An Introduction to the Literature on Nanda Devi
Mountain literature has value only if it inspires recollection of
the wonder of that last moment of cosmic understanding.
By literature I mean significant as opposed to literary contributions (in English) to the lore of the mountain. By Nanda Devi I refer to both the guardian goddess and dominant physical and cultural features of Uttaranchal. The most obvious reason why this mountain appeals to western mountaineers and eastern villagers alike is that it palpably possesses a mystique that makes it more than a mountain. Does this lure lie in the demonstration of the spiritual truth that living things are more than their body?
'Beyond earthly imaginings' might be a more poetic rendering of the meaning of Nanda Devi, which is usually translated as 'the bliss-giving goddess.' This not only sounds awkward on the ear but is meaningless to most English speakers who are brought up (a) to believe bliss is ignorance and (b) disbelieve that goddesses exist. However, the single most interesting characteristic of Nanda Devi (if you are lucky enough to win through to bask in the mountain's presence) is the soul-stirring quality of her reality, physical or otherwise.
Unusual in the Himalaya, the aesthetic appeal of Nanda Devi renders any altitude concern to secondary status. To confirm her unique position among Himalayan peaks we need only turn to A Passage to Himalaya (2001), a compilation of a choice selection of The Himalayan Journal writings from two generations. Of the fifteen sections in the book, Nanda Devi is the only named peak to merit a separate section of her own.
Rare in mountain profiles, Nanda Devi is beautiful from any angle. This is all the more remarkable when the goddess wears two distinct appearances. From the (southern) frontal view in Kumaun, she reveals twin peaks whose feminine uplift have translated into local religious lore as forms of royal princesses. Viewed from the (western) perspective of Garhwal, the single (main) peak side-on appears 'shooting arrow like into
the blue from the bent bow of the Rishi gorge.' This hard-won close-up description by W.H. Murray in the Himalayan Journal (Vol.16) is a happy analogy since Nanda in local lore is the wife of Shiva the bowman.
The very first European to climb in the Himalaya for sport was W. W. Graham and in 1883 the Times of India announced that one of his Swiss guides had written to the editor optimistically claiming ascents (!) of Dunagiri and Changabang, difficult peaks in the Nanda Devi outer sanctuary. In point of fact Dunagiri was not climbed until 1939, having defeated attempts by stalwarts like Longstaff and Smythe.
A.L. Mumm's Five Months in the Himalaya (1909) must rank as the first serious mountaineering study of Nanda Devi and her environs. But note that a lot of the time was spent in walking to and from Kathgodam, the railhead. As the petrol engine caught on and roads were built, expedition schedules would shrink proportionately over the years. The genuine sense of awe the region conjured up in Mumm and his influential Alpine Club companions -'miles of blinding white splendour' and the bonus of 'rudely picturesque natives' bestowed on Nanda Devi the first of many rave reviews. Implied was the notion that only connoisseurs of wild nature and abandoned beauty would seek to enter the perilous portals of the sanctuary of the goddess.
One of Mumm's companions, Longstaff made equally glowing references to the Nanda Devi area in his book This My Voyage which only added to the mystique of the elusive goddess. Longstaff's energetic attempts to break in to the Sanctuary from various points on the curtain ridge made it a challenge, at least for the aesthetically inclined mountaineer, second only to that of Everest. Later Ruttledge would share Longstaff's frustration at probing the curtain ridge in vain. To prove the aesthetic link, both men after failing to settle scores with Everest, settled in the Western Highlands of Scotland where they could enjoy craggy grandeur similar to upper Garhwal's.
It was left to Frank Smythe to spell out the superior beauties and lasting rewards of travel in the Garhwal Himalaya as opposed to the grind and disappointment that accompanied many an Everest expedition. Although Smythe's Valley of Flowers was printed in 1938 (a year after Tilman's The Ascent of Nanda Devi and two years after Shipton's Nanda Devi ) and does not describe the immediate vicinity, it does portray the essence of both the Nanda Devi topography and the character of the villagers who worship the goddess.
Echoing Longstaff, Smythe asks, 'Is there any region of the Himalayas or even of the world, to excel this region in beauty and grandeur?' But unlike his predecessor who was a medical man and reserved in expressing his inmost feelings about the uplifting terrain, Smythe as an author and amateur botanist felt no such restraint and records the stirrings of his heart almost like the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: 'There came to me an
indescribable exaltation of spirit__ Peace and happiness, the two things
which men crave most.. ..are to be found in the open air.. .and this movement is an unconscious revolt against the primeval desire to kill.. ..and represents a new and happier conception of the universe.' Like the village medium who is possessed by the goddess and mouths her message, Smythe writes in a heightened mood: 'It is then that the Eternal speaks; the very atmosphere is filled with life and song; the hills are resolved from mere masses of snow, ice and rock into something living. The human mind escapes from the bondage of its feeble imaginings and becomes as one with its Creator.'
Switching from the personal to the social he avers 'In Garhwal I met a true civilisation for I found contentment and happiness. I saw a life that is not enslaved by the time factor, that is not obsessed by the idea that happiness is dependent on money and materials.' Though this assessment may seem unrealistic, there is a rare generosity of spirit in the ordinary villager, perhaps inculcated over millennia by hosting poor pilgrims going to the Land of the Gods. Those who write off hill porters because daru (alchohol) appears to enjoy a higher priority in their lives than hygiene, overlook that almost every village in Uttarakhand contributed infantrymen to the trenches of the Great War. Tens of thousands of Nanda Devi's devotees lie in war graves in Europe and other theatres. Their sacrifice was enormous. Smythe does not exaggerate in his summing up 'Such loyalty as (theirs) is rarer than gold.'
Like Shipton, Smythe liked to wander at large with a childlike curiosity at what lay over the next ridge. Towards the end of his botanical outing Smythe does enter the outer sanctuary and like Graham (but more sagely) sizes up his chances against Dunagiri. 'No journey is more sublime' is his verdict of the approach to Nanda Devi. 'There can be no more awe-compelling scenery in the world then the vista of gorges framing this glorious mountain.'
Smythe closes with his philosophy of mountaineering:
We go (to the hills) to seek the beauty of a larger freedom, the
beauty that lifts us.. ..whence we may see a little further over the
dry and dusty plains to the blue ranges and the eternal snows .and discover a contentment of spirit beyond all earthly imaginings. Such memories are imperishable for they rely on their perpetuity not on physical action but on a contemplation that reaches into the very soul of beauty.
These lofty musings serve to distinguish what one can call the believers (convinced this particular mountain speaks to their soul) and the non-believers (who appear to hold the view that any acknowledgment of such an appendage still awaits scientific sanction). Characteristically Nanda Devi has called forth these sheep - who cherish remembrance of the greater Self (like Smythe) rather than those mountain goats (like Tilman and Odell) who 'so far forgot themselves' that they shook hands on the summit. What distinguishes the two categories is their sensitivity - or lack of it. Despite the sincere effort it must have cost him, there is misplaced presumption in Tilman's obituary to Nanda Devi 'that the proud head of the goddess was bowed' - especially since from the point of view of mythological anatomy they had only reached the level of her bosom!
John Roskelley wrote Nanda Devi : The Tragic Expedition (1987) the most controversial climber's opinion on the mountain to date - if you don't count Captain Kohli's book detailing the planting of a nuclear spying device on Nanda Devi funded by the CIA who trained mountaineers, Indian and American, to monitor Chinese intentions in Tibet. Like so many of these cloak and dagger operations, the result was a resounding cock-up whose reverberations continue to echo. Likewise Roskelley's tragic expedition. Whereas every other writer on this most lyrical of peaks finds lasting fulfilment, Roskelley is the odd man out, experiencing only an overwhelming sense of futility.
It was a tragedy on many levels, not least for Roskelley's reputation amongst the traditionalist climbing fraternity who find his abrasive approach to this most hallowed of peaks inappropriate. But the book, even if it seems blind to the mystique of its objective, is at least honest and forthright, dismissing the sentimental (and near religious) concerns of Adams Carter and Willi Unsoeld, which had inspired this commemorative outing to the Garhwal goddess.
Somehow the physical tragedy of the loss of life of Unsoeld's young and vivacious daughter (named after the mountain) only echoes a deeper sense of bereavement. In his preface (the book was written ten years after
the 1976 expedition), Roskelley writes, 'That we found tears on the mountain rather than joy is a matter of fate'. It seems Unsoeld's son Krag foresaw fate, for after his first conversation with Roskelley he pulled out of the expedition, put off by the latter's obsessive concern to reach the summit. Ominously Roskelley's previous Himalayan success (with Reichardt, the same climbing partner) to Dhaulagiri was at the cost of seven expedition members dead in an avalanche. To illustrate how seekers after altitude think alike, when Tilman and Odell stood atop Nanda Devi, their thoughts did not run to thankfulness to the goddess but flew instead to Dhaulagiri because it was the nearest competition to their exalted position and a thousand feet higher. By contrast Houston, their climbing partner who almost reached the top, was fully alive to the therapeutic magic of the Devi's presence and was moved to write a poem 'for my soul's sake' entitled Nanda Devi (A Passage to Himalaya ).
Tilman's account of the first (Anglo- American) ascent of the mountain in 1936 was also written by a workmanlike non-believer but the age was such that the pioneers had a whole bevy of virgin peaks to leave their imprint on. A generation later more gifted climbers like Roskelley were forced to do harder routes on less acclaimed faces and were understandably frustrated at public indifference to their accomplishments. Tilman is almost a caricature of the emotionally repressed Englishman and his appearance on top of Nanda Devi has a Chaplinesque dimension. It seems the only thing missing from this quaint formal occasion is a raised bowler hat and the announcement to Latu Devta (herald of Nanda Devi) : 'Messrs Tilman and Odell present their compliments to the goddess and thank her for the auspicious weather arrangements. They crave her indulgence in breaching protocol by not removing their boots on her sacred summit.'
Another workmanlike book but written by a believer is Professor William Sax's Mountain Goddess (1991). As the subtitle Gender and Politics in a Himalayan Pilgrimage suggests, the book is actually the author's reworked Ph.D. thesis in anthropological studies. It deals with the background lore of Nanda Devi (whom the author refers to as 'Nandadevi' throughout) and Sax by the timely grace of Nanda Devi is able to accompany the goddess' palanquin on her twelve-yearly pilgrimage to Homkund in the lee of the Ronti saddle, the lowest point on the Sanctuary's curtain ridge. There is a mine of information in this study plus sympathetic insights only a devotee is privy to. In spite of the academic jargon and endless bickering between the highland and lowland
factions (representing the goddess' natal place and her husband's village) Sax manages to convey most authentically and forthrightly the hardship and poignant situation of the hill woman on whose demanding physical routine the Nanda Devi lore has been grafted. Males cleverly harness the Nanda Devi lore to sanction the exploitation of female labour.
Mrinal Pande, daughter of the late Shivani (the noted Paharin hills author) has written an illuminating study called Devi in which she notes how males in the canon of Hindu mythology are adept at invoking Stri Shakti (feminine energy) to rid them of demonic forces. But once the evil buffalo has been slain by the prowess of the goddess, instead of being rewarded she is shunted off - stage to allow male dominance to continue undisturbed.
To demonstrate the unquenchable spirit of hill women on whom the lore of Nanda Devi is based, Mrinal's sister Ira Pande has also written Diddi: My Mother's Voice (2005), a powerful literary biography of their mother. This catches the beauty (inner and outer) as well as the fiery and courageous character of these formerly voiceless ladies.
The most recent book on Nanda Devi Sanctuary is Hugh Thomson's Nanda Devi: A Journey to the Last Sanctuary (2004). It is a widely held belief that Nanda Devi only allows into her Sanctuary those whom she chooses. But also she reveals her intimate mysteries only to those who pay her timashi (toll tax - in the form of physical suffering) to reach her feet. Hugh approaches the goddess with full respect but in the company of a well-oiled expedition led by Colonel Kumar, one of India's legendary climbers. Inevitably with the suffering - bodily and bureaucratic - ironed out, the terrors of the way that acclimatise the soul in preparation for darshan of the goddess, are missing. The result is confirmation of Shipton's ecstatic findings minus the thrills unique to an explorer who worries a way round the obstacles. Shipton's son John organised the British end of the trek and was able to follow in his father's footsteps, casting light on the great explorer's unconventional but never dull career.
I have left for the last, the best and most literary of offerings to the goddess, Eric Shipton's Nanda Devi (1936). In the perfect tribute to the rare quality of soul demonstrated by this mountain loving-author, Shipton was named 'Mountaineer of the Century' at an international meeting of his peers. Perhaps the reason the mountaineering establishment of an earlier generation did not appreciate his qualities was because of his dedication to Smythe's twin goals of freedom and beauty. Shipton did his own thing and
was not overly concerned to wave flags nor considered it a duty to bring a smile to his bank manager's face. John Shipton remembers how his father had always tried to impress on him the importance of having 'an overriding passion' in life. These three words sum up Eric Shipton's risky but satisfying creed, which he practised with characteristic verve.
Nanda Devi and Shipton seem made for each other. Both possess the quality to inspire and transform our everyday understanding of things, revealing in the mundane profundity. What they have to say, in presence and in print, seems to lodge in the soul. Shipton's account of the first successful penetration of the Rishi gorge to break in to the inner Sanctuary is exciting, stylish and infectious. The book haunted my dreams for twenty years, finally goading me into following (with two porters) the author's perilous footsteps. The trip was dicey but the outcome ineffable.
Shipton's party included Tilman and three Darjeeling Sherpas of inestimable worth led by Angtharkay. On the march in the author revels in 'a country of such loveliness where the air and the rivers, the flowers and the trees filled one with the joy of living.' His first view of their goal was after floundering through snow on the Dharansi pass, (but) 'A vision of such beauty was worth a world of striving.' After initial setbacks on the Rhamani slabs they zigzagged sheer up to the Pisgah buttress where 'kindly Providence had placed (a narrow ledge) there to wind up that long chain of improbabilities.' With the grace of the goddess they had cracked the Sanctuary's inner defences.
Their rapture on entering the Sanctuary meadows was uncontained: 'It was glorious country, gentle moorlands grazed by herds of bharal and in places gay with Alpine flowers, small lakes that reflected the surrounding mountains, deep lateral valleys holding glaciers enclosed by a hundred magnificent peaks of clean strong granite or glistening ice and snow. Out of the centre of the basin rose the wonderful spectacle of Nanda Devi, 13,000 ft above its base, peerless among mountains, always changing and ever lovely.' Echoing Longstaff's opinion that Nanda was 'the most superbly beautiful mountain' he had seen, Shipton wrote 'There is no finer mountain in the world.'
Exploring the majestic recesses of the south inner sanctuary and later the even more stunning contours of the north inner (after a monsoon break which sought to discover a high altitude route between Badrinath to Kedarnath), the climbers 'experienced again that vision of divine beauty,
the chief object of the strange pilgrimages men make to the less accessible regions of the earth.' Summing up what must rank as one of the most memorable budget Himalayan expeditions ever, Shipton wrote: 'In the Sanctuary we had found the lasting peace which is the reward of those who seek to know high mountain places.'
These glowing sentiments are shared by many who tread the Elysian meadows of the inner sanctuary and seem part of the Devi'sprasad. Harish Kapadia, a regular visitor to the Sanctuary notes in his Meeting the Mountains (1998) that being on a Garhwal bugial one senses a rare sense of freedom: 'the high one gets has nothing to do with metres above sea level.'
Rarely do you read of this exalted mood pervading the Everest region. To emphasise Smythe's preference for the delights of Garhwal over the rigours of Everest, we can quote the findings of Jan Morris, who was in 'her' former male form James Morris the London Times correspondent for the first ascent of Everest. She had been depressed at the 'blankness of the achievement. Nothing had been discovered, nothing made, nothing improved.' As a woman (who had the unique experience of being a man) she found the masculine, macho mindset 'really all rather absurd.'
'Beauty and not altitude is the main consideration' wrote Sir Francis Younghusband in Holy Himalaya and fifty years later Lute Jerstad the Everester (and familiar with the Sanctuary) would write (Indian Mountaineer,1978) 'I believe beyond the great physical feat, the thing which truly matters is what happens to you.' Dedicated to helping delinquent kids through the challenge of climbing Jerstad echoes the sentiments of Shipton with his advice: 'Work to rekindle the childlike awe of self, beauty and discovery.'
The difference between the Everest experience and that of Nanda Devi is the feeling of wonder that pervades the beholder. The contrast between this heightened mood of awareness and the sense of self- satisfaction is detectable in summit accounts. While Tilman and Odell adopt a self-congratulatory tone, the Gujarati soloist of the main peak in 1981, Nandlal Purohit (who climbed overnight) writes (Indian Mountaineering Foundation Souvenir): 'I was overwhelmed by the opulence of the sunrise. The beauty of the scene pierced me through. It was a sight for the gods. I felt privileged to be the first mortal to have been permitted by the goddess to witness the heavenly sight from her crown.'
What is noticeable in this Indian account is the absence of the Judaic patronising attitude to nature revealed in Tilman's mock obituary to a vanquished heathen deity. Purohit understood in a moment of cosmic understanding that what had been conquered was not the physical height of the mountain but the limited notion he had till then of his own- and every soul's- immeasurable greatness. Perhaps it is the absence of this Judaic mindset in Shipton that explains why he refused (and Tilman leapt at the opportunity) to climb the mountain. Shipton was quite happy to go back to the Sanctuary but to wander not to climb. Along with Angtharkay he mapped the area for the pleasure it gave him ofjust being there. Tilman possibly sought to possess the status that attached to the mountain's height whereas Shipton, possessed by the beauty of the goddess, was freed from any need to possess or impress.
A regular visitor to the realm of the Devi was Hari Dang, who confesses to being captivated by the same quiet elation evoked by the Sanctuary. 'The mountains spoke to us then of ourselves, and in those few moments was packed the most perfect peace I have ever known' (A Passage to Himalaya). Many of those fortunate enough to enter the enclosure of the goddess are similarly graced with the experience of altered consciousness. For the first time in our lives, thanks to the strange alchemy triggered by this mountain, we know for certain what life is all about and why we are here.
In the pipeline is Pete Takeda's beautifully written An Eye at the Top of the World which is effectively a thriller based on the Asia-American author's research into the clandestine spying expeditions, both in interviews with the nuclear spooks and in serious engagements with the target peaks. Pete is the ideal raconteur for this long awaited revelation, a tough climber with a gifted pen. For several seasons he had set his sights on Nanda Devi East and got tantalizingly close to climbing her. Remarkably instead of holding a grudge against this mountain that sapped so much of his peak energy, he remains convinced of the overriding reality of the Devi's mystique. The book is to be published later this year and promises to be a literary treat, combining raw adventure with rare insight and a passionate regard for the threatened environment of the Goddess.
An introduction to the literature on Nanda Devi.