KUARI, SATOPANTH AND NOSTALGIA
THE REMEMBRANCE OF things past by Jack Gibson and Mavis Heath in Himalayan Journal Vol. 44 stirred up some old memories. Jack Gibson talked of a two month expedition that cost Rs 700 while Mavis Heath wrote 'The greatest thrill of getting off the beaten track route was the crossing of the Kuari pass, from where, Frank Smythe declared, "could be seen the finest view in the world".' Reading this, I was moved into digging out the account of a trip that Rusi Gandhy and I had made over the Kuari in 1943. I felt like the university professor who wrote that when autumn comes.
' I seek my lecture where it lurks,
Amid the unpublished portion of my works.'
We had had a three week trek from Garur (where we got to by bus from Almora) and back: over the Kuari, to Joshimath, Badrinath, Mana and up the Satopanth glacier, up the Khiraun valley, and back via Nandprayag. Alas, I cannot say that the account of this trip that I finally located where it lurked, is particularly interesting; indeed the most interesting part of it is probably the prices in those gracious days, quite incredible but with no relevance to today's world. The whole trip, including the fare from and back to Bombay (Inter and third class - hell at any time but even worse during the war) cost us about Rs 200 each. This more than rivals the prices quoted by Jack Gibson for his 1937 expedition and is equally unbelievable.
My account, apart from not being very interesting, turned out to be 70 pages long! In those days, one could still spend pages describing the travails of collecting equipment and stores (packed in an old kerosene tin tied with coir rope), and more pages summarising the earlier visitors to the area such as Traill, Adolph Schlagintweit, Smythe, Kurt Boeckh and Hans Kerer, Graham, Emil Boss and Ulrich Kaufman, Longstaff, Mumm, Meade, Ruttledge, Rey, Shipton, Tilman, Oliver. Also long passages about the legends and stories belonging to the holy area from where the Ganges rises. I think we must have read every account possible of that area; if my memory is correct, we found most of these books in the Library of the Royal Asiatic Society.
Trekking in those days was a rather different affair from today. Equipment was practically unavailable, at least to us. We had boots made by a Chinese shoemaker on Hornby Road1 with studs knocked in according to our own artistic design; we had 'sleepingbags' made at home with old razais; we had no tent; we acquired a yak hair rope which we didn't know how to use but were very proud of. (A few years later, it broke when put to the test on the rock funnel of Karnala fort and resulted in a broken arm for Rusi.) We had some supplies of food but were in the main dependent on what we could get on the way, which, it seems, was mostly potatoes. If I remember right, the only maps we had were those we had made up ourselves based on books we had read. We were both students at Elphinstone College and, quite naturally, very short of money.
1. In Bombay, now renamed Dadabhoy Naoroji road. --Ed.
Here are a few extracts from that account of 45 years ago. The comments in brackets are my additions of today.
The first thing we learnt on our arrival at Garur was that there was a shortage of coolies (yes, we still used that word in those days without blushing) and no dhotials were available. How we cursed the beastly hotelwalla in Almora who had sworn that Garur was the place for coolies. Next morning we searched high and low and just as were seriously thinking of a return to Almora we found two wiry youths, willing to come with us to the ends of the earth for Rs 2 a day.
It was miraculous the way our whole outlook changed at the sight of our grinning coolies, Deonath and Bachinath. Whatever those two men lacked it was certainly not cheerfulness. This was the best tonic we could have and we started off at once, glad to shake the dust of Garur off our feet. We arrived at Pirkoti in moonlight.
At Gwaldam, a lovely view of Trisul and Nanda Ghunti ... Tharali, the only place on our whole trip where we got eggs.
At Doongri we met an old man who immediately plied us with questions about the war, how Russia was faring and what the Allies were doing. He was diverted only when he spied our first aid box and was led to ask for some medicine, he did not mind what.
After Doongri the road was exposed and hot but we were encouraged by the sight of a brilliantly coloured Crested Bunting and as we climbed, we again entered the domain of the Verditer Flycatcher. The climbing was relieved by the many rhododendrons we came across on the way. (With all the deforestation that has taken place in the Himalaya, have the rhododendrons also gone?)2 Enjoying the view at Subtal, 5000 ft above Tharali, we saw two cat-like animals coloured chestnut and black, scurry past, but what they were I do not know. (Marmots?)
2. Going fast, dear author, going very fast.-Ed.
There is a road from the picturesque village of Ghat which follows the Mandakini river down to Nandprayag. (How many of these paths have now been turned into motor roads? Do buses ply up end down them?)
I went down to the river for a dip. I saw a Forktail flitting among the rocks, a gorgeous black and white bird, with a long forked tail. There was also a Plumbeous Redstart, flirting its tail, looking old and withered as it sat on a rock with its neck drawn into its shoulders. The pleasant whistle of the Himalayan Whistling Thrush was a common sound. (I must have been thoroughly briefed by my ornithologist uncle3 before I left Bombay; I really didn't get bitten by the birdwatching bug until several years later.)
We left Ghat hoping to get to Ramni before nightfall. But the temperature was over 90°, the path was steep, and darkness fell. We pushed on with the help of a torch; with this it was possible to see the numerous partridges running around. It was not till 10 p.m. that we found a small spring and as the path had steep slopes on both sides, we spread our bedding in the middle of the track with our heads uphill and our feet downhill.
At Ramni, one old fellow produced some potatoes and another some dal. They felt insulted at the mention of money.
A short cut which really wasn't any shorter enabled us to come across a lovely farmstead. The genial old farmer told us to help ourselves to what we wanted from his vegetable garden and we laid in large supplies of a green vegetable called choa ki bhaji.
Above the Birahi river, we could see where a landslide had formed a beautiful lake, the Gohna lake or the Birahi Tal, a blue gem in a green setting. As evening fell, dark and ominous clouds blew over. A young goatherd overtook us going to his flock about a mile further on. He said there were several old huts there where we could take shelter. We reached these just as the first drops fell. We found an empty hut which had evidently housed goats, cattle, buffaloes and horses in its day. The evidence lay six inches thick on the floor. No sooner had we got inside than the storm burst with suitable sound and lighting effects. We thanked the powers-that-be for the hut; it was the first night under a roof since leaving Garur.
The next day, we were not able to leave till the afternoon. We descended to a river. There was a lovely waterfall and just below it I saw a couple of Whitecapped Redstarts, the first I had seen up to now. We were to see a lot of these feathered exquisites later on, at Mana. There was a steep climb to Dakwani, a green meadow covered with flowers. The place was overrun with pheasants and one Kalij pheasant walked so close to us that I thought I could catch it. (Luckily I couldn't. Re-reading this account, I am impressed at the number of partridges and pheasants we saws I wonder how many we would see today.)4
3. The late Dr. Salim Ali. -Ed.
The climb up to the Kuari was exhausting but we went up full speed in our eagerness to see the view. We were fully prepared for a glorious sight but the panorama that burst on me left me breathless. There was the beautiful pyramid of Nilkantha; Kamet loomed large in the background while close to it were the peaks of Mana and Nilgiri Parbat. Directly to the north of us was the huge massif of Gauri and Hathi Parbat. To the east was the defiant upthrust of Dunagiri.
The pass was still under snow and it was possible to glissade part of the way down. Khulara was another of those meadows we had got fairly used to by now, covered with early flowers and with a delectable brook running through it. Portions of the Zaskar range were visible through the trees. (Do such uninhabited meadows still exist? Are they all crowded with campers, trekkers, climbers, tourists?)5
At Joshimath we joined the pilgrim route which is a good road, marked with milestones. Water was supplied by PWD piping. Later, in Almora, we met the Civil Surgeon of the district who told us that since the introduction of the piping, deaths from cholera among the pilgrims had gone down from 3-4000 per year to 30-40.
At Lalgambar ghee was Rs 4 per seer against Rs 5 at Joshimath so we quickly loaded up a rupee's worth into a small tin and gloated over the bargain we had made. Next morning the precious tin was nowhere to be found. The culprit was a smug-looking black dog that we saw wandering nearby. Our bargain had become a loss overnight.
We met one old woman from somewhere in the Punjab who had been saving up for years for this pilgrimage. Her husband had been killed in the last war and she had no children. On her third night on the road her money bag had been stolen.' This contained Rs 40, all her wealth. Now she was begging her way up. How she expected to get back to her home, God alone knows.
At Badrinath we stopped at a shop and were surprised to learn that the shopkeeper was a reporter for the Statesman, The-Times of India, The Hindustan Times, and several other papers.
4. Very few, I am afraid. The loss of habitat and the brave shikari has seen to that.
5. Thankfully, not yet.-Ed.
He had covered Smythe's failure on Nilkantha in 1937. He was impressed by our noisy hobnails and rucksacks, and our bold and dashing air convinced him that we were great mountaineers! (Alas, I don't suppose it did at all.)
At Mana, there was a suspension bridge across the Alaknanda with a Government notice warning all that not more than two people should cross at a time. Rusi fell into talk with a tall fellow who came up just then with a plough under his arm who volunteered to accompany us up the Satopanth glacier. Khim Singh was his name and he took charge of us completely. He laid in supplies of ata, sattu, gur, etc. for four days, and got the schoolmaster to open up the schoolroom so we could stay there. The master came along, leaning affectionately against a cow and spinning a takli6 in his hand. He opened the schoolroom and set his pupils to cleaning it up. We feasted on potatoes and chapatis that night.
We crossed the Saraswati river just above its confluence with the Alaknanda by a natural rock bridge and took the path that pilgrims use to go to the beautiful waterfall of Vasudhara where 'the Ganges falls from the foot of Vishnu like the slender thread of the lotus flower'. Khim Singh got us up by evening to a cave he knew. This was pretty full of snow and had about two inches of ice under it. He took a large stone and set about breaking the ice while we used the degchi to clear the snow. After about two hours of this freezing work we had cleared out a decent portion of the cave. Khim Singh then disappeared for about half an hour coming back with an enormous bundle of dry grass on his back. Another trip and he was back with a load of firewood. How he found the grass and firewood when all we could see was snow and rock, I don't know.
Next day we managed to get to the Satopanth Tal, a triangular hollow full of snow and ice. In summer it becomes a beautiful lake and a better setting for it would have been difficult to find. It was entirely surrounded by high peaks, with the beautiful pyramid of Nilkantha to the southeast dominating the scene. There are some very pretty legends about the Satopanth lake. Whenever any dirt falls into the water, birds come and pick it up in their beaks to throw it far away, thus keeping the water always clean. In the Sat Yuga or Age of Truth, when you boiled water in this place the water became kheer.7
On the way back, the clouds grew darker and more threatening. We heard the plaintive call of the Snow Cock or Ram-chukor and Khim Singh assured us that that particular note heralded a storm; and of course he was right. We spent another night in our cave; it snowed all night and all next day. We returned to Mana in over a foot of new snow. We bade an emotional farewell to Khim Singh and returned to Badrinath.
6. A hand-spining device.
7. A preparation of sweetened milk and rice, --Ed.
We had vaguely planned to go up the Khiraun valley but were not sure how we could manage this. The next day, idling outside Badrinath, planning ineffective plans and dreaming vain dreams, we heard a yell and a rush of feet. Running up to us at high speed was a man, and as he came closer we made out the familiar features of good old Khim Singh! He was taking his goats up the Khiraun valley, and the coincidence seemed too good to be true.
(And so we had three delectable days up the Khiraun with Khim Singh, while Deonath and Bachinath waited for us at Hanuman chatti. On the second night up the valley, an old goatherd came to talk to us.)
He was badly in need of an old tin box to store his ghee. We told him we could give him one at Hanuman chatti. He was very pleased at this and promised to send his son down with us to fetch it and in return he promised us vast quantities of milk next evening. He had been there when Smythe came up in 1937 in his attempt to climb Nilkantha. After Smythe had left, our old goatherd had visited his camp site and had picked up many old tins, but had been disgusted to find that all of them had holes in them. (One gets a rather touching picture of an intrepid mountaineer tackling a difficult peak while a poor old goatherd follows at a respectful distance to pick up his discarded tins.) Evidently the next chance of obtaining a tin that he got was six years later, when we broke into his solitude.
Khim Singh was a really fine fellow, a veritable guide, philosopher and friend. Even after a long and effusive farewell, he insisted on following us for quite a long way, waving and shouting to us, asking us not to forget him. It had been impossible to look on him as anything but a companion. In bidding farewell to him we bade farewell to the snow and the cold, to the beauty and the peace we had found there, and to the best part of our holiday. (And I certainly haven't forgotten him. All my best memories are associated with his cheerful, tough, helpful presence. What a lot we owed him and how little we gave him in return.)
At Gulabkoti, wonder of wonders, we managed to get some vegetables other than potatoes. We got onions and some chao ki bhaji. At Pipalkoti, a big town with numerous shops, most of which displayed yak tail fans, skins of various animals (I hope this has been stopped now) and kukries, we managed to get a new delicacy - tomatoes. (What an enormous proportion of the time we spent thinking and talking about food; was this more important than the walking, the fresh air, the scenery, the mountains? I suppose the answer is yes.)
(At Nandprayag, we left the pilgrim route and turned east towards Ghat.)
On the way to Subtal, I saw a most remarkable exhibition of shikar. As our cavalcade - we had been joined by two men from Deonath's village carrying some luggage on pack horses - moved along, a partridge flurried up from the side of the road and disappeared in a patch of tall grass. The two horsemen dashed after it yelling various war cries. One had a small stick in his hand, the other a stone. As the bird rose from the grass, the man got in a swing with his stick and brought it down. Immediately it landed, the secondman threw his stone and killed it.
We stopped in a meadow for some tea. The meadow was covered with wild strawberries and I quickly gathered some in my mug. I mashed these up with some gur and a touch of cold water made them the most delicious dessert imaginable. Every open patch in the forest was covered with strawberries and we had our fill and to spare.
(Before catching the bus at Garur, we spent a night at the house of Deonath and Bachinath. Though they did not have the same mountain quality as Khim Singh they were cheerful, willing and warm-hearted. We were more than lucky to have had them with us.)
We reached their farmstead just before it started to rain in earnest. They were a large family, three generations living under the same roof.
The most important topic of conversation was the calamity that had fallen on the household that morning. Their buffalo had died in calf-birth. The enormity of this loss was difficult for us to understand at first, but we gradually realised what it meant to the family. They took the loss with philosophic fatalism. Immediately Deonath and Bachinath were recruited to go and help with the disposal of the carcass as the other animals were fighting shy of entering the stable where the dead animal lay.
We reached, Garur in good time for the bus to Almora. It was 9 June exactly three weeks since we had left Garur.
(I see that I made no mention of the disaster we suffered in Almora in our anxiety to make our funds last till we got back to Bombay. Apricots were plentiful and dirt cheap; we could get a whole basket for a few pice. We got the genial idea of economising by living on apricots and nothing else. So we got a basket and ate them by the dozen, The result was that much of our time in Almora was spent in nursing the most ghastly diarrhoea that either of us had ever had. It was years before I could bear to look at another apricot. Incidentally, my money didn't really last. I travelled third class by the slowest - and therefore cheapest -- train, taking a never ending three nights. I believe. I ate one meal a day and when I got to my suburb of Bandra, J had to walk the mile and half to my house because I didn't have an anna for the bus fare. At least, that's my recollection. What excellent financial planning!
Since this trip, I have tried to return to that area twice, once unsuccessfully. In October 1956, again with Rusi Gandhy and four others, we set off for Trisul. At Rishikesh, we got stuck. Heavy unseasonal rains had washed away parts of the road up the Ganges valley. No buses. When would the road be cleared? Who knows? We spent three days in Rishikesh, mostly at the hospitable teashop of a philosophic sardarji, before realising that it would be weeks before any buses operated again. So we went to Chakrata and on to Har-ki-Doon and Jack Gibson's Black Peak. In 1958, I was with Gurdial Singh and two others. We went through Joshimath, Tapoban, Lata to Mrigthuni. Already, the area was much changed.)