Saturday, October 2, 2010

Of Mountains and Folklore

I believe that urban ‘superstitions’ had some logical basis once upon a time….its just that those logics don’t apply to the current situation anymore. And hence you tend to ignore them. But when you travel closer to nature, deep in its interiors and you hear certain folklores……somehow you don’t want to tamper with them. Many people listen to them as that only i.e. folk tales and forget about them. But I find them fascinating and mysterious. And I believe always, always told in order to respect and protect nature.

The first interesting one that I heard was on the trek to Dzongri in Sikkim. We had reached the base of the Dzongri peak and were getting excited about going up to the peak in the wee hours to see the sunrise. The sunrise there is said to be spectacular and pinkish in colour. In the night the guide told us quietly….that if a person is a sinner, he or she won’t be able to see the sunrise on Kanchendzonga. We saw a muted sunrise as the clouds floated in and out. On our way back, the same guide pointed to a group of foreign trekkers of a particular country and said that they are not good people and they will never be able to see the sunrise. Lo and behold, a storm engulfed us the very same night.

A very fascinating folklore exists in GHNP. The final destination of our trek was to the origin of the river Tirthan in Bhuindari. On our second day just before our climb started, there was a tree filled with stuff made of iron. The guides refused to go ahead without lighting incense there. For our safe return, they informed us. Anyway….this is not the fascinating folklore I was talking about. There are two glacial lakes in Bhuindari from which the Tirthan originates. Women are not allowed to go near them or see them. Men can go to only one lake….the other remains untouched by human hands…in its very pure form. It’s the only other place in India where Brahma, the Creator is worshipped and rightly so. We womenfolk stayed away.

Monal, the state bird of HP is brilliant and elusive. The locals say that when God created the Monal, all the birds of the world presented it with one of their feathers. That’s why you can see every possible colour in that bird.

My favourite folklore however is about a place where I have not been yet – the Valley of Flowers. This valley was hidden from humans for a long time. It was only in the 1930s that a British mountaineer stumbled upon it. The locals however knew about this valley but refused to go there ever believing it to be visited by fairies. They say that if you enter their dwelling place, the fairies will carry you away. Some believe that that’s how the female botanist from England also died there. Even now the locals refuse to go into the interiors of the park which remains off bound to humans. And yes….I do believe in fairies!

In the grueling trek to Tso-Moriri in Ladakh, bad weather followed us constantly making us change our plans everyday. Out of pure frustration, B a fellow trekker started abusing the mountains. J and I jumped on him and immediately told him to stop. It’s a cardinal sin to curse nature especially when you are out there in nature…for nature. Why do we forget that we don’t and can’t ever control nature? It is nature that always controls us.
And then there are the prayer flags…it’s not a folklore but I simply love the concept. The prayers written on the flags flutter in the wind and gets carried up to heaven. Up there standing on top of the world, with nature in its purest form……it’s simple to believe that the prayers will always reach the right ears.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Odati Oddities

Trips with Odati are rarely short on entertainment, something or someone (with initials J M ?) attracts eccentrics of every kind.

Kooky K : K is the absent-minded forgetful kind, the type that puts his mobile phone into the washing machine by mistake and then switches it on – the machine, that is, not the phone.

K is also the obstinate type. He once wore really – short – almost – absent – shorts while trekking in a mosquito infested area and refused to use Odomos in spite of Jayesh’ repeated admonishments. K’s stated reason - “Odomos is only for women” ! I suppose he also believed ‘mard ko dard nahin hota’, a principle that was quickly disproved after he got bitten to bits. Rather unreasonably, he failed to understand why none of the women expressed any sympathy for him.

[Rule 1 of trekking with Odati : Those who disobey Jayesh do so at their own peril.]

‘Ncouraging N : Then there’s N, one of the group leaders on a monsoon trek to Prabalgad on a day it poured torrentially. By evening, all of us were soaked, bone-tired and running low on energy. We cheered up as we finished our descent and realized that we had just one tiny stream and a 20 minute walk between us and the vehicle which would bear us speedily towards hot tea and steaming pakodas. Our slow plodding steps had just regained some of their bounce and vigour when we rounded a curve in the path and gasped in horror – the babbling brook that we remembered had morphed into a frothing rage of water that would reach higher than our waists as we crossed.

While us city-bred folk fretted about losing our lives, N had his own worries that we selfishly ignored. Not for long though. Being a true-blue Bawa, N could not but speak his mind. While J fussed about helping everyone link hands and then cross, N loudly voiced his concern that one of us (paying customers, mind you) would pee out of fear while we were crossing the stream and he would end up standing in soiled water ! Now that’s perspective - Where you see a scary death by drowning, another sees only the dinginess of ….ugh…. soiling !

[Rule 2 of trekking with Odati :A reality check is never far away.]

Resplendent R : And how could I forgot R ? For his first high altitude trek, he chose to turn up with two hold-alls, one of which had a zip that could not be closed ! Apparently he had spoken to people who trekked regularly and none of them had classified a backpack as a necessity. On the other hand, good ol’ R’s friends and well-wishers had focused on the necessity of managing without a bath for days on end. As they say, forewarned is forearmed, and R was sufficiently prepared with about 10 pairs of knee-length cotton shorts, each of which had bright candy stripes in pink, orange etc. Even the rhodendrons and the hornbills we saw could not match R’s colourful flamboyant style !

[Rule 3 of trekking with Odati : Positive Attitude and fun are non-negotiable, all else can be managed somehow.]

A pseud person who spoke the Queen’s English with a clipped accent, nevertheless a loyal son of the soil from Bihar, R felt an indefinable bond with every Bihari he met. Somehow he seemed to meet them all - grocers, barbers, waiters, a guy running a lodge etc, and he could never resist a ten minute chat with each of them. R loved discussing intricate details of his newfound friend’s life – his native place, schooling, his children, their education, which bus they caught to go to the school nearest the village etc etc. We shamelessly eavesdropped on these chats, it was almost a cultural exchange program hearing the two accents collide and communicate – one rough and colloquial, the other refined and speaking in shuddhh textbook Hindi.

Single S : S was single and eligible and the group decided that one of the objectives of a two week high-altitude ‘mission’ in the Himalayas was to find him a pretty bride. J in particular favoured someone whose parents owned an STD booth in a small town. Not only would S be able to live in such a beautiful place forever as a ghar-jamai, but his friends from Odati would also get free boarding and lodging. In J’s opinion, the deal-clincher was the fact that whenever S felt homesick, he could make FREE STD calls to his Mum !

[Rule 5 : The hearing of PJs will be as frequent as the sighting of greenery or mountains.
Rule 5. addendum 1. He who cracks the worst joke shall be the guy or girl Jayesh likes the most.
Rule 5. addendum 2. Often Jayesh will crack the worst joke (he has a whole repertoire of corny ones). In that case, addendum 1 refers to the worst but one joke]

Movie-star M : You and I would consider M’s looks fairly average, but he thought otherwise and never felt entirely free of the fan following and paparazzi that followed him everywhere, even on a high altitude trek. During one dangerous river crossing, he almost got swept away, but managed to hold tight to a rope with one hand and was pulled to safety by the porters. You or I, average people, would reach shore and our first impulse would be to thank God for sparing us and to hug the porters who pulled us to safety. But M was not made for such mundane reactions. On reaching the shore, the first thing he did was to dig deep into his pockets, unearth a small comb and quickly brush his untidy hair into submission. He then turned and waved nonchalantly for the benefit of his anxious friends on the opposite bank and the assembled (imaginary) paparazzi.

[Rule 4. Be ready to achieve fame of a sort on a trek with Odati – stories deemed worthy are retold to other trekkers for years.]

Zen (Read more by Zen at

Saturday, May 22, 2010

In Anticipation

(waiting for the rains)

Monsoon is the best time for trekking in the Sahayadris. Though the rain makes the downhill route slippery and a bit tricky to negotiate, it is more than made up by the rain – drenched hills shrouded in mist, the clouds and the numerous small waterfalls and streams that spring up all over.

I went with Odati on two perfect monsoon treks last year – to Manikgad and Surgad. Both were short hikes and just right for a relaxed Sunday – a 3.5 hr amble uphill at Manikgad and a 2.5 hr walk at Surgad. The only patch of slightly difficult terrain was the the last patch at Surgad which is steep and slippery and requires concentration. While the rain evaded us at Manikgad, in Surgad we got caught in a downpour that was full ‘paisa-vasool’ and thoroughly enjoyed it. Both treks had lush greenery and long wavy grass rippling in the breeze.

Both places we had a local guide in addition to the Odati team; apart from showing us the way, they added to overall entertainment levels with their eccentric personalities. I have a sneaky suspicion, though, that these villagers might have a similar reason for agreeing to guide us – not for the money, but to observe these wimpy weird townfolk and have funny stories to tell their families over dinner.

The Maamaa at Manikgad was strong ‘n silent and quite a disciplinarian. On the way up the final portion, whenever we halted to catch our breath, he would stop ahead of us, look down at us and make clicking noises with his teeth to hurry us up – the kind villagers make to hurry along cattle in the fields ! Like all such maamaa’s I have seen, the fact that we were paying him made no difference to his bindaas attitude and behaviour. As we had oodles of time to enjoy the view from the peak, we intended to snooze for about an hour after eating lunch but he would have none of it. He woke us up in 20-30 minutes and herded us down, saying that he was worried it would soon rain heavily. As he had earlier confidently predicted a dry morning when we thought dark clouds heralded rain, we decided he might be right this time too and clambered down the hill lickety-split.

The Maamaa at Surgad had even more impressive weather prediction skills. A lean, stringy weather-beaten guy over 70 monsoons old, he would predict when it would rain down to the last half hour (maybe the MET office should hire him!) and his reading of the clouds was right more often than not. He was as much of a disciplinarian as the Manikgad Maamaa, but his style was to shame you into hurrying, rather than to herd you. Halfway up the hill, when we stopped for 5-10 minutes at a nice meadow, he proudly told us that he could ascend and descend the hill in less than an hour, which was less than the time it had taken us to reach the halfway point; you can bet we walked faster after that.

All these Monsoon maamaa’s interpret suggestions of alternative routes as mutiny and tend to mulishly insist that you take exactly the path they prefer – maybe it comes from a lifetime of being the undisputed head of the family and getting unquestioning obedience. Our Surgad maamaa had the same attitude towards dissent, except that he was also an expert at psychological warfare. When he didn’t want to climb right to the very peak, rather than argument and obstinacy, he used the tell-tales-of-townsfolk-who-would-not-listen-and-suffered-painful-accidents solution. Quite a storyteller, he relished multiple retellings of the tale of women from Mumbai getting stuck at the peak during a downpour, almost falling all the way down while descending and finally having to be lowered down on ropes. He was quite effective too, we convinced ourselves that the hills, the fort walls and the stone relics scattered around were sufficient adventure and there couldn’t be anything better to see at the peak.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What to do at Tawang

....Apart from the usual visit to the monastery and to the Bum La Pass.

Visit the Ani Gompa (monastery for female monks). Unlike the main Tawang monastery whose presence dominates the town and which has bright yellow roofs that are visible from a distance, the Ani Gompa is tucked away discreetly on a hillside away from the town.

Drive around aimlessly over the hills just outside town. Notice army presence, also old bunkers scattered on the hills, realize how close and fragile the border is over here. Then visit the war memorial in the centre of town – it commemorates the soldiers that died during the 1962 war with China.

Visit Hotel Maa for a meal or a snack – awesome rasmalai and yummy parathas.

Visit the small music shops and ask for their own selection of English / Hindi music. These guys record eclectic mixtures of songs and music styles that make for great listening while travelling. You never know which song is going to play next, the unexpected melodies match the adventure waiting around the next turn.

Just walk around town. Notice the contrast between the expanse of the blue sky, the towering white mountains in the distance, and bunches of tiny red and orange flowers growing on the balconies of the houses nearby.

One of the photographs at the exhibition at Ravindra Natya Mandir in Mumbai captured exactly this scene and prompted this post. If, like me, you haven’t trekked in a while, an hour spent gazing at the photographs at the exhibition and exchanging memories of treks with friends is well worth it. Of course, it will result in a lot of wasted time the next day while you gaze at snaps on Jayesh’ facebook account and schedule your next trek etc.

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