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.


Supriya Vohra

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

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.

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.

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)

Making lunch for tourists at her home in Wan
A devotee with the sacred umbrella in Wan
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.


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!).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.