Kumaon: A pilgrimage of another kind
Walk in Neeta Gupta’s footsteps to learn that there’s more to Uttarakhand than the Char Dham Yatra, even for the religiously inclined
One morning my sister woke up and announced her decision to shift to Kumaon. The mountains were apparently calling her. We were deep into the pandemic at the time, and while everyone else was figuring out how to access vaccines, she felt this was the best time to move, lock, stock and barrel, by which I mean big suitcases and ‘cartoons’, as they say where we come from. Nothing was holding her back in
the city. Work had moved online and the rents in Kumaon were low. This seemed as good an opportunity as any for a young fifty-somethin’ girl to grab and go.
All this was taking place against the backdrop of millions of migrants leaving the city and finding their way back home. As pravasi paharis, were we just privileged migrants returning home too? While our families left Kumaon nearly a century ago in search of city lights and better jobs, our roots still felt deep.
Our earliest known ancestor, Sudhanidhi Joshi, finds mention in Badri Datt Pande’s History of Kumaun (Kumaun ka Itihas)—first published in the 1930s, and available in English translation since the 1990s—as a military strategist for the rulers of the 13th century Chand dynasty.
More recently, our great-great-grandfather, Purushottam Joshi, was part of the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) under Alexander Cunningham’s stewardship in the late 1800s. Over the next couple of centuries, the extended Joshi clan found its way into education and the administrative services.
Having come down several notches since, I wonder if that explains our persistent need to reclaim those Olympian, sorry, Himalayan heights!
People who know me know that I like to keep my pack together at all times. I keep my loved ones close, and my enemies even closer! When my sister finally found a half-decent home in the hills, I decided to spend part of the year with her and part of the year in Delhi.
The Kumaon that we returned to was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Channels were dominated by news of forest fires, landslides, flash floods, and stories of land and forest mafia.
Summing up everything that was going wrong in Kumaon, Anjal Prakash, lead author of the IPCC Report on the Joshimath crisis, wrote: ‘Joshimath is a very grave reminder that we are messing with our environment to an extent that is irreversible. Climate change is becoming a reality. There are two aspects to [the] Joshimath problem, first, [the] rampant infrastructure development which is happening in a very fragile ecosystem like [the] Himalayas and […] secondly, climate change is a force multiplier. […] Joshimath is a clear example of what one should not do in the Himalayas.’
Even as we negotiated broken bridges and roads that were caving in, I thought I would outline a cautious travel itinerary for those planning to drive through Kumaon. The only thing you need to carry with you is a healthy respect for the environment and some sturdy walking shoes.
One of the first trips my sister and I took from our new home-base was to our grandmother’s ancestral village, Bagargaon. We drove with Indra, our housekeeper, to her mother’s home in Bagwali Pokhar, and started hiking from village Naulakot. Indra’s maths teacher, Geeta ma’am, used to live in a cottage up in Bagargaon and Indra began recounting the times she would hike to her teacher’s home for maths tuition.
When Indra heard that our grandmother was from Bagargaon, she asked us if she knew her Geeta ma’am. We had no clue. Indra insisted that my sister was the spitting image of her Geeta ma’am. (When we finally connected with a long-lost cousin, Yogesh Tiwari, who had lived in our grandmother’s house until quite recently, he told us that Indra’s Geeta ma’am was in fact his sister—so we were related, after all!)
The hike was smooth sailing until we reached the river Gagas which was in full flow. We tried to cross it with shoes on, we tried to cross it barefoot, but the stones were so slippery that we had to give up midstream. Having had my share of fractures over the last few years, I couldn’t possibly risk breaking another limb!
We were amazed that nothing seemed to have changed since the days of our dearest grandmother, a.k.a purani chachi’s girlhood. This also made us realise why no one in our extended family has ever travelled to her village, which looked so tantalisingly charming as we caught a glimpse of the sun’s rays glinting off red and green roofs set high up on a hill, in a grove of walnut trees. (Walnut shells in Kumaon are not like their kaagzi counterparts in Kashmir. These are real tough nuts to crack, like us pahari women.)
Some interesting literary trivia on Bagargaon is that D.D. Tewari a.k.a. DDT or DD the Moody, the iconic protagonist of Manohar Shyam Joshi’s untranslated (read: untranslatable) novel Kasap (1982), also hailed from here. While I’m at it, I may as well add another book recommendation: Gagas Ke Tat Par (On the banks of the Gagas) by Jagdish Chandra Pandey, published in 1968, highlighting the socio-economic condition of Kumaon.
Early one morning, my sister and I, along with our trusted driver Mewaram, made it to the incredibly beautiful 9th century sun temple at Katarmal, about an hour’s drive from Almora (beloved of Uday Shankar, among others).
Recently revamped with a cemented walking path, a cafe and an amphitheatre, this complex of 45 temples was built by the Katyuri king, Katarmalla. Katarmalla’s statue and the main entrance gates to the temple are now on display at the National Museum in New Delhi.
One of the main attractions at the shrine is the Badaaditya or Vridhhaditya, an older sun god, whose pratima or likeness is bundled up in layers of cloth as the energy that emanates from it is apparently too blinding for the human eye.
The sun god at Katarmal looks unlike any other representation I have seen in the country. His statue is seated as in a chair, wearing a pair of engraved knee-high leather boots and an unusual, very central-Asian hat. So different from the statue at Konark, which I had visited just a few months earlier.
It was a rainy day when we set out, yet, just as we were about to enter the main shrine to the sun god, a ray of sunlight broke through the grey skies and illumined our path to the sanctum sanctorum.
Not very far from Katarmal is the 2nd century Kasar Devi temple complex, one of the original hippie hangouts of the 1960s and 70s. In its heyday, counter-culture gurus like George Harrison, Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan, and people like Swami Vivekanand, Alfred Sorensen (also known as Sunyata Baba), Robert Thurman (his daughter Uma Thurman got her name from these mountains) and D.H. Lawrence spent summers here.
We learnt that this temple comes under the Van Allen Belt—an area defined by a very strong magnetic field, similar to Machu Picchu in Peru and Stonehenge in England.
A cousin in Ranikhet had requested a young maths lecturer at the degree college in Dwarahat—the erstwhile capital of the Katyuri kings from 7th to 11th AD—to take us around a set of 55 temples belonging to the Katyuri period that the Archaeological Survey of India had painstakingly restored, using debris found at the site. They had built enclosures and terraced gardens surrounding them, with strict warnings to ward off drinkers and mischief-makers
We coordinated closely with the young maths teacher over the phone on our drive to Dwarahat and had arranged to meet him near a bakery, where it was agreed that we could park our car for the day, and walk around the temple town. We were in a red Honda City and he was on a motorbike. When he saw our car approach the bakery, he casually took off his helmet, threw his head back and made a thumbs up sign to let us know that this was him.
At this point, I must digress and mention that I had recently broken my ankle, and although I was walking again, I had to use a stick to get around. So you can imagine the dramatic moment when the car door swung open on my side and a walking stick appeared on the asphalt. You should have seen the look of utter horror on the young lecturer’s face. In the meantime, my sister got off smoothly from the other side and stepped smartly forward to greet him. He looked a little worriedly at me, and asked her in what he must have thought was a whisper, “Will mataji be able to climb all the steps to the mandir?”
Mataji kisko bola bey? I was furious. Did he think that not only was I langdi (lame), but behri (deaf) too? My sister laughed at his suggestion and told me later that when she saw me lifting my walking stick, she had feared I might have walked across and bashed up the poor lecturer, had it not been for a passing truck that intervened.
After checking out the temple complex at Dwarahat, we drove into the cool embrace of the Doonagiri hills. As we chatted with the locals and trekked up to the Doonagiri temple, epic heroes were flying so fast and furious around us that mythological metaphors were getting badly mixed up in our heads.
By lunch time, my sister and I began wondering why Hanumanji was flying with sanjeevani booti past the mountains where, as legend has it, the Pandavas lived incognito. (Doonagiri Parvat commemorates Hanuman’s flight to Lanka, carrying lifesaving herbs for Lakshman. It is dotted with medicinal herbs, affording stunning vistas of the surrounding hills.)
After an hour-long trek, we drove to the Joshi homestay in Kukuchhina which is the end of the road as far as this part of the mountain is concerned.
The helper at the homestay opened up a room for us to relax in and served us delicious home-style daal–bhaat lunch, followed by sugary tea—the kind you don’t feel guilty drinking in the hills.
This relatively lesser-known place of pilgrimage is close to Babaji’s cave. Babaji, as in the great Mahavatar Baba 1008, the
two-thousand-year-old guru of Lahiri Mahasaya and Yogananda Paramahansa—whose iconic Autobiography of a Yogi has been read by millions of readers across the world. The locals believe that Babaji still roams these mountains.
As we took our leave, the helper told us that the last guest to check in at Joshi homestay had been Thalaiva a.k.a. Rajinikanth. Clearly, incognito continues to be the operative word in these parts!
My sister has since moved to another village (whose name I have sworn to keep a secret), opening up opportunities for visiting different places this summer, as we continue driving deeper into these hills in search of our lost, and increasingly besieged, homeland.
(NEETA GUPTA is a publishing consultant with a focus on translations from and into Indian languages)