There is something attractive about hill people. They are friendly and often wear a smile on their lips. They are hospitable to visitors. They are soft-spoken. Their lifestyle is unhurried. Thin mountain air seems to slow things down up here. A few days in these hills, I’m in love with everything – the landscape, the trees, the people, their culture and even the sunlight which has a surreal quality rarely found in the plains below.
The people of these hills dress simply. The men wear a Nehruvian cap. Their standard dress is a long kurta and pyjama although modern shirts have often replaced the traditional kurta. To keep off the cold, a woollen waistcoat is usually worn on top. Sometimes this does not fit well. It hangs loosely and heavity till the knees. The men wear it like this without being bothered by high fashion or city style. As for the women, salwars are commonly worn. Sarees are rare and perhaps reserved for special occasions. Sometimes I see them wearing long-sleeves blouse and a sarong tied at the waist.
Today on the jeep ride from Artuli to Almora, I pass a shepherdess tending to her sheep by the roadside. She wears no makeup and her dress is simple. She knows the jeep driver and she smiles as we pass by. I am bowled over by her charm and beauty. A stray thought crosses my mind – I should marry a shepherdess of these hills. This is moment is like a lost dream. Somehow I can’t picture myself herding sheep and goats for the rest of my life. It may be crowded, noisy and polluted, but I still prefer city life.
The jeep drops me at Dharanaula, one of the many small neighbourhoods of Almora. I am surprised to find a clean room with attached bathroom for only hundred rupees. It is such a good deal that I don’t even bother to bargain and take it as it is given. Almora is a hill station like so many others in India’s far north. Yet it is a hill station without pretensions. It retains a charm now lost in Shimla, Shillong or Darjeeling. It has its grubby spots but it is not as bad as the others. Every hill station seems to lay claim to the title “Queen of Hill Stations.” If there is one that deserves it in some measure, it would be Almora. (I have heard Pachmarhi to be a lovely hill station but since I haven’t been there…)
After an unremarkable lunch of vegetarian fried rice, I walk around Almora town. One thing about hill stations is that fruits and vegetables are fresh and plentiful. The streets wear a colourful look. Men and women spread their blankets and display their wares to passing customers. Someone tells me about the Mall. I imagine this to be the heart of Almora where tourists flock, as in Shimla or Darjeeling. When I find the Mall, I see that it is only a large supermarket, the only one of its king in town. This is what I mean when I say Almora is unpretentious. Tourists come to Almora but it is not touristy. It minds its own business and is busy in everyday ordinary things.
Walking through town, it is difficult to miss the wonderful architecture of its old buildings. The Post Office is housed in a charming building with sloping roofs, a projected entrance porch, a long verandah and symmetric gables. Some distance from here is another equally charming one, today occupied by the Forest Department. Many buildings have charming chimneys peeping over sloping roofs. There are stone buildings with oriel windows of wood and glass. Many of these are probably a hundred years old or more. At one end of town is a beautiful church with its own clock tower. It stands solidly with its neatly buttressed walls, beautifully corbelled eaves, crenellated parapets and pointed arches.
‘Can you tell me the way to Naina Devi Temple?’ I ask a fruit seller.
‘You mean Nanda Devi? Naina Devi is in Nainital,’ he corrects.
‘Yes, Nanda Devi.’
He shows me the way and it isn’t far. The complex has two main stone structures. One of them has a central shikara over the sanctum with entrance porches on all four sides. These porches are topped with their own mini-shikaras that join the central one. It is only the central one that carries that amalaka. This is an architectural layout I am seeing for the first time. The other stone structure mimics this to some extent except for the subsidiary shikaras which are less conspicuous. It is more striking for the wealth of low reliefs on its outer walls. The images are beautiful – elephants, horses interspersed with flowers, lions chasing deer, serpents coiled up or on the move, ducks and fish in water. Above such a series of sculpted mouldings are numerous erotic couples. Above such couples are royal couples or gods and godesses in amorous play. Had these images been in high relief they would have the same magnificence and fame as those of Belur or Mt Abu.
I walk down from here to the Govind Valladh Pant Public Museum. A gallery here talks about the life and political contributions of Govind Vallabh Pant whose statue can be seen at a busy junction elsewhere in town. I am bored by this gallery and other exhibits in this museum except for one. A series of paintings hang in one room. They are painted in white on an ochre red background in a manner similar to Worli paintings. However, the style of painting is not Worli. Paintings appear to have religious symbolism with objects that include sun, moon, chakra, conch, bell and oil lamp. Floral patterns are common. Some canvases are filled with large symmetric patterns reminiscent of ancient mandalas. It is a style of folk painting of the region and it goes by the name “apen.”
I learn that there is a Sunset Point about two kilometers from town. I pass a playground where youngsters are busy practising their sport – soccer, cricket, taekwondo, boxin. I get to Sunset Point easily but the only problem is it’s still more than two hours to sunset. I can see the Kosi river gleaming in the distance as it snakes between the folds of hills. The hills are pleasant and invite me for a long walk but my legs are tired. The brisk walks at Jageshwar have taken their toll. I need some rest this evening. I sit by a milestone and watch the shifting light on the hills. A shepherd is on his way home with his flock ambling before him. Clouds are moving high above hilly ridges, casting their shadows on grassy slopes. The slopes near me are punched with rectangular trenches lined inside with stones. They lie scattered without order and in their enigma inspire imagination.