Kalij Pheasant (Lophura leucomelanos) spotted undisturbed in Jharipani near Mussoorie in Uttarakhand.
Some Mondays one doesn’t feel like talking. These pheasants are shy, and any talking is likely to disturb them.
We climbed a little more than a 1000 meters from the Tehri Dam to the tpwn of New Tehri. The old town, now drowned in the waters of the dam, is supposed to have been founded by Sudarshan Shah, one of the rulers of the erstwhile Tehri kingdom. The new town was built by the Tehri Hydro Development Corportation when the dam was under construction in the late 1990s. The old town had a population of more than 250,000 people at the beginning of the 20th century. Ten years ago the population of New Tehri was not even a tenth of that.
The town looked pleasant enough as we drove up to it. The winter sun is pretty strong at this altitude of 1.7 Kilometers above sea level. In the sunlight the houses ranged along the slope above the road looked bright and cheerful, with apple trees in full bloom in little patches of garden.
Later when we stood on the road above the town and looked down on it, I realized that the houses look like they were stamped out of a mould. They were, actually, with the THDC forced to build houses in a hurry in order to rehabilitate some of the people who were displaced by the rising waters behind the dam. The town looked better planned and more orderly than the typical hill town here. However the central bazaar, through which we’d passed on our way up, was just as crowded and chaotic.
There was a nice viewpoint here. We looked down at the clock tower of New Tehri. Nitin told us that it was a replica of the famous clock tower of Tehri. The old tower was built by Kirti Shah, the fourth king of Tehri, in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. Contemporary reports of the submergence of the old clock tower sound emotional. There was a ghost of the same emotion in Nitin’s voice. He is perhaps too young to remember the drowning of the tower in 2006 very clearly though.
On the lower edge of the town we’d passed a bright white coloured temple. I asked Nitin about it, but he wasn’t very sure which temple it was. “Local,” was his laconic reply. It was an interesting layout, with four outer structures with peaked roofs marking out a rectangle, and the central temple being the tallest part of the structure. I couldn’t remember temples built in this shape. I wonder whether this was also a copy of a structure from drowned Old Tehri.
It was just past lunch, and only walking about and taking photos was keeping me awake. I peered into a little roadside kiosk and found the owner was taking a little siesta. It was a tight fit, but he didn’t look uncomfortable. The sun kept the place reasonably warm. As we drove out of New Tehri and took the road back to our hotel, I succumbed to the winter’s warmth and dozed off for a while.
We drove from the town of Chamba down to where the old town of Tehri lies now under the lake behind the Tehri Dam. The road came close to the Bhilangana river just before it meets the Bhagirathi. The dam is on the Bhagirathi river. The calm water of the lake contrasted with my memories of the tumultuous days of 2005 when the last protesters were being removed by force from the town as the water began to rise. I have a faint memory of TV news showing the very last protesters on top of the clock tower at the center of the town. Nitin, who was driving our car, said that the tip of the clock tower can be seen in the middle of the lake when the water level dips.
We were at the upper reservoir, behind the rubble filled dam. The road went around the lake, past a yard with concrete and iron ferrules either left over from the construction, or held in reserve against future needs. They were immense, a little higher than a man’s height. The lower lake lies about 25 meters below the level we were at. The dam eventually plans to generate 2.4 Gigawatts of power, and the water is supposed to be released for agriculture. The protests against its building had multiple reasons, the drowning of a historic town, founded by the kings of the Tehri Garhwal kingdom being the most emotional. But also along with these were powerful arguments against creating a dam in one of the more geologically unstable parts of the Himalayas, and the impact on the ecology of the lower Himalayas.
Nitin pointed out the foundations of houses which have collapsed in the rising waters. I realized that we were standing on ground which was made of pulverized concrete overlain with years of silt carried down by the waters. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much grass growing over concrete. Nitin was from this region, and he would have been a child when the protests against the dams were in full swing. He seemed torn between memories of his elders strongly against the dam, and his own adult life, after the dam. His conversation was full of gaps, little spots of history lit up. The dam is accepted today as a fact, but with a little resentment. We left the banks of the lake and began the climb up to the town of New Tehri.
When The Family told me that she’d seen a Pika, I was flabbergasted. She couldn’t be playing Pokemon GO in a part of the Himalayas where the phone network is so sporadic. I had to google to figure out that she’d seen the Indian Pika (aka, Himalayan mouse-hare, Ochotona roylei). When I finally saw her photos I figured that they are indeed the small rabbit-like creatures which I’d read about in the meanwhile. She must have seen them at around the lowest elevation of their range; they are found at altitudes of 2.4 to 5.2 Kilometers above mean sea level. IUCN classes them as being of least concern for conservation, mainly based on the fact that there seem to be no new threats at these heights, although maybe at the lowest elevation there is some contraction of the population.
From The Family’s photos it seems that they like to live in burrows or crevices between stones, where predators may find it hard to reach. After a little search I found a study of these animals around the area that The Family had photographed them in. It was interesting to read that they do not hibernate, as a result of which they spend a large part of the year gathering food for winter. The Family had not noticed them doing much gathering. It could be that at the end of a prolonged winter they were more interested in foraging.
I’d been sure there were many studies of the natural history of these animals, but the study I found cited only two previous works. Observations in the field showed that a Pika typically moves far less than 100 meters from its burrow, although it must sometimes move much further in order to forage. Interestingly, inspections of its hoard showed that they often gather plants which are locally said to have medicinal properties. This could be part of the reason for the loss in Pika population at the lower end of its habitat where the density of people is increasing.
The Himayalan Tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus) is one of the several large hooved herbivores of the Himalayas. The Family told me about watching this individual walk down a steep slope as if it was on a highway. The spectacular long golden coat grows in winter and is shed in summer, revealing a dark undercoat. This picture is from mid-April, probably at about the time when the coat begins to fall off. It can be found along the length of the Himalayas, at a height of over 1500 meters, and up to about 5000 meters, with the eastern end of its range at Thimphu and the western end at Srinagar. In all the photos that The Family took, the Tahr is seen browsing on grass. As humans and their sheep range higher, the habitat of the Tahr is getting restricted, which is why IUCN now considers it to be near-threatened, even in the absence of a census.
The Family talked about standing on a road and looking at a far hillside where this individual walked down the steep slope while grazing. I looked at the photos, at the yellow eyes, the golden mane, and I wished I’d taken the trip with her. This is an animal I would love to see, wild in its natural habitat.
As a tourist, the Himalayas are wonderful. The lower hills have comfortable hotels and good food. In the high Himalayas a few days of discomfort, lack of hot water and unheated rooms, are outweighed by the beauty of the surroundings. The locals have to live through this all their lives, and for them it is a different matter. Chopta, in Uttarakhand, is at an altitude of over 2.6 Kilometers. The extensive meadows attract shepherds in summer. But the winters are so harsh that they have to move down to other villages nearby. A lifestyle like this can be seen across the Himalayas. If the shepherds have been using dogs all this time then I hadn’t noticed them. I did a double take when I saw one in the photo that The Family took.
In a lower village she took this photo of women’s work. The amount of work done by human muscles when machinery can easily be used instead is amazing. The burden on the backs of each of the women is clearly at the limit of what they can carry. I wonder whether they are carrying these leaves for their own use. If they are, then they do not have access to motorized vehicles like the one they are passing. The Family and I have a romantic dream of retiring to the mountains, but life at these heights is far from easy, and the dream does not survive the first light of rational planning.
As the stay-at-home spouse, I was quietly envious of The Family when she sent me photos of her journey to the Kedarnath range of the Garhwal Himalayas. I especially loved the featured photo. The last line there seems like wishful thinking; highways are arteries through which plastics circulate in nature.
But to start at the very beginning, The Family sent a string of photos of these metal sausages by the road. Why were they there? No one around her knew, but they were nicely painted. There were deer and birds. These spotted owlets were really nice.
The weather was strange, and the light through the clouds was an odd yellow which made this tree stand out. I think at this time they were still fairly close to Dehra Dun, on their way up to the Alaknanda.
Around midday she must have passed Devprayag. The blue waters of the Bhagirathi and the brown of Alaknanda rivers join at this point to become the Ganga. A quick explanation is that the dam at Tehri upstream on the Bhagirathi allows the silt to settle down, so that by the stream that arrives at the Devprayag is blue. But this otherwise convincing reply is wrong. As an observant blogger pointed out, the colours of the streams change with season.
The photos from further up are gorgeous. The Family complained about the cold; it was past mid-April and the temperature on some days went down to nearly freezing. Sitting at home in warm Mumbai I enjoyed the photo of fog rolling down the Himalayas much more than she did. Disappointingly, she never had the views she expected of the Nanda Devi (7.8 Kms high), Trishul and Chaukhamba (both 7.1 Kms high) because of the clouds. This winter has been severe in the Himalayas, due to the same disruption of the polar vortex that gave the USA a record winter. If it weren’t for that, the second half of April would be a wonderful time for these views.
And now, in the middle of April the Rhododendrons were in full bloom, finally. In the last few years we’ve gone too early in the season to see this flowering. I was happy to get a lot of photos of these upper meadows around Chopta, at an altitude of 2.6 Kms above sea level. The Family was very happy with the flowers.
We stopped at a little roadside eatery above the Tehri Dam. The view was magnificent, and we climbed to the terrace on the roof of the structure perched right at the edge of a slope. We’d ordered chai before climbing up to the roof, and it was ready by the time we came down with a few new photos. There was a stop for buses right at this corner. Some people got down from a passing bus and came into the restaurant for food.
The Family asked “Shall we have lunch here?” It was a pleasant place, doing good business, so why not? We sat down at a table looking out over the Bhagirathi river and ordered a paratha each with sabji. Food always tastes brilliant once you have passed the 1500 meter mark above sea level. This was no exception; the parathas and the simple alu gobi tasted so good that we decided to share one more. We wouldn’t have done that at a lower altitude, I think.
I was absolutely charmed by the name of this waterfall and marked it down on the map as a detour to take on our way from the airport to our hotel in Mussoorie. The route was not terribly well marked, and we could find our way only by following directions of a school’s coach who was leading a platoon of teenagers on a strenuous jog through mountain roads. He stopped his motorbike, let the sweaty youngsters pass, and then gave us detailed directions. The road was one which could only have been imagined by a gym instructor. At some turns the car was close to vertical, and I was held to the seat only by the seat belt.
The road abruptly ended at a point where a stream made a right turn, and there, just around the corner, was the waterfall. In better light the place must be gorgeous. Even in the flat light of a heavily overcast day, the greenery surrounding the place was stunning. I could almost forgive the large amount of raw concrete which was being poured into directing the stream around the bend. We walked down the concrete steps to the narrow steel bridge over the water. We’d had a long day’s travel, from the early morning flight, a change at Delhi, and the drive up from Dehra Dun. It was nice to stand in this utterly still place, where the only sound was of water and look down into the shallow but swiftly flowing stream.
On the far side of the construction was a grotto, where a Shivaling was placed strategically under a fall of water. One interesting thing about this place is that it isn’t a single waterfall. The main stream comes down the water fall which you can see in the featured photo, but there are smaller waterfalls around which all add to the stream flowing down from here.The Garhwal Shivaliks are full of these little streams which eventually wend their way into the main rivers which wash through the north of India. Of course, the place was mossy, but I’d just finished reading a story about the naming of this place by Ruskin Bond. That story is so funny that it definitely deserves to be true. So I leave you with it.
The naming of places is never as simple as it may seem. Mossy Falls is a small waterfall on the outskirts of the town. You might think it was named after the moss that is so plentiful around it, but you’d be wrong. It was really named after Mr. Moss, the owner of the Alliance Bank who was affectionately known as Mossy to his friends When, at the turn of the century, Alliance Bank collapses, Mr. Moss also fell from grace. ‘Poor old Mossy’, said his friends, and promptly named the falls after him.
— Landour Days by Ruskin Bond
The area around the clock tower of Landour is a network of narrow roads which twist and turn on the steep hillside. On the side of the road leading to the clock tower was a little gazebo, one of the many we’d seen around Mussourie. We walked in to take a look at the breathtaking view of the hills. You could look out and forget the crowded road behind you. The ornate ironwork looks like it was installed about a hundred years ago, perhaps a little more. The British Empire would have been at its height then, unconscious of the fact that within a few short decades it would have vanished.
The clock tower, just outside, marked the century old separation between the civil area and the army cantonment. The tower had been built in the late 1930s by a local resident called Ugrasain Verma. Photos from that time show a white masonry tower with a square cross section and a flat roof. The clock stopped working before Mr. Verma’s death in 1992. Soon after that the tower was deemed to be a hazard and demolished. The tower that you see in the photo was constructed less than two years ago.
We walked past it to the bazaar. It looked very pleasant. Small kiosks on one side of the road had opened their doors for the day. Customers and shopkeepers knew each other well. The trio whom you see in this photo were chatting away as the shoemaker repaired one’s shoe. It was sunny but cold; there would be a hailstorm later in the day. We walked along the narrow road, taking care to stay out of the way of passing motorbikes and cars.
The traffic is fairly considerate here, but scrapes and bumps are almost inevitable. As you can see from the state of the parked car in this photo, most cars have a few dents. Public art is very common on the tall walls which are natural to these slopes. Was this picture of a harvest festival, or was it part of wedding? I should have asked, but other things occupied me, and now I have only my guesses.
On the other side of the road, just beyond the line of kiosks were carts of fresh vegetables. Everything looked fresh but there was nothing that I could not recognize. There were no local fruits or leaves which you could not find anywhere else. Garhwal is strongly plugged into the markets, unlike the easter Himalayas where you still find interestingly new local food. Nitin had found safe parking ahead, and we got into the car to go on to our next stop.