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A family trek in Ladakh: 4 days of wilderness, solitude and bonding

“Out of your comfort zone”

These were the words that stood out for me when Rikzin briefed us an evening before our trek. We were to walk about 45 kms over 4 days, cross a pass at 15000 ft (4570m) above mean sea level climbing up from 11,800 ft (3200m) and we were to descend all of those 3,500 ft in a single day! But none of these numbers featured in that briefing we got on. We were, instead, taken through the mechanics, the process. What we would carry into our bag packs: water, packed lunch, sun screen, cap, etc and sandals for river crossings. What the campsite would be like: tents, sleeping bags, kitchen amenities, how we would shit… The only numbers we got, and we held on to these closely, was how many hours we would walk: 3-4 hours on day 1, 5-6 hours on days 2 and 3, and maybe 7+ hours on day 4 on the descent. We listened in rapt attention, especially the kids (aged 14, 14, 11, and 10). I remember thinking this was going to be a challenge. I remember feeling a flutter of excitement in my belly! In all of my 42 years on this planet, I had never gone camping and slept in a tent before and I felt every bit as excited as I had been on my first airplane ride or my first roller coaster experience!

What followed simply blew my mind. This had been the most physically arduous and mentally challenging experience of my life. And yet, at the end of each day, I felt a sense of calm as if I was destined to achieve. No matter how much I struggled while walking, I had not an iota of self doubt left at the end of each day’s journey. I discovered that the mountains and the unique sense of solitude and peace that nature offers, is empowering and transformative in a way that modern ‘world travel’, with its kaleidoscope of sensory experiences, cannot be.

Day 1: Stepping over stones, learning to breathe

We drove to Stok village in two slightly beat-up Maruti Suzuki Omnis. Right off the bat, the kids decided to be their own gang, riding in one car while the adults were assigned to the other. At the starting point of our trek, the sight of the 20-odd mountain horses being loaded with stuff, was a bit of a shock. I hadn’t realized what a massive logistical exercise it is, taking a group of city folks into the mountains! The sun beat down quite harshly on us that day and we sat around a joked, waiting for permits to be issued and the loading to finish. Suhani and Aadyaa, our youngest duo, put up an impromptu performance of a rap number they had been composing the past couple of days while we drove all the way to Pangong Tso Lake and back. Srijaa and Udai, the older kids, obliged and we have a few funky posed pre-trek shots from these moments.

We had a late start, mostly because our travel companions showed up late at the starting point, and it was very hot as we walked up along the Stok river past village homes and quaint home stays. The older kids set a robust pace, while we took our own time, enjoying the gradual fading away of human habitat and taking in the spectacular beauty before us. The walk involved stepping over large stones alongside gurgling water and though the climb was gentle, it was taxing on the ankles and knees. My pace dropped as we walked and the younger kids went ahead of us, accompanied by Govindji who was the man in charge on this trek. After two hours of walking, I started to struggle in earnest and it took effort to keep the breath steady and handle the harsh sun and dehydration. Yet, almost before we knew it, we hit the campsite at Changma and saw that much of it was already set up! The children had already reached and were busy with popcorn. Soon they were at the river, splashing about in the water and playing with Wilde, the dog from Stok village who had accompanied us all the way here. We also walked over and introduced ourselves to other campers nearby and befriended Adrian, a South African teacher who was traveling with schoolchildren from Jakarta. A long discussion on trekking in the Himalayas and the experience of working with local communities ensued. In a separate chat, Govindji lamented the lack of government infrastructure for trekkers.

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Ladakh’s green valleys strike a sharp contrast in its brown landscape and we enjoyed the experience of walking out of one into the brown-ness beyond

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The flora alongside the river and the path that cut through the topsy turvy stones

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Heading into the gorge

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One step before the other!

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Doggedness is all you need here…and when you are literally being encouraged by a dog friend, it’s a new kind of fun!

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Pen and ink sketch of the campsite.Wherever I could, I doodled and sketched, and maintained a diary through the trek. Those entries have helped me immensely in reconstructing the trek for this post.

 

The campsites were made as comfortable as possible by the organizing team at Ladakh Sarai. The first to be set up were kitchen and dining tents, then two toilet tents that essentially offered some privacy and the option of a metal seat over a hole in the ground! A special mention for the excellent quality of food and the thoughtful preparations made by Chef Norbu, whose talent at cooking with minimal resources was surpassed only by his dazzling smile and affection.

After a good meal (mutton, dal, rice, vegetables, and an exotic chocolate-based dessert! wow!) and some time spent by the bonfire, we prepared for the night and zipped ourselves into the tents. The kids decided to sleep in one tent and seemed quite comfortable and cozy inside but for me, the first night was an adventure that involved grappling with a sleeping bag, fighting off claustrophobia and the fear of having to go out into the cold and pee!

Day 2: Walking over ice, gaining confidence

Even so, the next morning dawned bright and fresh, but not super early. We got ready quickly, breakfasted and packed to leave. The children were sent out onto the trail 30 minutes before us. Govindji had briefed them well and all four of them were to walk in line with the older ones forming the edges and the younger ones in the centre. He took them to where the trail began and sent them off and that enduring image of them setting out on their own, excited and confident an thick-as-thieves, is imprinted in my mind as one of the best memories of the trip.

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Govindji got back and packed us off too, then moved on to the arduous job of winding up the camp and sending the horses onto the next campsite. The four of us- Rahul, Rishi, Shubha and me- walked to the trailhead and stood there gaping at the sheer climb ahead of us. Believe me, it was a path fit for mountain goats, but we braved that first climb by channeling all our learning from Day 1, pacing ourselves out much better, breathing evenly and most importantly, by discarding the idea of failure. After going over the first pass, we rejoined the path alongside the Stok river and from then on the climb was more steady, more scenic. We found ourselves in a narrow gorge, the jagged form of the mountain seemed to towers over us and almost close in on us, framing a patch of bright blue sky.

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Small victories, great joys!

After maybe 90 minutes of walking, we spotted the children ahead, bright colourful dots arranged in a neat row at the edge of a sheet of glacial ice! The ice beckoned us and though the kids were gone by the time we got there, our energies were revived by the excitement of walking over ice. Shortly afterward, we reached a river crossing and found the kids waiting for us there, eating their packed lunch. From this point, those intending to scale Stok Kangri took one path towards base camp, while we took another path that climbed higher and higher on the edge of a mountain that overlooked the frozen parts of the river, many hundred feet below.

This bit of the trek was difficult too, demanding a sure footing and strong sense of balance. At one point, we were climbing up on all fours. Once again, the children did remarkably well and I was definitely the straggler. But by this time, I didn’t care. I was starting to get the hang of this.

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We reached an extremely windy campsite. Everything was threatening to fly away and the team was struggling to set it up. Our kids had been smart and ensconced themselves inside the cozy and warm kitchen tent, where they helped out by peeling onion and garlic and cutting vegetables in industrial quantities. Learning from Day 1, we all ate the delectable pulao that cook rustled and then hung around the dining tent and wherever else we could find respite from the winds. The kids huddled inside their tent from where sounds of talking, giggling and eventually singing emerged!

[The children’s] chirpy voices, sometimes in conversation and other times in song, served as a fitful background score for a brief rest. Rahul napped while I read some, but the tent was too warm and eventually we have found refuge in the dining tent, sheltered from the howling wind which is literally sweeping our things away!

Diary entry, 16 June, 2018

The afternoon was considerably brightened by the surprise arrival of Rikzin, who had caught up with us and would be with us for the remaining part of the trek. The other bright spot was the baby marmot that emerged from his subterranean home from time to time to peer at us in frank curiosity. Out there on the hillside opposite us, the camp staff helped me train my binoculars on a marmot pair cavorting around and sunning themselves.

By sunset, the exhaustion of the day and the substantially higher altitude had begun to take a toll. The cure for crankiness, headaches and general despondency was apparently hot and peppery garlic soup, which Govindji gently urged the children to drink. Dinner was early and delicious, this time with chicken, dal and vegetables followed by a friend banana and cream dessert!

We had walked a lot more, gained considerable in elevation and I had not rested in the afternoon; so the night was spent negotiating a slightly better relationship with my sleeping bag and sleeping a little bit better. And also losing the fear of visiting the toilet in pitch darkness!

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The starkness of this campsite was beautiful, but also harsh

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Kitchen elves!

Day 3: Scaling Matho-La, accepting solitude

We woke up to a teen birthday (Srijaa’s) and the day started with wishes and hugs, and bonhomie over tea and breakfast! Aadyaa decided to walk with us instead of going ahead with the children. She had been a bit more affected by the altitude and the cold. Rikzin set the older kids off on a brisk pace and we went back along the partially frozen river. This was a day of spectacular views, mostly uncaptured on camera because of the arduousness of the climb. As we pushed toward the Matho La Pass, oxygen levels dropped and it became harder to walk.

It was a morning in which I found myself retreating into myself. The solitary and silent walk set off a train of introspection that had me thinking deeply about my goals in life, and the meaning and impact of ambition on myself and my loved ones. I found that while Rahul and my dearest friends were in plain sight, some ahead and some behind me, what really mattered was my own dogged determination to plant one foot before the other. I also felt a lot of my anxiety about my PhD leaving me. Working full time and pursuing a PhD program has meant that I am constantly worrying about not doing enough, being distracted and falling behind. But out there on the stark mountainside, I realized the only thing that mattered was to keep moving ahead. I felt light in mind, even as my trudge became slower and heavier, my breathing more laboured.

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Colours and texture that are imprinted in my soul

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An unending shifting landscape of texture and form

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Getting closer!

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Undeterred

Reaching Matho La pass was not just an endorsement of our endurance. We were treated with an enchanting view of the snow peaked mountains on the horizon and between us and that range of peaks lay a green valley dotted with flowers and all manner of plants, with the grazing dzo scattered here and there! The entire group was enchanted and relaxed. We sat in clusters snacking and chatting. We laughed and hugged. We clicked pictures and we strolled and ambled till we reached our campsite, the prettiest one yet.

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thumb_IMG_8576_1024thumb_IMG_8574_1024thumb_IMG_8573_1024In the camp, a leisurely afternoon was spent ambling by the river (and some us actually managed to dip in those icy waters), reading, playing cards and story cubes (a story building game) and working on puzzles. The camp took time to set up as the horses reached late, offering us an opportunity to enjoy the grassy glade we found ourselves in, the prettiest campsite of all!

Rahul and me waited it out sitting on a rock and watching, as the crew set ip camp. Particularly interesting was the mind who minded the horses.. His rugged and wind-worn features and his slight build seemed typical of most ‘horse men’ we encountered in Ladakh. He whistled and hummed as he wound up the saddled and other paraphernalia, occasionally changing tone to call out the horses who were grazing nearby. There were certain sounds to send them away and calls to calm them down, and maybe others that we could not understand.

Diary entry, 17th June

The highlight of the evening was the feast to celebrate Srijaa’s birthday. Norbu’s phenomenal talent was unveiled to us as he awed us with a carrot cake with chocolate topping, mutton momos, pizzas with a do-your-own-topping option, noodles and chilli paneer, all on a regular LPG gas stove! How we ate that night! And how we appreciated the heat from the bonfire, made of dzo dung, before we settled into our tents for the coldest night of all.

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Sleeping at 14000 ft (4270m) was an interesting experience and I dealt with my tent issues by simply spending an hour in the middle of the night reading on my Kindle while Rahul snored, instead of pestering him about my sleeplessness and discomfort as I had done the last two nights!

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Day 4: Enjoying the bounties of nature, testing my endurance

We walked over 18km on this last day of the trek. My shoes came apart and I did about a third of that in sandals, which meant hurting ankles and extreme exhaustion. We woke up to snow flurries at 14000 ft and came down to the sweltering sun of the valley. We crossed the river a dozen times, and our water bottle (its name was Vinod, yes we named our water bottles!) tried very hard to sacrifice itself to the river but we were adamant on saving it.

We experienced the largest diversity of flora in our time in Ladakh on this last day, the widest array of landscapes too. One time, we walked on a sliver of the mountain, with a steep fall away on either side. The feeling was spectacular but we worried intensely about our vertiginous companion, and spent some tense moments which fortunately ended in a short burst of relieved tears.

We saw pashmina sheep stuffed into a pen high on the mountains and met shepherds who were carrying back firewood supplies on donkey backs. Another time, we met nomads walking from Leh to Zanskar with enough words of Hindi and English on them to have a conversation!

Overall the descent was easier on our lungs but harder on knees and ankles, but we felt like we had to take in the sights and enjoy each part of the journey. Both Udai and Aadyaa walked with us and I remember the day as a kaleidoscope of images, conversations. The last several kilometres when extreme fatigue had set in, I was amazed at watching Aadyaa. All of ten, she walked alone, choreographing a dance number in her head, oblivious of her rhythmic gait, arm movements and expressions!

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Countless river crossings

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Udai contemplates the flowing water

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A moment of repose

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Traveling long distances for basic supplies is only one part of the hard life that Ladakhis lead

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A classic Ladakhi scene

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The river bed and the sky

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Yes the JCB is in Ladakh too, here its helping lay a water pipeline to Matho village

As the monastery of Thiksey came into view in the distance, signalling the end of the 4-day trek, I found myself wishing intensely that this would never end, even as my feet screamed at me to stop immediately. At Matho village where we ended the trek, I felt happy and numb at the same time and all I could think of was a hot shower and a bed!

Back at the hotel, reunited with the others in the group, we conceded that the real stars of the trip had been the following: 1- The kids, who didn’t whine even once and banded together through thick and thin; 2- Govindji, whose advice and gentle persuasion tided us over many rough patches; and 3- Norbu, without whom we would not have had the kind of wholesome and soul satisfying nourishment we had through these four awesome days. Finally, a word on Rikzin’s enthusiasm, thoroughness and sheer passion for Ladakh and its outdoor treasures. To him goes the credit for preparing the kids (and us) mentally, putting the ambitious trek together and making sure the city slickers made it through just fine!

Shoghi Chronicles: Rolling mists, doodles and a boost of confidence

Earlier this month, I traveled out for work. This wasn’t your usual work trip, but a retreat to help some of us unplug from the humdrum routine to think of more strategic matters. And what other place but the mighty Himalayas to make the brain go into overdrive. Fresh and clean air and lush greenery, occasional showers and the mist rolling into the conference room…could one ask for more?

I had my own personal challenge to overcome on this trip. I’ve recently undergone surgery on my knee to reconstruct a torn ligament. Weeks have gone by with limited movement, extreme caution, pain. Shoghi (located a little short of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh) signified RISK….and risk brings in a certain excitement, an element of challenge.

When we reached Shoghi after a train ride and a taxi drive steeply uphill, the clouds were building up and threatening to rain. The walk from the reception to the room was steeply uphill and I laboured upward, taking one step at a time, praying the ground would not be slippery. I texted home: This was a bad decision!

But over the next two days, I learnt to negotiate the slopes. I set my own pace. I asked for support and help. In between the most productive work discussions, I doodled furiously, as I do when my brain is on overdrive. The adrenalin was pumping through me and the confidence (which had taken a wee hit in the weeks before though my optimist hadn’t!) went up and up.

A change of scene can do wonders and the Shoghi sojourn proved that for me. I returned calmer and surer of myself, snapped out of my ‘patient’ mode and stopped cutting myself slack on account of by health. I re-introduced elements of my regular routine (dropping kids to school, the little errands and household chores). I feel so much more hopeful now.

Sharing some misty images and doodles from the trip…..

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What the kids loved (or hated) in Shimla

It’s a very simple list, seen from the eyes of 6-year old Aadyaa. Along with her friend Myrah who is a year younger, the children’s’ perspective on the vacation was an important one for us, for keeping them in good humor was the vital ingredient in our holiday! Here’s my attempt to reconstruct our day out in Shimla from their perspective!

#1 The mandatory horse ride

Yes, the mandatory horse ride must be ticked off the list in a place like Shimla. I did it in Mussourie when I was perhaps the same age and here is Aadyaa astride Badal, the horse who wore her “kathak ghungroos” around his neck!

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#2 Roadside eating

From pastries to the local phalsa fruit, the kids had fun demanding on-the-go food at regular intervals. Besides the energy shots, the food served as able distractions from the changing weather!

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#3 Picture posing

For some inane reason, the kids would yell “Aaloo parantha!” and “Pasta!” each time someone asked them to pose for a pic. It gave us all a hearty laugh each time and I loved the way they infected us grown-ups with their wonderful inanity. Check out their wide grins!

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#4 Battling the winds and the rain

I don’t think the children expected the cold winds and the rain. Aadyaa had a windcheater on to help her out, but she found the wind quite uncomfortable. Her legs were cold in the rain and she has to ask me to buy her new pajamas in the mall. Myrah too needed to buy a thicker jacket.

We spent quite a lot of time walking in the drizzle and then taking shelter wherever possible when the rain increased. One time it was the crowded porch of the post office, another time the porch of the church. Yet another time it was a long long wait under a sturdy old tree. They didn’t mind the latter too much as they had space to stretch and play and we passed the time singing rhymes and laughing!

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#5 The monkey menace!

The monkeys were everywhere. Despite several instructions about not looking at them, ignoring them, not being scared etc etc, it was hard for the children to not worry about the monkeys. I was scared that Aadyaa might try to be too friendly since she loves animals. In the crowded part of the city, we managed to avoid the monkeys, but on a lonely stretch they managed to terrorize little Myrah and snatch away a bag we were carrying. From then on, monkeys became Enemy no.1 on the trip!

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From dread to delight in Shimla, the Queen of the Hills

It was a rude shock getting back the heat of the plains after a weekend in Shimla and Mashobra. It rained quite a bit while we were there and though it cramped our sightseeing attempts a little, we weren’t complaining about the cold at all! A couple of us had to acquire more clothing, a jacket here, a pair of pajamas there, a small matter in the joy of being in the Queen of the Hills, Shimla.

I’d only been to the famed hill station as a very small child and had no memories of it at all. It seemed strange to me to have lived for so many years in the environs of Delhi and never having been to the most popular holiday destination of my fellow citywallas! So I grabbed the chance.

What struck me most getting into Shimla is the sheer density of the city and how precariously positioned it is on the massive mountains. As my friend Henri said in his comment on my Instagram pics from Shimla, it is a “disaster waiting to happen”! Certainly, it is a city run wild, with its older cramped parts intermingled with the recent multistorey additions, hotels and government offices all crowding together helter skelter.

The sheer density of Shimla hits you as you drive in

The sheer density of Shimla hits you as you drive in

Much of the building stock is old and diaplidated

Much of the building stock is old and diaplidated

The city rests helter skelter in the midst of the most stunning hillside scenery

The city rests helter skelter in the midst of the most stunning hillside scenery

We stayed at the Club Mahindra property in Mashobra, which is a quiet village ahead of Shimla. When in town, we parked and took the elevator up to the Mall, which is the only sensible thing to do! Because is it entirely predestrianized, the Mall in Shimla (despite the summer crowds) has a certain old world charm. I enjoyed the old colonial buildings and the ‘sense of place’ in the city. The weather, which turned from rainy and windy to sunny and bright in the few hours we were there, showed us the city in many different lights. I don’t want to crowd this post with too much info and I’d rather highlight some of our experiences separately. But here are a few glimpses!

It's hard to reconcile the incongruity of the crowded city gainst the magnificant backdrop of the majestic Himalayas beyond

It’s hard to reconcile the incongruity of the crowded city against the magnificent backdrop of the majestic Himalayas beyond

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Christ Church

 

The Town Hall and the Mall

The Town Hall and the Mall

The most darling little buildings in the Mall

The most darling little buildings in the Mall

Experiencing small town India at Narendranagar, Tehri Garhwal #employment #migration #aspiration

Having tried my hand at being an entrepreneur, I’m always impressed by people who are brave enough to venture into new territory with ideas and initiatives. My friend Biplab is one such person. I’ve known him for a while, though not very well. And when my research work started focusing on what’s happening in small cities, I remembered his venture and drove over for a chat.

Biplab runs a BPO called EGramServe in Narendranagar (will refer to it as NN), a town of about 10,000 people a short drive uphill from Rishikesh. In starting this venture, he (like several others, of course) has created a window of opportunity for young people who otherwise have no choice but to migrate out to larger cities. The stories he told me, about his own entrepreneurial journey and the experiences of his employees, stuck in my head for days after our chat. And I decided to pay NN a visit. As I was leaving, my kids were curious to know if that’s Narendra Modi is from (no escaping NaMo)!

After an eventless and comfortable train journey (a frequent traveler on this sector, Biplab is an expert in wangling seats even when tickets are unconfirmed!), we got there early Monday morning and walked around town. As a planner, I was struck by the orderliness of the town. NN came into prominence in 1919 when King Narendra Shah of the erstwhile kingdom of Tehri Garhwal moved his capital here from Tehri. It’s orderly main street and relatively wide streets and uncluttered feel contrasts sharply with the messiness of other pahari towns, which are usually trading or market towns. The shops and residences along this main street, I learnt, are still owned by the municipal board and leased out to individuals.

Approaching Narendranagar

Approaching Narendranagar

EGramServe occupies the ground floor of the only hotel in town

EGramServe occupies the ground floor of the only hotel in town

The managerial staff at the BPO lives on the top floor of the same hotel. Was mighty amused at the interiors!

The managerial staff at the BPO lives on the top floor of the same hotel. Was mighty amused at the interiors!

Criss-cross wires and a typical hill town view, albeit much less crowded than any other I've been to!

Criss-cross wires and a typical hill town view, albeit much less crowded than any other I’ve been to!

Mainstreet, the legacy of a royal past

Mainstreet, the legacy of a royal past

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An early morning view, but it doesn't get too busy even at peak hours

An early morning view, but it doesn’t get too busy even at peak hours

More vestiges of a royal and institutional past

More vestiges of a royal and institutional past

IMG_6205The view from NN, which is also the closest town to the world famous Ananda spa resort, is beautiful. It is a remarkable thing that, so close to Rishikesh, this lovely hilly location that experiences excellent weather is so tranquil and languid, the pace of life barely impacted by the proximity of the fervent religious tourism of Rishikesh and Hardwar below or the seasonal tourism of the hill stations above.

The town looks onto lush forest areas and the lights of Jolly Grant airport and Rishikesh sparkle in the distance during the night

The town looks onto lush forest areas and the lights of Jolly Grant airport and Rishikesh sparkle in the distance during the night

IMG_6169Its tranquility is reflected in the conversations I have with its residents, some of who are from families who settled here during the time of Narendra Shah and consider themselves insiders and others whose families have migrated here from surrounding villages or from other parts of Tehri Garhwal in search of livelihood.

My two-day visit was a most interesting experience thanks to Biplab’s warm and sincere hospitality. He was kind enough to give up his accommodation so I could be comfortable and also enthusiastic enough to introduce me to people all over town. Over the next few weeks, I hope to unscramble some good information from the 20-odd interviews I managed to take. I hope to understand better the experiences and aspirations of the young people who work in EGramServe, their linkages with their family/community and what role cities like NN can play in keeping young people close to home.

I was driven back to Haridwar railway station by two enthusiastic members of Biplab’s team. The most marvelous drive through the lush greens of Rajaji National Park alongside the Ganga canal  served to remind me of how precious the hills, the forests and the rivers are for our survival. In addition to providing opportunity, I remember thinking, encouraging sustainable development that involves communities that can no longer rely on agriculture for survival (low productivity, climate change) is critical. And here too, small cities like NN could be important in tying these rural communities together and linking them to regional economies.

The Ganga Canal, a critical irrigation waterway in the region

The Ganga Canal, a critical irrigation waterway in the region

The road we took through the Rajaji National Park is closed at dusk because of the frequent crossing of wild elephants. They've known to attack and crush cars in the past!

The road we took through the Rajaji National Park is closed at dusk because of the frequent crossing of wild elephants. They’ve known to attack and crush cars in the past!

The hidden jewel of Dhanachuli #heritage #architecture

It is a running joke between me and my husband Rahul that I’m not really interested in travel destinations that do not involve foraging around among ruins. I vehemently denied this the last time we discussed a possible vacation. I love the beaches and the cruise ships, the road trips and the backpacking just as much as everything else, I said. But I can tell you I was delighted and amused in equal parts when Sumant mentioned a visit to the abandoned ruins of the original Dhanachuli village during the first evening of our weekend getaway to Te Aroha earlier this month!

Our planned excursion was delayed by a day thanks to nightly precipitation that left the path wet and slippery, but we were determined to go. Sunday morning found an enthusiastic group (comprising Vijay, Vibha, Aaditya and me guided by Sumant and a kind and generous staffer from Te Aroha) making its way down into the beautiful valley. Shortly after we had crossed the existing settlement that hugs the road, we got a taste of what was in store for us. An abandoned home, colonial in its proportions and bearing, but with the wooden carved doors and windows characteristic of the original homes in these parts. The stop vetted my appetite for more. I could see from Sumant’s expressions that this was the tip of the iceberg and an excitement gripped me for what was in store further below._DSC2261

Eave detail

Eave detail

Carved door with typical colonial arch

Carved door with typical colonial arch

Exquisite door

Exquisite door

Facade. I find the fusion charming, though the intricate carving doesnt quite fit the robust proportions of this house, do they?

Facade. I find the fusion charming, though the intricate carving doesn’t quite fit the robust proportions of this house, do they?

Detail

Detail. I would surmise this is a relatively newer home and the carvings aren’t as intricate as the older ones. Perhaps the type of wood available changed, perhaps the better craftsmen were no longer available…

Port hole?

Port hole?

Wood structure, slate tile roofing and then lots of grass drying on top...great pic to make a section of the roofing huh, architect friends?

Wood structure, slate tile roofing and then lots of grass drying on top…great pic to make a section of the roofing huh, architect friends?

A glimpse into the valley we were descending into....

A glimpse into the valley we were descending into….

After maybe twenty minutes of walking alongside fields of corn, cabbage and peas, we started seeing the first homes in the settlement below. I was struck by the play of light on the beautiful stone masonry on these homes. Some roofs were caved in and the roofs were overgrown with grass. Hindu symbols like the trishul were clearly visible. Our sense of anticipation heightened and soon we were rewarded with the beautiful sight of the little cluster of original village homes that we had trekked all the way to see._DSC2305

Delightful glimpse of the cozy original settlement

Delightful glimpse of the cozy original settlement

The story goes that upper caste Hindus from the plains, from areas as far as Rajasthan and Gujarat, escaped forced conversion to Islam and moved into hilly terrain. The homes in the village therefore date back to anywhere between 150 and 200 years. Here, they settled down, amassing large land holdings and building these beautiful homes using local materials and the skills of local wood craftsmen from the Jhonsari community. However, they influenced the craftsmen substantially in the motifs they would use, typically snakes, fish, elephant and various other revered Hindu symbols with hints of Islam-influenced motifs as well. And in the shape of the niches, which are exactly like Rajasthani jharokhas. We could see Islamic influences in the types of arches used as well as in the typical geometric patterns of the carvings on some of the doors and windows. We stared, stitching the narrative of this fascinating time in history in our heads, imagining what it must be like for families who made this drastic move and how they must have hankered for small motifs and icons that served as reminders to what they left behind, that became a fragile but intensely beautiful link to their shared history and identity.

First glimpses of these spectacular houses

First glimpses of these spectacular houses

I found the elevation interesting. The bottom floor is for animals, so you ascend the dwelling itself through a single flight of stairs entered through that tall arch. This row of homes are perfectly symmetrical too!

I found the elevation interesting. The bottom floor is for animals, so you ascend the dwelling itself through a single flight of stairs entered through that tall arch. This row of homes are perfectly symmetrical too!

The carvings on these older homes are more intricate and diverse in terms of patterns and motifs

The carvings on these older homes are more intricate and diverse in terms of patterns and motifs.

Love this pic! Thanks Aaditya :)

Love this pic! Thanks Aaditya 🙂

Sumant...Framed!

Sumant…Framed!

Bare and simple interiors as you would expect in a rural home

Bare and simple interiors as you would expect in a rural home

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Many of the homes are already completely ruined

Many of the homes are already completely ruined

Living heritage!

Living heritage

This particular house took my breath away with the detailing

This particular house took my breath away with the detailing

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Notice the geometric patterns like the floor patterns in Mughal architecture

And this arch....

And this arch….

Delightful nuances of life

Delightful nuances of life

There would have been an archaeologist’s pleasure in walking through these ruined homes, but it wasn’t just history we were looking at. We found occupied homes as well in this little hamlet. Cows tied in the lower level under the exquisitely carved windows. A dish antenna screwed onto one of of the carved panels. This is living heritage, a cultural landscape that deserves attention. The contrast of the abandoned homes, to the ones that were used only for storage and the few that were still lived in told a story of economic change and loss of patience. Families had migrated up the valley towards the road, where livelihoods could be found catering to the tourists that passed by on their way to Mukteshwar as well as to the locals who lived in the village still. These homes still stood because they mean something to these people. Some are even propped up by new wooden pillars in a bid to save the roofs from caving in, but clearly no new investments are being made here.

The pictures clearly show that there is value in this heritage–the value of craft, architecture, a slice of history, a way of life. One way to conserve this heritage is to buy these beautifully carved frames and doors from these owners and cart them off, to be lovingly restored and installed in a swank, elegant and even opulent residence or heritage hotel in Delhi, or Mumbai. The other option is to find a way to conserve these homes in their original location, involving the local community in an effort that would not only augment revenue through targeted tourism and a renewable of the crafts, but also renew their bond with their rapidly disappearing material culture. A culture that spoke the language of wood and stone rather than brick and reinforced cement concrete and one that had space in it for art.

Sumant mentioned he would be happy to support, in part, a group of enthusiasts who could get together to showcase this delightful slice of heritage. Filmmakers, conservationists, artists and people engaged with the concept of responsible and sustainable tourism can join hands to save this hamlet from destruction. I think it is a fantastic seed of an idea that we could develop into a more meaningful pursuit.

Excited to be off to Dhanachuli. Kumaon, here I come!

It’s a few hours before I take a train into the hills. Particularly, I love Kumaon, having visited the area a few times as a child and recently as well. I am already imagining stepping off the train and getting borne into the breezy, green mountainsides of Mukteshwar and beyond to Dhanachuli.

I am taking my first trip after the massive floods the Himalayan regions experiences earlier this year.  Part of the motivation of the Blogger’s Meet being organized by Te Aroha is, as I understand it, to imbibe to aftermath of this traumatic event and try and understand what it has meant for people who live here and work here. Life is hard in the hills and hill people exhibit the patience and solidity of a civilization that has nurtured the attributes of patience and perseverance. A natural disaster tests their limits and I am curious to see how these lovely people have coped. Kumaon, particularly, is perceived to have not received adequate media attention or relief efforts despite being as affected and vulnerable.

I am also excited to experience Te Aroha, which I have heard and read so much about. I hear it’s more like a work of love than a resort and that is such a tantalizing description anyway.

My bags are packed and I’m ready to go…. do watch my blog for thoughts and observations, and pictures of course from Dhanachuli!

Meanwhile, here are two of my older posts from my trip to this region in January this year…

Portraits from Ramgarh and Nainital

Skygazing at Ramgarh and surrounds

Did you manage the kids or did they manage you?

Just back from a week out with kids and friends and friends’ kids and I cannot sleep. The images of the week gone by and the to-do list of the week ahead clash inside my head as I toss, turn and finally sit up and start up my Mac to..what else, blog!

Our trip to Dharamsala included two couples and three kids- aged 9, 5 and 4. Quite a bit of our time and patience went into managing the kiddos and so I thought I’d pen down what worked and what didn’t. At the end of it all, I wonder whether it wasn’t the kids that had the fingers on the control buttons all along!

1- Kids are competitive, so comparisons are a no-no, even though tempting at times! Aadyaa and Maayra, the two girls aged 5 and 4, drove us up the wall with their constant competing. They wanted the same number of spoons to play with at each meal, they wanted to eat the same stuff, play the same game on the same ipad at the same time, outdo each other at getting our attention, all the time! All four of us were taking turns at getting irritated with them on Day 1 and 2. By Day 3, this was getting to be hilarious and I started noticing how much we incite them to compete.”Look at her, she is eating so well. Why can’t you?”…..”Look at her, she is siting properly in her chair. You also sit down!”

And so on and so forth. Within ourselves, perhaps, we are competitive too, I thought. And that’s why we need to super super let go if we are calm them down. As the vacation progressed and the holiday chill sobered us down, the girls seemed to calm down as well. Or our management skills improved, perhaps! Just wondering how much of our own stresses, insecurities and inner struggles we pass on to our kiddos unwittingly!

The two who inseparable squabblers having masti time with 'Hansa mumma' who pampered them and scolded them in equal measure!

The two inseparable squabblers having masti time with ‘Hansa mumma’ who pampered them and scolded them in equal measure!

2- Never underestimate children, they are built to amaze! Rahul and me were enamored of the idea of trekking on this vacation. When we mooted the idea, Udai was super enthusiastic, but we were all a little skeptical about whether the girls could trek a lot. Aadyaa had managed a couple of hours of walking earlier this year at Ramgarh, but could we push her a bit more this time? So we set off one morning and decided to see how it goes and we were more than pleasantly surprised. The kids rose to the challenge and loved the adventure, even the youngest of them all, Maayra. Finding new paths to climb up, getting stung by nettles and recovering fast, drinking from a cold mountain stream- all these little thrills served to entice them to go further and further and we ended up successfully completing a half day trek without much fussing and with enough energy to enjoy the rest of the day as well!

Starting uphill from Dharamkot

Starting uphill from Dharamkot. Hansa and the kids walk ahead of us…

Udai was navigator, happy to do extra climbs to check out if we were on the right path. Proud to say he is turning out to be one sure footed trekking enthusiast!

Udai was navigator, happy to do extra climbs to check out if we were on the right path. Proud to say he is turning out to be one sure footed trekking enthusiast!

Conversation is a great way to keep the kiddos going! Mishu and Maayra in full flow

Conversation is a great way to keep the kiddos going! Mishu and Maayra in full flow

Even as she walks, she romances the camera, my little one...

Shot #1 Even as she walks, she romances the camera, my little one…

Shot #2 Peek-a-boo mumma!

Shot #2 Peek-a-boo? No, she’s in the midst of a kathak routine!

Shot # 3 Inspired by her kathak lessons, she danced her way to the top

Shot # 3 And there, she reaches the sam! Inspired by her kathak lessons, she danced her way to the top

Thrilled by the little mountain stream and happy to play in the crystal clear ice-cold water...sheer bliss!

Thrilled by the little mountain stream and happy to play in the crystal clear ice-cold water…sheer bliss!

Little imp all but tumbled into it!

Little imp all but tumbled into it!

Me with the kids...posing...

Me with the kids…posing…

Hey! Look here! Mishu and Hansa caught by my lens

Hey! Look here! Mishu and Hansa caught by my lens

Udai's idea of a little sunbathing break, with Aadyaa happy to join in

Udai’s idea of a little sunbathing break, with Aadyaa happy to join in

Rahul, impatient to restart climbing!

Rahul, impatient to restart climbing!

After we reached the temple, our hilltop destination for the day. Horsing around with papa!

After we reached the temple, our hilltop destination for the day. Horsing around with papa!

And snuggling with mumma too, before we begin the climb down!

And snuggling with mumma too, before we begin the climb down!

3- Don’t shy away from using tech to keep kids busy, too-principled is passe! When you’re on vacation, you’re there for a break. So letting the children have a good go at the ipad once in a while is just fine, in my opinion. They do the same at home as well, or watch television, for a small bit of time everyday. I found that asking kids to share an ipad or iphone actually meant they found ways to cooperate, take turns and share. They taught each other new tricks, they exhibited patience while waiting out their turn.

Busy bees!

Busy bees!

Blossoms and make-believe garden games!

On day 5, when you’ve decided to stay put making one place base camp, the vacation takes on a different nature, a slower rhythm, a relaxed tone. A pity day 6 is when we head back, though a part of me also yearns for routine and I sense the holiday coming to its natural end.

But look at the kids, they have a natural knack for filling in the time with make believe games and role plays. They begin to enjoy a vacation in its true sense when our pitifully logical adult minds start to tire! Not for then tick mark tourism nor planned outings, though they have no choice but to comply.

Post breakfast today, while those of us yet to get ready did so, the three musketeers decided to run around the resort lawns. I did not understand their complicated game, nor was I invited to participate. Udai was the director, the two girls Aadyaa and Maayra playing their parts happily in a story full of magical creatures, war, weapons and rescue! Those are the essential keywords I gathered while wandering around the garden watching them!

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Mountain: A challenge, an aspiration, an achievement!

This week’s word challenge from A Word in Your Ear is inspiring.

Mountain. Just the word evokes so much. A geography lesson. A soaring feeling. A sense of nature, solitude, peace. Memories of family trips. Living in North India close to the Himalayas offers us the unique opportunity to experience this youngest, tallest and most diverse mountain range on our planet. Here are a few clicks from treks and walks in around Ramgarh, District Nainital, State Uttarakhand in the Kumaon region of the Himalayas.ImageImage

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