Nanda Devi: Vision or Reality?

Bill Aitken

Is Nanda Devi more than a mountain? The answer is 'yes' if you are brought up to believe in her as a local hill deity and 'no' if you are unalive to the religio-cultural associations of Uttarakhand. If you are an explorer like Shipton looking for wonder then this mountain emphatically offers an extra dimension but if you are a technical climber like Roskelley concerned primarily with reaching the summit it remains just another peak. Most of us fall somewhere between these two schools and allow that the special mystique of Nanda glimpsed by Shipton is the sum of her outer contours plus an inspiration that can border on a mystical experience. The simplest way to find out whether Nanda Devi is a timeless vision or hard rock vertically disposed is to escape hearsay and go see for yourself.

Ah! but you will be told - a close up of the mountain is accessible only to highly equipped expeditions and will take a month. This information is hopelessly out of date. All it takes nowadays is a weekend from Delhi carrying a toothbrush. You can board the Shatabdi train on Friday and be in Joshimath on Saturday. A cable car ride up to Auli buggial yields a fabulous darshan of Nanda Devi's soaring profile. By Sunday night you are conveniently back in Delhi.

One thing is certain: what you find will depend a lot on your motivation for going. If you approach with the imaginative faculties alive, the chances are they will respond to a beauty that soars beyond the mineral confines. If on the other hand, all you expect to see is a tapering lump of granite (actually Tethys sedimentary) the chances are this outer reflection of modern society's indifference to cosmic structural beauty is what will be projected. Those brought up in blocks, flats and squares are unfamiliar with the free flowing grand designs of the Great Architect Above.

The intriguing thing about this mountain is how, in spite of the highly subjective and widely varying responses she elicits, there has always been a groundswell of opinion - both rustic and sophisticated - in favour of the appropriateness of her name as the 'Bliss-giving'. There may be a psychological reason for this. According to the school of symbolism, everyone without exception has tasted something of the Nanda Devi experience on one level or another. This is because the very first journey each of us makes, irrespective of our sex, colour or clan, is from our mother's womb.

Nature's amazing protocol moves us on a perilous expedition from cosy confinement to pitiless exposure. Gulping for air, we cry out for inspiration - and it is provided - miraculously in the form of the Bliss- giving mother. To silence our wails, up rises before our unfocussed vision, twin peaks with their promise of immediate comfort in the mammary mode.

Replenished by the success of this our first expedition, we grow up destined to become members of the Himalayan Club. Have no fear if you remain conspicuously unsuccessful as a climber. You can explore your vertical shortcomings horizontally on an analyst's couch. Or if you lack the stomach to face your fixations, take the easier option as I do, and accept an invitation to wiseacre about the mountains.

In spite of her international inspirational qualities, Nanda Devi the patron goddess of Uttarakhand remains - in the matter of giving birth at least - a prophetess without honour in her own land. In Dev Bhumi a mortal's first journey gives depressing confirmation of Dan Brown's message in the Da Vinci Code where female mysteries have become objects of towering disgust and the mere thought of childbirth highly polluting.

An inevitable result of such neurotic male sanctions is the crystallizing of an invincible feminine force in ordinary hill women such as Gaura Devi, inspiration of the Chipko movement. Her village of Renni marks the outflow of the Rishi Ganga from Nanda Devi Sanctuary. And Gaura happily is an alternative rendering of Nanda, because it is on the harsh drudgery of such ordinary hill woman the lore of the mountain Goddess has been grafted.

The persona of Nanda Devi is viewed locally in the light of ordained male chauvinism that views its women in practice as little better than beasts of burden though in theory the Devi concept is held to be divine. As a result of their exploitation the hill women of Uttarakhand are unbelievably tough. The only athlete you can compare their daily grind to would be Lance Armstrong. Every day in the life of these ladies is like a stage in the Tour de France.

The marginal yield of the land encourages their caste proud menfolk to adopt the convenient policy of deputing all the manual work to the women both in the house and the fields. Since this leaves no time for

educating the children, the cycle of exploitation and drudgery is passed to the next generation. And with the progressive subdivision of land holdings and the degradation of the environment, the woman has to go further to find water and fodder. To add to her hard lot is the exile imposed by marriage when she is forced to move to an alien valley where the workload never lets up.

It is hard to imagine how from this unromantic reality, the vision of a Bliss-giving goddess could sustain itself. It is presumed the indigenous fertility cults were brahminised when at the onset of Islam, pundits and thakurs of the western plains who resisted conversion, retreated into the hills. A copper plate from Pandukeshwar (tenth century Christian Era) already describes Nanda Devi in the sensuous form of a mainstream Mother Goddess.

Shaivite and Vaishnavite regional versions have been determined by the geographical position of Nanda Devi. Situated on the eastern confines of Garhwal but overlooking the heartland of Kumaun, the twin peaks are visible from most parts of the latter province. By contrast the few glimpses afforded from Garhwal only yield dramatic angles on her main peak. While Garhwal village lore continues to extol Nanda in terms of a married village girl (albeit the consort of Shiva), Kumauni perceptions conditioned by the medieval Chand Rajas of Champavat upgraded her to the status of a princess who along with her sister fell foul of a demon buffalo.

Although neighbours, who both share reverence for the goddess, this bond did not prevent continual warfare between the rulers of Garhwal and Kumaun. Their perpetual and indecisive feuding probably accounts for the lack of cultural artifacts since there was neither leisure nor a surplus for civilising purposes. Linguistic and economic differences remain in a modern uneasy truce and the combined destinies of Garhwal and Kumaun under the name of Uttaranchal makes no overt reference to the unifying inspiration of Nanda Devi.

However the Uttaranchal tourist department is alive to the unique selling point of Nanda Devi as a romantic cultural and mountaineering objective. Unheeding of the environmental risks involved, it is pushing for an easing of restrictions on entry to the Sanctuary, a policy that flies in the face of eco-wisdom. When these restrictions were imposed in 1983 unfortunately they were not compensated for by opening up the Bagini and Milam glaciers for mountaineers to access peaks from outside the Sanctuary curtain. What was intended as a laudable aim to generate local sympathy for wilderness conservation became counterproductive from official indifference and instead stoked local resentment.

Pilgrims to Garhwal's Char Dham evince little interest in the Goddess for she is largely indiscernible except from high ground like Rudranath or on the descent to Tapovan. Nor does she have any conspicuous temples since her representation in the Sri Yantra form does not permit of any roof. Kumaun astride the pilgrim route to Kailash was forced to take note of the Goddess's presence and some read in the first English version of the peak (as Nundi Deva ) a reference to Shiva's sacred bull. No one has commented on the inappropriateness of the foreign mountaineering nomenclature 'Nanda Devi East' which could suggest a dismembered deity. This colonial ascription survives while other Sanctuary features like the cols named after Longstaff, Ruttledge and Shipton have all been replaced (not always successfully) by local names.

To illustrate how local lore can assert claims that fail to stand the test of time, is the naming of Nanda Devi's east peak as 'Latu' by the Schlaginweits on their German map of1857. As the Garhwal herald of the Goddess who leads her twelve yearly Raj Jat via Rupkund to Homkund, Latu Devta might seem a logical candidate for the lesser of the twin summits and this apportioning would neatly symbolize the takeover of a primitive cult by a more sophisticated faith. However the drawback to this theory is that, as noted, the twin peaks are not obvious from Garhwal. Indeed the Raj Jat, so far as I know, enjoys not a single vantage point from which either of the Nanda Devi peaks can be seen.

The fact that no one in Kumaun has ever suggested the name of Sunanda, the younger sister of Nanda Devi, for the lesser peak is a reminder that few of the Devi's village worshippers are concerned about the particulars of her physical identity. Most are unaware that today Latu Devta has been relegated to become Latu Dhura, occupying a back seat on the east Sanctuary curtain overlooking Kumaun, a completely meaningless ascription from the point of view of Raj Jat lore.

Two geomorphic features of Nanda Devi's layout add to her beauty and mystique. Her twin snow peaks rear uniquely from an independent offshoot ridge around whose base curves in the south Sanctuary a tremendous smooth black rock wall. This startling symmetry is echoed by the no less challenging outer circumambulatory passage involving the three Gangas, - Gori, Girthi and Dhauli. The precarious northern section

of the circuit from Malari to Milam was accessed by traders from both provinces. The famous Rawats of Milam, the Pundit explorers usually hailed as Kumauni borderers, were immigrants from Malari in Upper Garhwal. These shepherds turned trader devotees of the Goddess are well worth cultivating if you are in need of camping details.

It is an error to believe that the uplifting beauty of the Sanctuary meadows cannot be found outside. Similar heartsease can be experienced on Bedni Buggial where the Goddess is taken on her annual pilgrimage and many other alps. In fact it is vital in an age of demographic explosion that these alternative buggials are advertised. The downside of extolling the beauty of the Sanctuary or the Valley of Flowers is that it encourages urban society's unthinking, ant-like instinct that follows blindly the latest fashion, whether it be in clothing styles or trekking routes. This was the very thing that the explorer, Eric Shipton's life rebelled against. Ironically it was Shipton's book on Nanda Devi that made me a blind follower.

My affair with Nanda Devi began in the bookshelves of two libraries. The first in 1959 that would lead my steps directly to the Devi had been in the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Kolkata. I happened upon Shipton's Nanda Devi and found the book more compelling than scripture. I made a vow there and then that, come what may, one day I too would try and win a way into the Sanctuary. It was as though the quest for the holy grail took possession of me.

Earlier in 1957, the shelves of the India House Library in London while researching for my M.A. yielded a book entitled Yoga of the Bhagadvadgita by an English professor turned vairagi (who has renounced life) who had settled in Almora under the name of Sri Krishna Prem. On the title page the professor had translated Virgil's Procul este profane as 'Flee hence academics'. I concluded he must be crazy. Later my external examiner on hearing I planned to go to India insisted I must meet this yogi. Then on arrival in Kolkata while learning Sanskrit, my acharya (teacher) mentioned that he knew this yogi very well. The upshot was that eight years after I had thrown away his crazy book, Sri Krishna Prem would become my guru.

Himalaya. There and then I decided to spend the rest of my days within sight of this mountain poetry. I found ajob as gardener in Kausani, blessed with a ringside seat of the Goddess for the next four years, working for Sarala Behn, a no-nonsense Gandhian worker who felt mountaineering - or any other 'eering' for that matter - was for lesser beings. However Nanda Devi intervened to show she had stronger views on my destiny. When I attended a local devta natch ceremony at Nandashtami in honour of the Goddess I was given her prasad. This was a dose of typhoid that almost killed the body but opened my eyes to the Goddess's essential beatific nature.

Thereafter I returned to my guru's ashram for the next seven years trying - not very successfully - to digest Krishna Prem's teaching that the truth is never outside us. The granite Goddess is real but her reality is a reflection of the inner glory each being is born to find. Only when this profound understanding becomes universal will the galloping degradation of the Himalaya's beauty be arrested.

Living on a diet of dal, bhat and enlightened fatalism, I grew to value the smallness of my own certainties over the doubting consensus of the world's. With inner line restrictions in force, no opportunity to enter the Sanctuary arose until 1980, by which time I had moved to Mussoorie and become a middle-aged travel writer. I decided it was now or never. With a thousand rupees in my pocket and precariously equipped I set out in the rainy season when the rivers are at their most dangerous. This was not quite as suicidal as it sounds for I had learned in my twenty years acquaintance with the moods of the Goddess that only if she wanted you to enter her Sanctuary would you be able to do so. If she didn't extend a welcome, no matter how well prepared you were, she either wouldn't let you in - or worse, if you broke her Sanctuary etiquette - she would make sure you never got out.

My one member expedition thanks to the indispensable support of two Lata porters was successful to the extent that I got out alive. Addicted to the adrenalin the Goddess released I had no choice but to go back the following two years. The second attempt when I gave darshan of Changabang primacy, I received a rap on the knuckles for my straying motives and our expedition never got beyond Upper Deodi. I sensed the Goddess was living up to her reputation of being a jealous woman. Either that or my budget expedition was being punished for taking more out of

the sacred enclosure than it put back in. The fragile nature of the Sanctuary ecosystem means even a small party leaves behind an unwanted residue. Those who harp on the thrill of adventure and the high of individual satisfaction rarely stop to think of the cost in real environmental terms. That cost the Goddess has to bear.

The third essay, accomplished in 1982 after the monsoon, again with two Lata porters allowed access to the North Inner Sanctuary where by the grace of my benefactress I could view the greatest single wonder of the Sanctuary. This has to be the stunning view of the ultimate sweep of ice that culminates in the enormous prow of the main peak viewed from Rishi tal. While the frontal view of the Goddess from the South Sanctuary lifts the heart in praise, this rear view of her snow draped twin peaks stimulates the silence evoked by a grandeur too overwhelming for the outer eye to assimilate.

Emotionally the passage through the gorge had provided a tremendous sense of fulfilment as though I had been set a series of tests by the Seven Rishis themselves and found written at the bottom of my report card 'Pathetic imitation of Shipton no doubt, but done with feeling.' The mixture of wonder and terror, awe and fear was so tangible that I should have been a physical wreck at the end of the trek. In fact I was, - but - within poetry was bursting out all over. Instead of dragging my way back over Dharansi, something inside caused me to bound along like Tom Bombadil drugged by the ecstasy of a momentarily altered state of consciousness. Like Sri Ramana Maharishi I didn't know all there is to know, but it seemed I knew all that it is important to know.

The beauty of the Sanctuary overpowered and unhinged me and I gave thanks for a receptivity to nature's glory perhaps only the crazy can lay claim to. It was both humbling and elevating to know one was a small part of such ravishing, unending wonder. Shipton's Nanda Devi I realised was but the menu of a feast. You have to win your own way to that table of delights and they taste all the better when you have hungered as I did for twenty years.

Amazingly all these realisations occurred in the grotty confines of goat herder camps amidst the ripe smells concomitant with abandoned hygiene. Where was one's social conscience, for instance, while witnessing the extremes of well heeled foreign expeditions systematically demolishing Mars Bars against miserably furnished porters whose snotty nosed children chewed raw meat as the Devi's prasad? I didn't feel the injustice simply because the molecules of my being were so inextricably agitated in cosmic elation that they could experience the essence of Karl Marx and Albert Einstein at the same time.

Most mountaineering forums overlook the crucial role villagers play in allowing us access to the Himalaya. In a Nanda Devi commemorative event it is important to acknowledge the character and resilience of her village devotees. One of the most overlooked religious maxims is that without her village devotees there would be no Goddess to worship. Sadly the villagers of the Dhauli valley, disillusioned by the government and mountaineering establishment now look to NRI* Uttarakhandis on the internet with whom to share their grievances.

The callous manner in which local sentiment was disregarded at the closure of the Sanctuary has meant that those who advocated this drastic measure (like myself) are now ashamed to go back to Lata to meet the very people who made all our pleasure possible. If posterity should thank us for the closure, let it not lose sight of the terrible injustice served on the Dhauli valley villagers who were punished for the sins of the affluent expeditions who hired them. The regulated entry of bonafide mountain lovers who are passionate about the area's protection seems advisable in order to keep check on the Sanctuary's proper management and guard against traditional abuses like poaching and illegal entry winked at by pliant officials. The latest instance occurred only six months ago when the local government, in violation of its own orders, allowed an unauthorised military expedition to enter the core area of the Sanctuary in contravention of national law and international commitments.

The moment my twenty year vow to touch the feet of the Goddess had been fulfilled, I felt another arise to haunt my footsteps. Like a prophet it seemed I received a commission from the Goddess to write about the treasures of her trails. The title of my first book The Nanda Devi Affair was to have been Arrow of Desire but it was felt it might be classified under erotica instead of travel! The word 'affair' was substituted because the original manuscript included a chapter on the nuclear caper in the Sanctuary based on conjectural newspaper reports. At the last minute the publishers got cold feet and censored the entire chapter.

NRI - Non Resident Indians, a term, used for Indians settled abroad and usually believed to be rich.-Ed.

At the time my indignation was palpable, but today I recognise in the veto the hand of the Goddess. Men like Shipton and Tilman, Hasegawa and Takami, and women like Rekha Sharma and Devi Unsoeld have earned their place in the affections of the Goddess. But of what possible significance to the lore of the Devi could be the names of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger ? I realize now that by dumping the entire chapter the ridiculous had been separated from the sublime. In hindsight this was the correct response to a distress signal from the Goddess that read, 'Give us a break.'

The answer to our question regarding the status of Nanda Devi seems to be that both believing villager and doubting climber are right from their own perspectives. These extreme viewpoints agree that it is the mountain's loftiness (rather than her ravishing lines) that sets her above the rest. A third view held by those who are neither ustads nor chelas, yields a more holistic assessment of the Devi's worth, and is not dependent on her height above sea level. It is based on the uniqueness of the mountain's aura, which differs from that of most other peaks by the constancy of its beatific effect.

What Nanda, the Bliss-giving Goddess excites within us acts like a trigger to our understanding. This explodes into grander vistas of the universe, inner and outer, and makes us realise that despite our insignificance, our role as witness to the wonder is crucial to its unfolding. The mechanics of how this happens need not detain us, though obviously the objective dangers of negotiating the Rishi gorge constitute a crucial ingredient.

To conclude: thanks to this unique ability of Nanda Devi to inspire, many have been blessed with the only grace that those who seek lasting things from their Himalayan experience, hanker after - a rare vision of reality. Attempts to describe this have been recorded by an impressive array of visitors from many different backgrounds. It is this first hand testimony of a personally felt bliss that has given Nanda Devi a special status as an unforgettable mountain and - I am convinced - bestows auspiciousness on this gathering today.


In praise of Nanda Devi. 2006 is the 70th anniversary of the first ascent of the peak.