My friend had given me plenty of warning. He told me clearly that what I was about to do will forever change my life. And it did.
Soon people were expressing disbelief. There is so much to explore, why go back to the same state again and again? I agreed, and I still agree. But there is this pull. We have to go back; because Garhwal offered us peace and a sense of being at home when we needed it the most. And to us it will forever remain a place of serenity, even with all the noise and dust that comes out of decaying dignity of deities.
Home is a word we all think we understand. But what is home? It certainly isn’t a place. It is a state of mind. It is a place where we can truly be comfortable, and the comfort I speak of is not of the physical kind. It is a place where we think we belong. It is a place where we have a sense of power. But it can also be the opposite. It can be a space where we can relinquish all authority and trust others, allow others to take care of us. It can be a place where surrender does not arouse fear, but allows the mind to experience this unusual kind of serenity, generated by the realization that at least for a while you can drift with the world. It is a question of faith, not in any organized idiocy, but in people and in the majesty of nature.
I don’t care about tags and brackets. I don’t mind that many people now think that I am a closet theist. Whenever I think of those mighty mountains or those familiar faces, I am reminded that my life is not the only way. There is still some clarity left in the world. That is the moment I start figuring out dates. I feel I need to be elsewhere.
This is not a travel story. I am keeping those for other days. This one is about the Himalayas and us. Over the last decade Jaya and I have lived in constant contact with three peaks – Chaukhamba, Nilkantha and Kedar Peak.
(Chaukhamba from Buda Madhyamaheshwar)
(Kedar Peak from Ukhimath)
(Nilkantha from Badrinath)
Not that the others are any less impressive or exquisite (we have walked for days to catch a glimpse of Nanda Devi or Bhagirathi or Thalay Sagar or Shivling).
(Bhagirathi Peaks and Shivling Peak peeking, as seen at Bhujbasha)
But the first three mentioned have remained close to our hearts because they were the first to welcome us with all their magnificence, afforded us a peace that is otherwise elusive. They humoured us with glorious views and incredible mindscapes.
But it is not only about the grandeur of the snow-capped wonders. It is also about the men and women of these hills. Our first such friend was Taju – Tajwar Singh Panwar.
This boy was our guide when we went to Madhyamaheshwar. The warmth and trust with which this kid welcomed two perfect strangers into his home could only be answered by becoming a part of his family. The Chapati and Chae that day tasted better than any food in any swanky restaurant.
(Taju’s family then)
The roti sabzi we had in his house when we went to attend his wedding was definitely lovelier than all Biryanis of this world (and I claim to be lover of the genus biryani).
It was an honour to be invited to his small village – Gaundhar. This village is three hours’ walk (for me, for the locals it is about one hour only) from the nearest motorable road, a stone’s throw away from the confluence of Madhymaheshwar Ganga and Saraswati.
It is nine kilometres away from Madhyamaheshwar temple (a moderately tough climb). Near the confluence, is Bantoli. It is full of Ramdana and Umaprasad Mukhopadhyay had built his shelter here. It was destroyed during the 2013 cloudburst in Kedar which devastated much of the region.
Bantoli is the place where you will find Anil Kumar Panwar, whose hospitality, and the thick khichudi, we will remember forever.
If you ever find yourself on that road make it a point to stay at Vishwa Lodge.
(Vishwa Lodge from the path to Madhyamaheshwar)
What you will need to remember though is Luxury is not a part of the hiking world. I have stayed in rooms in these places where the bed is just a dirty blanket and the food is dal roti. But you don’t mind because you are thankful that at least four walls and a roof separate you from the elements which are not unkind, but are naturally extreme.
Ajay, Taju’s brother-in-law, is another lovely lad.
(Ajay and Deena in soft focus!)
We walked together once. He was quite sure I would collapse halfway. And was unduly surprised (and did not bother to hide it) when I managed to reach our target. Deepak, a man from Nepal, who works as a porter in Gangotri, became another friend.
He keeps calling. He gets very hurt if we don’t call back.
There are many more such dear friends. Akbar Bhai of Haridwar treated us to exquisite homemade Biryani (and we are back to Biryani), his brother Sonu drove near about 300 kilometres from Badrinath to Rishikesh in one day because we asked him to. (It was a very bad idea, because Sonu started suffering from cramps soon after we left Devaprayag after driving for eight hours on those sharp hilly bends, and we still had two more hours to go.) And I can keep on adding names.
As I keep repeating, what we find there is peace. You don’t have to be in places like Rudranath or Madhyamaheshwar where there are no more than thirty tourists on any given day (even in season).
(The entire Madhyamaheshwar settlement with the temple on the left)
Even the hyper-crowded places like Badrinath will offer you tranquillity if you step just a little away from the clamour. Walk north from the temple and you will find a path towards Mana village. This one is rarely travelled as no cars can be found here. Vehicular traffic takes the road on the other side of the river. When you reach Mana you have to cross a small bridge and walk uphill. If you don’t wish to do so, come back to Badrinath taking this route. It is a beautiful 3 km walk along a lovely plain path.
Or you can take the stairs that originate on left of the temple (as you are facing it). About a kilometre’s steep climb will take you up to the banks of a quiet little stream – the Rishiganga.
(The view from the banks of Rishiganga, Badrinath can be seen in the lower middle section)
There is no sound here. Legend says this is the place of meditation for all the great sages. Walk on. But take care to protect your eyes if the sun is kind. You are looking straight at the dazzling Nilkantha.
If you are a seeker of deep seclusion (I borrow only the phrase, not old Wordsworth’s mystified spirituality) then this is the place. There are a number of places like this waiting for you in Garhwal. Places where while walking you suddenly realise that there is no human being around for miles.
It is you and the hills – all the folly of so-called civilisation a million miles away. You are unconfined here. Such liberation is not what we have been conditioned to feel; there is no apprehension in this feeling, only exhilaration. There is complication everywhere, but in those few moments you are allowed to be free; allowed to feel the bliss of solitude. And you are captivated.
But I will offer the same warning after Ritwik. If you are like us, be wary. You will find home. But a home that is not a location, but the dislocation that we all crave.
Go only when you are ready to be dislodged from everything that binds you. Even a moment of that can be terrifying.
Or you can simply be a tourist. The mountains will not disappoint.