Vishal was found crying, one fine morning by Mrs. Shankar at the doorstep of her desolate, home set somewhere on one of the ranges of what we call the ‘Garhwal Himalayas’. Overcome by motherly affection, she begins to cuddle and play with him. She does not heed to the warnings against picking up this ‘forsaken’ child by her husband. Shankar, her husband, a simple man with a ‘responsible’ job, cautions her about the ‘games’ this child can play. However, Mrs. Shankar reprimands her husband for uttering such words about a sweet child, and provides shelter in her Himalayan home for the child. She then proceeds with her husband to the nearby ‘hot water spring’ for a bath. On returning, surprisingly, the couple find that Vishal has taken over their home! Shankar smiles at his wife and they both proceed to find a new place elsewhere in this range. Somewhere else, perhaps in this range where there are said to be nearly a hundred hills above 8000 MSL in altitude!
No, this is not an internet joke or “Donate money for Vishal” kind of pleas!
I am talking about the story behind the shrine at Badrinath in Uttaranchal. Vishal was Vishnu trying to ease Shiva who was the original inhabitant of what we now call Badrinath. It is said, Shiva and Parvati proceeded and eventually settled in the nearby ‘Kedarnath’ hill. (None of them kept bird lists, I am told!)
The evening of May 13th saw me at 11,000 ft above sea level at Badrinath in Uttaranchal. This is one of the “Chaar Dhaams” in the Garhwal Himalayas, the other 3 being Gangotri, Yamunotri and Kedarnath. It was quite an effort getting here – fighting 45 degrees temp. in Delhi (and a stampede on the foot overbridge to add to the confusion), a dusty Dehradun (large patches of Rajaji on fire!), and a 4 grand taxi ride thorough dust stroms!
The route traces along one of the main tributaries of the Ganga, the Alaknanda. Rishikesh is the first town one hits. Not really a place to be with hundreds of piligrims ‘desanctifying’ the waters here. Laxman Jhoola, a suspension brigde across the Ganga with at least 20 dangerous looking Rhesus macaques were worth mentioning. Hinduism is neatly packed, perfumed, peppered, packaged and sold here at unbelievable prices. And as you must’ve guessed, Hinduism, or rather its ‘spiritual lingo’ – Om, Gita, Upanishads, Bhajans, Yoga, Nirvana etc. etc are selling here like hot cakes.
The rest of the route is pretty interesting passing up and down the initial western himalayan ranges, most of them with eroded of vegetation. The Alaknanda, which comes down from Badrinath meets the Bhagirathi (from Gangotri) at Deoprayag. The route passes through many such ‘prayags’ where many other smaller rivers join – Rudraprayag, Karnaprayag, Nandaprayag etc. The temperature continues to be 40 plus here too. A common sight is that of many bare-footed sarrron-clad ‘yogis’ walking up to Badri from Rishikesh! (a la the first (aadi) Shankaracharya, who established the shrine at Badri. In fact, the priest here is still a malayaly Namboodri from Kerala)
Watching the Alaknanda flow with full vigor inspite of the sweltering hot weather was quite a sight. The real feel of the Himalayas only begins at Joshimath (1890 MSL), where Shankaracharya peetha is situated. The road winds up quite steeply and precipitously for the next 50 km to Badri. En route, one can see how man can ‘rape’ landscape. At almost unreachable locations, the river course has been routed through mountains to generate hydel power. Work is still under progress, altering in a few years, what nature took a few million years. The road passed through parts of Kedarnath WLS (good populations of Musk deer, Serow) and Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. Many places here are of mythological importance. A Khaleej Pheasant disappearing across the road suddenly woke me up to the fact that ‘this is no BR Hills’!
Since the roads are very narrow and precipitous, a gate system is in place from Joshimath to Badri. Vehicles are allowed only in one direction for every two hours and there is no entry/exit after 4.30 PM.
My first view of snow capped mountains! Wow. Geography was really true after all. It was getting colder, and gettin really cold!
Badri is quite a busy place. Lot of pilgrimage. Badrivishaalji as the shrine is known is supposed to provide Mukti. A bath at the ‘Tapt Kund’ (Hot water spring), is supposed to wash away ones sins (although the surroundings would only dirty ones body!). I was a li’l taken by the boards proclaiming ‘Idli’ and ‘Dosa’, which turned out to be quite a fight. Accomodation is at the numerous ‘dharam’shaalas/hotels. Night was cccccold.
The latitudes coupled with the altitude brought an unusually early surrise for a southerner (daybreak at 4.30 AM!). But it pays to get out of bed. The Himalayas are …….hmm……….
Yellowbilled choughs are plenty here. Could never really imagine a crow with a yellow/red bill! The huge flocks with the snowcapped peaks in the background reminded me of the ‘crebain’ in Tolkeins’ LoTR. Other birds worth mentioning are the flocks of Snow Pigeons esp. around waterfalls, Greybacked Shrikes and what was perhaps, a Mountain Hawk-eagle. Blue whistling thrushes were to be found in most streams running down the hills.
A random glance atop all the peaks revealed some small ashram on some inaccessible-looking cliff, peak etc. I chose one such and started trekking. The air is definetely thinner here and one tires faster. Halfway up, I decided, that the baba who built the ashram built it there and never ever came back! (Sour grapes, eh).
A few km down the road from Badri, the Indian road ends…..a village called Maana (nasalised). Behind the village is the Maana peak, which is supposed to be where Yudishthira gave up his earthly form! If he had gone a few kilometers ahead, he would have reached China! The border is about 25km across the hills, I was told. In fact, a goat trail from the village leads up to a cave, Vyaas Guha (u guessed it….Ved Vyaas stayed here!). Here one can drink tea and remember the occassion, for this is “India’s Last Tea Stall”, which incidentally is also the name of the shop!
For a moment, I contemplated running off to China. Patriotism prevailed……..
While heading back, at Pandukeshwar (yes, King Pandu did something here), is the trail that goes to the famous Valley of Flowers. Discovered by one Mr. Smythe in the late 19th century, and apparently feared by the locals for its mystic properties, this valley was not to be on my itenarary.
I was back on the 15th in Dehradun, ready to leave for Gangotri…………