‘They must have cooked the name up’ I thought when one of the officers of the Jadung post said… ‘Sure, ten km further up there is a beautiful lake – Janak tal.’
After names such as Jangla, Kopang, Karcha, Nelong, Sumla, Dumku, Pulamsumda, names that had such apparent Tibetan influence, the starkly Hindu name was a surprise; Janak - the Sage-King and famed father of Seeta in the epic Ramayana, one who finds several mentions in ancient Indian Vedic texts such as the Upanishads! We had just reached the Jadung post in the central Nelang watershed, after a 50 km drive from Bhaironghati, along a road off the national highway to Gangotri.
A month later, scanning again through the research material on the expedition we had just finished, I re-read a long transcript of an interview1. The interview was with an old Jadh lady - Shanti Devi who seemed to be happily recalling the times when Nelang and Jadung had seen better days. I remembered this document because this was the only document we had found before the expedition that had any description of the terrain ahead of the Jadung village. After reading the interview, I realised, there indeed was a local legend about King Janak. The Jadh villagers of Jadung perhaps used the name Janak tal for many centuries. The ITBP had evidently not cooked up the name of that pretty jewel of a lake.
Janak tal. (Ravindra Bhatt)
The Jadhs of Jadhung (Jadh-Dung)
The name Jadung seems to have come from Jadh (name of the tribe that inhabited the valley) and Dung (mountain). The British mapmakers have mentioned this place as Jadhang, but all local residents of Uttarkashi use the name Jadung (perhaps Jadh-Dung) for this village and valley. The pronunciation agrees well with the nomenclature. Agriculture, livestock and commerce drove economy of their villages of Jadh-Dung and Nelang2. The Jadh population3 is estimated at around 2500 today of which more than 60% are residents of the Kinnaur valley in Himachal and the rest in the villages of Harsil and Dunda in Uttarakhand. Although of predominantly Bhotia origins, the Jadh people have a strong Garhwali influence. Even though they have converted to Buddhism and changed their rituals during the time of Tibetan domination; the legend of King Janak and festivals like Pandav Lila4 continues to live on in the Jadh consciousness.
Although the only source of documented history of the Jadh people and region is the archives of the states of Garhwal and Bushahr as well as writings of European explorers, none of the documents can be traced back earlier than 1700s. Europeans started taking interest area from 1807 onwards.
Pre-British Era (c. 16th to 18th Century AD)
The entire area at the source of the Bhagirathi including the Nelang watershed remained mysterious and obscure to the native Indian as well as the British for a long time because of its inaccessibility. The tall walls of the Nelang gorge at Bhaironghati barred the way of the most intrepid traveller.
The easiest access into the Nelang watershed was from Tibet over the Tsangchok la or Jelu Khaga. This may account for the influence of the Buddhist religion and customs that may have proliferated from Tibet5 in the late 1600s and early 1700s during the time of the 6th Dalai Lama.
It seems, the Jadhs used to migrate downstream of Bhagirathi and Baspa for trading in winters, thus inviting the right of revenue taxation by the states of Garhwal and Bushahr respectively. Similarly in summers, they had easy access to Chaprung of Tibet where they used to trade in Indian goods, thus inviting taxation from the Dzongpen of Chaprung! There is apparently a copper inscription of 1667 AD that states clearly that the Kingdom of Bushahr has gifted the Nelang tract to the Tehri state6.
As late as 1800 AD, armed cavalry from Bushahr state have been said to cross into the Nelang area over a pass called Chunsa-Khaga7 to collect taxes and dues8. State archives of the 1700s indicate rift between the princely states of Bushahr and Garhwal regarding matters relating to collection of taxes and tributes9 from the Nelang tract. It is apparent from many other accounts that, in the earlier part of the 1800s, the villages of the Jahnavi watershed had a dual identity by the name of ‘Chounsah’10 as called by the Tibetans and ‘Nelang’ and ‘Jadung’ as called by the people of Bushahr and Garhwal. As early as 1804, the Nepalese attacked and destroyed the Nelang village.
The British Era
Just after the Anglo-Nepalese war was over in 1815 the political boundaries in Garhwal was redefined and Garhwal was divided into two parts. The British Garhwal (Pauri and Alaknanda valley) was established and the rest of Garhwal was consolidated under the Tehri- Garhwal state. King Sudarshan Shah, the heir of the earlier King Pradhuman Shah, was reinstated as the ruler of the new state. With the support of the British, the King ruled for 44 long years11 ushering in stable governance for the state.
J B Fraser visited the Upper Taknore valley around 1815 in his search for the source of the Ganga and documented the existence of Chaunsah or Nelang and wrote about the Jadh Bhotias. He recorded the winter migration of the Jadhs into the Harsil area for the first time. Captain John Hodgson and Lt James D Herbert of the Survey of India carried on from where Captains Webb and Raper had left in 180812. Hodgson became the first European ever to visit Gaumukh on 31 May 1817.
Lt Herbert returned to the Upper Taknore valley in September 181913. He became the first European to traverse up the Jahnavi river and reached Nelang on 13 September 1819. He mentions that the Jadh people of Nelang and Jadung were apprehensive of European incursion and discouraged him from exploring till the pass to Tibet. The British suspected that the pass of Tsangchok la (Jelu Khaga/ Jeela Kanta)14 in Nelang valley could be an easy gateway for attack by the Russians. They needed someone nearby to be their eyes and the ears15 in this region.
During the 1840-83, the Harsil valley saw the emergence of Fredrick Wilson – a British army officer who deserted the army and chose a life of enterprise. The British found a convenient point man in him for gathering crucial intelligence about the happenings at the Nelang border. In his early days at Harsil, Wilson, in 1842, followed two Russian army officers through the Chor gad valley of Nelang, over the Gundar pass16 (Perhaps a Garhwali name for the pass that Gerard mentions as Chunsa- Khaga) and reached the Bushahri village of Chhitkul. Similarly, in July of 1845, Wilson played a pivotal role in preventing the party of Prince Waldamer of Prussia to enter the Nelang valley17.
Wilson was later appointed as the agent of the King of Tehri state and was also given the responsibility of rehabilitating the Upper Taknore and Nelang area in 184918. He got few Bhotias from the Baspa valley to settle at Nelang19. The Tehri state played active role in rebuilding the village of and for establishing the hamlet called Jadung, deep inside the Jahnavi watershed20. Wilson was in touch21 with the Jadh Bhotias on a regular basis22.
C L Griesbach from the Geological Survey of India visited the Nelang valley in two successive years 1882 and 188323 and published his exploits in 1891. He made a detailed study of the geology of the region and documented the Jadh people and their valley24. Marco Pallis in his famous exploration25 up the Gangotri valley in 1933, mentions his intent of hiring Jadh Bhotias as porters during his brief halt at Harsil. In the 1936-40 period the entire Nelang watershed was mapped with modern methods with people such as Lt J F S Ottley26 and J B Auden27 playing crucial roles.
In April 1956, an armed detachment of the Chinese army came up to a mile east of Nelang village28. The presence of the Indian armed forces in the village increased steadily after the Chinese aggression of 1962 till the villagers were completely evacuated in 1965. Those Jadh villagers were subsequently settled at two places - Bagori near Harsil (summer) and Dunda near Uttarkashi (winter).
Romesh Bhattacharjee and Harish Kapadia visited the area in 1990 and documented the Tirpani gad and Mana gad valleys respectively. Today, nestled in that pretty valley of Jahnavi, the quaint little village of Jadung stands neglected and ruined. However, during all these developments, geographical details of the Jadung area were never recorded. In fact most of the mapping and documentation focus of the British explorers were on the passes going out to Tibet or Badrinath - (Tsangchok la/ Jelu Khaga, Thaga la and Muling la to Tibet and Tara col / Arwa col to Badrinath). For example the British army map of Garhwal in 1936 does not mention Janak tal ahead of Jadung.
We were almost the same team that had explored Auden’s Trail the previous year29 in the same watershed. Sanjit Bal and his wife – Atamjot (a doctor) were new members. Apart from being regular ‘crossfitters’, they were recommended by Anant Khirbat (a key member of the team). Finally by early April 2013 we were a team of nine - Anant, Arun, Atamjot, Bharat, Kalyani, Kuntal, Ravin, Sanjit and I.
Topographical Backdrop and Route Plan
The Nelang watershed drains water from four major valleys. Three of these vales have a generally north-south orientation and only one, the Mana gad, has an east-west orientation. The three valleys that have the International border to the north and the Jadh ganga to the south are: Chor gad valley in extreme west, Tirpani gad valley in the extreme east and the Jadung gad valley, in the middle. The Tirpani gad, Chor gad and Mana gad valley have seen trade traffic since centuries. The history of these vales is well documented by Atkinson, Heinrich Harrer, Ottley, Auden30, Romesh Bhattacharjee31, Harish Kapadia32 and Tapan Pandit.33
Jadung valley bears little geographical description in historical records especially about details of what lies between Jadung and the bounding ridges of the water parting lines 20 km to its north. In the age of Google Earth and NASA Worldwind it is possible to have a look at the geographical features in a 3D model of the globe. We utilised this modern-day technical advantage to the hilt while planning the route.
Jadung Area Map.
Our initial research revealed a beautiful blue lake roughly 150 X 50 m in size, about 10 km ahead of Jadung village. In the satellite images, one could clearly see a well laid out track leading all the way to the lake and then on along the Jadung gad for a few kms. But it looked difficult to navigate northward along the main valley all the way to the headwaters. However, hope beaconed to the true right of the valley near the lake where a dead glacier appeared leading up to a high plateau ruled by a beautiful looking peak. The peak had shoulders on to its north and south both of which seemed to have doable cols that could lead one to the neighbouring valley to the west, the Chor gad valley.
We planned to explore this glacier, crossover to Chor gad using one of the cols and then proceed north to the head of the Chor gad, crossover the pass Chunsa Khago to the Baspa valley and exit at Chhitkul in Himachal Pradesh. We aimed to execute the plan in the first half of June and exit to Chhitkul on 17 June before the weather really worsened.
Phase 01- Walking in the Jadung Valley
Uttarkashi (1100 m) -125 km/6Hrs - Jadung (3650 m) - 7.5 km/6Hrs - Bharal Kill Point (3950 m) - 2.5 Km/2 Hrs - Janak tal (4120 m)
With a mild drizzle providing wet cover, we started on 02 June at about 9 a.m. and after a pleasant drive we were at the gateway of the Nelang valley by 02.00 p.m. After some minor formalities with the post-commander at Nelang we proceeded forth, seeing Naga and Do Sindhu bridge en route. Finally when we reached Jadung around 03.00 p.m., it was time to negotiate another administrative hurdle.
Due to some communication issue, the post-commander at Jadung had not been informed about our arrival through official channels. By about 8 in the evening the official hassles were sorted out. The day ended with a nice campfire in the farmlands of Jadung. The little solar-powered lights of the ITBP post shone at a distance across a little stream. The silhouettes of the ruins of the Jadung village around created an ambience that was surreal and ghostly.
The next day, we arrived at the lovely camping grounds of Lal Devta just within an hour of starting off from Jadung. Here, the Jadung gad curves in from the west with a wide bed and a giant bend. The campsite has verdant terraced plains with little shrubs of yellow flowers. Almost in the middle of the ground there is an ancient place of worship and nearby are remnants of shepherd shelters.
The route rises steadily thereafter to a raised plateau, well crafted into terraced fields. Towards the east almost on the high right bank of Jadung gad is a small temple with a timeworn brass bell, dedicated to Lal Devta - a deity traditionally revered by the Jadhs. Ahead was a glen with a fast-flowing stream, beyond which the route rose sharply leading to another rocky shrine atop a spur with a red pennant atop fluttering capriciously. A small group of ITBP men were huddled around that shrine as we could see from a distance. They had gone to dump advance load for an exercise that was to take place in a few days in the area ahead of Janak tal.
The route ahead eased out. We were now on a valley terrace, which was a few hundred metres wide with a sharp rise to the ridges to our left and a deep dive into the riverbed flowing to our right. Kuntal and Anant were the advanced scouting party and they reported a possible campsite by the riverside. I estimated the lake to be about three km away. The campsite looked good for it allowed less distance to be covered the next morning.
A house in Jadung village. (Sketch by Kalyani Patil)
As the team approached the campsite a ghastly scene awaited us. Right in the middle of the identified camping area, there was a carcass of a dead Bharal. One side of its face was eaten up and there were signs of scavenging on his stomach. It appeared as if the animal was killed by a leopard but had been eaten up partially either by a pack of dogs or by a bear. One thing was clear. More than one predator ruled the area. We took extra care that night to discourage local predators by lighting up small fires. Next day, after a sharp climb from the Bharal camp, the valley opened out and the route eased off. Within an hour we reached a vast camping ground. The GPS indicated that Janak tal was still half a kilometre away. We called the place ‘Janak tal - Shepherd camp’.
Looking back to Jadung from Lal Devta grounds. (Kuntal Joisher)
At 11.00 a.m. we entered an amphitheatre with a spectacular setting. The Jadung gad tumbled down furiously from the north in easy steps from between narrow vertical walls of the gorge ahead. A clear blue stream from the true right came in and met with the Jadung river in this open area. As we proceeded further we could see the origin of the clear- blue stream. There it lay, nestled cozily between two mountainsides, the aquamarine blob of nature’s marvel - ‘the Janak tal’. When we saw it for the first time, we were wonderstruck by the vibrant blue of the Janak tal, as if someone had accidently constructed an Olympic-sized swimming pool in the wrong place.
We noticed a pair of dark objects swimming in the middle of the lake. It was a pair of ‘Northern Pintails’- a species of goose that’s found over a large area in the northern hemisphere. The strange thing was, they were the only sign of life in that secluded piece of heaven. The lake Janak tal has an oblong layout and is set on a southwest-northeast orientation. The southwest tip of the lake is adorned with the terminal moraine of a dead glacier. This glacier, our object of exploration, was christened the ‘Janak glacier’. From here onwards our path departed from the ITBP patrolling route, up through the rocky bed of this glacier.
A recce team left to explore the route ahead and identify a campsite for the next day. Near the lake we found an old little temple with figures of goddess Durga. Nearby was a pile of flat rocks upon which were inscribed some prayers/writings in the Tibetan script. We identified some of the inscriptions saying Om Manipadme ham Namah- The famous Buddhist prayer. These were few mani stones that some of the British explorers had written about. The proximity of the two places of worship indicated religious influences that would have impacted the Jadh people in the times gone by. Since Janak tal was deeply revered by the Jadhs, it appeared the Buddhists from Tibet also wanted to leave a mark here.
Janak tal surroundings. (Kuntal Joisher)
The recce team came back at 03.00 p.m. Their report wasn’t encouraging. They had climbed about five km till a rocky flat. But they had not found any water source. Apparently the entire glacier was a dry rocky desert. We hoped that there would be patches of snow, which we could possibly melt.
Phase 02- Exploring the Janak Glacier
Janak tal (4120 m) - 5 km/5 hrs - Tower Peak Camp (4600 m) - 3 km/ 3hrs - Jadung kund (5050 m) - 2 km/2hrs - ABC (5300 m) - South col (5500 m)/ Summit ridge (5850 m) - 10 km/5 hrs - Janak tal (4120 m)
The route to Janak glacier climbs steadily due southwest from the extreme tip of the Janak tal. Soon we were deep in the middle of brown rock country. Tall craggy ridges capped with melting snow flank the moraines of the Janak glacier. Soon we reached the site where loads had been dumped the previous afternoon. We still had not found water!
Tower peak seen from Janak glacier. (Kuntal Joisher)
Fortunately, Kuntal and Anant struck water just about 200 m ahead on the true left of the medial moraine. We established our first rocky camp. We had made good progress for the day. The altimeter read 4600 m. On to the true right of the glacier just opposite to our campsite rose a tall rocky tower capped with snow, looking like a smaller replica of Kailash.
Continuing on a similar terrain the next day we proceeded for two km to reach the confluence of the glaciers coming from north and south of the Nakurche peak. Our water woes were over for we noticed a multitude of glacial pools all along the way. The way ahead was now snow covered with a thin rivulet of snowmelt stringing through it. About a kilometre west of the junction we came across a large glacial pool, which we called as Jadung kund, located close again to the true left of the glacier. We had already crossed the 5000 m mark. It was time to set up our first snow camp!
Our earlier plan was to attempt a peak from this camp using the southeast ridge. But the route did not look very friendly from where we were camped. We decided to set up an advanced base camp at the cwm of the glacier from where we could carry out a simultaneous reconnaissance of both the Nakurche south col as well as the Nakurche peak. The gently rising snowfields led us to the southern head of the Janak glacier the next morning. After a friendly snow trudge of about two hours we reached a half frozen large glacial lake at 5300 m, just 100 m short of the bounding northern wall of the glacier on top of which sat the Nakurche peak. We called the lake Jadung tal and found a rocky patch on its high bank to set up camp.
Route ahead of Jadung kund camp to the head of Janak glacier. (Ashutosh Mishra)
Facing towards the head of the valley, the south col and the Nakurche peak were almost directly overhead to our left and right respectively. The south col and the route to its top were looking dangerously steep. Towards our right, the route to the top of the summit ridge of Nakurche wasn’t looking easy either. It was already 7 June. Bad weather was closing in fast and we had to be off this high place within the next three days, either towards Chor gad, over the south col or back the way we came.
Nakurche peak from Janak glacier. (Ashutosh Mishra)
The quartet of Vinod, Janak, Lakhpa and Rajender left for a reconnaissance early next day, which opened sunny and bright; Vinod and Rajender went for the col and the other two for the summit ridge. After about an hour the party for the col led by Vinod radioed back news of their successful climb to the top of the col and reported the conditions for descent to Chor gad. According to them it was dangerous to descend the almost vertical loose rocky slopes on the other side, particularly for the porters. There was no point risking an unsafe descent when the weather was closing in. I decided to attempt the peak and then retreat back to Jadung.
Janak and Lakhpa, the scouts for the summit ridge, returned three hours later just when the clouds were rolling in. They reported good news. Excitement was back in the camp. Everyone was soon busy rounding up the personal equipment.
The Climb: ABC (5300 m): Rocky Pinnacle - Summit Ridge 5852 m, 8 hrs
We started at 04.00 a.m. The climb was hard and became risky when loose rocks started rolling down just when we were about 200 m short of crest of the summit ridge. It took a steady climb of three hours to reach the ridge top to have a magnificent spectacle of the entire Garhwal Himalaya laid out before us. As we looked down along the ridge we could see the hump of 5750 m at one extreme - the point that’s visible above the Jadung Kund camp. The top of it looked like a Helipad! Looking up we could see the gently rising but highly rocky ridge leading to the peak.
The walk on the summit ridge of Nakurche is a painful one. One has to continuously climb up and down the many small pinnacles that dot the summit ridge while having in view all the while the steep slopes leading down on both sides. As we trudged ahead the north col came into view to our right. This one looked perfectly doable! I regretted having chosen the south col for our attempt.
After about an hour of arduous labour we reached a tall rocky pinnacle of about 30 m height. Only a traverse on the lower level looked feasible. It was already 08.30 a.m. and any such detour would add at least a three to four hours, I calculated. The weather was predicted to be nasty after 12 noon. I had to take a call. “We go down guys. Perhaps some other time!” I told the team. We were about 160 m below the summit and perhaps less than 300 m away. As one looked along the ridge ahead, the pass over northern Chor gad glacier to Baspa valley was visible. We had originally intended to crossover to Chitkul had we been successful in crossing over the south col. All along the right was the boundary of the Nelang watershed that gave birth to the Jahnavi. At 2 o’ clock direction one could see the headwaters of Jadung gad, a highly inaccessible and desolate place strewn with crisscrosses of myriad glaciers. Slightly to its right were the extreme northeastern borders of Nelang- Thaga la and Tsangchok la were barely visible.
View towards west from Nakurche South col. The mountain barrier defines the boundary of Chorgad valley. (Vinod Panwar)
Straight-ahead, between Chor gad glacier and the Jadung headwaters the giants of Himachal- Reo Pargial and Leo Purgial were visible and so was Rangrik Rang. To the right and till the 4 o’ clock direction our view was blocked by a massive rocky mountain adorned with many rocky spires. To all of our left the view was mesmerising. The whole set of ranges bounding the Upper Taknore Patti were visible- Shrikanta, Gangotri, Auden’s Col, Jogin, Thalay Sagar, Bhrigupanth, Shivling, Meru, Satopanth, Chirbas, Deo Parvat, Sri Kailash and far in the distance the Zaskar giants Kamet and Mana.
The way down required a bit of rappelling and lowering down. All of us reached back the camp safely by 12 noon. By evening it was clear that the weather was indeed turning for the worse. On our way back to Janak tal, we observed a bright round halo of a rainbow around the sun. Only later we realised the significance of it when the freak cloudburst over Kedarnath on 15 June created an unprecedented and unfortunate disaster.
The Jadung gad had swelled up compared to what we had seen on our way up. There were more evidences of flooding on our way back to Jadung next day. The trail had gone underwater at several places. We spent some time at Lal Devta. It seems that it has always been an important deity worshipped by the Jadhs. Even near Bagori, where the Jadhs live today, they have created a shrine for Lal Devta, which one finds on the way up the Jalandhari gad valley. It seems thus that the Lal Devta shrine of Jadung was the original shrine of worship, which the Jadhs may have used for many centuries.
We reached Jadung Post in another couple of hours. Next morning we had a lovely walk roaming through the ruins of the abandoned village of Jadung. There are 30 odd houses in the village. The remains of the life of a people who used to live there could almost be smelt and touched. The pillars with fine woodwork, the cold stoves and smokeless chimneys and the empty granaries told a story of a time gone by. On the way we could see the Bhagirathi angry and swollen. May be it was a condition of extreme snowmelt and some heavy rains upstream. Luckily the vehicle arrived and nothing untoward happened on the way.
Two days later the news trickled in about the mammoth cloudburst over Kedarnath and the subsequent tales of devastation. One can only hope that life return to normal as soon as possible and the economy of the mountain primes up again, very soon; but perhaps in a lot more considerate way for the Grand Old Man- the Himalaya.
Exploration of Jadung valley, Janak tal and Janak glacier in the Jadh ganga valley of Garhwal Himalaya during June 2013.