Vijay Sharma, The Hindu
March 4, 2007
IT is not the highest Indian peak — not unless one imposes the rather stringent condition of requiring the recipient of that honour to be “located entirely within the country’s borders”. But Nanda Devi is arguably the most beautiful, and almost certainly the most enigmatic, of India’s many mighty mountains. The Devi’s shadow, cast from an imperious height of 7,815 metres, spares few villages in the surrounding districts of Kumaon and Garhwal from its infamous caprices.
As with almost every Indian place of geographical significance, the Devi has been assimilated into the endless pantheon of Hindu Gods and Goddesses — the locals revere the mountain as a manifestation of Shiva’s consort, Parvati, whose return to her native Garhwal, once every 12 years, sets the stage for the Nanda Raj Jat, an event that rivals the Mahakumbh in its significance for the region. The Jat begins from the village of Nauti and tests the faith of the Jatris with a treacherous 22-day march until the heart-rending formalities of parting are completed in the splendid isolation of the 22,000 feet high mountain pond of Homkund. The extreme emotions and physical rigors associated with the Jat is just one of the examples of the curious mixture of love and reverence with which the locals regard the shapely cone of ice that lords over their destiny.
Lacking the hardiness and resolve of the Garhwalis, but as ardently desirous of the Devi’s blessings, I opt for the easier week-long hike from Ghat near Nandprayag to the emerging ski resort of Auli via the Kuari Pass. The route is known as the “Curzon Trail”, following a glorious tradition of Himalayan misnomers that goes back all the way to Sir George Everest — Lord Curzon and his serpentine retinue were forced to jettison their hopes of crossing the Pass thanks to an unfriendly reception from a swarm of bees! His Lordship was, however, quite successful in breaking enough Garhwali backs to pave a surprisingly well-preserved trail all the way to the Pass.
The trek begins with some hard hiking through rugged forested slopes but the Devi is not remiss in doing her bit to alleviate her devotees’ physical travails — lusty mountain streams, diaphanous waterfalls, lissom peaks, virgin woods, and bounteous maize-fields pass by in a pageant of visual delights that charm the senses into transcending pain… But these titillations are no more than feeble distractions dogging the pursuit of the more pristine beauty that lies beyond the Pass — the Devi’s Grace, shielded by the outstretched flanks of her gargantuan sentinels.
The handsome triple-mount of Trishul (7,120 metres) keeps a watchful vigil for most of the four days that it takes to clamber up to the Pass. At its foot lies the lake of Roopkund, the hideous contents of which have made significant contributions to the fascinating repertoire of Himayalan folklore — scattered around the lake and bizarrely complementing its snowy-white fringes, are a few hundred human skeletons! This icy morgue was until recently attributed to the Devi’s fury descending on the Dogri General, Zorawar Singh’s rapacious army. However, the remains have since been proven to have resulted from a Raj Jat party losing its way while traversing the treacherous route to Homkund. Curiously, an anthropological analysis of the skulls revealed that the party was most probably a group of Konkanashta Brahmins from Maharashtra!
Another recent example of the mountain’s bloody appetite is the poignant tale of Nanda Devi Unsoeld. Willi Unsoeld, her mountaineer-father, had named her after a peak he had fallen in love with as a young man. Nurtured on a daily diet of the mountain’s glory, it is not hard to understand Nanda Devi’s desire to meet her namesake. But her wish was granted rather too literally — she died from cold and exhaustion in her father’s arms, at the foot of the mountain. It is hard to resist the sentimentality of concluding, as the locals did, that the Goddess was, after all, only reclaiming her own… .
Mercifully, I had no such claims on the Devi’s affections. The trek from the camp at the foot of the Kuari Pass turns out to be a straightforward one — an hour’s hike with no more than a hint of oxygen-deprivation, leads to a saddle-top which, in terms of effort-to-reward, must rank as one of the best bargains in the Himalayas! Although the Devi herself has yet to make her entry, a phalanx of white knights, led by the imperious façade of Dunagiri (7,066 metres), stands guard over the northern and western horizons. My impatience for the Devi’s darshan urges me on to the 5,000 metre high spur of Pangerchuli, but she is in no mood to grant me an audience just yet — the veil drops, followed by a tempestuous fit. The mountain’s sanguine history weighs too heavily on my mind for me to even think of testing her will any further — the rendezvous will have to be on her terms.
She relents eventually at Chitrakanta, the last camp before Auli, just minutes after the sun releases her from his passionate embrace… but her next suitor is already around the corner and as the sky slips into an inky drape, the Devi succumbs to the silvery lustre of her night-watchman. The ethereal sight of this celestial union sends the mind on a strange journey to the other end of the sub-continent — to the green rice fields and majestic gopurams of Thanjavur, where one of the Goddess’ staunchest devotees lavished his unbounded love on what must be the most cherished of her followers’ countless tributes. It is unlikely that Syama Sastri ever visited Uttarakhand but his faith must have opened up splendorous vistas, of which my unseeing eyes absorb but a fraction. How else does one explain the uncanny appropriateness of his musical masterpiece in describing the glory of this vision whereas my own laboured words flounder hopelessly, utterly unequal to the task?
My benediction is complete and gives my watery knees the strength to take on the gruelling descent to the grassy alpine meadows surrounding Auli. Whenever they do groan a little, all I need to do is turn around and bask in the Devi’s mischievous, yet indulgent smile… and I know I would gladly suffer another million painful steps for that beautiful sight.