At eight, I’m leaving Uttarkashi an hour later than planned. The reason – bed bugs have kept me awake most of the night. There are no buses going up to Gangotri but there is a private vehicle – Mahindra Maxx – available.
‘How much to Harsil?’ I ask. Although I’d planned on going straight to Gangotri, I’ve read that Harsil is “the most enchanting place in the Bhagirathi Valley.”
‘Don’t worry. Get in. We don’t price like in other places,’ says the driver. I get in. We wait for some minutes to fill up and soon we are driving through spectacular mountain terrains towards the Himalayas.
A little later we stop by the road where two boys are standing next to two basket loads of little apples. I get off along with others. The slopes below and above the road are dotted with apple trees. A short bargain begins and the price is settled for twenty rupees a kilo. Two of my fellow passengers jointly buy ten kilos of these little apples.
‘Small green ones are sweeter,’ tells me the vendor. I leave the red ones alone and pick one of the green ones as he suggests. While my companions fill their bags, I enjoy my apple of fresh produce of nature by the abundant orchards of apples. It is rather romantic but more importantly this moment underlines man’s dependence on nature and our insensitive destruction of the nature.
A young man sitting in the front keeps everyone’s ears busy by his constant chatter. It is out of politeness and familiar acquaintance that the driver keeps the one-sided conversation going. This man claims to have formed groups of youths in every village in this part of the district. His foray into local politics is ambitious. The problems he quotes, though regional, have a national echo – tourism at the loss of local culture and values, development of hydel plants at the expense of natural ecosystem or popularity of theme parks at Mussorie in preference to a yatra to Gangotri.
Harsil is only a few kilometres now. A group of village women board the vehicle. They are from the village of Dhundi, a couple of kilometres beyond Harsil. Young and old, these women are dressed in jewellery unique to the region. Some wear a necklace of brass pendant hung by thickly knotted threads. Some wear a lovely arrangement of wild flowers in their hair. With their arrival, the journey is suddenly different. We are relieved of the ambitious politician’s chatter. Instead a lively murmur and occasional laughter of the women fills the cool Himalayan air. Suddenly one of them begins a song. It is a folk song full of beauty. I can’t catch the words or their meanings but the sounds, notes and gamakas are enough. There is something in this song that I can’t quite grasp or describe. It seems to embody the spirit of the mountains, the freedom of the clouds, the cool air, the freshness of a sparkling stream and the refreshing rain blessing the terraced fields. The notes are simple. There is beauty in this music of the hills.
I get off at Harsil and walk downhill from the road to a metal bridge. What a scene! Is this the same Bhagirathi? It seems so fresh and crystal clear. The steep slopes around are filled with conifers. Deodars are in plenty. Farther out and away are snowy peaks to my right and to my left. I stand on the bridge for many minutes until a mist gathers and it starts to drizzle. I look around. The very first hotel, Skylark Hotel, has nice comfortable rooms overlooking the bridge and a full view of the mountains. The rooms are expensive but it is not the high tourist season. I manage to strike a bargain. The constant rush of Bhagirathi is embodied in its sound which will be now be my companion for a day and a night.
After a wonderful lunch of rice, daal and sabji, I amble around this little village. They say there is a Tibetan market some distance to the left but I don’t manage to find this market. Perhaps it’s the rain. I meet an army soldier on patrol. He tells me he is from Bangalore. We exchange a few wors in Kannada. It makes him happy to converse in his mother tongue in a foreign land. Yes, to some people another place in India can be quite foreign.
There is an old temple near town. Then there are many delightful streams coming down from the mountains. Numerous cement channels or nallahs have been built to direct this abundant supply of water to Harsil and the neighbouring village of Bogori. Stone embankments kept in place by a mesh of iron wires stand against possible floods.
I make my way to the village of Bogori by crossing a few little bridges. The village has some modern buildings of cement bricks but the older structures of wood interest me a lot more. Many houses come with pillared verandahs at ground level. Where they appear on the first level, they double as balconies looking out to the narrow street. The wooden pillars, parapets, gables and eaves are beautifully decorated with geometric or floral art. These appear as incided patterns, sculpted reliefs or fluted designs. In their isolation in such a remote place, they have a local flavour of their own.
It is still drizzling as I pass three women sitting out in a verandah. I stand for a moment admiring the pillars and I simply say, ‘Namaste.’
This word alone is enough. I am no more a stranger who gets curious looks. I am invited to join them for apparently nothing, join them just to idle away the afternoon and let the rain fall without hurry. A square cushioned pillow is brought out for me to sit. Two women are chatting away but it is not a noisy chatter. If they speak it is to make the silence less uncomfortable. The other woman is busy knitting. Inside in the kitchen, a younger woman is also knitting. Both of them are knitting woollen caps.
‘How long will it take to knit one?’ I ask the old woman. They have a language of their own but they understand some Hindi.
‘One a day but if I do it fast three in a day,’ she says with a smile. What I am seeing is perhaps the last generation of women to keep up these old traditions. Modern women are more educated, have less time and less interested in traditional skills. Satellite television has encroached into villages all across India and change is happening faster than we are willing to accept.
‘The wool is from local sheep, isn’t it?’ I prompt.
‘Yes. These are in natural colours. We use only white, black and brown.’
‘How much is one?’
‘About fifty rupees. You can buy one for remembrance. We have gloves, caps, socks and sweaters.’
Meanwhile the younger woman comes out of the kitchen and hands out a round of tea for everyone. I enjoy my cup of tea and more this moment of village hospitality.
‘Do you folks stay her in winter?’ I ask. Harsil does feel a cold place.
‘No. We have houses beyond Uttarkashi in the village called Dunda. From September to April we remain at Dunda.’
‘What about the school for children?’ I ask while pointing at a little girl hiding shyly behind her grandmother busy knitting between sips of tea.
‘Even the school moves to Dunda. Only some people choose to remain at Harsil.’
I finish my cup of tea, buy a pair of gloves and move on to other sights in this little village. When I say little, I mean it. There is only one main street running across the village. Houses line the street on both sides. Little passages branch off here and there. I pass a house where five women are busy spinning yarn out of wool. They raise no objection as I click a few snaps. In another verandah, washed wool is left out on a line to dry. I pass women walking the street but busy knitting as they walk. They do this so casually as if knitting is second nature to them. A ball woollen yarn tucked under an arm unrolls a little at a time and makes its way into cloth. Wool knitting is a thriving cottage industry at Bogori. The clothes are sold to tourists who stop by at Harsil.
Then I meet Manjit Singh, not a sardar but a gurkha who also have “Singh” in their names. He is a teacher of history and Hindi in the local school.
‘What do you think of this?’ he points to a doorway made of fresh wood.
Baffled, I manage a reply, ‘A new construction?’
‘No. This wood is actually about seventy years old. The surface has been shaved off to reveal a fresh layer of wood beneath.’
‘What wood is it?’
‘Deodar. It can survive for generations because they are resistant to termite attacks. There is a saying about these trees – Sau saal kada, sau saal pada.‘
I see that only some houses have roofs of wooden beams. Others have been replaced with metal sheets. I ask the teacher about this change in trend.
‘Actually the older roofs were destroyed in an earthquate in 1991. Those affected received 36 sheets of covering for replacing their collapsed roofs.’
Under a shelter a few men are playing a Tibetan game of dice named cholo. Cowries are used for counting. When the player rolls the dice and slaps them into the ground there is great energy. Often his expectations are dashed and he surrenders his cowries. Others stand around and watch the game with interest. This is a humble past time for some men in this Himalayan village.
We pass a Buddhist chorten. Religion at Bogori is partly Buddhism and partly Hinduism. A couple of Hindu shrines stand at the entrance to the village. At the chorten we are joined by three friends of Manjit and we head out to a village bar. I am going to try a local brew called Katchi.
It is rice beer and looks almost like coconut water. We sit at a table in a dark backroom as light filters in through a window. The beer is poured out of an old tin can into our glasses. Some mutton momos are laid out for munching. For me, Haldiram’s fried moong daal is offered instead. We chat around awhile. The other three are army soldiers on vacation. One of them is posted in Kashmir. He claims things are lot safer today than eight years ago. That’s how long he has been serving in Kashmir.
I restrict myself to just over a glass of this coarse heady stuff. Manjit on the other hand has lost his sobriety. He ambles along unsteadily. His companions take leave. I am now walking through Bogori with a drunken man to the curious glances of villagers. I hope Manjit’s reputation is better than his present state.
Two girls walk past us, both knitting as they walk.
‘I love her,’ says Manjit and points to one of them.
‘I cannot marry,’ he complains ruefully. He continues, ‘Oonch neech. You know oonch neech?’
‘Yes. Upper lower,’ I translate to assure him I understand his love problem.
‘What shall I do?’
Suddenly I’m asked advice towards sorting out his love affairs. Suddenly I’m his buddy just because we shared a drink together.
‘What does she think? She loves you?’ I ask.
‘I don’t know,’ he says with hesitation. A momentary pause with a thoughtful silence follows. He continues, ‘I think she loves me.’
‘You haven’t asked her?’
He ponders at this question and the Herculean effort it suggests. He babbles, ‘I think she loves me. I am sure.’
In this manner I walk out of Bogori, past the streams and bridges, leave Manjit behind and return to my room with a view.