THE MOST SPECTACULAR FLIGHT IN INDIA

ROMESH D. BHATTACHARJI

BEING A CIVIL SERVANT stationed at Shillong I have to travel by air to and from Delhi often. What one misses by closing the door of the plane at Delhi can literally be gained by watching the Himalaya through the window. On this flight; if its 8 o'clock that must be Everest!

Fit 489 from Delhi to Bagdogra to Guwahati to Dibrugarh is one Indian Airlines flight I always like going on. It actually leaves at 6.20 hrs every day and the moment the plane turns east over Palam a wall of white rises to the north.

That's the Himalaya. That's also the reason why I try to get on to this usually crowded flight. I must have done the trip about once a month in the last five years but still I get to the airport early so that I can have my favourite seat 4A or 5A without any fuss.

Time for take off, and I wonder whether it will be hazy or clear. The dry, dusty fields, factories, and country houses with swimming pools to the south of Delhi airport mercifully become dots as the plane rises to 9000 m and as it levels off it is greeted by a blaze of sunlight. It's late December and Delhi has just had a couple of days of rain. The sky is washed, and the snow line has crept way down low. My indicator is a barely noticeable Chandnikot (5500 m) peak and the bowl on the southeast ridge of Trisul. This ridge is the limit of the permanent snow-line. I search for the peaks I know, the peaks that ought to be there but I have not yet been able to spot, and those that I don't know.

The game starts. It's a smooth flight. Miles of peaks stretching till the horizon and beyond. A fantastic way to have breakfast.

Towards the distant northwest a host of indistinct peaks tantalise me, but I ignore them. The first recognisable peaks are Bandarpunch, Gangotri, Jaonli and; Kedarnath followed by the Chaukhamba peaks' domineering wide southeast face brilliantly lit up by the rising sun. Then like the build up of a raga more and more peaks come tumbling out of the expanding horizon. Nature is not niggardly at this height. Strangely enough I am still looking for the Bhagirathi peaks and the imposing Shivling, but I can see the Ghori and Hathi Parbats both living upto their names. Behind this front range of the Garhwal Himalaya rises another. The Zaskar range peaks of Chirbas, Sri Kailash, Kamet, Mana and Nilkanth. Then this high and serrated range is blotted out by the haughty flanks of the Nanda Devi massif and its lesser attendants, which are equally awesome but from terra firma. The sharp tooth shaped Changabang's summit can be seen when the plane is in line with the main summit of Nanda Devi. Rank on serried rank rise these magnificent snow peaks from the ground. There is not a speck of cloud. Below, the plains are speckled with tufts of lifting mists, and I spot Aligarh's masjid, Narora's Atomic Energy Complex, and the 120 year old Ganga canal. I can see both the Ganga and Jamuna, and to the north the land of their birth.

From the Nanda Devis the ridge tapers down to the Panchchuli, the five fires of the gods, a striking array of five needle sharp peaks. Behind them are numerous peaks but my eyes strain to see Tibet's Gurla Mandhata (7730 m) and the fabled Kailash (6720 m) which I have been able to see only twice in the more than 50 flights I have made.

Today too I have not been able to see Kailash. A thin mist formed by the warm air currents from the plains colliding with the cold mountain air has curtained off the trans - Himalayan peaks. This disappointment does not last long, for in quick succession come Api and Nampa of Nepal, behind them can be seen the Tibetan peak of Nal Kankar, and then the first of the eight thousanders Dhaulagiri and its five satellites. Experience has conditioned me to observing this mass quickly in ten minutes, for waiting in line and in hurry to appear are other eight thousanders. Annapurna and its five juniors, and Manaslu attended upon by the enticing Himalchuli. Also slipping by is the beautiful Machhapuchhare the dominant deity of Pokhara plain put here unnoticed amongst so many frosty eminences.

These eight thousanders look immense even from a high flying plane. At first from the west they merely look big, but as the plane is directly to their south and east their huge walls are fearsome. Can any man dare ? But of course they have. Up these very south faces. And won. It will be dull to name all the identifiable peaks. You can't parcel out majesty by names that mere mortals give, as if they were so many sign posts. Their frozen rocky bulks are in shapes that even the most unfettered fancy can never imagine or describe. A finger shaped peak becomes a pyramid from an another direction, while a long snow-bound ridge reveals four exciting peaks. After a little while the urge to be in one of the mysterious valleys leading upto these peaks becomes so overpowering, one's mind so full of ambitious ventures and wishes. I can see the broad, sluggish Ganga and its numerous tributaries snaking their way from the north. The southern ones take a straighter course. Old, abandoned airstrips from World War II days can also seen, and then the one near Kathihar from which the first flight in rickety Wapitis to photograph Everest took off in early 1933. This airstrip is in line with Everest and just about this point, opposite Gauri Shankar the plane swings to take a 90° turn straight into the jaws of another brace of eight thousanders - Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, and Kangchemjunga.

We have flown past many peaks, but this incomparable knot reigns supreme. Everest for a while looks unimpressive though easily recognisable by its famed plume of wind blown powdered snow and its guardian wall of the Cwm along which expeditions from the south must go. As the plane approaches Everest (8848 m) it becomes bigger, and more than its neighbours commanding as it towers above them, impressive and awesome. The black snowless west face can be seen, even the dimunitive Lho la, the pass leading to Tibet is visible. Its neighbour Lhotse (8511 m) also basks in a bit of reflected glory. On one of these flights a couple of years ago the plane's commander whom I knew, called me to the cockpit and asked me to point out Everest and the peaks around it. It's not as silly as it sounds for from here this highest jumble of peaks can be confusing. The Captain had an interesting tale to tell. Once while flying to Bagdogra he was glibly indentifying the peaks in the manner he thought best. Soon he got a note saying that he had called the wrong one Everest. He sent word back to this interfering passenger saying that he knew what he was talking about, only to find that he had been corrected by Sir Edmund Hillary.

About 40-50 km east from Everest can be seen the Makalu twins and the head of Kumbhakarna, and of a man sleeping with his hands on his breast, which is the great massif of Kangchenjunga (8598 m). The plane dips to land and the dark green of tea estates with just a semblance of cover of light green acasia trees come into view. In early winter golden paddy fields hem them in colourful contrast. The airfield is in a north-south alignment and the plane seems to head straight into the now towering mass of the blue mountain of Kurseong, which is all of 2000 m. Earlier these lowly hills were not even noticeable.

At Bagdogra the wait is always longer than the promised 25 minutes. The reason often is that- fighter aircraft practising take-offs have been given priority over 150 passengers. Usually from this point we meet a few clouds and haze, as the late morning's increasing warmth creates mild disturbances. The plane climbs rapidly from near the 70 year old Coronation Bridge over the Tista. As it now flies in a narrow valley, the peaks are closer and distinct. Sikkim's Siniolchu (it really is the prettiest peak in this range), Pauhunri (7125 rri), and Nathu la, which look down onto the Chumbi valley of Tibet are very close and very clear. As for this valley one can see as far as the peaks that gird the Lhasa plateau's southern part. To the west of Chumbi soar the three attractive, almost symmetrical peaks of west Bhutan's Chomolhari, the stern Jitchu Drake and the Takaphu (6532 m). After a few more peaks that I have not been able to identify accurately are two 4-5 km along ridges about 6500 m high. As the plane flies from west to east several peaks emerge, each with fearsome rock faces. The northern faces appear to be very gentle. Just next door are Kula Kangri's pyramidical mass (7554 m) and two others of about the same height. All tower about a 1000 m above their numerous smaller companions, which look like waves frozen in homage. The plane starts descending near Phamojula, a few 6000 m high summits of easternmost Bhutan are seen. For a while we fly over the wide Brahmaputra and its numerous islands. The Assam valley is lush green and dotted by numerous tributaries, channels (jans) and lakes (bheels). From the air the river's bed appears to cover the entire valley, especially during the monsoon. The S-bends of its rushing tributaries are becoming straighter after every flood. A turn to the right and south and again turn north over an outlier of the Khasi Hills, then skimming low over rice fields bordered by bamboo thickets we land at Borjhar airport after a 45 munute flight. It's unbelievably green all around. If this airport stops functioning for three days, as it once did in the flood of September 1988, grass sprouts from the tarmac.

From Guwahati the plane levels off opposite Gorichen (6858 m) Nyegyi Kangsang (7047 m) and Kangto (7090 m) the three peaks of west Arunachal Pradesh, which in winter can been seen from Kaziranga National Park. For the next 20 minutes there are uninteresting ridges, so 1 look straight down, briefly pausing over the scarred hill sides caused by wicked deforestation to feed the 60 plywood factories that have come up in Arunachal within the last five years. Below I can see the 3 km long Kalibhamora bridge near Tezpur built over the Brahmaputra at the site where the Ahoms were defeated by the Mughals in 1668. (In 1672 the Ahoms decisively defeated the invaders at Saraighat near Guwahati, where there is the only other bridge over the Brahmaputra). Soon we are over Majuli, the largest river island in the world. It has several settlements and a vast prosperous tea estate on it. As the plane begins to land at Mohanbari airport I look up again. The twin peaks of Namcha Barwa and Gyala Peri (around 7000 m) can be seen just across the Indian border with Tibet. Between these peaks the Brahmaputra takes a 300° turn to flow down an unexplored gorge into Siang district of Arunachal, and just when the plane circles to land at Mohanbari near' Dibrugarh far to the NE can be seen Ka Karpo Razi the 6000 m peaks of the tri-junction of India, Burma and China, and below, numerous oil derricks and several wells where 100 million cubic metres of gas is flared daily.

If one is lucky with connections, it is possible to take on the same day - an Indian Air Force flight, open to the public, from Mohanbari to Vijaynagar which on the map is that little finger jutting into Burma. The plane first flies low over the vast beds of the Brahmaputra and the Lohit, and then climbs to about 3500 m above the flats of the Namdapha sanctuary till we come to this peak of the North East. From WNW to NNE granite peaks, all around 4500 m with a dusting of fresh snow, sheer K)ck faces, and numerous passes of the Kumon Bum range drift close by the window. Mugaphi pass (3100 m) with an easy snowy peak as a sentinel looks very inviting. From this pass the north Burmese Kachin town of Putao can be seen. The plane descends suddenly on to a dusty tin sheet covered runway, and we are in India's easternmost tip. There is no road here, and the only wheels that are seen are an aircraft's. Vijayanagar (1372 m) is in the centre of a beautiful verdant vallev inhabited by Lisus - a tribe that is more common in the Golden Triangle. It's original name was Jaha-Natu but was re-named Vijaynagar after the son of a Major General of Assam Rifles who 'discovered' it in 1962. On this misnomer we are back to the ground.

SUMMARY

Viewing the Himalayan peaks from a commercial flight from Delhi to Guwahati and beyond.