Monday, June 1, 2015

A playground for the clouds

I have always been fascinated when the clouds come rolling in, covering the tops of the mountains, like a natural façade. A moment of private bliss for those living on the mountain tops. Born and raised in the plains, the mountains continue to overwhelm me. This particular morning, I woke up to a cool breezy morning with absolutely nothing in view from the window. A few soggy leaves apart, everything seemed covered by the mist. It took more than a moment for me to realise that I was in that part of the mountain top shaded by the clouds, as seen from below.
The monsoon brings with it an almost continuous onslaught of moisture-laden clouds. The only way of knowing you’ve been there is after the cloud has passed, leaving you drenched on the outside and strangely refreshed on the inside. It is not an experience one would like to simplify through words. This I realised while sitting mindlessly among the rotting pine leaves that did little to shelter me from the light drizzle that had begun but a lot to add a sense of drama to the moment.

Hiking in Dhanachuli

Getting to the stretch of pine forest was no trouble. However, getting back… that became quite another story. I was part of a group from the resort I was staying at to head out for the hike. I wouldn’t mind except that they turned out to be bitten majorly by the social media bug. Needless to say, with the numerous exclamations and variations of “Oh my god! It’s so beautiful” going on, the birds scattered quickly leaving nothing to sight.
The hiking trail seemed well treaded through the beginning. With a few of the members starting the walk with a pose for Facebook, I decided that I would keep up with the guide instead of lingering with the happy people. My plan was foiled very soon when I found out that the guide had to keep stopping for the rest of the group to catch up. No sooner than we had reached slightly denser part of the jungle, I fell behind. I decided to stop and let the group pass hoping that once their voices had faded a bit, as they advanced, I would still have hope for some sighting. The residents of the mountains are hardly fooled that easily. At least I was able to hear their songs from a distance.
Once into the depth of the trail, the drizzle began. I rushed along the now-partially visible trail to catch up with the group when I suddenly came upon a stretch of pine trees. The fallen leaves lending a magical golden-brown hue to the entire slope of the forest floor and it is here, that I was drenched leisurely by a cloud dragging past. My heart skipped a beat at the beauty around me and I sat by the path, trying to soak in every detail in that moment. No birds sang, no crickets either, there was just the sound of the passing clouds and my ragged breath.

Feathery friends

A dear friend of mine had written about the ravens when she wrote of Mukteshwar. An avid follower of Game of Thrones, I must admit it was a little spooky to be surrounded by the birds all the time. Of all the feathery residents of Kumaon, the raven is least perturbed by human presence, it seems. Unlike the friendly, smart crows of the city, raven have a very different caw. One particular raven and I seemed to get along quite well. I believe the staff of Te Aroha (the picturesque resort I was staying at) are quite friendly with the birds in the region. And so, on the very first afternoon of my stay there, I found myself being observed by a nosy raven on my window. After much stuttering and stumbling, he finally uttered a “caw”. Finding no response, he left. Only to return in a while and caw at me again.
I spent better part of my evening at the resort in their garden. A lovely swing provided for a perfect spot to wait and watch the bird returning to their nest in the trees in the resort and all the way across on another mountain as well. Apart from several finches and ravens, I found two noisy babblers among the scarlet minivets, blue-fronted redstart and a red-billed blue magpie. A raven visited each morning to greet me at the start of the day and spent some time in the evening with me before setting out to his nest somewhere in the mountains nearby.

Gods of the mountains

Faith can move mountains, I have heard. On my second, and thankfully quiet, hike through the forest, I came upon a shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva. In Dhanachuli, he is worshipped as Edheshwar. The closest village has been named after the Lord, Edhedhar. The tiny shrine has a paved entrance but no semblance of a temple. The idol stands at the base of two trees and is marked by the metallic trishuls that have been placed around it.
My guide told me that it is during the season of sawaan (monsoon) in the Hindu calendar that the most activity can be observed here as women and girls from near and far gather to pray to the Lord in hope for a good husband. Being hidden away in the folds of the mountains, it takes great courage for the women to gather here. The oak forest lends an element of somberness to the air. I sit there and my guide brings out two cups of tea. I sit observing the spider webs sagging with the weight of the raindrops. The mountains are known as the keeper of legends, every fold has a different story to tell. The renowned hunter and author, Jim Corbett, had once described Dhanachuli to be among his best-loved destinations in the Kumaon region.
It was during my visit to the Mukteshwar temple in the city that shed more light on some popular folktales of the region. The festival of Bagwal, I came to hear from a local priest at the temple is one such unique tale. On the day of Raksha Bandhan, women fast from morning and assemble at the temple to offer prayers and observe rituals for the Varaha Devi. It is said that as soon as the first plate of offering is provided to the Devi, she expresses her acceptance by making it rain. It is known to rain on every Raksha Bandhan. It is a custom worth witnessing when you are in the area. The Mukteshwar temple, the priest tells me, is one of the dham (sacred space) for worshippers of Shiva. As I sat, listening to his stories interspersed with the falling rain that I had braved for a view of the Lord, I marvelled at how hallowed the path of a traveller is, for we happen to stumble upon such sacred spaces and collect such blessings, that we had not planned. A play of divine love for the believer.

Te Aroha
One of the best accommodations available in Dhanachuli, not only does the resort make for a classy sojourn but also comes armed with a keen sense of preserving the ecological balance in the region. The number of rooms has been limited (10 rooms) to cut the impact of humans on the mountain. Low lighting on the premises ensures that the birds nesting in the neighbouring trees are not disturbed. A labour of love, the property was initially a summer home for the Batra family. Over time, they have developed it into the wondrous lodging that stands today.
The undisturbed view of the Himalayas from the property has drawn the lovers of the mountains to its fold for years. The simple yet elegant way of life of the mountains is reflected in every aspect of the resort. Sumant Batra, the owner of the property, is quite the connoisseur of the fine details that make life. The team at the hotel, mainly locals, are efficient and driven to make every visitors stay memorable.
There are no television sets in the rooms, giving the visitors an excuse to look out of the large windows and soak in as much of the mountain range or the mist as possible. There are no air-conditioners or fans in the rooms either. The most outspoken facet of the rooms is the stately four-poster bed. Should one be more inclined to observe more human pursuits, the Chitrashala – a museum dedicated to Graphic art – put together painfully over the years by Sumant Batra is an absolute delight. There is a library as well as lovely reading room for spending some quality time.

The resort will be the seat of the first Kumaon Literary Festival from October 23-27. Be there!

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