After Gangotri, my next stop is Kedarnath. A whole day’s journey is needed to get to Gaurikund which is the starting point for the trek to Kedarnath. A combination of continuous rains, rockfalls and cancelled bus services makes me rethink my next destination. I have no choice but to return all the way to Rishikesh. It does feel that the monsoons have finally arrived.
After departing from Uttarkashi, a delay of four hours tests my patience. Apparently the road is blocked and we have to wait for the rocks to be cleared away. I have travelled enough in India to bear such long delays quietly if not cheerfully. When we finally move, traffic adds another hour of delay. Everyone wants to get ahead at the same time. Why am I not surprised? This is India.
When travelling from Uttarkashi to Rishikesh, it is best to sit on the left side. I was not going to miss this time the stunning views on this route. The landscape can be discerned as three distinct features. Firstly are the deep gorges standing with their steep rocky cliffs populated with dark green pines. It is quite a sight to see these pines standing together precariously at the edge of precipices on such little ground. As we wind down the mountains, the gorges give way to green terraced fields. The landscape now is more beautiful and less dramatic. The scenery is domestic and sits in the lap of nature. Terraces stretch from hilly tops to valley floors. Their repetitive contours are the moves of a seasonal dance. Little waterfalls overflow and cascade from one terrace to another. Stone walls, so neatly constructed, keep the terraces in place. I see three women covered in bright blue ponchos working in paddy nurseries. The saplings are carried and planted in surrounding fields in this afternoon of light rain. The afternoon light filters subtlely through moving clouds. With an occasional break in the clouds, the light dazzles the eye. The paddy fields glisten and the young saplings dance in the light from the heavens.
The river is flowly far below. From the high road, the sound of the river is only silence. The flow of the river is only stillness. The depth of the river is nil. The river has a completely different character from up here. It is only of shape and form as it finds its way through the folding hills. The river is like a gleaming ribbon dancing amongst the clouds. It is in a world of its own, like in a dream or a fantasy.
Such lovely terraced fields are to be found near Ratnaugad and a little farther at Chamba. Once past these fields, the hills take over the landscape completely. Their greens and blues frolic with the floating clouds in high skies. It is only on the final approach to Rishikesh that flat plains appear. Throughout this journey, the Bhagirathi never leaves us.
The first bus to leave Rishikesh for Pauri is at 3.30 am. Such an unearthly hour, who plans these schedules? I desire a more leisurely start and take the next bus leaving at 10.20 am. Some years ago the route to Pauri was via Srinagar, the the one in Jammu & Kashmir. A new bridge near Devprayag has cut down the travel time by a couple of hours. Still, it is 3 pm when I reach Pauri.
As I check into Umesha Hotel, I notice a plastic bag containing small plum-sized fruits. I ask the receptionist about them.
‘Peaches. You can have them,’ he says generously. I pick one and bite into it. It tastes sour and the flesh is hard. These are premature drops due to recent rains. It will be many more weeks before the trees of Pauri start giving sweet ripe peaches.
A short walk from town, on a little hill, is the Tourist Rest House. I look to see if the restaurant is open. The place is deserted. I follow the sound of a television set coming from one of the rooms. A burly man is sitting on a sofa. He sports an impressive crisp pointed moustache. Apparently, the restaurant is closed but perhaps I may care for a room? I tell him that I’ve already checked into Umesha Hotel. We chat for a while. As I leave, I collect a set of tourist brochures of places in Uttarakhand.
‘Is that the Himalayas?’ I ask him at the lobby. On the wall is a panoramic picture of a long line of snowy peaks standing under a wide canopy of hazy blue skies. It is a stunning photograph, almost unbelievable for its beauty and grandeur. A little part of me whispers that it is unreal.
‘Yes. That’s the view of the Himalayan peaks as seen from Pauri,’ tells me the manager. ‘The best views are in winter.’
The day is cloudy. We walk out of the lobby into the car park outside. In the far horizon, I see snow-covered slopes of high mountains. The peaks are lost in thick layers of clouds. I can’t see a single peak, let alone an uninterrupted line of peaks. Pauri is famous for its views of the Himalayas but they are not for me today.
I leave the Rest House and climb up the hill by a series of well-laid steps. I pass an “old” temple and later arrive at the Kandoliya Mahadev Temple. Fancifully, many temples in Uttarakhand are prefixed by the word “pracheen.” There is nothing ancient or holy about their looks as they stand modernized in concrete, marble tiles and brick. The Kandoliay Mahadev Temple is nothing more than a linga housed in a small room. The more I travel, the more cynical I’ve become of India’s temples, elaborate rituals, numerous yatras, annual melas and special abhishekams. I respect the beliefs of millions but their approach to God is not something I need in my own quest for spirituality.
I leave the temple, walk past monkeys playing near a children’s park, walk through pine woods until I arrive at a playing field. A few teenagers are playing soccer. With the World Cup underway in South Africa, soccer is all in rage these days. Cricket has taken a backseat even in India.
Walking past the field, I go down a slope and arrive at a clearing. I am speechless. It is a figure of speech, not that I have anybody to talk to on this hill. Nothing has prepared me for this spectacular view of greens, blues, yellows and browns. The valley is spread about gently and stretches to my right to a great distance. In a converging perspective, it merges with the blue hills on the horizon. Little villages or simply isolated huts dot the valley here and there. A road winds and descends into the valley and loses itself amongst the contours of terraced paddy fields.
Where I am standing, the ground is rocky with occasional shrub cover and pine trees. Next to me is a drystone wall standing perfectly in character with the rocky ground. Such walls stretch on the slopes and fragment the same. Across the valley on the opposite slopes are terraced fields. Higher up, they give way to thick forest and pine woods.
There are two sets of lines playing on the vision – the contours of terraced fields and the folds of gentle hills. The contours are almost like those on a map. There is something poetic about their curves and their ordered repetition. They move gracefully on the slopes of hills as the latter fold, turn and bend. Where one contour loses itself in a fold, another seems to take over the dance seamlessly.
To my left beyond the valley hangs a heavy cover of thick clouds. Once in a while a gentle breeze blows a wisp of cloud into the valley. Miraculaously the cloud dissolves and disappears. No trace of it remains. My view of the valley remains clear as ever. The cloud has let go of its illusionary self and merged with the universe. Cloud after cloud floats into the valley one at a time and disappears into nothing. This is perhaps nature’s demonstration of the emptiness of Buddhist philosophy.
After many minutes of quiet observation of this scene, save for the chirping of birds and the occasional kick of the football, I return towards town. I walk past women collecting forest grass as cattle fodder. I walk past a fruit and vegetable vendor with his colourful spread of local produce. I turn right at a crossing and arrive a viewpoint. I see the same valley I have seen just minutes ago but now it is a different angle and a different beauty.
The sun is beginning to set. Kamal, a polytechnic student pursuing Civil Engineering, joins me at the viewpoint. I ask him about the valley before us.
‘This is called Gagwarsuin,’ he tells me.
‘Are you having your vacation?’
‘Yes, a few more weeks left.’
‘What do you do during vacation?’
‘Nothing,’ he says a little shyly. There is no guilt in his reply. He seems to enjoy doing nothing. After a pause he adds, ‘I have VT.’
‘VT?’ I ask puzzled. India lives in such short breaths.
‘Vocational Training,’ Kamal elaborates.
‘Where? In which company?’
‘At PWD.’ That’s Public Works Department.
‘Are you learning anything?’
‘Nothing. They don’t teach anything. It’s just a formality.’
‘How long is this VT?’ I am beginning to adopt these short forms. India has gotten to me.
‘What grows here?’ I point to the valley.
‘Mostly soyabean and mandwa,’ he says.
‘Mandwa?’ I ask. It must be a local name but I doubt the crop itself is limited to the hills around Pauri.
‘It’s a type of atta, red in colour,’ he explains.
We walk together towards town. The Himalayan peaks are shy and secretive behind a cover of clouds. The setting sun tinges the clouds orange for brief moments. Kamal tells me about his family, his livestock and his own plots of terraced fields in his own backyard. Pauri is a beautiful town.