Sitting cross-legged with hands folded in prayer, her head bowed in deep reverence, I watch my grandmother chant inaudible verses to a rather shapeless figure. “Baithna zaroori hei?”, I turn around imploring rescue as I mouth the words, asking my mother if it’s really that important to sit through this routine. My teenage scepticism must be apparent, for my grandmother tugs sternly at the edge of my jumper; I cross my legs and slump reluctantly. She lightly traces the features of the figurine with her forefinger, announcing the small eyes, broad nose, thick lips and somewhat manly ears.
Fast forward to adulthood when my scepticism has metamorphosed into amazement, and I stand enthralled as historian and local cultural expert, Prabhat Sah, traces the same features of the goddess’ face on Nanda Devi, India’s second highest mountain at 7,816 metres. The peak is also the Goddess of Bliss, worshipped by Uttarakhand residents in various forms as their patron goddess. Many historians draw parallels between Nanda Devi, and Dolma/Tara of Buddhism. Other than army expeditions and groups with special permits, the mountain has been off limits for explorers since the formation of the Nanda Devi Biosphere in 1982. But like a dreamcatcher with its watchful yet discreet presence, an unlikely tool has been the guardian of this fragile ecosystem across the Himalayas for centuries— the omnipresent folk legends.
Second only to Kanchendzonga, the highest peak that India shares with Nepal, Nanda Devi sits well ensconced within the country’s political boundaries, in western Uttarakhand or Garhwal. Its alleged ‘twin’ peak or Nanda Devi East lies in eastern Uttarakhand or Kumaon. The two regions have been cultural rivals since centuries despite being in the same province. At the centre of the rivalry is the imposing Nanda Devi. Mentioned in the Puranas, ancient sacred texts of Hinduism and the oldest literature known to humankind from over three thousand years ago, the Nanda Devi peak is described as the abode and manifestation of the first female supreme form of Adya Shakti, the prime divine energy. Believed to be a mountain princess, she took flight into the Himalayas to escape being chased by a prince who wanted to marry her. Nanda Devi merged with the sacred peak, deified as the embodiment of beauty and fierceness.
Since the mountain sits in the middle of a nearly insurmountable ring of 6,000-metre plus peaks that form the Nanda Devi sanctuary, its status as a sacred peak was further elevated in folklore. Many wars were fought to seal the claim on the goddess, the major one being King Baaz Bahadur Chand’s conquest of the goddess’s statue in Garhwal. He then established it in Almora, the ancient capital of Kumaon, at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The audacity of this act continues to be commemorated in Kumaon through the festival of khatarwa, the symbolic burning of the effigy of the king of Garhwal. (I’m guilty of eating juicy cucumbers and dancing around the fire too like proud Kumaonis were expected to, but I’d like to plead guilty on account of being a fourteen-year old.) The bitterness runs deep, continuing to seep into state politics and emerging at heated dinner debates.
The first time that I see Nanda Devi up close is on a trek to the base camp of the Pindari glacier. About a 200-metre walk up from ground zero gives a sneak peek of the imposing mountain, suspended at an angle totally different from what I’ve usually seen from greater distances. The stony November wind doesn’t allow me to stay long; I hurry back to the base, cold enough at 11,800 feet. I’m told this region is infested with Himalayan black bears and snow leopards, but I feel strangely composed. It could be the story of the protective goddess lurking in my subconscious, or the pepper spray in my pocket.
Deemed to be one of the toughest Himalayan peaks to scale and also the highest that is completely in India, Nanda Devi has drawn mad mountaineers. After nearly fifty years of pioneers trying to break through the impenetrable ring of peaks around it, British explorers Eric Shipton and H. W. Tilman discovered a passage into the inner sanctum with three Sherpa companions in 1934. Tilman and American mountaineer Noel Odell climbed it two years later, which was the first successful ascent of the peak. The subsequent attempts though, were largely overcast with disaster. Several expeditions were marred by death, including noted mountaineer Willi Unsoeld’s attempt in 1976 in which he lost his daughter, also part of the expedition. Nanda Devi Unsoeld, named by her father after the peak that was his muse, died of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) in the lap of her namesake.
Locals have always believed that climbing their patron goddess will not go unpunished, and like a doomed prophecy, it came true expedition after expedition. Mangal Singh, a Kumaoni and my instructor at a government mountaineering school I went to a couple of years ago, was part of an unsuccessful Nanda Devi army expedition in 2007 that claimed the lives of five prominent team members. “I was a young headstrong climber then who didn’t want to believe trivial stories I had heard at home. But believe me, Devi khoon maangti hei.” The goddess demands sacrifice, Singh reveals as he recalls the nightmarish climb.
Be it local anger over climbing, or the increasing number of failed expeditions on the peak, or rumours of a nuclear device lost and left there in the 1962 war with China, all of it ultimately resulted in a ban on climbing Nanda Devi. Its declaration as a biosphere is a rare environmental triumph in a rapidly developing twenty-first century India. While other fragile places around haven’t had similar good fortune, some remain protected from the malady of development purely by local beliefs. Cutting through the Darma valley of Kumaon that shares borders with Nepal and China, a road has come up to the village of Duktu which is the gateway to the Panchachuli glacier. At a young Rung (the community that inhabits Darma) girl Deepa’s home in Marccha, the last village in the wilderness of Darma, I discuss the possibility of finding an unidentified glacial lake with my hosts and two climbing companions. The lake has no accurate Google map directions or distinct trails because of its close proximity with the Chinese border.
Deepa’s granduncle who can barely see me through the haze of smoke and his thickened glasses, reminisces about Anchari taal chugging glasses of local barley brew makhti at speed. His vague memories and poor directions are clearly clouded by age and alcohol, and we suppress our laughter. He’s miffed by our flippant reaction, and it spills into his firm instructions – “Fairies inhabit that lake”, he warns our trio. “Don’t leave any trace of trash, or wash your camping dishes or equipment in the sacred glacial waters.” Glancing quickly at me, he adds “And behave yourself.” I’m often reprimanded for roaming remote, conservative areas with boys and backpacks, but I take it seriously this time round; the weather will turn and bring us great harm if we don’t adhere to the norms, and first-hand accounts of hair-raising incidents from my fellow explorers ensure that I do make a mental note to behave myself.
Leaving behind the warmth of the mud house and Deepa‘s hospitality, we wander in the valley for over a week with no success. The border police checks are the sole interruptions; we have posed as birding data researchers to get our permits, for ‘exploring’ doesn’t really count as a valid motive. Finally, we settle for a smaller lake that we stumble upon instead. The disappointment is countered by the fact that the valley is truly wild and astounding. We come across absolutely no one other than a few shepherds that live here with their dogs and sheep. They are the only ones that roam these high-altitude grasslands, leaving behind no trace of their existence like the wisps of smoke that disappear into thin air from their make-shift campsites. They have great reverence for nature, the mother that protects them, and do all they can to keep imprudent travelers at bay. I suspect that some of the misleading directions we get is part of this ploy.
Folk stories bridge this gap wonderfully, and many a time, what starts out as an old wives’ tale ends up as a success story like that of the lake we never found. Another illustration of this is the conservation of Tirthan, a mighty glacier-fed river that cuts through the Great Himalayan National Park or GHNP in Uttarakhand’s neighbouring state, Himachal Pradesh. The name Tirthan comes from ‘Tirath’, the place that is also the source of the river, and which translates as ‘pilgrimage’. Getting to the source is a journey that includes four to five arduous days of trekking over rocky trails, across alpine meadows, and along deep river gorges. A journey meant for pilgrims that believe in suffering as a road to salvation, the devout carry idols of local gods to Tirath and beyond for their annual rendezvous with other gods and goddesses of neighbouring valleys. Devotion aside, the trail is equally riveting for expert hikers who want to get a glimpse into a unique ecosystem that showcases rare Himalayan pheasants such as the Western Tragopan.
In the year 2000, a private project was proposed to the state government to build a dam on the Tirthan river flowing through the Great Himalayan National Park or GHNP. Raju Bharti, who runs a rural mountain homestay popular with travelers here, opposed it on the grounds of it being an eco-sensitive zone. Not making much headway with the officers, Raju decided to take the fight head on with the help of his father who had, as an erstwhile MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly, a civic body), pushed for the formation of the GHNP in the seventies. Bharti collected signatures of villagers for a petition and fought corruption, a disgruntled government, and vested interests. Nearly six years and over thirty high court trips later, the judgement was passed in his favour which saved not just the river, but also agriculture and numerous livelihoods that depended on it. While most backpackers heading to Tirthan know of the cosy accommodation Raju runs, few know of his phenomenal battle to protect the river on the bank of which his guesthouse sits. “In the 2005 flashfloods that took away everything, the river spared my place. I was protected, probably because I protected it”, Raju adds philosophically.
In Gushaini’s neighbouring hamlet of Jibhi where a tributary of Tirthan, Jibhi nala joins the river, Lalit Kumar does his bit to keep it clean. Particularly troubled by garbage in and around the river, Lalit, who started out as a mountain guide and also runs a homestay now, spearheaded the ‘Clean Jibhi, Green Jibhi’ movement by inviting and hosting fifteen volunteers from the field of waste management who organized cleanliness drives and increased awareness among the locals on the issue. “I feel responsible for the protection of this blessed place and want to give something back to it because my guests are using its natural resources. Manali jaisa nahi banana.” It shouldn’t become another Manali, a popular hill town destroyed by tourism. I am impressed by the depth of the emancipated thinking locals have despite their humble backgrounds; this is where spirituality and conservation have perfectly coalesced.
On the eastern edge of the Indian Himalayas in the far northeast of the country, similar stories have kept the fire of conservation burning in the hearts of locals who have been the guardians of forests for centuries. Tapping into this inherent passion for their land, eco-warriors like Soumyadeep Datta, a conservation activist and writer based in Assam, have spearheaded landmark movements in India’s conservation history. A massive triumph was the creation of the Dihing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary that is also home to India’s only ape, the endangered hoolock gibbon. The founder of environmental organisation Nature’s Beckon, Datta was born into an influential family of zamindars or landlords. His association with the forest started at a young age with his environmentalist grandfather who introduced him to birding. Datta is a prime example of the adage— the purpose of power is to empower others.
Soumyadeep’s foray into the Chakrashila forest as a child might have started with a family hunting expedition. As an adult though, he turned the tables and went on to fight to get it the status of a sanctuary, making it the only habitat in India that is home to the golden langur, a variety of Asian monkey. For Dihing Patkai, he rallied the support of volunteers, local villagers and patrons of his organization to overthrow an international oil project that had been cleared by the Assamese government. The oil rigs infringed the boundaries of a large tract of rainforest unique to the region. Northeast India is home to the country’s largest rainforests, with corridors spilling into neighbouring countries like Myanmar and collectively stretching for thousands of kilometres. These rainforests are home to rare orchids, primates, birds and mammals, and their habitat preservation is essential for safeguarding a rich ecological and cultural biodiversity. Over a period of nearly ten years, starting in the mid-nineties, marked with protests, meetings with the government and forest department, extensive reporting in local newspapers, and the first educational rainforest festival of its kind in India, 111.19 square kilometers in Upper Assam were notified as the Dihing Patkai sanctuary in 2004.
Driving into this haven, I am grateful this rainforest has been saved. We pull over and follow a small creek that goes into its depths. Giant tree ferns stand at the entrance, like grand props at a palace gate. The sound of gravel crunched under our boots slowly dissolves into a silence marked only with the sharp cry of the golden-backed woodpecker and the faint croaking of the pygmy frog; come summer, it will stir the whole forest with the intensity of its cacophony. Massive bird nest ferns sit on trees like chandeliers in a deserted town hall, and going deeper feels like wandering into a prehistoric era. Soumyadeep finds his spot on a rock to take in the forest, and his deep sigh gives away his admiration. A revelation awaits me. “All legends are not always positive, and it’s precisely to understand their ill-effects that it is important to know them”, he says. While on his field research work years ago, he found a beheaded gibbon along a stream. He came across more such instances. Meat consumption and poaching are the prime reasons for hunting in these parts, and when he saw that the bodies were left untouched after the decapitation, he decided to get to the bottom of it. The villagers he worked with weren’t forthcoming, and it took years to unearth the reasons for these killings.
A long time ago, there was a ‘Gaon Boora’ or village head, who had four wives. The youngest one was of envious beauty. Like the others, she too would go into the fields to work. Over a period of time, a young gibbon befriended her, and would visit her every day when she went to work. The gibbon’s confidence grew with their unique friendship, and he would creep up behind her and sit on her shoulders to surprise her. Their frolicking left behind tiny tears in her garments and soiled them with mud. The village head started to notice them, and grew suspicious of his wife. When she announced her pregnancy, he assumed it was the result of her affair with her mysterious forest friend, and in a fit of rage, went to the fields instead disguised in his wife’s clothes. Bent over the fields, he waited for his wife’s lover. As the gibbon playfully sneaked over to him, the headman swung his dao, a traditional machete, and slayed the gibbon.
The story has stayed with locals for generations, and each time there is a pregnancy in the house, villagers go into the forest and slaughter a gibbon. It has taken Nature’s Beckon years of educating local families to deter them from continuing this practice. Undoing the negative impact of a legend is difficult, but the killings have significantly reduced. Villagers who are part of Datta’s grassroots movement also believe in the presence of a small man, a forest spirit that guides them every now and then when patrolling the jungles. While the more methodical Datta might be sceptical about it, this is the story he would rather his people invest their faith in.
Higher up in the hills of Arunachal, Mishimbu tells me a similar story of human spirits that inhabit the forest and protect it, except that here the dwellers are elfin and ant-like. A food safety officer with the government of Arunachal Pradesh, she also happens to carry the legacy of Rano Miri. Her father was a renowned igu or Idu Mishmi shaman, whose oral stories have been put together in the form of a book by her. The Mishmis believe that one’s name should match the personality of the individual, else they will never be able to find their feet in anything. A shy girl as a kid, she would often run into the forest and stay huddled up for hours and not talk. Her worried family couldn’t decipher her behavior; it was only after much rechristening when she was finally named Mishimbu, the elfin forest dweller, that she became a ‘normal’ child. Her book Revelations from Idu Mishmis Hyms has documented the legends of the Mishmi tribe of this eastern part of Arunachal, preserving them so they are not lost to the future generation that is slowly losing its inherent cultural connection with nature.
In sharp contrast to the unrestrained Mishimbu is Jibi Pulu, a Mishmi who might be a man of few words, but one who has been working relentlessly for change. When I met Jibi a couple of years ago, he was someone who was working with his community where hunting has been the way of life for centuries. At the risk of being ostracised by staunch traditionalists, he steadily educated and helped them embrace conservation using the tool of eco-tourism. Despite the generic association of the Mishmis with hunting, it is one tribe that has never touched the cat family for according to folklore, the tiger is their revered elder brother.
The legend of man and tiger is found in the sacred hymns of Annoshathru, chanted in the Amra-seh ceremony that protects Mishmi families from evil spirits. Anno, the mother goddess, gave birth to a handsome baby boy. Ekomo, the father and god of creation, marked him with stripes to distinguish him from his other children. The child grew up to be a healthy tiger, and in the meanwhile, Anno gave birth to another baby boy. The brothers went into the forest one fine day, where the elder brother turned out to be faster, sharper and stronger than the younger one. Seeing him rip apart animals and eat them raw, true to a tiger’s nature, scared the younger sibling. He went home and shared his deepest fears of the tiger eating them alive too someday, so his mother Anno announced a challenge that would decide who was stronger of the two and hence fit to live. They had to both cross the river; the tiger would swim while the boy would walk the bridge his mother had built. The strong tiger was moving swiftly across the currents when Anno poured a basket full of ants on him. By that time, the younger son ran across and as per the rules of the challenge, shot the tiger with bow and arrow. Ever since, the death of the tiger is mourned as that of an elder sibling.
Mishmis look up to tigers with the reverence of a protective figure and only hunt them, or any other big cats, in defence. When that does happen, the tiger is given the honour of a full-fledged funeral and five-day mourning period, the same as any family member. The tribe always knew of the presence of tigers in their hills, but recorded evidence collected by a few wildlife outfits has only established this in the recent years, when images of around 11 different tigers in the higher Mishmi hills were retrieved with the help of camera traps. Loss of habitat in the lower Mishmi hills is believed to have resulted in much of the tiger population migrating to the upper hills. Of what is left in the lower hills, Jibi’s dream was to preserve his ancestors’ forests. When I meet him this time round, it has already begun to take shape. And more than tigers, I’m keen to see the tree Jibi’s grandmother had the powers to communicate with.
A long two-hour bone-rattling drive takes us towards his ancestral forest, with the road melting into a dry, rocky river bed. We are literally driving on boulders, until both man and machine cannot take it. We leave the “Range Rover”, as Jibi likes to call his rickety old Indian Sumo, on the side of the river bed, haul our overnight bags, and enter the forest. Jibi has convinced his community to collectively pool thirty thousand square meters of unadulterated rainforest to form the Elopa community forest and preserve it as a mark of respect to their ancestors. And it is remarkable, in more ways than one.
Arunachal Pradesh is India’s easternmost province with a large land mass that is also one of the most sparsely populated. It has some of India’s richest rainforests and is a hotbed of natural resources, with corporate giants, government bodies, and multinationals vying for million-dollar projects, procuring land from tribals in lieu of compensation. For communities that don’t stand to earn much in their entire lifetime, it means security and comfort, unfortunately without the understanding of what they stand to eventually lose. In times like these, to refuse a life-changing amount for a forest and instead donate it to develop a community conservation project, is no mean feat.
I follow closely in the footsteps of Jibi, his elder brother Kana Pulu leading us into the thick of this forest which is particularly dense. I feel secure walking with the dao-bearing brothers, the former cutting a swathe as we move and the latter toting a twelve-bore rifle. This is comforting, considering that I will only have a bunch of bananas to wield and tame an angry wild elephant with, should I encounter one. Kana Pulu’s stance is unmistakably that of a hunter, his body perking up at every rustle in the thicket, his pace measured and agile at the same time. The forest is alive with signs of occupancy—I see dhole or wild dog pug marks, burrows dug by giant squirrels, a glimpse of a rare red-headed trogon. Deep scratches run across tree trunks, left behind by the sambar deer that have adopted Elopa as its home in the region.
I have never been inside a jungle as lush. Branches lock with creepers in a deep lovers’ embrace, thick vines cut through the undergrowth and emerge briefly, only to dive right back into their lovemaking. Moving through this mesh of wilderness, just being there, feels like an infringement of the forest’s privacy. Jibi stops to pull out a pheasant trap and shows me how it works. The hunter footprint is still present, but greatly reduced since the community understood the importance of Elopa and formed the private forest. We stop to admire giant vines of wild tamarind that snake across the forest floor, heavy as elephant trunks. The linear dents are steps on these ladders that forest fairies take, and are hence never destroyed by the community, just like plenty of other bird and mammal species here that are barred from being killed for spiritual reasons.
Further up, we stop to admire the beautiful ficus tree that Naaya, Jibi’s grandmother, could converse with. By now, we have walked for over three hours, but carry on. In thirty minutes, we come upon a hut, the basic structure of which is still intact and offers shelter to the few who still risk reaching the heart of the Elopa forest. We set up camp for the night, and settle down with green tea in bamboo cups shaped in minutes by the two brothers with their multi-purpose dagger. The balmy evening and tiring journey are great reasons to switch soon to the flavourful but strong uchi, fermented rice wine. As the mild headiness grows with the flames of our little outdoor hearth and smoke rises from our humble cooking, I ask Jibi what drives him. “I was born in this forest, so I have a soul connection with this place. My earliest memories are of making this journey we did today, except as a child to go to school in Roing. My mother used to cook rice for my journey and pack it in these alana leaves”, he grins, fondly pointing at the wild plant leaves that resemble banana leaves, and which we will be using as plates for dinner tonight. “The forest extended all the way down through what is now the road. That route was laden with many more trees, and flourishing with wildlife. I saw its depletion as I grew, and how the river washed away everything once there was no resistance. If we don’t step up now, this forest too will be lost. And with it the stories of my ancestors”. Night has fallen, and I spot at least four shooting stars tearing through this dark void dripping with diamonds, and hope that at least one of them carries my wish to let this forest live.
Back home in Uttarakhand, deep inside the Binsar wildlife sanctuary in Kumaon, two village women paint the threshold gerua, a natural red oxide residue used for aepan, a Himalayan art form popular in these parts. They dip their fingers in a bowl of diluted rice paste, drawing straight lines that fall vertically on the rusty red, horizontal backdrop. The lines represent the Himalayas, and mornings in traditional homes start with this ode to the mountains. Down in the valley, workers toil to build a motor road that will connect yet another village to the world outside. The elderly patriarch is bitter that the sanctuary status their forest has been given will never get them that privilege. There is a price to be paid for everything, I want to tell him, but refrain. The road will surely bring its advantages, but in instances of development, it will come at an ecological expense. The women continue to hum their morning prayers though, painting the aepan undeterred, stealing glances at their supposedly local, yet seemingly foreign, guest. “Auri bhal laagro!”, I compliment their art in the Kumaoni dialect to seal my identity, as they flash surprised, dimpled smiles in return. I feel a surge of happiness and contentment. Protected by sentinels and stories, some places will remain magical enough to never be defeated by a road.
Photographs by the writer.