Friday, November 27, 2009

the people of Rishikesh.

This post, as the title says, is about people I had conversations with during a day trip to Rishikesh. All travel is enriched by the people one meets, and this was no exception. It is sad then, that the two most important 'conversation fountains' on this trip are not shown in this post, or actually, anywhere on my blog. They are M- who has been mentioned before- and Gina D. They turned what could have been a tedious survey into a fun and productive learning experience. Thanks, people. I hope you enjoyed it as well.

The photographs here are all taken by Gina, and very nice they are too.

This woman was a traveller. She has been everywhere, she told us. Her sister-in-law? Not so much, she said, she’s a stay-at-home type. But when asked what she liked about Benares, the sister-in-law said with sparkling eyes, “There is so much life there! You can walk on the ghats till 11 at night. There are lights and people all night.” She is the one in profile below.

And then the Sadhu. Part of a focus group discussion. He looks fierce, but this is his normal conversational expression. That realization didn’t stop M from visibly cowering away from him, though. I love the pink lathi.

What did I learn there? In a chaotic world, one needs to strive for whatever balance is achievable. Even if it is just keeping ones ears absolutely level.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Travel and the Bhagirathi Valley: Mukhba

Mukhba is right across the valley from Dharali, and to get to it one needs to cross a suspension bridge (pedestrians and cycles only) and then climb up an easy slope. It is a pretty little village. It is south-facing and high, and so  warmer than chilly Dharali or windy Bagori. Perhaps because of this, in the autumn Mukhba is a glorious blaze of colour.

 There is no obvious treeline, and the pines reach all the way to the top of the ridge. In the more inaccessible areas there are dwarf rhododendrons that show up a dark purple against the grey of the rocks. There are also lovely old deodar groves here, and a walk in the forest along the path that leads east from Mukhba is a pleasure.

As for it's history, Mukhba is the village of the Semwal clan- traditionally the priests of the Ganga temple at Gangotri. In the October, the Goddess comes here to spend the winter and goes back in spring. She is housed in a brand new concrete and marble totally anonymous temple that the villagers are extremely proud of. If you ask nicely though, the priest will open the old temple for you, and this is a joy- all old deodar and brass.

The houses too, are beautiful, and almost entirely deodar. This being a priests village is richer and more tradition-proud than the other villages, and this means that the houses are in relatively good condition. The little houses on stilts are grain-stores, and wonderfully carved.

Mukhba is a beautiful village- richly coloured and textured. It is a photographer's joy in that there are actually very few colours in the landscape, but these are rich and glowing and coordinated. There is the silver-grey of the rocks, tin roofs, rhododendron  and the brown of deodar, soil, wood and horses. And this is gloriously punctuated with the sunny yellow of autumn, marigolds,quilts and the green of conifers, moss and mustard.

Monday, November 23, 2009


For those of you who have been waiting with bated breath for my next post on the Bhagirathi valley, it will come. I am not done with the series and the next post is about Mukhba.
This is in the nature of a break from our scheduled programme. I need to tell you of a lecture I went to today. It was organized by the Latika Roy Foundation as part of their Distinguished Lecture Series on Education and Inclusion.

The lectures LRF organises are wonderfully thought-provoking. This time as well, the panel of speakers had a lot of exclamation and interrogation marks popping up in my head.

There was a space of time though, when I was also angry. This was during a discussion of the Sarv Shiksha Abhiyaan. The SSA (education for all) is the Government program to ensure that every child has access to education. I have already commented on their token efforts at ‘access’- ramps in district schools.

And so, when the speaker began talking of a concerted ‘micro-planning’ attempt at identifying children with special needs, I perked up and began paying attention. I shouldn’t have, because then he went on to say how ‘these children would be identified and placed in a special classroom’. Now it is possible that I did not catch all that the program entailed, and also expected that all of the plans cannot be fit into one-third of a slide. But that statement made a lot of warning bells go off in my head.

One assumes that by ‘these children’ he means all those that need to make more effort to live in this imperfectly designed world of ours. He means the visually impaired, the hearing impaired, those who have problems with mobility, those with cognitive problems, autistic children- all those who do not fit into the paper-cutout model that is so convenient for planners. So all these children, with their whole spectrum of needs are to be lumped into one class and taught together, presumably by a tired teacher on her punishment shift. And if this diverse bunch is to be grouped together, what is the common factor among them? Being ‘imperfect’? ‘Defective’? Is it only me, or does this logic have disturbing shades of that which led to an exercise of weeding out the imperfect that was carried out 65 years ago and scarred humanity forever?

Now as I said earlier, I might have heard wrong. I sincerely hope I did. I am also naturally pessimistic. Now Jo, determinedly sunny person that she is, is bound to have a different take on it. so do me a favour. Her blog, By Little and By Little,  is listed on my sidebar. Keep an eye on it for the next few days and for fairness’ sake please read her version of events.

But I am glad I stayed, because the next speakers were stellar. The chief speaker was informative, engaging and enthusiastic. The take-away from her talk was a set of three tools that you (thump!)can (thump!) do TOMORROW! The concepts that she spoke about though, had been covered in detail and with great passion by two earlier speakers who were introduced as (among other things) ‘Parents’.

Now I need to confess to bristling when I heard this. The thing is that far too often I have been the victim of benevolent panel-making. “This is the Exalted Grand Supreme Commander of XYZ, bow to him! And this is A Woman Engineer! Look at her pretty saree!’ In this case I was gloriously, gladly wrong.

These two were parents, and that lay at the heart of their expertise. They spoke with conviction, confidence, wisdom and energy of the core of inclusive education. ‘Special’ is not an euphemism, they said. Every child is special. Every child learns differently. Education is a fundamental right- for all children. The system is failing to deliver- for all children. We need to re-evaluate the goal of learning. They had learnt from life and from struggling to educate their children, and their body language showed it. I was educated, inspired, and after the SSA experience, reassured.

But the evening does not end there. While returning, I caught a Vikram. After picking me up, the driver did not continue on his route, but proceeded to lecture the other two passengers. They were students in their teens still wearing their uniforms, and were eating groundnuts. They had also thrown the shells where they sat, and that earned them the driver’s wrath. He spoke at some length about why not to litter, and ended bitterly with ‘ and you are studying at school! Why should I have to teach you these things?’ “Why not?” I thought “Educators, they are where we meet them.”

This is a much longer post than I normally write. But I returned a couple of hours ago outraged, excited, and bursting at the seams with thoughts. The LRF lectures do that to one.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Yakkety Yak

In Dharali, the visitor sees shaggy black cattle everywhere. These are yak-cow crossbreeds, which are called dzo elsewhere, and joey here. They are wonderfully well suited to the altitude and the climate, Most importantly, they are not at all picky when it comes to food and will find sustenance in twigs if need be. Sadly, this trait which allows them to survive in places where fodder is in short supply, is leading to their decline.

Several villagers are replacing the joeys with cattle because the joeys eat the apple twigs. While I understand the need of the villagers to protect the orchards, I wonder how the cattle will be fed. What effect this will have on a region where the pastures are already overgrazed? Will some sort of physical barrier to the orchards be a better alternative? Is increasing temperature (unsuitable for the joeys) also hastening their replacement with cows?

The first generation crossbreeds are already a rarity with only a couple of old bulls lumbering around. These are awe-inspiring, with their solidity, shaggy tails, massive horns, and 'nothing can stop me' attitude.

Most are 3rd /4th generation crossbreeds with very little of the yak in them. Like the little fellow here. I took a snap of him because he seems to have a map of India on his forehead. A map of India like the rest of the sub-continent draws it, anyway. I thought to flatter him by featuring him here, but he didn't seem too impressed with the idea. Sticking out a tongue to indicate disdain seems to be common among all children, irrespective of species.

Friday, November 20, 2009

travel and the Bhagirathi valley: Dharali

The place where the bus stops and the traveller finds a chai stop is not Dharali. It is the market for Dharali. The  village is some 100 mts higher up, nestled in wild apricot trees and apple orchards.

It is a pretty place with lovely houses, each of which has a little stone courtyard looking over the valley and a vegetable garden growing brassicas and greens. The village is dotted with huge boulders that have been carried down in some old avalanche and cotoneaster and fruit trees. I mention the trees because in late October, they are all in glorious shades of yellow and red.

A steep-ish path ascends from the market to the village. Follow it further to Sat Tal. Most of the Seven Lakes have been buried in an avalanche, and only two remain that are worth the name. However, the buried ones are not gradually developing a peat-bog ecosystem, and it is fun to walk on the springy ground. Do, do watch your step though. Please.

If you turn left from the Sadhu's house (more about him later) instead of continuing along to Sat Tal, the path opens out to a lovely meadow with a stream running through it down from a dome-shaped peak that crowns the watershed. It was here that I had a Maya Memsaab moment. When we got there, the stream was still frozen where it had overflowed in the night- despite the fact that the sun was blazing hot. And so, I got to sit in the sun and eat ice that I had broken off a stream. Good times.

Continue up, by the stream and then through the forest (pine, fir, and finally Bhoj), and eventually you reach the base of the dome. come down soon, because it gets dark early. Take some photographs of the hills now that you are up there.

We didn't come down soon enough, and at a point were hurrying down the path through the forest in the dark. We were all mildly scared, but I am glad we were late. The forest is beautiful and spooky at dusk.

The interesting thing about the forest of dharali, is that it is topsy turvy. A difference in the rock strata has led to the deodar forest growing at a lower altitude than the pine. It is surprising when you climb out of the deodar and come across pine trees looking smugly down their noses at the deodar.

The deodar forest here is exceptionally healthy, good density, good regeneration. The floor of the forest is clean and strewed with deodar cones and wild strawberry plants. On this carpet, in the hush, one walks looking out for birds and looking up into the trees.It is difficult to escape deodar. The villagers collect fallen branches for firewood, and so at each end of the day, the air is aromatic with it's scent.

After all the climbing around, in the deodar-scented evening it is good to walk down to the river.
To stand on the bridge and watch the colours change

To see how the wind does actually collect the prayers from flags and scatter them across the land leaving behind a bare skeleton.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Travel and the Bhagirathi valley: Dharali

Tomorrow, I will tell you all about walking about in Dharali.
Today, I will tease you with a glimpse of the place

The view from my hotel, the first morning.

Incidentally, I have posted some pictures of the different moods of the Bhagirathi  on the blog M and I share. Do take a look..

Monday, November 16, 2009

Learning from the woman at Bagori

While talking of Bagori, I mentioned that it was deserted when we visited. Now this is very picturesque for the traveller, but a little inconvenient for the researcher who wants to speak with the locals on climate change.
My colleagues and I were happy therefore, when we chanced upon a woman hurrying to the village with a five liter can of water in each hand. We stopped her with the ‘I am sorry to disturb you, but my livelihood depends on it so please don’t hit me’ air common to field researchers world-wide.

She stopped good-naturedly enough though, and told us that she is too busy to stop and talk, but if we liked, we could follow her home. Can you imagine that? Inviting three bedraggled strangers into your home so that they can ask you intrusive questions?

We obeyed, picking up our pace to keep up with her. At one point I offered to help her with her cans, but she refused. We asked her then with our minds full of women’s drudgery statistics, if there was no source of water close by. “no, no” came the reply, “ there is piped water, but I needed to go to Harshil and thought why come back empty handed, so I brought water from the Ganga. ” Another thing I, lover of traveling light and shirker of chores, cannot comprehend.

We sat there in her lovely, glowing house on a rug she had woven herself with wool from her own sheep. We asked her questions about her observations about the local flora, and her animals. When talking of high-altitude herbs, she showed me some she used for cooking. It is called lado and has a pungent smell like asafoetida. Seeing the naked greed in my eyes, she immediately pressed a handful on each of us.

Later, I bought a couple of caps from her and waited as she finished the seams. While she was making those caps up, a colleague wandered off to crack a solitary walnut he had found on the road. She looked at the two of us sitting there walnut-less. Silently digging into her pockets she pulled out a couple and tossed us a walnut each.

Someday, if I am very wise and learn all that life teaches me, I hope to be as cheerful and warm and generous as her.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

travel and the Bhagirathi Valley: Bagori and Harshil

Harshil is an easy 3km walk from Dharali, along the contours, and so absolutely flat. Harshil is a famous tourist village filled with little concrete hotels with names like Skylark, Swiss Chalet, and the unfortunately named one below:

Thankfully, they added the illustration to clarify what they meant. Harshil is famous for it's apples though and is a pretty and clean village for a day's visit. It is an army base camp as well so be prepared for restrictions on photography of the helpfully labelled arms and ammunition godown.

Less than half a kilometer from Harshil, along a concrete path and over 4 bridges that cross mountain streams is the picturesque village of Bagori. This was originally formed as a Tibetan settlement 50 years ago. Today, it is populated by both Tibetans and Pahadis

However, the Tibetan influence is strong and evident in it's people, architecture, and of course in the many prayer flags strung across the streams.

Bagori is predominantly a herder's community, with people owning anything from 400 to 50 sheep that they graze in the bugyals in the summer and in the forests of Uttrakashi in the winter. Also, most people here move down to Dunda and Uttarkashi in the winter, by the beginning of November. When my colleagues and I visited, the place was locked up for the winter, except for a few families who were just finishing packing up.

But it was lovely to walk in that empty village and exclaim at the lovely carvings everywhere. Most houses are traditional, with slate roofs and wooden frames. The colours are luxuriously rich, with multiple warm shades of grey stone and deodar. In the middle of that, like a bright sapphire on velvet, I saw a blue whistling thrush. I wish I had a picture to share..but well.

This is one of the houses I loved..with its incredible carvings and warm, warm wood.

and another..Can you tell I loved the houses?

Here, there is a little monastery with  a solitary caretaker. These windmills are made by him from bits of wood and metal, just for the pleasure of making the wind visible.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Travel and the Bhagirathi valley

The mountains that one can see in Kumaun- the Nanda Devi group- are very special to me. They are not only stunning in their magnificence, but they have been witnesses of some of my happiest moments.

Unlike Sitla, the Bhagirathi valley does not have a panoramic view of any major peaks. But for sheer drama, it is hard to surpass. No major peaks, but the 'minor' ones are up close and looming over the slightly terrified observer. The sheer immediacy of the mountains is awe-inspiring.

It is difficult to visit the area and not have your trip turn into a pilgrimage to Gangotri, but it can be done and here's how:

Where to stay: Dharali. This is a little village (approx. 100 households, alt 2450 m) with a market on the main road. There are several hotels there which are basic, but adequately comfy. We stayed at the Hotel Shivalik which is rather like any other, except for the startling cuteness of it's young proprietor. Think Jimmy Stewart meets Brandon Lee. Yes, I agree. That is good incentive for choosing that hotel.
When to go:
NOT during the Yatra season. Prices are high, places are crowded and you might as well have gone to Delhi. Early March is when the bugyals (the meadows above the tree line) just begin to flower, but the tourist season has not begun yet. Late October is when the apples are being harvested and the leaves are turning colour. Early November is when most people have left for their winter homes, it is quiet and the world is full of intense colours.
How to go:
The fastest way to travel using public transport is to hop Dehra-Rishikesh-Uttarkashi-Dharali. The journey takes 12 hours if you catch whatever turns up first- bus or jeep. There are some direct connections that allow you to drop one or two stops, but I am not sure of the times.
What to do:
With Dharali as a base, one can go off on short day hikes to Sat Tal ( a group of lakes at approx 2700 m), Mukhba (a pretty village with traditional houses), and Harshil/Bagori (famous for apples and wool). I'll be talking about these in detail in later posts, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What I saw

So now I am back, after a few days spent in the hills. And it was enchanting, every bit of it. But this happened at Bhatwari, where we stopped for tea.

I saw a little male sparrow lying on it's back and apparently dead. What interested me in a morbid way was that another sparrow was pecking it,apparently to make a meal of it. 'hm, cannibalism in sparrows!' I thought, thinking of the article I would write to the BNHS and the applause I would receive. By then the would-be diner was joined by a friend .

At this, the little 'dead' one thought that things were going a little too far and erupted upwards in a flurry of pointy beak and claw. I was watching the three of them tumble about trying to peck each other's eyes out and wondering what it was all about, when I realised that I was not the only spectator.

Apparently, that display of machismo was all for the benefit of this smug little missy.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

the gifts we are given..

Let us not try to sugarcoat was a rotten day. Work and life..all of it.

And so, as it had done earlier, the multi-verse gave me a gift.

First a little background. One of the offices that my organization works out of has a bay window. It is stunning. A three-sided, garden-overlooking window that begs to be used as a reading nook. and my colleagues? they pull drapes over it, and sit with their backs to the window. Due to the curtain which runs flush with the wall, I didn't know the window existed for a long time. After I discovered it, I coveted it. I must have told my colleagues a dozen times..if that window were in my house, I would make a window seat with a bookshelf below it, and sit there with a cup of chai in the late afternoon.

And today, I was there for a review meeting. As there were a series of these, and I was at the end of the queue, the meeting I was going to attend was delayed by 2 1/2 hours. Being a Sunday, I was under no pressure to work. I obtained (ok, stole) the key to the library and got me a book- the fantastic 'Valley of Flowers' by Frank Smythe. I pulled up two chairs to the bay window, set them facing each other, stretched out and read. After maybe half an hour, S who works in the office came up with chai for me. I sat with the book in my lap, sipped chai, and watched the sunlight become deep golden in the early evening. Life is good, I thought.

In another 15 minutes, S came up again holding a single biscuit he had salvaged from the plates that were being sent up to the meeting in progress. 'For you, madamjee.'

Thank you, S. Thank you, world.

and now, I am off to the mountains for the next 12 days.My colleagues and I will be surveying villages and forests and bugyals. so basically, I am getting paid to walk in the mid-Himalayas with fun and knowledgeable botanists, to identify plants, to watch wildlife and to spend evenings talking to villagers. tough job, but someone's got to do it. See you on the 16th..with photos and stories..