In the lower Himalayas of Uttarakhand, I hiked many kilometers through dreamy villages, terraced valleys, deodar forests, secret rhododendron trails, and swaying yellow mustard fields – a journey that gave me a peek into the soul of rural Kumaon, and through it, my own.
I’ve never travelled in my own backyard. Born and brought up in the valley of Dehradun, I’ve always wondered what lay beyond the mountains I could see from my terrace. And last month, I finally decided to find out. I made my way up to the villages beyond Uttarkashi, and down via Mussoorie, transfixed by the majesty of the Garhwal Himalayas, as much as by the conviction of the locals to move on after the devastating Uttarakhand floods of 2013. I’ll let these pictures tell you their stories.
I think I’ve finally come to love the monsoon season in India. I’m mesmerized by the way the rains paint the mountains an emerald green, and provide relief to the parched desert. The way the clouds playfully flirt with the moon at night. The way the monsoon mist descends on lakes and waterfalls. The cool breeze, the raindrops on my skin, the smell of the earth, they are all subtle reminders of how travelling makes me feel – liberated.
Two weeks ago, I rekindled my love affair with Kumaon. From my attic at Te Aroha (Read: Te Aroha: Under The Yellow Rooftops), in the charming little village of Dhanachuli, I witnessed the majesty of the Himalayas. And so did some of you, through my blog, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You said you couldn’t wait to stay here yourself, so I managed to score it for you! Here’s your chance to win a stay at Te Aroha, and experience its poetic love in person.
Every stone in Kumaon has a story. It speaks of the fierce spirit of the Kumaoni people during India’s freedom struggle. It carries the whiff of tea gardens that once flourished on this land. It looks humbly upon mighty Himalayan peaks that sit in the distance. This is the story of some such stones, stones that were erected by Sumant Batra back in the nineties, stones that became my abode for a weekend this July. His love affair with travel started while he was still a child, and much like anyone who’s travelled in Kumaon, he was captivated by the charm of the lower Himalayas of Uttarakhand. In his late twenties, he fell in love with the small, obscure village of Dhanachuli. There were terraced valleys here, verdant mountain slopes covered with apple orchards, forests of pine and rhododendron, gushing rivers, small streams and waterfalls, and no development or tourism infrastructure to speak of. The locals were friendly, nay, full of warmth, and the food was delicious. Who wouldn’t fall in love? Not very rich …
With temperatures rising mercilessly this summer, weekend getaways near Delhi are the best way to beat the heat. Bhimtal, a hill station near Delhi, is perfectly placed for a quick escape in the hills of Kumaon, without the crowds of its neighbor, Nainital. I’ve crossed Bhimtal several times while making my way into the higher reaches of Kumaon. Most of these times, I’ve looked away from the Bhimtal Lake, which though surrounded by colorful trees, looks only as clean as you can expect an easily accessible lake in India to be.
We Indians have a strange way of showing our respect to the things (places) we worship. In the name of religion, we build cemented structures in our rivers to install large idols of gods & goddesses. In the name of devotion, we clean our feet, dispose off ashes and run mechanized boats in the same water that we regard as the purest to drink. Such is our relationship with the River Ganga in Rishikesh, and while the river continues to be a timeless beauty, it’s hard to say how long it can sustain our ‘religious’ offerings. From an evening spent in the land that I remember to be almost magical 12 years ago, a photo essay on how our prayers show both love & hate for this magnanimous river.
Loud Hindi music blares through the silence of the valley, carrying the wind with it. Women dressed in their most pink and jazzy attires walk down the path to a village hut below, big smiles pasted on their faces, their eyes fixed on their toddlers who keep running faster than their fancy heels can take them. This is not your usual day in Peora, a small village quietly tucked away in the forests of Kumaon in Uttarakhand. It’s the day before a wedding, and the entire village seems to be rejoicing, dressing up, laughing, singing, dancing, feasting and celebrating.
The coals are slowly burning out, making the stars glow brighter. “We live in the mountains,” he conclusively says, “we can’t not believe.” We are just ending a session of spooky, even gruesome stories about the creatures of the wild and those beyond the natural; from tales of leopards picking up dogs in the vicinity of where we are, to white carcasses haunting the jungle path we trekked up in the dark, a few hours ago. Some real experiences, some figments of imagination. As our newfound friend says, living in this jungle for the last 20 years, he has seen everything and nothing at all.
This post was originally written for & published in the Hindustan Times. As our jeep manoeuvres through the broken forest trail, a gale of wind blows off the hood of my jacket and whispers in my ear. Suddenly, I’ve forgotten that I’m cold and sleepy at an hour when even the sun is tucked in. I’ve been to Corbett before, but only on a tiger chase. Today, I want to unearth the mysteries of its wilderness.