Slow bus journeys are either boring, interesting or both. Long waits and frequent stops at nondescript locations are boring. At other times, the scenery passes by the window in slow motion. Every scene is a still picture that lingers in the mind for minutes until a new one takes over, just as refreshing and just as much beautiful in its own moment in time.
Today the bus driver seems to be in no hurry to get to Almora, and further on to Haldwani, his final destination. The green paddy fields are turning golden and ready for harvest. The pears and peaches are growing a little at a time. I can sense the fruity flesh bursting with juice around the enclosed kernels. I can see them redden and turn sweet for the final picking. It must sound strange to see all these when there are still many weeks to golden autumn; but this has been the mood of the day this morning as I make my way to Almora. I am living in a time warp. Entire seasons seem to pass by in these slow moments. Time is almost still and yet encapsulating eternity. The day is lived in slow motion and yet it has in it more than just the present moment.
Somewhere along the way, in between little villages of such delightful hilly countryside, the bus stops at an insignificant temple. I hate to even consider it a temple but the belief of my fellow travellers rules. A priest walks up to the bus and hands two plates to persons sitting by the window. A colourful melange of pastes and powders are arranged in little cups on the plate. Passengers put aside for a moment their immediate destinations – Almora or Haldwani – and turn their attention to another journey and another destination. They make their silent prayers and pass the plates around. One such plate arrives into the hands of the guy sitting next to me. He takes a pinch of red sindhur and applies a vertical line on his forehead. He dips a finger into the vermilion paste and places carefully a dot on the red line. Then he picks a few grains of rice and sticks them to the vermilion dot. In return to this self-decorated blessing, he offers some cash on the plate. God knows if God will be happy but surely the priest will be smiling.
I arrive into Almora just past noon. I am in luck. A bus to Jageshwar is just about to depart. I board it and we leave in a few minutes. It is once more a slow beautiful ride on these hills. The views of Almora, its surrounding hills and valleys, are pretty. The afternoon light plays richly through backlit greens, sharp shadows and subtle tones. Any landscape, no matter how grand in scale, can mean nothing without the right lighting. At the village of Panuwanaula we make a scheduled stop to gather more passengers. I take the chance to have a simple and tasty lunch, a half plate costing only fifteen rupees. The daal is mixed with channa and beans. The meal is fresh and hot. As I savour my lunch, I notice a village woman sitting in the bus. I had not noticed her before but she is probably coming from Almora. She is wearing a unique pair of bright gold earrings. She is wearing a black cloth choker ornamented with golden trinkets stitched to the cloth. Bright gold contrasting against the black cloth sets off the gold vividly.
When I arrive at Jageshwar it is 2 pm. I think I will spend an hour or two here and return to Almora for the night. But the slow dreamy mood of the day prevails. The stream that flows by Jageshwar is enchanting. Pine woods that surround it beckon with little paths to share untold secrets. Terraced fields swaying with ripening corn cover the hills. The temples of Jageshwar have more to reveal that those of Baijnath. Nearby at Dandeshwar is the largest temple of the region. I’m going to stay here tonight.
A decent number of clean and comfortable hotels have come up in Jageshwar these recent years. The town is also preparing for a busy annual festival in the month of shravan. The festivities are just a week away. Quiet Jageshwar will wear quite a different look in a week’s time. I find a room, dump my stuff and head first to the local museum. Idols salvaged from the temples of the region are housed in this little museum. A guy follows me around, afraid that I might touch, scratch or steal the exhibits. My slow progress through the galleries tests his patience. My long stares into the eyes of stone cold Shivas and Parvatis puzzle him. My slow sketch of Uma Maheshwar finally breaks his silence.
‘You have to leave now. We are changing the shift,’ he makes an excuse.
I’ve seen enough. I’m in no mood to argue with him. I leave the museum and walk towards the temples. They are grouped together in one corner of Jageshwar where road and river turn sharply to the left. At the far end of this temple complex is a magnificent deodar tree. It towers as if its ambition has no limit and its reach is beyond ambition. The tall shikaras built in rekhanagara style stand humbled by the height of this deodar.
The earliest of the temples date from the 7th century AD. They are dedicated to various gods but today shivlingas have replaced the idols in the sanctums. Some of these idols can be seen in the museum. The wealth of carvings in this group is far more than at Baijnath. Particularly interesting are many elaborate door jambs and lintels. The chaitya style canopies over the sukhanais are impressive on a few of the temples. The Nataraja Temple and the Lakulisa Temple are impressive in this regard. As at Baijnath, the shikaras as a group make wonderful perspectives and silhouetted profiles. Some of the larger shikaras bear rich reliefs of overflowing kumbhas and flunent kirtimukhas. Pilgrims come and go. Many participate in elaborate rituals precided over by temple priests. Two girls loiter around in the hope of donations. A priest chases a dog sniffing at offerings laid by visiting pilgrims. A sadhu sits near the entrance to bless and collect his dues. Monkeys play their antics on their favourite shikaras.
I hate to return to my room so early in the evening. I walk to Dandeshwar, a couple of kilometers up the road from Jageshwar. I pause at a roadside stall. The guy is selling locally picked pears at fifteen rupees a kilo. I buy some of these juicy green pears. A man double bent under the weight of a sack takes to an uphill path climbing beside the fruit stall.
‘What’s in it?’ I ask him as I pack the pears into my bag.
‘Rice. Government ration,’ he replies as he pauses to catch his breath. He is from the village of Iswaridar, as is the fruit seller.
I leave them and continue past abandoned temple shikaras standing at the edge of pine woods. Vegetation is creeping up the old stone mouldings. Thin layers of delicate moss cover the shikaras. An amalaka stands precariously balanced on a little piece of stone over one such shikara. I soon reach the temple complex of Dandeshwar.
The temple here is the largest in the Kumaon region. It is said to be from the 9th century. Architecturally, it is simple with just a sanctum under a high shikara and a sukhanasi over a small portico. Both these are protected by wooden canopies, a feature common in Himachal as well. These canopies protect the temple from winter’s heavy snowfall. The shikara is unique. It is more pyramidal than curvilinear. Other structures within the complex are unremarkable. A couple of women are busy mowing the lawns with hand sickles. A young boy and a girl hang around in the hope of handouts.
‘Anda Shivji lete huye hain,’ tells me the boy.
I am curious. I see only darkness from where I stand at the doorway. I am lazy to remove my boots but it’s got to be done if I am to see the reclined Shiva. I walk in.
‘Kahan hai Shivji?’ I ask perplexed. I see only a large rock projecting out of the ground.
‘Yeh hai Shivji,’ the boy points to the rock.
Am I missing something? I pull out my handy torch and throw a beam of light across the sanctum. There is only what I’d all along suspected.
‘Yeh sirf pathar hai, chote!’
‘Yeh Shivji hai,’ argues the boy. What can I say! He see clearly even in darkness what my condemned self fails even in light.
On the return to Jageshwar I see a little path going up the hill to my left. I start climbing. I climb for an hour to the highest hills of the region. It is an exhilarating climb all the way too the place where pine woods thin and open views are all around me. On these high slopes rhododendrons are many. In the flowering season, these hills will undoubtedly wear a flush of colour and the blush of nature. Down below are thick forests of deodars. Across the valley on the far slopes are terraced fields, quaint villages and undulating ridges.
I descend by another faint path through thick pine woods. I hear the chopping of wood somewhere below me. I see a woman busy collecting firewood. I raise me hand and wave at her. I mean to say ‘hello’ or ‘namaste’ but the words don’t escape my tongue. I am for a moment trying to focus on the steep path going down. This is a lonely spot in the forests. The woman is startled by my sudden appearance. She shouts in a language I don’t understand. She runs down the steep slope shouting and disappears behind a bend. Moments later I pass a heap of dry twigs and sticks, a piece of cloth and a bundle of ropes. She has abandoned her things in her anxiety to get away from a potential rapist. A little later I hear the voices of two women talking. I don’t see them as I make my way deeper into the valley. Soon I arrive at a stream. This is the same stream that flows down to join the main one flowing past Jageshwar. I cross it at a narrow place, climb up a little slope to a clear path and make my way to Jageshwar.
Back in the village I buy some tomatoes and bananas. These are red ripe tomatoes fresh to the core. I ask around for dinner. Some boys are playing cricket – as usual with a tennis ball – on the single narrow street that defines Jageshwar. One of the boys who is perhaps in his early twenties, breaks his game, comes over to the shop and cooks for me a nice place of rice, daal and channa. As I have my dinner, the boys call off their game. The light is fading. The forests recede into darker shadows. The river almost disappears except for its lilting sound. Cricket gives way to arm wrestling as I finish the last morsels of my dinner.
When morning comes, I return to the temple complex once more. I spend a few minutes here, a few more at the Kuber Temple on the river’s other bank. The weather is good. I feel energized by yesterday’s walk on these hills. I think I’ll walk again this morning. I’ll walk to the temple of Vridh Jageshwar and back.
Ever since I was introduced to Jim Corbett many years ago, I’ve been in love with his works. It happened one summer while I was in Bangalore with my grandparents for my annual vacation. A cousin of mine lent me “Man-Eaters of Kumaon.” From the very first page I was hooked. I later borrowed Corbett’s other books from my cousin’s collection. To a young boy that I was back then, Corbett’s adventures, his narrative energy and detailed descriptions of jungle terrain excited my imagination. I was in the footsteps of Corbett, following the muddy tracks of the man-eater. I was peering through dark undergrowth caught in the suspense of a rustle in the bushes. The cliffs towered as silent witnesses to my untold bravery. The streams flowed with the message and blood of a recent kill. As I tracked the killer, be it the “Leopard of Rudraprayag” or the “Bachelor of Powalgarh”, I sensed the man-eater smelling my presence downwind and waiting in ambush.
There is only a remote chance of coming across any man-eater in the Kumaon Hills these days. Vridh Jageshwar is not far. A brisk climb takes me to it within three quarters of an hour. One thing commonly seen in the pine woods is the extraction of sap from the tree trunks. Repetitive V-shaped markings are incised into the tree trunks below peeled layers of outer bark. The sap that flows out is collected into conical metal cups. This sticky fluid, I learn later, is used in the making of tar and paint.
As I return to Jageshwar by a different path, this time by the hills I had partly explored yesterday, I am stopped by a chowkidar of the forest. He is a government employee and I am impressed by his dress. He wears a woollen cap with a stylist tilt. His woollen sweater is oversized for his modest frame. He carries a walking stick that comes with its responsibilities and prerogatives. Most of all, I’m impressed by the brass buckle on his belt that he displays proudly.
We exchange a few words. He requests a donation for a new ashram that a certain baba is building in these parts. I tell him that I have made a donation at the temple at Vridh Jageshwar.
‘Those fellows squander the money in drinks. This is somethiing quite dharmic,’ he assures me. ‘You will be given a receipt.’
He rummages through his cloth satchel and pulls out a receipt book. It’s difficult to trust anyone these days but I’m this morning in a light mood and free of my usual cynicism. I give him a donation and collect the receipt.
‘Your donation will not go waste. Your name will be recorded on the ashram’s walls. Babaji is starting a Sanskrit school soon. Would you like to walk with me to the ashram?’
‘I’ve to be returning to Jageshwar before lunch so that I can move on to Almora thereafter,’ I tell him.
We take leave of each other. Our meeting has been brief under the canopy of tall pine trees. I walk on the hills in beautiful weather. Next to an isolated house I pause for a few minutes at a carpenter’s workshop. I take note of local constructions, houses built of stone and wood, tiled with stone slabs and walls caked with layers of mud. Wooden facades interest me a great deal at one particular house, its bracketed eaves, long windows with low balustrades, its little half-open windows through which little lambs peer into my camera’s little lens.
Down in the valley, I join the stream I had crossed yesterday. A couple is washing clothes in the stream. Further down a woman is bathing topless. She is alarmed by my unexpected appearance and quickly covers herself. A shy smile escapes her lips. This is the seclusion of the forests around Jageshwar. I wish I could stay here longer but I have to move on. Nonetheless a beautiful Hindi film song comes to my mind:
Suhana safar aur yeh mausam haseen
Suhana safar aur yeh mausam haseen
Hame dar hai hum ko na jaaye kahin