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A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.

- John James Audubon

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Focus

Sep 15, 2014

Thousands brave harsh weather, rough terrain for the ‘Himalayan Mahakumbh’

The Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yatra is a once-in-12-year pilgrimage involving a long, arduous trek through slippery Himalayan slopes amidst heavy rainfall and cold climes.

WRITTEN BY

Supriya Vohra

The Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yatra, or the Himalayan MahaKumbh is considered to be one of the toughest pilgrimages in the world.

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Pilgrims enroute to Juragalli

Occurring once every twelve years, it involves a 280 km trek across Uttarakhand in North India, where thousands of devotees follow a four-horned ram, also known as the chausinghya khadu**, and walk alongside a palanquin carrying the statue of  the deity Nanda Devi*, passing through villages, forests, slush, waterfalls, alpine meadows, narrow ridges, steep passes, moraines and icy glaciers.

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Trekking towards the meadows of Bedini

This year, the 20-day yatra (journey) took place between August 18 and September 6. It witnessed over 10,000 pilgrims reaching altitudes of up to 5000m amidst incessant rain.

The journey began at Nauti, a remote village in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand. It went through several villages, before reaching Wan, the last village camp on August 29.

After Wan, the remaining stretch of the yatra turns arduous, as the pilgrim has to ascend and descend steep mountain slopes
with diverse terrain in order to reach Homkund, a glacial lake nestled between the majestic Trisul massif and Nanda Ghunti. This is where the final ceremony is performed, thereafter descending through a dense bamboo forest to reach Sutol, the final camp.

Anticipating a large crowd, and owing to the timing of the pilgrimage in the thick of monsoons, the Uttarakhand government roped in the expertise of India’s elite mountaineering school, Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) and the State Disaster Relief Force (SDRF) to ensure safety and welfare of all pilgrims between Wan and Sutol.

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SDRF members preparing food for the yatris at a camp

Commenting on the arrangements made, Sanjay Gunjal, a senior police official of the SDRF told The Outdoor Journal, “There are a total of six camping spots between Wan and Sutol. My team has set up tents and arranged for food for all yatris at these spots. In addition, we are responsible for ensuring that they stay safe. We are a team of 180 people stationed at different points throughout the route, so that anyone experiencing any problem can be looked after immediately.”

The number of people continuing the yatra from Wan reduced considerably, since medical check-ups were being carried out to ensure that only the fit go further. Even so, about 15,000 people are said to have reached the camping spot after Wan, called Bedini Bugyal (3354m)

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Making lunch for tourists at her home in Wan
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A devotee with the sacred umbrella in Wan
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Locals and tourists at Wan, waiting for the palanquin to arrive

The Outdoor Journal joined the yatra for the trek from Wan. The otherwise non-descript village at the base of a hillock was soaked in festive spirit for the evening. Locals offered their rooftops and balconies as refuge to travelers who put up their tents wherever they could find space. Almost every household provided piping food off its wood-fired stove to the weary traveler. Ritual ceremonies, folk songs, dancing, prayer offerings flowed throughout the night.

 

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The four-horned ram nibbling on leaves at a forest near Bedini Bugyal

The trek from Wan till Bedini Bugyal (land of meadows) covered a 13-km trail passing through pretty brooks, gurgling waterfalls, fields of pretty purple flowers called Kuttu and dense forests of Oak trees. Devotees from all walks of life trekked the trail, carrying chantollis (umbrella-like structures made of colourful and decorated cloth). Several devotees chose to walk barefoot. Ranveer, 25, from Shrinagar in Uttarakhand said, “This is my first ever pilgrimage, and I want to do it the way it was originally done – barefoot, with all the load of my belongings on my back.” Some travelers hired mules to carry their belongings, as the ascent made it tough to carry the weight, which trotted alongside the trekkers. The walk carried on through dense foliage till the trekkers reached a sudden clearing, a point beyond which there were no trees. Someone shouted, “Bugyal aa gaya!” (the meadows are here!).

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A final look at the meadows of Bedini Bugyal

Bedini Bugyal is an alpine meadow at an altitude of 3354m. The green grass, sprinkled with Brahma Kamal (Saussurea obvallata, Uttarakhand’s native hermaphrodite flower) stretches on for miles and miles. On a clear day, one can spot the Trisul massif and Nanda Ghunti. The flat surfaces made the area an ideal camping space. The SDRF had arranged a helipad at the site. Owing to lack of trees and high altitude, one experiences a sudden drop in temperature and slight dizziness. Arrangements for food and accommodation were already made by the time pilgrims arrived tired and cold from the journey.

However, the incessant downpour, cold weather and lack of oxygen did not deter devotees. After having their fill of hot aloo gutte-puri (potatoes with fried bread), they were back to their festive modes, singing and dancing for their deities through the night.

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Camping near another meadow at Bugabasa

Prateek Panwar, 40, a bird-watcher had covered the pilgrimage trail several times, both as part of the yatra and with a trekking group. When asked about the difference in experience, he said, “Both experiences were vastly different for me. With the trekking group, I focused on myself. We also went at a time when the weather was clear and thus experienced less problems on the trail. But being part of the yatra is a beautifully different experience. It is the togetherness and unity that makes it worth it, despite rough weather. It creates a oneness of action that exudes some kind of a mystical energy, that is temporary, but amazing while it lasts.”

“Also, I met the love of my life in the last yatra,” he added as an afterthought.

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Pilgrims walking along a narrow path, towards Roopkund Lake

The trail beyond Bedini Bugyal continued upward sans trees and waterfalls. Cutting across mountains, it was a moderately inclined terrain with narrow paths made of loose slabs of stones, crossing camping spots Pather Nachauni (dancing rocks) and Bagubasa at altitudes over 3500m. The area is rich in Brahma Kamal and keera-jadi (Ophiocordyceps sinensisthe microbe used in making aphrodisiacs.) Throughout the way, rain poured down mercilessly. People wrapped themselves in thick plastic sheets, and used bamboo sticks as walking aids. They chanted ‘Jai Mata Di’ (a celebratory salute to the Goddess), sang folk songs at the top of their lungs, passed around dry fruits from their pockets, exuding warmth and energy in the process.

The path beyond Bagubasa was a steep ascent, extremely narrow, gradually filling up with rocks of all sizes. Vegetation receeded, moraines became more prominent as the pilgrims approached Roopkund, a glacial lake at 4800m above sea level.

Roopkund is well-known for the eerie presence of ancient human skeletal remains that stick out of the dried lake bed. The glacial body melts for two-three weeks during the monsoon season end of August/early September and reveals a number of scattered human skulls and bones. Scientists have claimed that the skeletons date back to 14th century, and belong to a group of about 300 humans. Research has revealed that the group was passing through the region when a massive hailstorm hit and killed everybody. The lake, although shrunk over the years, has now become a major tourist attraction leading to ‘skeleton thefts’ over the past few years. Locals claim tourists take skeleton parts home as a souvenir.

Beyond Roopkund the trail moves further up, a steep ridge inclined at almost 85 degrees leading to Junargali, the highest point of the trek at 5333m above sea level. In order to make this stretch an easier climb for people of all age groups, Nehru Institute of Mountaineering was asked to help improve upon the path.

Talking about NIM’s role in the yatra, director Col. Ajay Kothiyal stated, “We wanted to ensure that people of all age groups manage the yatra safely. The narrow and steep ridge has been widened and has ropes acting as a fence. Men are stationed at regular intervals to ensure that everyone reaches the top safely.”

Beyond Junargali is a 5km continuous descent down muddy meadows till one reaches Shila Samudra (ocean of stones) at 4210m. Here, the gushing Nandakani river flowing directly from its glacier greets the tired devotees, who accommodate their tents and food arrangements on green spaces between acres of stones. Shila Samudra, true to its name, is a depression full of Uttarakhand’s typical white-grey stones, surrounded by mountains. The Trisul massif and Nanda Ghunti are clearly visible from the spot, whether it is cloudy or not. In fact, the spot is often treated as base camp for mountaineers climbing Trisul, when Homkund, the original basecamp is difficult to get to. On a clear night, it is easy to get intoxicated by the beauty of the environment – sitting amidst an ocean of white stones, with snow-capped peaks towering around, and billions of stars twinkling in the inky sky above.

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Snow-capped peaks at Shila Samudra

Shila Samudra also had a mini-helipad from where two people were airlifted. The SDRF rescued 17 people during the entire pilgrimage. One pilgrim from West Bengal passed away due to kidney failure.

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The moraines at Shila Samudra

After Shila Samudra, the pilgrims walked through moraines with an unclear trail, crossed waterfalls and meadows to reach Homkund. Upon reaching Homkund, one has to walk on ice to cross the glacial lake. Because of large numbers of walkers the SDRF did not allow the devotees to go up till Homkund. Instead, they made arrangements for pilgrims a few kilometers below the lake, calling it ‘Chhota Homkund’ (Little Homkund). The priests performed the final ceremonies here, released the four-horned ram to the mountains and the chantollis in a nearby lake.
The descent from Homkund to Sutol was an 18 km trek. The first five km went through meadows and rocks, with steep steps going up and down the mountains. The next 13 km went through an extremely dense bamboo forest, called the Sutol forest. Rain had made the mud in the path denser and stickier, making it extremely difficult for trekkers to plod through the path. Several people had to be rescued by the SDRF, as the area was pitch-black at night and continuous rain was making it difficult to travel. The final 5km was a reasonable descent, went through villages with well defined paths. The trek ended at Sutol, but the yatra continued on road till it reached back to Nauti, thus completing the circle.

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A drawing on the wall at Sutol

*The Legend of Nanda Devi
Nanda Devi is a popular Hindu goddess, much revered in the state of Uttarakhand in north India. Since she is Lord Shiva’s wife, whose abode lies within the snow-capped Kailash mountains, the Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yatra is her journey from her parents’ home to her husband’s abode. Devotees walk alongside her palanquin, singing folk songs of affection throughout the way. Chantollis – pretty umbrella-like structures made up of brightly coloured and decorated cloths act as brides and are carried by a number of pilgrims. A four-horned ram, or a chausinghya khadu** is believed to be born once every twelve years. The ram acts as an escort for Nanda Devi. Pilgrims carry the palanquin, the chantollis and follow the ram through tough stretches right up till Homkund, a glacial lake at the base of the Trisul massif. Once there, they perform their ritual ceremonies, leave the ram in the mountains and offer the chantollis to the lake, carrying the palanquin back. The journey holds special significance to married women of the area, who have to undergo the rather emotional ordeal of leaving their parents for their partner’s homes. The heavy monsoon symbolize Nanda Devi’s tears. For this reason, the months of August and September are considered to be perfect for the yatra, in the thick of the monsoon.

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Focus

Oct 01, 2018

The Forbidden Zone: Mongols, to Your Horses

The rolling green hills, rocky passes, flower-laden meadows and clear streams of Gorkhi Terelj National Park in northern Mongolia is the birthplace of the Mongols. The Outdoor Journal spent a week on horseback with Stone Horse Expeditions in the heart of this country’s vast wilderness.

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WRITTEN BY

Apoorva Prasad

Tdrihe Khan Khentii mountains stretched before us, from one end of the azure sky to the other. Tegri, the Great Sky God, watched us with his infinite panorama. From here, I could see miles and miles into the distance. This was the “Forbidden Zone”, that unknown wilderness where Genghis Khan was born. As a child and then again much later on, he hunted here, his true home, on a horse, sheltered in a ger or under the blue sky. When he was a boy, exiled with his family into the cold and harsh wilderness of the northern Mongolian hills, his only friends were what these lands contained. After he built an empire and died, it became a sacred and taboo zone, left to the deer and wolves. For decades the area had been closed off. The Soviets enforced it as a Highly Restricted Area to allow them to do what they wished with it – from logging and military exercises, to also countering any potential rise of Mongolian nationalism around the great Khan. Despite those years, the Area remained wild.

No wonder the Mongols worshipped it.

A day before, we had crossed fresh bear tracks. There were no signs of human presence apart from our train of horses and riders. And now, this vista lay in front of us, green and yellow grassy hills, long valleys, meadows of flowers stretching to higher mountains all the way to Siberia, some still snow-dusted despite the summer sun. Burkhan Khaldun stood further behind higher peaks. And that incredible sky. No wonder the Mongols worshipped it. We all lived once under this blue infinity. As we’d ridden northwards away from Ulan Bator, the city’s pollution had faded away long ago, the gray curse had lifted and my eyes had once again accustomed themselves to what they had evolved to do – see long distances, look for hares, deer, bears, navigate passes and ford streams, climb rocks, and watch falcons circle on thermals above. And over the last few days, we had done all these things.

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The weary horseriders arrive in the ger to refresh themselves.

We had left our last camp around mid-morning, some hours ago. One half of the party broke away to ride into another valley out west, while Keith and I wanted to ride up and to the pass in the range of hills that separated the Gorkhi Terelj from the Khan Khentii. We skirted the granite mounds which punctuated the ends of this valley, forded a marshy grassland below the campsite, fought off the bloodsucking horseflies that made our horses’ lives miserable for a little while, eventually entering a tall forest of larch and birch. The ground began to rise as we entered a narrow rocky trail that started to wind uphill. Jerry, my sturdy, stubborn little Mongolian horse plodded on. This easy gait was infinitely more comfortable than the long trots of our previous days in the saddle. Keith Swenson, a taciturn, the 64 year-old owner of Stone Horse Expeditions along with his wife Sabine Schmidt, showed none of the wear I felt – my skin of my thighs were quite literally raw after 50 kilometers of riding and trotting in the wilderness. After a few days Keith opened up with wisecracks. “People ask what do you do, and I say I’m a rider”, says Keith, punning on his American accent. “They think I mean ‘writer’, “and they ask, what have you written?” “So I say, Blackie, Brownie, Ol Dirty Face…”, naming his horses.

These lands, however remote, are important.

Halfway up the trail was a shaman’s totem, poles placed on the ground to make a conical structure, wrapped with bits of fabric and ribbons. But at the base, and near a tree, we also found broken shards of glass, vodka bottles drunk and thrown by unknown travelers who no longer respected their old ways. We’d been riding for an hour or so and we stopped for a short break in the little opening in the forest. It was quite warm in the strong sun, perhaps 30C like every day of the summer, but cold at nights, often dipping below freezing.

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These Mongolian horses play a huge role in making a trip across the steppe easy and fun for riders. Each horse has a unique personality. Big Dirty Face pictured here loves coffee and will drink it straight from your cup if you let him.

The Mongols invented the modern world*

The old ways are important. These lands, however remote, are important. The Mongols invented the modern world*. When, at the age of 55, Genghis Khan rode out into Asia and Europe, he created the largest empire known to humanity, as well as its first international postal system, and the largest free-flowing network of ideas, trade and culture. But today, Mongolia feels relatively isolated and far away, landlocked in the Eurasian continent. And getting there turned out to be a greater adventure than we’d expected. Instead of flying, we took the famous Trans-Mongolian from Beijing to Ulan Bator. At 11pm, the train pulled into the last station on the China-Mongolia border to change the undercarriage (the railway gauge is different in Mongolia). Three hours later we got back on the train and waited patiently for the Chinese guards to hand us all our passports back. Our intern’s passport was returned ripped from its cover. Before anyone could make a move, the train entered Mongolia… where the Mongolian border guard insisted that the 18-year old girl get off the train because she wasn’t allowed to enter on an invalid passport. Twenty minutes of arguing later, at nearly three am, we got off and watched the train leave without us.

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Mongolian cuisine is typically meat and dairy products. Vegans beware.

Fifteen hours later, after many phone calls and emails to various embassies and important officials, she was finally allowed to enter the country. The Trans-Mongolian having long gone, we finagled an eight-hour taxi ride across the great steppes (on a second-hand car coming off a goods train) for $45. Welcome to Mongolia.

REAL MEN TROT

I did not have much riding experience, but I usually don’t let a little thing like that deter me from a trip. Keith, once also a climber, agreed that anyone up for adventure would be perfectly fine on a Mongolian horse. They were sturdy and forgiving. We all gathered at their staging camp an hour’s drive from Ulan Bator – a Singaporean couple on their second trip with Stone Horse, their friend from Hong Kong, a French diplomat from Swaziland, our team of three, Keith, Sabine and their crew – Nyamaa, Buyana and Jackson, the American intern. Soon, our team of 16 horses and Stinky the Mongolian Dog, a most genuine companion if there ever was one, were off towards the north. Day one went reasonably well, with a short four hour ride to our first campsite inside the Gorkhi Terelj National Park. The other experienced riders asked me various questions about how I felt and whether my horse had cantered or galloped, and I said I didn’t know, but the horse seemed to know what it was doing. Apparently, they have many gaits.

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Nomads Yadmaa and Tavaasurn inside their summer ger, just outside Gorkhi Terelj.

I learned what that meant the next day.

The morning begins easily and we move along a gentle valley. At a stream, the horses bend to drink. They’re herd animals, comfortable only in their own numbers. Suddenly, there’s a commotion as one of the pack horses spooks and bolts. We’re unprepared, and good old Jerry decides to follow the bolting horse too, suddenly turning 180 degrees and galloping wildly. I have to pull firmly on the reins to stop him, while the teamsters have to get the other fella back. He’s bucking around wildly, his unshod feet stamping, his grass-eating brain telling him that that bee sting he felt on his hind was a wolf’s nip. Stinky ignores the commotion, running ahead happily back in his favorite hunting grounds, chasing ground squirrels to their holes. We continue, entering a forest and then riding uphill to a pass. On the other side, a wide open valley, and our first real gallop. Now I feel the sensation, riding with the animal as one, gently cycling my feet in the stirrups and gripping with my knees, all of it coming naturally to me and I urge Jerry on, on, on. Chhoo, Jerry, Chhoo! We stop at a babbling brook in the valley below where we wash our faces. Are we in paradise?

And then the long trot begins. For a horse, it’s the most comfortable way to move. But it’s bouncy. I try to “post” like all the real riders. Watching me grimace in agony, Keith smiled and said, “real men trot,” as he rode along comfortably with that rolling ankle movement to compensate for the horse’s bumpy ride. “Trotting is how the Mongols moved such vast distances. If you make him gallop, you won’t get very far, you’ll kill the horse”.

a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities

But Mongolia changed the course of human history since long before the great Khan and his riders, the ultimate, self-sufficient soldiers. Apart from the Mongols, it is also the original homeland of the Huns and the Turks. It is a melting pot of humanity and ethnicities, where thousands of years ago two language families met and separated – the Indo-Europeans and the Altaics – and possibly where the wild horse was first tamed, thereby changing the course of history. When men on horses first raced out of Central Asia, first ancient Mesopotamia, then Egypt fell. Europe’s original ‘mother culture’ and India’s Harappan civilization disappeared. Humans, moving incredible distances on horses, spread across Asia, from the western end of Europe to Korea, all the way down to Arabia and India, creating nearly all the cultures we know today. Some of the languages they spoke evolved today into English, and others evolved into Japanese, but some of their words have become so intermingled that it’s hard to distinguish which came from which. Hindi is an Indo-European language, but today the common Hindi word for “home” is “ghar” (from the Sanskrit “grhá”) which is nearly identical to the Altaic Mongolian’s word for home, ger.

When the Hunnu (“Huns”) fought the Chinese Hans, the clans that lost fled towards Europe, creating Hungary, as well as leading to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire. Centuries later, the Turkics originally from the Mongolian steppes came hurtling into Constantinople, wiping out the Eastern Roman Empire.

We ride through rocky hills and rock formations, up and down defiles, over passes and across shallow streams, through meadows of flowers and knee-high grass. We ride all day, and every evening set up our traveling camp like the Mongols of old. We sleep in modern-day lightweight tents, under trees or under the stars, breathing cold clear air, drinking from fresh rain-fed streams, eating atop rocks while falcons circle above and the horses graze.

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The Stone Horse team from left to right – Jackson, Keith, Buyana, Nyamaa and Sabine.

The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

One day we stretched out the ride to reach a farther campsite, a Hunnu gravesite. We set up our tents atop 2000-year old graves, low mounds of stones marking the places where men, women, children and horses were laid to rest. “I believe that these people would have loved us to be here, living like they did,” said Keith. When they hear our horses, they’ll feel alive”. The next morning, I pulled my horse off to a side and to a vantage point to shoot the group riding further down the valley. Jerry stomped and neighed angrily as the herd passed him by, but I held him back. When the group disappeared into the distance, I quickly packed my camera gear back into the saddlebags. Then jumping back on, I let the horse fly as he wished, back to his herd. Jerry, the funny but tough little horse, galloped madly a mile north over the gently rising slope. Our hooves rang out in the valley, as two large round mounds, Hun graves, emerged in front on the mountainside. Neither Jerry nor I needed to veer, and we galloped directly over the centre of the mounds, the sound of our hoofbeats gladdening passed Hunnu souls. Their ancestors, our ancestors, had once tamed wild horses, and together changed the world. The world has continued to change, but horses and men will forever ride together.

Images by Madhuri chowdhury.

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