The last sanctuary of solitude

The last sanctuary of solitude


I'm on my way to Rudranath, one of the five Hindu temples or holy places of the Shivaite sect dedicated to the god Shiva. Legend has it that these temples were created by the Pandavas after the bloody Kurukshetra war. Although I have no idea if this is true, one thing is certain: these temples are very old. In the 8th century, Adi Shankaracharya revived Hinduism in India from the deathbed due to the overwhelming influence of Buddhism, rediscovered these temples, and created a system to maintain them. All the north Indian temples located in the Himalayas are worshipped by the pundits from south India, and the temples located in the south are maintained by priests from north India. They still follow this system even today after more than a millennium.


I spent last night in a cheap but comfortable room in one of the few houses near Helang, a small bus stop on the way to Badrinath. When I woke up in the early morning, I found out that it was drizzling rain all over the mountain. My destination is Rudranath, which is the most difficult of all the Panch Kedar temples to reach. I heard that if I wait on the side of the road, I might be able to hitchhike with someone heading towards Devgram. Devgram is a small village 12 km away from Helang, and from there, I can visit Kalpeswar, another temple of Pancha Kedar. After that, I need to trek to Rudranath via Dumak Village, which is a two or three-day walk.


I decided to start walking in the rain with my two bags, my rucksack, and my camera bag. It wasn't as painful as it sounds. I have a habit of taking on unnecessary pain, and I actually enjoy walking in the rain. Bad weather never irritates me; rather, it encourages me to walk. I walked a fine, little, steep uphill 12 km journey to the village, where I found a guide cum porter, Bharat, who is just an 18-year-old lad from the village.


Bharat and I walked to Kalpeswar temple, which was just 1 km from the beautiful Devgram village. After that, we started walking towards Bumak village. The rain had stopped for the last few hours, but the sky was still cloudy and it was a very cold afternoon in Garhwal Himalayas. The air was perfectly clean and the trees were deep dark green after the rain. Everything felt like heaven. After more than 12 km of walking, I still felt fresh and strong. I had no idea how far Dumak village was, but soon I found out that my guide was more clueless than me when we met a villager inside Jangal who was coming from some village located inside the forest.


In the Himalayas, in those remote places, if the locals see outsiders, they stop and start a conversation. They normally ask where you are from or where you are going, etc., just small talk. When the villager found out we were planning to go to Dumak village, he looked surprised. "Dumak is a long way dada, you will not reach there today, especially in this weather," he told Bharat. We were unsure what to do. The villager told Bharat to take me to Bansa village, which is a couple of kilometers walk, and ask some villagers for a night's stay. Bansa is another small village, as it is not on some trekking trail. No outsiders visit there and the only way to spend the night there is to stay in some villagers' houses.


So we started walking towards Bansa

As my guide, Bharat, and I started walking towards Bansa, we couldn't help but notice the muddy path due to the rain. It felt like we were walking on clouds. The untouched pine forests were covered in fog and looked like paintings. The walk wasn't very difficult as the height gain was nominal. However, suddenly, the rain started falling, and we had to increase our walking speed. As we crossed many paddy fields full of agricultural produce mostly for local consumption, we also saw a few old stone houses abandoned by the villagers long ago. I couldn't help but wonder who lived there and why they left those beautiful houses.


Eventually, we reached Bansa, a small village spared across a large piece of land on the side of the hill. The village was full of paddy fields and a handful of houses located hundreds of feet away from each other. All the houses were mostly built with stones and wood, one storey, with lots of space all around the house full of various plants growing vegetables. All the houses had a place for cows, as cows are an integral part of village life in the Himalayas like the rest of the villages in India.


We asked a few villagers for shelter, but most of them said they had no extra place. However, one of them told us to go to Bura, an old man in his eighties who had a spare room. Bura was a slim and super fit man even at this age. He was an ex-Indian army Havildar who had retired many years ago and was living in the village with his wife. Both of his sons were now in the army, posted in different parts of the country. They had asked him to live with them in their house in Dehradun, but Bura and his wife wanted to spend the rest of their life in this ancestral village and live on the land owned by their forefathers for generations.


Bura had an incomplete concrete structure, and on the upper floor, he had two rooms. One was used as a temple, and the other was empty with two beds and a few photographs on the wall. In front of both the rooms was a large open place, the roof of the structure, with a 270-degree vista of the Himalayas. Scattered clouds were floating over the pine forests, and a strange magical atmosphere had been created. It seemed like the world where there are so much sadness and disappointment was disappearing right in front of my eyes.


Bura's real name was Suresh Rawat, but the villagers affectionately called him bura, which means old man. He was 82 years old and still drank a pint of rum every evening for the last 50 years. A few years back, the villagers forced him to stop drinking for a few days, and he became very ill. One of his sons came to the village after hearing the news and found out that he had been forced to stop drinking. His son was very angry and gave his father a full bottle of rum. Bura jumped out of bed within ten minutes and started doing what he did regularly, working in the fields, taking care of the cows, and doing other home chores. Since then, no one ever asked him to stop drinking.


In the evening, Bura came to my room and offered me rum, which I consumed happily with him sitting on the rooftop, watching the sun setting on the horizon after a long and adventurous day. I had walked 17 km in the rain, finding my way to this unknown village. Even this morning, I had no idea where I was going. That's the beauty of the Himalayas; it always shows the way to willing travelers. Himalaya has its own way of doing things, and we need to embrace the gift wholeheartedly


 As night descended upon us, Bharat and I were treated to a wonderful dinner made by Bura's wife. The handmade roti, dal, and vegetables from their own fields made us feel right at home. Bura and his wife lived in a mud-built house just behind his concrete house where I was staying. This mud-built house had a kitchen cum sleeping place for both of them.


The next morning, Bharat and I enjoyed a delicious breakfast of alu paratha made by Aunty. She even packed a few for us to eat on the way since we had a more difficult walk ahead of us than the day before. As we prepared to leave, I offered some money to Bura as a token of appreciation, but to my surprise, he refused to take it, even after I insisted several times.


The most embarrassing thing happened when Bura's wife tried to touch my feet and said something in garhwali language with tears in her eyes. Later, Bharat explained that she was saying “Atithi Devo Bhava”, which meant that the guest is equivalent to God. It was heartwarming to experience the hospitality and kindness of the villagers in this unknown corner of the Himalayas.


From these two simple village couples, I learned what India truly means - a place where the guests are always treated with utmost respect and warmth.

"Dada, Bharat whispered urgently. "There's a leopard very close to us, probably under a few hundred feet. See those langurs making a strange noise? It means they've spotted the leopard. We need to hurry."

As I write this, I am feeling the exhaustion of the past 11 hours of walking. During this time, we have encountered only two people - two shepherds who were camping with their vast herd of 5000 sheep and a few fierce-looking dogs. Their god was kept inside a small box, safely tucked away in their tent.


We spent last night resting in Dumak village, a small village with a history that spans thousands of years. An ex-army man had built a house there to facilitate the travel of people passing through the village to Rudranath. It is a peaceful place where mobile phones are not accessible due to the lack of a mobile phone tower. The villagers had applied to various mobile operators to set up a tower but were refused due to the low subscriber base.


The village is located deep inside a dense forest and is surrounded by towering mountains. A wild river flows beneath the village, and a small hydropower plant generates energy to supply Dumak and a few other villages scattered throughout the region. Despite its isolation, Dumak is a fascinating place that has a unique charm that cannot be found in the cities.


Ajay, a villager we met on the way to Dumak yesterday, told us about a path only used by villagers and shepherds to reach Pancha Ganaga camp, the last camp before Rudranath. Bharat, who had never used that path before, needed to find his way, making our journey quite adventurous. We started early but lost our way within half an hour. Suddenly, we found ourselves face to face with a wild boar, which was equally agitated as we were, and it ran for its life from two confused humans.


Bharat told me to wait in an open field while he went back to find Ajay. Soon, Bharat returned with Ajay, who directed us to the right path and led us to a water stream, the same stream that generated hydropower for the village. There was a small bridge over the stream, and Ajay showed us a steep uphill climb in some unknown direction before returning to the village.


After taking a short break and chatting with each other, we began our climb. We crossed the bridge and made our way over the boulders lining the water stream before entering a forest filled with towering trees that reached as high as a hundred feet and covered the entire sky. The ground was covered with a carpet of falling leaves, and the scenery was breathtakingly pure and green, with only the sound of monkeys leaping from one tree to the next breaking the silence. The Himalayas have a variety of tree lines that vary based on altitude, and as we continued our journey, we found ourselves in an area with smaller trees. The character of the vegetation changed as we ascended higher, and the scenery became even more stunning.


Around 1 pm, my companion Bharat and I sat on a fallen tree trunk to enjoy the alu paratha bura packed for us with achar. Although it was a very simple meal, it tasted heavenly and was more delicious than ever before. After eating, I felt like taking a nap, but Bharat urged me to hurry since we didn't know how far the destination was.


After another 3 hours of trekking, we arrived at a campsite in the evening where we met two shepherd boys from Dumak village. They had been camping there for weeks with a large herd of sheep belonging to many villagers. The total number of animals was more than 5000, and this was a large grazing field with plenty of grass for the animals. The sheep were mainly raised to produce wool for winter wear.


The boys were accompanied by their fierce-looking dogs, who were guarding the sheep against any wild animal attacks. The boys offered us a cup of tea made from the hot water boiled from a small stove they had set up near their tent. We sat down and had a conversation with them, they told us about the life of a shepherd, how they spend months in the wilderness with their animals, facing all the challenges of nature. They even showed us the small box where they keep their god and worship every morning.


We continued our journey, in this part of India, the sunset was a little late, so we have some light but were not sure how long it will support us, I asked bharat how far the pancha ganga camp is, and he said another half an hour, but after one hour, there is no sign of any camps, only wildness, and mountains all around, we are walking based on the instruction we had received from the shepherds, otherwise we have no idea about the route at all. After some time fog covered most of our trail, suddenly we saw a steep uphill climb ahead of us, it was fully covered with grass and around 75 ° to the top which is not visible due to dense fog. Bharat says I think the cam is somewhere above that. We started clime slowly holding the grass, which help us climb this very difficult uphill journey. The light was almost disabled in the dense fog and I can see the crescent moon peeking sometimes through the fog, I can hear a waterfall very close on our left side, for a belief moment fogs cleared and I see the waterfall and moon above it, I would enjoy the beauty if we are not stuck in such delicate situations, it’s an untouched paradise, suddenly bharat whispered “Dada, There's a leopard very close to us, probably under a few hundred feet. See those langurs making a strange noise? It means they've spotted the leopard. We need to hurry."


Now I also notice a group of langurs a few hundred feet below the clime making strange noises which normally they do when they spot leopards. I have not panicked as I know leopards are very shy animals and normally avoid people, but the last thing I want right now is a stray animal accidentally come to face to face with us as we hold some weak grass to hang in a 75 ° climb.


We increased our climbing speed. In just a few minutes, we were over the ridge. However, as I looked around, all I could see was darkness. The only light was from the crescent moon above us. I started to worry about how we would survive the night in this open field. I hadn't brought a tent, but I did have a sleeping bag. Bharat didn't have a sleeping bag, only the jacket he was wearing. It was already very cold, and in a few hours, the cold would become unbearable. We had no food, only a few biscuits. There was no wood to burn as we were already above the tree line, and all around us was a wet grass field due to the fog. I felt helpless and unsure of what to do.


"I think the camp isn't far from here," Bharat said. "Can you lend me your headlamp?

Headlamp is must carry item in the mountains, and very useful, especially in situations like this. Light travels at 188,000 miles per second and can reach places beyond our shouting limit."


Bharat began sending light signals in all directions, and within minutes we saw blinking lights from a few kilometers away. We shouted in joy and said, "Let's go there, have some food, and sleep."


We started running toward the direction the lights came from, feeling grateful for the headlamp and the ability to communicate with light signals in the mountains. 

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