Younger than the mountains, older than the trees

Monsoon rains lash the Western Ghats, creating and destroying life every year. Kalidasa wrote about the mountain sides here streaked with rain. Drive along the Mumbai-Pune highway, take any exit, turn off the main road a few times, park, and walk on the country roads. That’s one thing we look forward to doing in the monsoon. It’s not every year that we manage it, but when we do, it is refreshing.

We are old. Older than the trees. Younger than the mountains. Our lives are a breeze passing over this ancient geology of the Deccan Traps. We walk. We seldom climb. But there is a lot to be seen on these walks. Old, vanished fields, ruined bungalows, grass and weeds everywhere, insects in plenty. You need to be equipped for the rain, the slippery mud, the nuisance of biting insects, but with all that, we return refreshed to the city.

A few spots have been set aside as protected areas because of the strange wild flowers that you can see: a variety of Strobilanthes which mass flowers every seven years, several insect eating plants, and such a variety of wildflowers that no two plateaus will have the same checklist. Down in the valleys where we like to walk, between seasonal streams are overgrown fields, there are more common flowers.

This set of photos were taken on a single walk in mid-August. With the flowering of the late monsoon, caterpillars begin to undergo their transformation into butterflies. The grass yellows, the little blues, the crows are the brave early wave. Balsam, silver cockscomb, purple Murdannia are common at this stage. If everything goes well, then that’s what I’m looking at while you read this.

The last lake

Drifting between lakes in Sat Tal, as we tried to extend our day in the area, we noticed some similarities between them. There seems to be little renewal of the waters, and the surrounding activity has made them eutrophic. The green waters of the lakes are a sure sign of increasing bacterial activity, and the lack of fish is apparent. At late as the 1943, I could trace a record of mahseer being fished from these lakes. It seems that the eutrophication of these waters started in the 1960s. These studies are in concordance with my memories of granduncles back from holidays discussing the changing quality of these lakes.

The area around the lakes seems to have been divided up between the state tourism department and something called the Sat Tal Christian Ashram. The latter seems to have been founded in the 1930s by a Methodist missionary from the USA called Eli Stanley Jones and two of his associates. Gandhi had spent some time in the ashram, and seems to have influenced Jones, who became a spokesperson for Indian independence at home. Since he was in regular touch with the US president Roosevelt in the lead up to Pearl Harbor and later, his opinion may have had some influence in Washington. I cannot see any study of the letters between him and Roosevelt, so it seems to me that here is an opportunity for a thesis.

This was Garur Tal, one of the smaller lakes in the area. I enjoy walking around these lakes, taking photos. Garur Tal was completely deserted in the early afternoon. The light had been gloomy all day, filtered as it was through smoke in the air. As a result the afternoon was not too bright for photography. I took a photo of a leaf floating a few meters away. The light on the water looked oddly like grains on wood. Closer to the edge I found a leaf which had begun to sink into the water, and would be consumed into mulch soon. The stones below it looked like quartz.

Closer to my feet I found stones which seemed to have folded layers. I think this is the stone called a phyllite. It is a slate which has metamorphed into this fine-grained form that you see in the large slab in the foreground of the photo above. I found bees hovering over the water around it, their shadows quite detached from them. In a stronger light the bees and their shadows would have made a nice photo, but then the photo would not have showed the striations in the rock. You gain some, you lose some. I was quite content at the edge of water, looking around, walking with The Family, delaying the start of the journey back home.

Ruins

When you travel in the hills and mountains of India it is not uncommon to find the ruins from the late colonial era. The British tended to gravitate to the cooler regions of these higher elevations when possible. Often that meant that the administrative apparatus would go into very long breaks in the two warm seasons (summer and Indian summer). When the Raj collapsed, they sold what they could and moved back to the Old Blighty. What they couldn’t, slowly fell into ruin as the country reverted to its normal way of life.

Just past the bazaar in Mukteshwar I came to one such set of buildings: a late colonial barracks. Mukteshwar was perhaps at its bustling busiest in the 1920s. There had been continuous growth since the beginning of the 20th century until the Black Tuesday market crash in New York. Arguably, the punitive taxes imposed by Britain on its colonies in the aftermath of the crash led to the invigoration of the independence movement, and Britain’s eventual exit from India. But this past is a prologue to the sunny day on which I took these photos and wondered what could happen to this row of two-room apartments, each separated from its neighbour by just one wall. I suppose it will be torn down, and the stones reused to build something more suited to today.

Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of these old barracks was the miserly view they gave of the beautiful vistas behind them: the high Himalayas on one side, this lovely forest on the other. I left the ruins behind and followed the road, under the deodars and the firs, into a land full of the sounds of insects and birds.

Old houses in Kumaon

A wooden box of an upper story rests on thick stone walls which make up the ground floor. That is a rather common older style of building from Uttarakhand. There are little variations. Sometimes the shutters on the upper floor look out on all four sides. At other times, as in the example above, there are one or two walls made of stone. I suspect that the older houses use more wood, and as wood became scarcer in this region, you could say that there was less of it to go around.

I could find little written about the traditional domestic architecture of the Kumaon region. Most accessible books and articles concentrate on the temple architecture of the region. Edwin T. Atkinson’s multi-volume tome, The Himalayan Gazetteer, the usual source of information on matters Kumaoni, is pretty silent about vernacular styles of architecture. In the true imperial manner, government buildings and new churches are deemed more worthy of comment. Nor did later official sources bother to record the variety of vernacular expressions. The state Tourism Department’s website references one rather ornate style, hard to see examples of, as the only one worth a comment. I suppose there are detailed studies locked away in architects’ theses, or in architectural journals, which I have no access to.

I have been unable to find articles or books which trace influences across the Himalayan region, or the development of building techniques. It should be a fascinating study. The neighbouring Garhwal region has been important to Hinduism for a long time. Pollen records show that agriculture started in the Kumaon region 500-600 years ago, when it was still part of a Nepali empire. There may have been travellers and pilgrim here before that, but not settlements. The region became independent about two hundred years ago, and was assimilated into British India about a hundred and fifty years ago. The connection with Nepal, and the trans-Himalayan cultural sphere which filtered through it would have created the vernacular style, which would later have been modified by contact with the plains-based cross-oceanic empire of Britain.

I stopped the car when I saw this old building outside of Kausani. The driver informed me that this is a style which used to be common once. A paper by a group of engineers at CSIR documents the style, but dismisses it as “lacking proper light and ventilation”. The Pestalozzis, a Swiss couple, who visited Kumaon a decade ago, became interested in the architecture and documented it, call this style a row house. To my eyes it resembled Mumbai’s chawls. The lower part of the house is given over to storage here, but in villages they were meant to hold cattle. The upper floor has a row of independent flats.

Which way did the influence go? From Kumaon to the rest of India, or the other way around? Notice that the doors to individual flats are not recessed and protected from the weather, unlike the doors of other traditional houses. Based on this, my guess is that the style is imported from the plains. But this is a guess, and direct work on dating these houses will be needed before the question can be settled. Such a wealth of questions exist here, and they connect to the deeper history of the region.

Another hill garden

We stopped for tea at a little restaurant outside Ranikhet. After a year of bad trade it was still neat, clean, and well-maintained, and looked out on a nice and ordinary garden. It is interesting that the gardens in these parts of the hills are so strongly influenced by cottage gardens in the colonial style. That’s so different from the gardens of the eastern Himalayas, where there is a totally different traditional style.

Perhaps that’s not surprising just outside Ranikhet, since it has been a major army enclave for a hundred and fifty two years, and served as the summer capital of colonial India for a few years. The garden held lilies, morning glories, and several gloriously proliferating rose bushes. An unremarkable collection, but they were growing well and well-tended. A nice place for tea, overall.

Anashakti Ashram

Gandhi changed Indian politics. He mobilized India between the non-cooperation movement, which ended in 1924 with his arrest, and the Salt March in 1930. In the five years between, he toured the country, constantly meeting and talking to ordinary people. Passing through Kausani in 1929, he decided to take a two week break. The place where he stayed is at the top of a low hill near the center of the town, and has come to be known as Anashakti Ashram.

Where did this name come from? I found that during these weeks he wrote his commentary on the Bhagwat Gita’s philosophy of judging the need for an action by its morality rather than consequence. The article is called Anashakti Yoga. He wanted to make this the core of his political method, satyagraha. He tried to live by it, and he died by it. In any case, the ashram is a quiet and beautiful place. Small panels of hand-carved woodwork decorate the otherwise simple pinewood buildings.

The day was overcast. The clouds and smoke from forest fires filtered out the sunlight. A brisk wind made the hilltop rather colder than the bazaar below. We walked around, but there was no feel of the political morality of the mahatma in the air. The main hall had a permanent exhibit of Gandhi’s life and work. We’d seen it before, but we wandered through it again, looking at pictures of people and meetings that influenced the early course of independent India’s history. They are familiar images.

Off at one end were the ashram offices. I decided not to peek in. The door to this block had an old-fashioned red post box. Was it in use? Once the next collection time used to be posted in that little window at the bottom. There was no time on it. The lock looked like it was in use. So perhaps the letters are collected on a regular schedule which the staff knows. The lack of visitors made the ashram a rather boring place, we thought, as we left. Gandhi strikes you as a man of action, not one who would shut himself away in a secluded ashram.

Lakshman Jhula

When I was a child I listened to my granduncle describe how he spent a vacation walking from Uttarkashi to Rishikesh. The one thing that stuck in my mind was that he crossed the Ganga at Lakshman Jhula on a swaying bridge more than 20 meters above the water. In my mind the bridge he described was mixed up with a 19th century bridge here which was made of ropes, and crossing this bridge became my touchstone for adventure. I went to see the bridge a couple of times later. When you see the same thing again, it seems to become mundane. So it was good to see it with fresh eyes, those of The Family.

We drove up from Rishikesh along the right bank to the village of Tapovan and parked the car. The sun was still pretty high up, so we thought of sitting down for a coffee until the day was a little cooler. Two decades ago I’d found a nice German cafe near the bridge, serving warm rolls fresh out of an oven. We looked for it, but it had changed hands a long time ago, and looked very characterless now. It had a good view, so we took the time to take a few photos. We found a more interesting cafe in the large marketplace which has sprung up here in the twenty years since my last visit, and waited the sun out. What we didn’t know was that the ninety year old bridge is officially closed for almost two years. In early July of 2019 the state government closed the bridge and declared that they would build a new one a little way downstream.

When we walked up to the bridge there was sign saying DANGER, but crowds streamed past it. There was no sign saying that the bridge is officially closed or condemned. We crossed, stopping on the bridge that my granduncle had crossed a lifetime ago, to take photos upstream towards the mountains from which the Ganga descends, downstream where a raft was headed back to town from the white waters upstream. The sun was setting behind Tapovan village, giving it a nice halo. Jonk village, the east bank was bathed in a wonderful golden light. It was no longer possible to walk along the river, as I had done on an earlier trip here.

Hardly any of the locals wore a mask. Barely 5 kilometers away, in Rishikesh, areas of town were being sealed into quarantine as the pandemic struck, but the lives of the locals had not changed. The road was not too crowded, and we were masked, so I did not think we were particularly in danger that day. Most masked people seemed to be tourists. Of course, even among them there were those who were not masked, such as the white-water rafters in the Ganga. I chatted with the vegetable vendor, his vegetables here come from Haridwar. There were no takers for the chai or the chana. People seemed to prefer sugarcane juice. We took our photos and walked back the 140 meters to the village on the other bank, crossing the river 20 meters up in the air.

Reluctantly leaving heaven

Some parts of heaven are dangerous now, dilapidated, ready to fall. Still, the magic draws people from across the world. Many have left elaborate artwork on the walls. Perhaps inspired by them, others have sketched outlines of work elsewhere. We walked through the parts of the abandoned Swarg Ashram which were built after the famous visit by the Beatles.

There are two apartment blocks next to each other. They looked dilapidated. Unlike in the bungalows, there were no signs warning us off. But maybe that only meant that the blocks just haven’t been inspected recently? We peered through doors and windows. They are one-bedroom apartments, of a size which is larger than most one-bedrooms in Mumbai. Some of the walls reminded me of the overused word palimpsest. Perhaps a graffiti wall is as good a descriptor. Some of the sketches were good, perhaps the artists could have developed them into paintings if they had materials.

These blocks date from the seventies, when the Maharishi Mahesh yogi’s business venture was beginning to boom. For the pioneer of the yoga and guru industry, he has little name recognition now. For that matter, even the Beatles are fading. I was in a lift a couple of years ago with a older person, when the door opened and a bunch of kids with phones and earbuds came in chattering. “Have you tried out the Beatles?” one asked. Some of the others looked puzzled. The experimenter said “Ancient group, interesting music.” One of the others explained, “Yes a singing group like Abba, with three members. One was called Paul.” The lift door opened, and they left. We two, grizzled veterans, looked at each other, eyebrows raised.

There were a lot of really interesting paintings inside. I inspected the outer walls. There were no large cracks. There could be a danger of falling blocks of plaster, but perhaps we could risk quick forays into the buildings. We darted through the doorways which gaped open. In and out quickly, a few times. Then I noticed that there are no cracks in the internal plaster either, no bulges. We were not going to risk the stairs, but spending a little longer exploring inside may not be dangerous. We found a large number of very expertly executed pieces inside. Some of them really worth your time.

Even apart from the paintings, the remains of the ashram were beautiful, quiet and peaceful. The silence was broken now and then by the cackling of tree pies, and the deeper calls of hornbills. We were reluctant to leave. The canteen did not have anything other than chai and small snacks. If it had, we would have stayed longer.

In Heaven

Heaven is abandoned. The Family and I walk through the shaded path where immortals once strolled, and speculate about when everyone moved away. There’s still magic here. A small group of hip city youngsters give us lessons on how to take selfies. The Family gives me a warning look, and I behave. I move where they ask us to go, let them suggest how to strike an attitude, thank them as they go away. Human contact with strangers after a year can be disconcerting for everyone, even in Swarg Ashram, which was briefly, half a century ago, the most famous place on earth. That’s when the Beatles spent time here, between releasing the contents of Magical Mystery Tour and the white album.

The bungalows next to the yoga center carry warning signs. I’m used to distancing now, and I manage to peer in, let my camera do the walking. Nice murals. Not half a century old, I think. By far not, The Family agrees. A signboard says this is where “distinguished visitors” stayed. The Beatles would count. So would Mia Farrow. Peter Saltzman talks about listening to George Harrison play the sitar on a rooftop terrace. That would be one of these, I guess.

An abandoned garden and what looks like two apartment blocks lie between this line of bungalows and the distant cliff edge overlooking the Ganga and Rishikesh. Peter Saltzman mentioned a place overlooking the river where the Beatles sat and worked on the words and music for songs which eventually appeared in the white album. The Family has already crossed the garden. I follow. We laugh at a sign that says “Do not write on walls.”

We skirt the apartment blocks for now. I spot a couple come out to the path from behind a little house. “Let’s go there”, I suggest. The Family’s okay with it. Temple, or meditation center, you take your pick. I walk through the door, and some dark chambers to the paved area behind. Beyond it I see an open space overlooking the river. I walk out to stand there. Mentally I subtract the apartments, keep the bungalows. I try to match the description I remember from Peter Saltzman’s interviews. This must be it. This is where the Beatles came repeatedly during those weeks to put words to ob la di. This is where the music for Dear Prudence came together. There is magic here. Briefly the tiny blue flowers on the ground look like the Himalayan Gentian.

In my life

When you pay your money, walk through gates at the side of a road which winds through a forest, and you see a sign announcing a tiger reserve, you may be a little surprised if you thought you were visiting the ruins of the Swarg Ashram, the place where the Beatles composed large parts of their best album. That was the opinion then, and it remained the opinion of fans when the queen of England was fifty years older. Are you in the right place?

The disorientation persists as you walk up a steep paved path, with a high wall on one side. A large butterfly stares at you as you pass. I haven’t been in a tiger reserve like this. Perhaps you need your elephant and gun. Perhaps, in case of accident, you should always bring your mom. But continue, look around round, look around round round.

Strange. The path leads past a ruined bungalow. No Bill, no children asking if to kill was not a sin. The ruin is full of interesting looking graffiti, so we walked in to look. But it is only a distraction, perhaps a structure built and abandoned by the forest department which now owns this land.

I’m at the top of the slide. I stop and I turn and I go for a ride. “Right?” The Family suggested, and I agreed. Into the helter skelter maze of strange domed structures. A notice tells us that they were built as meditation huts in 1978. We walk into one: a round room on the ground floor, a tiny toilet and bath on one side, and stairs going up the wall to a domed platform, presumably the place where you sit to meditate. The first one we walked into had some beautiful work on the walls. The dome had an interesting piece in colour, which was very hard to take a look at because the stairs were not terribly safe. I stood on one of the safe lower rungs, stuck my phone up, and took a panorama. Unfortunately the phone needed more of a revolution than my precarious perch would allow.

We followed the path through these domed apartments, and saw the Ganga in front of us. Lovely view of Rishikesh on the other side. The place where there river turns is Triveni ghat, where the arti takes place in the evening. We seemed to have reached a dead end. It was time to follow the signs to the canteen and get our bearings.

The canteen was attached to some kind of an art gallery; I like the view through a series of doors which is an unmistakable sign that of one. The displayed work was not a surprise. They were photos of the Beatles in the ashram taken by Paul Saltzman. It was late in the morning, and getting warm. We hadn’t found the Swarg Ashram yet. We had a tea and went is search of Swarg.