Watching the Ganga

A mere twenty years ago, I’d stood near Triveni Ghat in Rishikesh at dusk, enchanted by the lovely sight of diyas floated by devotees down the river on little boats made of leaves. As the twinkling flames floated into the dusk and disappeared, I watched and wished that I had a camera with me. They reminded me of a time in my childhood when the crowds were even smaller, and people sang their own hymns as they floated their offering to the river. When crowds increase you have to change your ways, but the orchestrated spectacle of the modern Ganga arti does not appeal to me.

The Family decided to join an arti arranged by the hotel. Six people joined in. I stood by the banks of the Ganga at this uncrowded spot outside the main town. Flowing water is hypnotic. I wished I’d brought a tripod with me to do some long-exposure photos of the water, but restrictions on baggage are killing. I’d happened on an interesting spot. A region of choppy flows merged into a smooth undisturbed sheet of water which broke into cascades as it passed through a series of rocks.

On a reef in the middle of the river I saw some birds. The Family had noticed them a while ago. “They haven’t moved at all for a while. They could be logs.” Photos are free; I zoomed and clicked. They were grey herons (Ardea cinerea). They remained perfectly still through the evening, as long as we were there.

The arti progressed. More diyas were lit as the evening grew darker. The two priests officiating had marvelous voices, and their hymns and chants filled up the silence. Then, with the offerings of a few petals to the river, the ceremony was over. There was still light enough in the sky to go back to the deck above the river, and have a quiet evening’s chai.

The late evening had suddenly brought tremendous colour to the forest covering the slopes across the river. We sipped our tea and watched the light fade, until mosquitos drove us indoor. It was a wonderful beginning to our holiday.

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A fire in my soul, smoke in my lungs, ashes in my mouth

April 2: We reached Dehra Dun’s airport (altitude 558 m) in the morning, two hours before our flight. It was crowded, no social distancing, and we were glad for our double masks. Two hours stretched to four and then a brief announcement of the cancellation of our flight. The gate agent said “Bad visibility”. Huh! The sky was absolutely clear. Tickets were refunded quickly, and the baggage handed back. Our one hour flight by an ATR-72 was to be followed by a four hour drive to Almora (altitude 1604 m). This now became a ten hour drive. What causes less pollution: fifty people on a single flight, or them individually, or in groups, driving the same distance? Late at night, climbing past Naini Tal (altitude 2084 m), I spotted fires on the forested slopes. The smell of smoke penetrated my mask. Bad visibility began to make sense.

April 3: Forest fires do not always give you spectacular photos, sometimes all you see is haze. The next morning as we walked through the forest trails in Binsar National Park (altitude 2410 m), the haze in the air cut off all views of Nanda Devi (altitude 7816 m), Trishul (altitude 7120 m), Panchachauli (altitude 6904 m). That was part of the reason for coming here. Most of the haze seemed to be lower down, and I couldn’t smell any smoke. We took the short walk up to zero point, the highest place in the park. I looked up the SPM levels in Almora, which is the nearest place where measurements are taken. That seemed to be at a level where exercise could be unhealthy. Much of the next seven days we would find ourselves surrounded by haze, the smell of smoke permeating our masks. The air quality was dangerous very often, preventing us from taking the walks we had planned on.

April 4: We’d planned a long drive from Binsar to Munsiyari (altitude 2200 m). It was not only tiring, after the unplanned drive two days before, but also took us through hellish terrain. At times the fire had spread to areas right next to the road. May and June are often a season of forest fires through Kumaon, but this winter had been warm and dry. Forest fires had apparently started in October 2020. People we talked to expected that it would continue till the monsoon. In cities, since the air is always bad, most people have become conscious of the effect of haze and pollution on health. In this place, where the air is normally clear, that understanding has not taken hold.

Why do fires start? We got multiple answers to this question from people we talked to, and perhaps all of them are right. One said that some fires are set by villagers, and they go out of control. Usually winters are wet, with rains every couple of days, and the fires are easily doused. But this was a particularly dry winter. It hadn’t rained for a week in Binsar, we were told. Perhaps. Rains were predicted when we packed, so I’d brought along a light poncho which was never unpacked. A dry winter leads to conditions where fires can go out of control, and then large scale fires change conditions so that it does not rain. This out of control feedback seemed to have set in over Kumaon.

Others told us about the forest department setting fires to clear deadwood. In Almora someone showed us the thick carpet of dry leaves which had fallen off white oak trees (Quercus leucotrichophora, banj in Hindi). This was the reason why fires run out of control, he said. Someone else showed us thick mats of needles dropped by Roxburgh pines (Pinus roxburghii, chir or cheel in Hindi) as we walked through Binsar. This was the reason why fires were raging he argued. Both were right, of course, a dry winter produces kindling. One person told us that green branches of oaks burn readily, which is why villagers use them in the kitchen when nothing else is available. But the fires around us carried a smell of pine resin. When I stopped to take the photo above I could hear the popping and crackling of pines as they caught fire. Oaks could burn, but many of the slopes have extensive pine forests.

The air did not clear up as the road climbed to Munsiyari. The place is known for its views of Panchachauli, but through this thick haze we would have to be very lucky to see anything. The road climbs to about 2500 meters before dipping in to Munsiyari. At the very top of the climb we were lucky enough to spot a female Koklass pheasant (Pucrasia macrolopha) as it ran across the road. We stopped the car and tiptoed to the edge, and I saw the male in the split second before it noticed me and disappeared into the undergrowth. Both were lifers for me. Between the bad light and the fast movements a photo was impossible. When we reached our hotel and looked at the TV news, it was grim. The fires had spread from Kumaon into Garhwal. A significant fraction of Uttarkhand state’s 53,000 square Kms was on fire.

April 5: We’d selected the hotel for the view of the mountains we would have. But the thick smoke covered everything. When something like this gets into the news, you can bid goodbye to reason. There was a lot of finger-pointing and buck-passing in and off prime time. Why would the forest department not be more careful? Someone said that they hire contractors and they do not follow guidelines. What was the state government doing? They borrowed two helicopters from the air force to dump water on the fire: one for Garhwal, another for Kumaon. Such a large part of the state was on fire that this inadequate move had to be nothing but optics for TV. Meanwhile, on the ground there was no major change. By evening we’d got a few drops of rain. Perhaps the next morning would be good. We were to leave for Kausani (altitude 1890 m) late in the morning, and we might get a view of the Panchachauli before we left.

April 6: It rained for an hour at night, and we woke up to a faint view of the mountains. There was also time for an hour’s walk up before we left for Kausani. The hills around Kausani were ablaze, and the smoke was terrible. We decided to cut short our stay here and retreat to the lower lakes. They had had crystal clear air when we came up. We had a long chat with the owner of our hotel over dinner. He thought that the connection between ordinary people and the forest had been cut because the forest department stood between them. It is an interesting point of view, and I’ve heard variants of it before: conservation can only come when the state becomes a helper to the people who live in a landscape. If you give people no stake in the land or forest, they will not take care of it. True enough, I suppose, but was this the whole story of this disaster? Such a large scale disaster must have multiple causes.

April 7: It was a short drive to Naukuchia Tal (altitude 1220 m), so we had time to chat with people on the way. One theory we heard was that trees are money, and fires are a good cover for illegal trade in trees. Stories of corruption have a way of circulating, and you don’t know whether they are correct unless someone takes the trouble to investigate. With all these varied viewpoints about human motivation, one thread was constant: that this was a dry year, little rain, and the fire was spreading because of that. This part of the story was something we had experienced. The drive took us through several patches of burning forests. Were there more fires where there were more people? I could not tell.

April 8: The air in Naukuchia Tal was relatively clear on our first day there. We even saw worker clearing away dry leaves from the slopes around Naini Tal, perhaps a precautionary measure. In the evening we saw a big plume of smoke on a slope across the lake. It died out within an hour. It seemed to me that someone in a farm had set fire to the stubble left over in the fields after a harvest. Luckily this didn’t spread. How widespread was this risky behaviour? I recalled reading that when farmers had two crops a year they would leave the stubble in the fields to rot back into the earth. As they move to three crops a year, they want to clear the stubble faster, and use fire to do it. I’d seen government advertisements on the long drive from Dehra Dun requesting farmers to stop this practice. Was there an alternative? I haven’t followed this issue enough to know the answer.

April 9: The morning was not as clear as it had been the previous day. Clearly the fire had come closer during the night. We decided to drive to Mukteshwar (altitude 2170 m) for lunch. There are supposed to be good views of the high Himalayas from this little town, but we neither expected, nor got, any view of the mountains. The smoke obscured everything. We dropped in to the Devasthal astronomical observatory (altitude 2450 m). The 4 meter liquid telescope was under maintenance. Viewing was said to have been wonderful from here in the 1960s and 70s, but in recent years the moisture content in the atmosphere has increased, obscuring the telescope’s view somewhat. Another victim of climate change! Astronomers have moved to Leh in Ladakh, and the world’s largest telescope could come up there soon.

April 10: Our bags were packed for the last time. We would spend the day at Sat Tal (altitude 1730 m) and drive on to the plains. The Sat Tal valley smelt of smoke. We’d only had one clear day till now, our first day in the lake district. The evening news spoke about these forest fires spreading into the Nanda Devi National Park. Ecological disasters seldom make it to the TV news channels or the large circulation newspapers. Even now, even with forest fires on this scale, this news was being squeezed out by the rising COVID-19 second wave and the state elections across the country. The next day, as we drove to Delhi (altitude 220 m) to catch our flight back home we read that the air force helicopter which was requisitioned for fire fighting in Kumaon had been sent back without being used at all.

What did we learn? The weather is definitely a major factor; in dry years like this the risks are immense. Most predictions agree that a warming climate is also a wet climate, but there will be local differences which are not yet worked out. Along with the climate, there are multiple human factors involved in safeguarding the environment within which we have to live and work. Why do farmers set fire to their fields every year? Farming is under stress, and farmers should have a stake in clearing fields safely. In Uttarakhand, where farms and forests mingle, mistakes are costly. Similarly, the methods of clearing forest debris may need to be re-examined. Do common people have a stake in the health of the forests? The government’s stewardship of the land has to involve the local population, otherwise there are just not enough hands to fight fires. These are all big questions, and many people are thinking about it. We just happened to be caught in the middle of an object lesson for a few days.

Doorways in The Door

Haridwar means the door to Hari. And Hari is another name for Vishnu. Just before the river Ganga exits the Himalayas through Haridwar, it flows past the town of Rishikesh. On left bank of the Ganga, away from the recent expansion of the town, we stood inside the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s abandoned ashram, known locally as the Beatles ashram, and The Family took this photo of Rishikesh. The Maharishi leveraged the visit by the Beatles in 1968 into global stardom, and may well have a claim to be the person who firmly placed yoga and meditation in world culture. The ashram was abandoned some time after his move to Switzerland, and is now in the care of the forest department of the state. There was a coronavirus surge during our visit to this region, and we decided that abandoned open spaces were the safest. There were many visitors to the ashram, but it is large enough that it never felt crowded.

If you are not distracted by the strange ruins of the domed apartments that an entrepreneur built in the 1970s for the hordes of well-heeled peace seekers who never turned up, then the first thing you’ll find are the kitchens and the yoga hall of the ashram. They are full of graffiti and artwork by visitors who ignored the sign which urges them not to write on walls. From the weathering of the works, and some dated signatures, it is clear that people are still using these ruins as a canvas. Others works, especially the ones which give prominence to the Maharishi, are quite weathered, and possibly date from the 1970s. Twitter launched in 2006, so the work you see in the photo above cannot be more than 15 years old. That tells us how quickly the weather affects the paintings.

These four pieces come from the kitchen. The maharishi is painted on to a crumbling wall. I wish the person who’d started the Jai Gurudeva painting had gone on to finish it. I can imagine that the sun will be marvelous in full colour. Given its location, it is almost certainly a reference to Lennon’s 1968 composition Across the Universe.

The rest of these paintings come from the large yoga hall just beyond the utility complex. This is really the central vista of the ashram as it once was, with the main visitors’ buildings placed around a quadrangle with this hall at one corner. The architecture tells us how savvy the Maharishi was; yoga was the magnet to draw people in, but a good holiday in lovely surroundings was what you remembered after you left. Good enough to draw you back, or to have you recommend it to friends. Even though the Beatles left after a spat, their visit was good enough advertisement. I love walking through recently abandoned buildings, and this one was specially inviting, with its vibrant artwork, and the doors and windows reduced to specters which allow the inside to merge with the outside.

As we left the building we heard the squawks of a trio of oriental pied hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) which we had seen flying around. I’m not yet good enough at identifying birds entirely by sound. Just my luck then, not to have my camera when these things were flapping about asking for their photos to be taken. I was reduced to using my phone. The result is not great, but it does allow you to identify the bird with certainty: the cylindrical casque above the beak with a black patch at its tip, the white tip to the tail and the pale blue throat patch. “Nice place,” The Family murmured, perhaps echoing the hundreds of paying customers who came here in the 60s and 70s. A rufous treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda) cackled with laughter as it flew past us.

Hanuman

Uttarakhand is heavily forested, and forests in this region have monkeys. One of the largest is the species of the hanuman langur called the Nepal gray langur (Semnopithecus schistaceus). I saw the individual in the featured photo during a walk at an altitude of about 2400 meters, inside the Binsar National Park. The seven species of hanuman, genus Semnopithecus, which are found in India separate into distinct geographical ranges, with little overlap. At this altitude, and this far north, the Nepal gray langur is the only one that is found. As I concentrated on taking photos of this troupe of leaf eaters, I missed a photo op which will probably never recur: two yellow throated martens (Martes flavigula) pulled themselves up the cliff next to the road I was on, sat on the edge and stared at me for a long time. They were gone by the time I mentally kicked myself into swinging my camera round to photograph them. They are shy and swift, and because of that are hard to photograph, in spite of being fairly common in these forests. The longer you live the more regrets you have.

Watching the troupe I was reminded of the graffiti I’d seen in Haridwar a couple of days earlier, when I visited the abandoned ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I found a photo on my phone (above). It is a lovely piece of art, but it does not show the Nepal gray langur. This species holds its tail above, and parallel to, their bodies when they walk. The tail is long, and the tip can project forward ahead of the head. The drooping tail that the artwork shows belongs to the southern plains gray langur (Semnopithecus johnii) whose range is far to the south.

Morning glory

As the morning’s sun cut through the mists of Neora valley and shone through the tree tops, I took photos of glory around the lichens hanging from the trees around me. The Family looked beyond the glory right at the source of light. When she showed me this photo I found it stunning.

Spring harvest

Holi could be a festival left over from colder climates, where winter is a time without growth, but the regional new years in India are entirely local, and keep pace with the local seasons. In most of the northern plains, from the far east to the west, the beginning of the month of Baisakh begins with a harvest festival. Some calendars count this as the beginning of grishma (the hot season), others take it as the middle of vasanta (spring, if you wish). The wheat was sown in November, and was growing through what the upper northern latitudes think of as winter. So one should neglect the “universal rhythm of life” that the silly Eurocentric cultural web tends to impose on the globe.

As our trip through Kumaon came to an end, I walked on to the shoulder next to a deep drop on the narrow road leading out from Bhimtal. The lake is at an altitude of 1500 meters, and the road had climbed quite rapidly. We were high above the valley, perhaps at an altitude of over 2000 meters. I took a last look at the terraced field of wheat that cascaded down the steep slopes on the other side of the lake. From this distance one could see how the road switching back and forth along the further slope gave access to the biggest farms. To get to the others you had to walk down a steeper slope. This also meant that the farms further from the road had to transport the crop by hand (or mule) up to the road.

One farm was busy harvesting. The golden wheat was already gone from some terraces, the hay lying in neat little bundles in the fields. The high stalks in the other terraces were also ready to be harvested, and probably would be in the coming days. In other farms the ripening was not yet complete. Perhaps they had sowed at different times; perhaps the angle of the sun on the field also makes a difference. Looking down on this landscape, with its varied colours of Baisakh, I had no trouble agreeing with David Attenborough’s ironical statement that humans are the animals that grasses have used to propagate across the planet. They also get these animals to shape the landscape to their maximum benefit.

The Himalayan Bakery and Cafe

The main bazaar of Kausani had the usual unprepossessing look of a typical small Kumaoni town. There were hardware and general stores, one shop of local handmade woolens, a few small eateries. We looked at the queue outside an ATM; we needed cash, everything runs on cash here, but decided to come back later. A few paces down, The Victory, stopped at a shop and gestured to me. Yes, this was worth it. We walked in. Coffee? The Family asked for a cappuccino. Sorry, we can only do an ordinary coffee, the man behind the counter said. Four coffees then, The Family requested.

The shop was tiny, four pinewood tables, little stools. We fulled two stools up to a table with a long bench. A high glass counter was full of their sweet pastries. The price! The Victor said, unthinkable in Mumbai. What were those biscuits? The big rounds were sweet. I can give you two to taste, the man said. They were wonderful, crisp and flaky, mildly sweet. We’ll take a packet of those, and one of the flaky salty ones too.

Ramesh, the man at the counter, had started the bakery during the pandemic. He was a local boy, he said, born and educated in Kausani. Then he had gone to Dehra Dun to study in the catering college. From then on to jobs in Delhi and abroad. He mentioned a few well-known names. He had been caught in his home town on vacation when the world shut down. He was waiting for flights to resume, embassies to reopen. His old job was waiting, and he had to go when the hotel reopened. In the meanwhile he started this little cafe, and was sure that it would run after he had left.

The master baker was a genuine master. He took great pleasure in showing me the little gas powered oven in the kitchen. Small, he said. We use it continuously. Ramesh stood by and said he plans to install a bigger oven when he can order it from the plains. The second wave has paused things here for the moment, as the hill state begins to check everyone at the borders. The master said he’d just put in a bunch of pastry puffs. The Victor asked why don’t we come back for lunch? No dissent there.

The signage was in Hindi. About a third of our clients are like you, tourists, Ramesh told us. Have you listed yourself on Tripadvisor? No, I wanted to grow first, he said. The Victor said, please list your business, it requires nothing. The Family told him you’ll get four great reviews immediately. Other customers? People stop by to pick up biscuits, we have a contract to supply bread to the Ashram up the road, and a lot of people like to have birthday and anniversary cakes. The puffs were perfect, the pastry flaky and crisp, the potato filling absolutely melting in the mouth. We ordered pizzas and sandwiches. We could have farm fresh tomatoes, capsicum, onions on the topping. All, we asked. The sandwiches has crisp lettuce and olives with the veggies. The bread was nicely crusty. The cream roll was crisp and light. The filling of fresh cream, mildly sweetened, a perfect end to the meal. When I pass through Kausani again I’m going to drop in again. Ramesh may have left, but his master baker will still be holding the fort.

A stunning sight

Malkohas are skulkers. These non-parasitic cuckoos will sit concealed in canopies of trees. I’ve only seen them as they flutter from one treetop to another, or caught glimpses of one hidden inside foliage. Until the day when, on the road next to the Himalayan Darjeeling railroad near Rongtong, I saw two Green-billed Malkohas (Phaenicophaeus tristis) basking in the sun.

Well, I suppose everyone enjoys a lovely day in spring.

Chaudapheri camp

Chaudapheri camp is a way station on the Rache La trek. This is part of the old trade route that joined Bhutan, Sikkim, and the lowlands of Bengal. The camp’s odd name was explained as a travelers’ direction. This is the point you get to after fourteen turns on the road after leaving Lava. So I suppose this is a fairly old camping spot, much older than the forest rangers’ cabin that you see here.

The mule was dozing in the middle of the mud churned up by jeeps. After it noticed us it walked closer and, in its mulish way, wouldn’t go away until someone fed it banana skins. I was reminded of a description of mules I’d read, partly in preparation for this trip, “However, when it comes to the mountain paths on the roof of the world, the transport mule is about as nimble as the Fat Boy of Peckham on a tight-rope. He falls down; and when he falls down, he falls off; so do your boxes. It is better to use three mules to carry 360 lb. safely, than to employ two and watch them fall over a cliff.” (Frank Kingdon Ward, in In the Land of the Blue Poppies) In these days of 30 lb. limits on baggage, I suppose I’ll only ever get to use one fourth of a mule.

Living together

On the road again, we entered the lower Himalayas through Rishikesh. At an altitude of 340 meters above sea level, this is a town which is as well known as the doorway to the Garhwal Himalayas, as for its ashrams on the banks of the Ganga. We checked in to our hotel overlooking the river, and I had to scramble immediately to unpack my camera. Two sambar deer (Rusa unicolor) had come down from the slopes of the Rajaji national park on the opposite bank to water.

It is not unusual to find birds cleaning up large herbivores, but this was the first time I saw crows tending to sambar. The birds included large number of house crows (Corvus splendens), which can be told by the lighter colour of the feathers on the neck and breast, compared to the deep glossy black of the rest of the plumage. But scattered among them you can also see a darker bird with a stout and curved bill. This is the Indian jungle crow (Corvus culminatus). There has been a little rearrangement of this complex, with three species split off from what used to be one, but more of that later. I need not have hurried to unpack my camera; the sambar took their time being groomed by this murder of crows. Eventually, as the light faded, they waded off through the shallow water, up the little slope behind them, and were quickly lost in the gloom of the forest behind. A good start to our trip, I thought.