Jun 19, 2007

Shivers And Scares Before Nag Devta

Nag Tibba (Part-III)

There are three nomadic tribes in the Indian Himalayas: The Bhots, who are concentrated near passes to Indo-Tibet borders (in Sanskrit Bhot means Tibet); the Gaddis who roam Himachal highlands and; the Gurjars who are spread out from J&K and Himachal to Uttarakhand. While the first two communities rear sheep herds and trade in wool, the Gurjars tend buffalos and sell milk products. Being a Himalayan hiker, I have enjoyed the hospitality of the three communities and rate Gurjars as roughest of the lot; Gaddis are the gentlest — as different as a buffalo is from a goat.

The Gurjar abode (called channi) at Nag Devta was five minutes from where I had raised our tent (selected after finding an even ground, sweeping the stones and crafting an east-facing entry to work as an alarm clock in the morning). Nag Tibba is a another half-hour walk from Nag Devta Temple. A breathtaking view of Himalayan peaks was possible at Nag Devta spot too but a cloudy weather didn’t permit it.

Sweaty and worked-out we didn't mind the moist air. It washed off Sukriti and my fatigue (Gautam was irredeemable) and we decided to roam about the surroundings. Walking a carpet of tiny fresh flowers, we reached the Gurjar abode and were greeted by loud barks of a thick-set Tibetan mastiff. Two women came out of the hutment and after exchanging pleasantries, I took up the dinner opportunity. They agreed to cook for us but were not too happy about the camp. "Tent kahan lagaya hai? Yahan baagh aata hai, (Is this where you have pitched the tent? A tiger stalks this place)," the elderly one tried to scare us. Both Suku and I laughed it off. We were too happy to find some warm food.

Gautam forgot his fatigue when we asked him to join us for the Gurjar invite. Poor hungry soul... little did he know he would remember that dinner for the rest of his life. Inside the channi, the elderly lady told us that their menfolk were expected home in the evening but unpredictable weather in the mountains must have held them back. Possibly it was the absence of menfolk which had triggered this disinterest in the dinner. The fare — a blackish aloo-jhol & thick rotis (potato curry & coarse bread) — looked severly unappetising. I dabbed my roti into the curry to confirm my fears and cringed. There was so much dust in the curry that we had to crunch it down. Rotis were half-cooked and I gave up after the second. I have had rough & rustic dinners one too many in the hills before. But the provisions at the Gurjar channi beat them hollow. We left behind a humble appreciation in currency notes and were too happy to be back in our tents. Gautam looked the happiest, in spite of being the hungriest.

No longer did Gautam took off his shoes and entered the tent then the clouds burst into a furious crackle. Loud canons burned the skies, the temperature dipped and we hurriedly bundled into our sleeping bags. I still remember that loud snores were ringing inside our tent before I too dozed off... with little knowledge of what was in store for us.

Almost all of us woke up in a shock. Ghrrrrrr…ghurrrrrr… ghurrrrrr… there was a creature prowling around the camp, sniffing around the boundaries, moving slowly but swiftly. We went numb with fear. None of us spoke a word or dared look into each other’s eyes. The rain had stopped and a slice of moonlight outside the tent made things semi-visible. In that part-darkness, my trembling palm slipped into the rucksack and groped for the Gurkha knife I carry in every trek. I know that no knife can help against a Himalayan tiger but, since childhood, I had been told by my hill folks that a khukri under your pillow can ward off all evil. Imagine my frightened self when I realised that the knife had been left behind at Dewalsari. It looked like a pre-destined omen. For a few seconds, which felt like hours, I smelt the sweat and tension in our tent. Thankfully, the numbness paid off: the growling got distant slowly, and finally melted into the night. Life returned to the tent just as slowly. Without exchanging a word, all of us slipped inside our bags and tried to sleep off the fear. It is difficult to get forty winks after such experiences but, thankfully, it did.

It all turned out to be an anti-climax of sorts the next morning. I can still feel the embarrassment when I remember that the source of all that night growl & sniffing was neither a Himalayan bear nor the stalking tiger... but the Tibetan Mastiff dog which we had patted at the Gurjar's channi last night. I kicked my shin at the discovery, for, I should have known by experience that all shepherd dogs are let loose after the darkness falls.

(A musical retreat and mangled feet next — Nag Tibba trek comes to an end)

Jun 5, 2007

Amazon forests in Uttarakhand???

Nag Tibba (Part-II)

If you drink to your gills, fill up your foodpipe to its end, and then crash without remembering when you actually did… a hangover is sure to ring your doorbell the next morning. Yet, there were no signs of a heavy head, or a parched throat when I opened my eyes around 7 am at Dewalsari (probably because there was neither door nor bell in our tent). I rubbed my eyes against a bright sun. Sunil, who I gradually remembered from the previous day to be our guardian angel and the guide to Nag Tibba, was waiting for us at a wooden bench, swinging his legs relentlessly, with a bored look on his face. I slipped a 100-rupee note into Sunil’s palm for the tastiest dinner in recent memory that he served us last night. In return, Sunil blushed a feeble thank-you.

I kicked the other two bums out of bed for the final leg to Nag Tibba and also decided that a few belongings could be left at the school's custody. Sunil had warned us of a steep climb and I wanted no casualties. Only necessary gadgets (including the tent) were forced into one rucksack and the rest was left behind to be collected upon our return trip.

I strapped the sack on my sagging shoulders, while the co-trekkers colgated the rum from their breaths. I found it a bit unusual when both Gau and Suku looked too happy in starting the march (normally, the second day in a trek begins with groans). I soon realized the trigger to their joy: I was the only one carrying a rucksack (a formidable one at that) while the two ambled in muftis. However, as always, after a few initial grunts the rucksack became a part of my body. As Sunil had promised, the path got steeper with every quarter of an hour; the surroundings ever so breathtaking. It got often get a bit dark, thanks to the thick cover of hill vegetation. A roaring stream passed downward. The whole atmosphere felt so moist that I thought Gau and Sukriti had applied gel on their hair. My own thinning hair made a pathetic skin show to others.

Such Amazonian beauty came with a price though. Sukriti and I, who had chosen khaki shorts like hip trekkers, invited blood-leeches in droves. Every now and then, we would see the blood trickling down our legs in sharp lines; stop to pull out the parasite; clean the marks and; move on. Sunil, no surprises there, was the fastest of us. The only person I managed to beat, despite the load pulling back, was Gautam, the weakest link in our chain. The ascent only became worse. The worst part was lack of any plateau kind of route in sight for the break. The angle of our trek kept moving to the worrying side. The trickling dew drops, thick green forests and an almost musical flow of the stream close by… soon lost their charms and we craved for some Jhandu Chinese Balm for our aching knees.

The pain was made worse by Sunil’s constant requests to borrow my rucksack for the trip. I found it an insulting proposition. How can I, specially in front of two amateur witnesses who looked up to me as a seasoned trekker, pass on the load to a frail school boy? Unthinkable! A quick lunch midway was organized with what we had brought from Devalsari. I can safely swear in the name of God that for the three of us, it was more a time to rest our bones than fill our bellies. Sunil merely took it as an irritable delay to his return home.

Fatigue defeated my ego in the next round of uphill-walk. I gave up barely two hours after lunch. The moment Sunil renewed his request to carry the load… plop I dumped the sack before him. I hadn’t named him our "guardian angel" for nothing. Sunil’s frail frame belied my apprehensions. Even with the 20 kg sack on his shoulder, he walked just as fast as without it. More humiliation came when I realised that only half hour of swift ascent had reached us to the Nag Devta Temple. Dammmmnnnn it! If I had continued for another mile with my feeble pace, I would have got my gold medal. Could I? I asked myself doubtingly before crashing over the moist grass at the meadow near the small 4x4 feet temple where Sunil bowed down to pay obeisance.

Frankly, hill temples, including the popular chaar-dhaam ones, are never an architectural marvel. Save for the Jageshwar set of structures (near Almorha) in Uttarakhand, most others are a small ensemble of stones and mortar. It is the devilish route to reach the abode that makes them a holy pilgrim for penance and not the grandiose, as in other ancient temples or other places of worship in other parts of India.

After showing us a Gurjar dera nearby, where we could get warm food and other hospitability, Sunil turned away with his princely wages for the day. I raised the Swiss tent and after laying down sleeping mats inside with the large sack, walked about with Suks to savour the beauty. Gautam held his fort, lying spread eagle, not moving a muscle.

(The night of growls and a musical rundown comes next)