Himalayas Beyond Selfies and 3-day Tour Packages

Long before travel agents colonised the Himalayan heights with their unmitigated exploitation of its pristine beauty in the name of promoting tourism and generating employment; the birds, trees, flowers, rivers and the sublime Himalayan peaks shared a rich camaraderie with the hill people. Things have however changed over the years.

The Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand Source: M Tracy Hunter/ CC By 2.0 (Wikicommons)

  • This article was published in the December 2016 issue of Terra Green-an internationally circulated environmental monthly published by The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI).

I do not know what exactly prompted William Blake to pen the lines “Great things are done when men and mountains meet. This is not done by jostling in the street”. To be honest, I have not read any of Blake’s work, except the poem Tiger Tiger Burning Bright, and thus have no idea of the context in which these lines flowed from his pen. Despite not being familiar with his literary work, these lines did strike me the moment I encountered them some years ago.

I was introduced to them by a teacher of mine from Nainital. It was in 2011 that we were once discussing the many layers of beautiful photograph that he had posted on Facebook. In it, he had skillfully captured a breathtaking early December sunset from our school campus, located atop a hillock in Nainital, with a magnificent view overlooking the Indo-Gangetic plains. I had been complaining how fortunate he is to be able to enjoy the bright colours of the natural world in Nainital, while I was rather chained to a monochromatic life in the densely fogged and heavily chocked capital of India-New Delhi. It was exactly in reference to this that he quoted Blake and said “don’t get sentimental…you know mountains always live inside you.

The photograph that introduced me to Blake’s lines

Since then, Blake’s lines have stayed with me.

Devoid of their author’s context, I have often taken the liberty to interpret and use them in a rather self-congratulating manner to imbibe feel-good thoughts about the mountainous region I was born in, its people and the traditions which perfume the villages that dot the Kumaon and Garhwal Himalayas.

Fortunate to be born in the laps of the mountains and having watched their beauty from close quarters as a child, the nostalgia they generate often moistens my mind’s eye. When stuck in the quagmire of a rat-race in the metros, I often long to revisit the hills and relive those carefree days when roaming in the forests all day long and feeding on wild fruits and berries, or accompanying my mother to cut grass and till the fields during vacations, was always exciting.

This nostalgia not only stems from the beautiful environment that we lived in, but also the rich connect between the natural world and the traditions, festivities and belief system that the simple hill people have preserved for centuries at stretch.

Be it the birds, trees, flowers, rivers, hillocks or animals, everything registers its presence in the daily lives of the hills. I am of course not blinded by the false impression that the hills are an exception in this regard. In fact, perhaps, all native communities across the globe do exhibit this connect in one shade or the other.

Though every festival celebrated in the hills generally does have some unique link with the natural world, the festivals of Utrayani and Fuldai (known as Makarsakranti and Baisakhi respectively in other parts of Northern India) have always been close to me. Closely knitted with the natural cycle of seasonal change that they both are, they are also essentially the festivals of the children.

Utrayani is basically a festival related to the movement of the Sun. It has astrological significance since it marks the beginning of a new season with the Sun entering the Tropic of Capricorn from Cancer. But in the hills of Uttarakhand, it is celebrated for reasons more than just this. Here, it is also considered as a welcome gesture to the birds that migrate to their wintry beds down in the plains. It is believed that from this day onward, these birds fall back to their own terrain.

As a child, I was fortunate enough to celebrate this major festival of the hills on many occasions. Early morning, all the children would meet at a place decided the eve before and from there we would all go around singing traditional songs and greeting people. In turn we received lumps of jaggery, sweets and other hill delicacies from each house. Over the years, things have however changed as these have slowly been replaced with factory made candies.

A toddler armed with his ‘ghughuti mala’ Photo: Mukesh Rawat

Closely linked with Utrayani is also the bird Oriental Turtle Dove (Streptopelia Orientalis). It is locally called as ghughuti. On Utrayani every household in the hill can be seen busy preparing sweetmeat from a mixture of flour, jaggary, fennel (saunf) and water. The sweetmeat is called ghughut. Shapes of various birds and creatures are experimented with to amuse the young ones. Once the shapes are finalised, they are fried and later every child in the house is gifted with a ghughuti mala (necklace of ghughuti). They then call out to the birds to accept their humble offerings and bless them for a bright future. It is also a common belief that to keep a watch on us, the dead ancestors take the form of a bird (generally a crow). As such, these offerings are also seen by many as a humble way of feeding the ancestors and welcoming them back to the hills after their winter migration.

The people in Kumaon and Garhwal have a deep emotional connect with the bird and it does also find a mention in many folk songs, especially the ones about the emotions between a married women and her mother’s home or the longing to see her beloved who has gone to far of lands to earn for the family.

Legendary folk artists like Gopal Babu Goswami, Meera Rana and Narendra Singh Negi, among others, have portrayed this beautifully in their songs. In one of his songs Goswami captures the correspondence between the bird and a woman whose husband is posted in Ladhak to defend the borders. Been separated from her beloved as she is for months now, she urges the bird to carry her message to her husband and sings-

Udh ja o ghughuti naheja Ladhaka

Haal mere bata diye mera swami paasa

(O Ghughuti! I request you to fly over to Ladhak and narrate my tale to my beloved.)

While Utrayani celebrates the return of the birds to the hills, Fuldai is a festival embracing spring and prayers for a rich harvest. It is a festival of flowers and greenery that symbolise freshness and a new beginning. Having braved the long harsh Himalayan winter with minimal food and resources, the hill folks eagerly await the arrival of spring which not only means more food and water for them and their cattle, but also infuses strength and hope of a better tomorrow in their weather beaten lives.

On the day of the festival one can see children excitedly armed with handmade bamboo baskets, overflowing with flowers like rhododendron, marigold, mustard, dalia and many others collected from the wild whose name I am not aware of, visiting each house and blowing petals on the doorsteps. They then pray that the spring brings with it a rich harvest and that the granary of the house be full of seasonal crops. Elders bless them in return and feed them with lavish cuisines, especially prepared in advance for them.

Camomila flowering on a hill slope in Nainital, Uttarakhand. Photo: Rajshekhar Pant

However, alas! everything is not as well as one would have liked them to be. With the rapid out-migration from the hills, these traditions are also migrating, perhaps to oblivion. It is quite sad to see that even those at home don’t celebrate these festivals in the same spirit anymore, mainly due to an acute deficit of companions to celebrate them with.

In the last 15 years, around 12-15 families have migrated out from my own village to cities like Ramnagar, Haldwani, Chandigarh, Delhi and elsewhere, supposedly for a ‘better life’. A silence, resembling that of a graveyard, is slowly engulfing my village. This is not the case with my village alone. In fact, mine is just one among the many, heading towards their common tryst with destiny in this small hill state, lying in the laps of the mighty Himalayas.

It is strange to see that while people from the plains are taking keen interest in settling in the hills; to the hill people, the hills appear to be a burden, which they unthinkingly are shedding off at an alarming rate.

On interacting with the migrated ones, one can easily see that the longing to return is still fresh in their eyes. But unfortunately the circumstances aren’t very conducive. The lack of reliable schooling rules the roost, let alone the mounting unemployment. With poor irrigation facilities to depend on, farming now appears a distant mirage in the hills, which ironically are also the source to scores of perennial rivers of the country. This is further compounded by the regular destruction of their hard-earned crops by monkeys and wild boars.

With villages across the Kumaon-Garhwal hills dotted with deserted homes, festivals like Utrayani and Fuldai that celebrate the beautiful camaraderie between humans and nature, are gradually turning into morbid affairs as elders don’t find young and enthusiastic children blowing petals at their doorsteps and chanting-

Fuldai, chammadai, den dwar bhar-bhakar. (O, you benevolent threshold forgive us for our wrongs, let thy doors favour us and the granary be full of seasonal crops).

Orchids growing in the buffer zone around Bhimtal, Uttarakhand. Photo: Rajshekhar Pant

In the hills, whenever I see a locked house, which is often at the mercy of unattended weeds that signify the long absence of human existence, I wonder what Blake would write seeing them today. I wonder if the new generation of the highlanders that is born and brought up in the metros and foothill cities, will ever associate with what Blake said about the mountains in the same manner as our forefathers did?

I wonder if the new generation (both in and outside the hills) will also be excited to roam around the village wearing their ghughuti mala and calling out to the birds to accept their offerings during Utrayani? Will they too wander around the hills and forests to collect wild flowers and fallen rhododendron petals to decorate their bamboo baskets for Fuldai? In the era of Facebook and WhatsApp will the prospect of communicating with the ghughuti really excite them?

Like the protagonists in the songs of Rana, Negi and Goswami, will they ever reveal their secrets and suppressed emotions to the ghughuti and entrust it to carry it safely to their beloved? How will they react when they walk through a forest full of trees laden with bright red rhododendrons; or when they see a waterfall in the hills and a crystal clear river jingling along a valley; or a range of the sublime Himalayan peaks in the horizon?

Will they pause to appreciate the vista and absorb it slowly in their mind’s eye, or will they prefer quickly taking a selfie and uploading it on Facebook to see how many likes and comments it attracts?

  • This article was published in the December 2016 issue of Terra Green-an internationally circulated environmental monthly published by The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI).