The story goes back to September of 1983. I was a PhD student at Mumbai (then Bombay) University and Dr. Vijay Singh was my informal guide. He had interviewed in IIT Kanpur for a faculty postion (which he got and joined in 1984) and from Kanpur came straight to Delhi where I met him. He had described a Himalayan trek which he had wanted to do for a long, long time in such nostalgic and romantic terms that he had me hookled. We decided to pair up for this.
There are four major pilgrim centers in Uttaranchal all of them over 10,000 feet above sea level: Jamnotri, Gangorti, Kedarnath, and Badrinath. As seen from the sky they are close to each other but separated by even taller mountains. So to go from say Gangotri to Kedarnath one now uses motorable roads goes all the way down to the starting point Rishkesh and then up save for the last 10 -15 km. This was the situation in 1983. But in the old days would walk down only part of the way from Gangotri and then exploit mountain passes to make the joruney to Kedarnath. Vijay always lamented the fact that the old pilgrim trails which people walked would soon fall into disuse. With no pilgrims, the hamlets and resting places (called “Chattis”) would be abandoned. Before this happened we wanted to walk down at least one of them. We opted for an unusual one. Currently people going from Gangotri to Kedarnath would take the bus or taxi from Gangotri all the way down to Rishkesh or Tehri and then go up the motorable road to Gauri Kund from where they would walk the 14 km to Kedarnath. We decided on a “short cut” – something the pilgrims would do in the old days. This implied coming a third of the way down from Gangotri to Malla near Uttarkashi – cross the Bhagirathi and then walk through the woods, meadows, hills, mountain passes and plateaus to Kedarnath. [See Old Map]
We crossed the Bhagirathi a little way up from Uttarkashi (Noth Kashi) near Malla. The first day we walked 8 km to a place called Do-Gaddha. The walk was easy, at some 2000 feet for the first 5 km but strenuous for the next 3. Do-Gaddha is not a town, not hamlet, but a single hut. An old man, his ailing son and two grand-daughters lived there with a couple of cows and calves. The meal was coarse rice and dal all for Rs. 5/. We slept, all of us, cattle included, in a single large room. To make things more interesting, a couple of travellers carrying supplies showed up late in the nite and we were all crowded in.
Next day we began an 11 km uphill trek to a place called Belak. The incline was steep, steady and relentless. Not once did the path descend. 11 cruel km right upto a height of 10,500 feet. Parched, hungry and ready to give up and lie down at every step. Never have I been happy to see shanties as I was to see Belakh. We had tea and lunch at a shop. It started to rain. Then we climbed a bit to an army relay station to try our luck. The two army men there were kind enough to give us shelter. The food of goat’s curry was a luxury we could never have dreamed of. Our exhaustion and rain the next day kept us confined to the army station. But “Belakh” for us has become a metaphor for an undertaking ardous beyond description.
From Belakh we walked to Buddhakedar (Vriddhukedar or Old Kedar ) . It was a 14 km walk and seemed more like 28 km. But there was compensation. Part of the walk was through beautiful meadows which would rival the Valley of Flowers. We met a sannyasin who had been walking barefoot for three months now. He told us strange tales and I remember one about the Ek-Mukhi Rudrakhsha. Apparently only three such beads are formed every year. Shiva is the custodian of these three. He gives one to Brahma, one to Vishnu and one to the king of Nepal. Currently only two mortals possess them. The king of Nepal and the Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi. We shared bidis and I gave him a pack of Gold Flake cigarettes. It made for good bon hommie. [See Old Map]
There are five Kedars and our goal was Kedarnath. It had rained and the roads had caved in due to rains. We had to abandon our original route and take buses, sleep in makeshift places, walk partly to finally get to Gauri Kund – the place where Shiva’s consort Gauri resides and the place where Ganesh was born. A bath in the hot spring of Gauri Kund revived us. We undertook another 14 km walk to Kedarnath starting in the morning. Walked slowly with a backpack on us heavy like remembered sin. I kept thinking of how we carry an excess of emotional baggage with us. A Zen monk was asked the secret of happiness. He replied: “When I am hungry I eat, When I am sleepy, I lie down”.
As we walked along the old pilgrim bridle path we saw abandoned structures. But the few that were not abandoned had simple mounatin folks who were hospitable and kind. All that they asked of is was medicines – so we parted with our pain killers, Avomine (prevents vomiting) and Waterbury compounds. Whatever became of the thriving Chattis, bustling dharmashalas, and shops? It must have been a traumatic experience for the people to be rendered worthless in a span of a decade as the new motorable roads came up. Will there be a Garhwali poet who will write about the experience with as much passion and pathos as Oliver Goldsmith wrote about the British rural scene in the “Deserted Village”?
Postscript: The sight of the magnificient Kedarnath temple silhoutted against the snowy Kedarnath peak will remain forever in our memories. Three months later Dr. Vijay Singh and Saroj were blessed with a son. I could understand why he was named Kedar.
I have always wanted to repeat this trek –
A meal of unlimited chappai, dal, and potato vegetable
Talevan: Rs. 3.00/
Belakh : 3.50/
Rudraprayag : 4.00/