Normally bharal browse above Homkund but we didn't see any point in slogging up to Ronti Saddle in poor visibility, a one-day diploma in masochism.
The camp below Homkund was under a very windy rock overhang. The climb to the kund (over 13,000 ft) along a knife-edge tidge took us two hours (one hour was spent in retrieving my camera case which I kicked off the ridge) in the morning and as we completed the jpuja by nine the thunder drove us back down. Contrary to reports there was water in the kund. Looking back towards the lone rock in the meadow above Silli Samuder was like seeing a reversed image of our Homkund-climb. The handsome peak guarding the southern approaches to the Nandakinj valley was called Chanoniyakot by Gopal but I have seen the name Tribhuj used in maps. I understood Chanoniyakot was at the Rupkund end of this ridge.
The return continued on 18 July after our early morning darshan of the Devi's kund. It was one of the most strenuous and enjoyable days I can remember in the mountains. By 1 we had cut across the river and climbed another lush and slippery hillside to avoid the almost hanging moraine of the lesser source of the Nandakini, issuing from a snout at the roots of Trisul. The Bengali birch bridge was secure but I had a nasty moment humping myself over when the seat of my tracksuit snagged on a knot. The river was pounding my boots as I sat astraddle.
Then the Jungle section started. Though this should rightly have qualified as the Mumm Experience (Moments of Utter Mountain Misery) we refused to be beaten down and ended up this treacherous passage singing in the rain. The mixed birch and bamboo contrived to catapult any unwary footsteps into space and my finest moment was the effortless performance of a double blip somersault into the azelia bushes, with my feet sticking out at 60 degrees. The porters rushed down with all the solicitude of the unpaid. Fortunately the damp patch was only blood and not brandy.
The Lata men's cheerful bulldozing saw us past the Jamundalli parav clearing and at three-thirty we fetched up under a wretched overhang, with a ledge for the tents barely above the level of the flood. That night I slept with my head out of the tent porthole keeping an eye on the level of the river. Within fifteen minutes of arrival, soaked, sodden, cold, shattered and, let's be honest-lost, the porters were plying me with hot chocolate, Marmite on cream crackers and the ultimate luxury, a pair of dry socks. Well, (lost ultimate. The production of the expedition half-bottle of brandy had a lot to do with our bouncing back from bloodiness to bliss. Immortality is a great feeling, even if it doesn't last.
Within fifteen minutes early next morning we had re-discovered the line and raced down through the anemones and Hackelia like Chindits slashing a way through the bamboo thickets of the Salween. As we reached the clearing of Lata Kopri at eight a large light-brown partridge whirred away and momentarily I imagined him on a platter with knife and fork upraised. Thoughts of, omlettes and kolldrinks (plains' colas hit the hills in 1984) kept up the pace and we raced through Sutol at 2 p.m. The whole villege was away collecting wild honey by means of men dangling ropes down rock faces .... stirring up the deadly bees with a bamboo. After paying off Gopal we toiled up to Perri ridge then zig-zagged down steeply to the idyllic bungalow at SiteL. Our luck was in for we met a party of villagers who had just got the bridge over the Nandakini operational.
Next day after farewells and promises to send money orders to cover the damages I left the porters at Nanda Prayag to their fresh fried-fish from our bountiful Nandakini and headed for a bath and haircut in Srinagar, Every memorable visit to the mountains deserves a motto and ours was freshly carved on the Bedrii hut by a honeymooning couple from Lyme Regis. (Only the sexual habits of the Brits could transform engraving into an erotic art and a honeymoon into a sermon.) 'Love is energy beyond the power of thought.' This catches the tantric mood of the village devotees who for hundreds of years have been trailing across the flinty Sillimuder glacier in their bare-feet to worship the goddess. It is no less apt for the modern Bengali housewife in raincoat and galoshes who enters the lesser sanctuary of Nandakini by Jyura gully and often exits by a high route near Kuari pass. It is these mountain lovers who keep the Shipton-Tilman feeling for the area alive. Thank God Nanda Devi had the foresight not to provide any Achttausenders in Uttarakhand. Blessed are the Silli Buggiars who put enjoyment above height.