Destinations

Peeling back the Himalayas

Walking in the awe-inspiring Kumaon Himalayas, away from tourists and backpackers, Stanley Stewart is mesmerised by a rarely seen way of life that is suspended in time.

September 05 2009
Stanley Stewart

Apart from an adolescent weakness for starched collars, the Kumaon Himalayas are one of the few things Lord Curzon and Mahatma Gandhi had in common. Both men thought these mountains were one of the most beautiful places on earth. They enthused about the valleys of terraced fields, the cedar woods, the slate-roofed houses and the diffident charm of the people. They thought the mountain peaks along the Tibetan borders were among the most dramatic views in the Himalayas. Gandhi believed God lived in those mountains. Curzon feared it might be Russians up there.

Arch-imperialist, future Viceroy of India and foreign secretary, Curzon marched to the Kuari Pass to check about possible infiltration into British India by the back door. Pacifist, international statesman, handloom weaver, Gandhi came to chill out at an ashram and work on his Bhagavad Gita translation.

The Curzon Trail, renamed the Nehru Trail after Independence, remains true to its original namesake – ambitious, tough and testing. A seven-day trek running roughly 100 miles north from Gwaldam, it endures as one of the great hiking routes in these mountains. I recommend it for those in search of a physical challenge.

But at the risk of being thought weedy by the ghost of the indomitable Curzon, I had decided against trekking. I had come to the mountains for a gentle Gandhian stroll, a three-day walk through the Kumaon valleys staying in village houses that had been neatly upgraded for the likes of me. Walking is always the best way to understand a place. In cars we are whisked past people’s lives. On foot we stride into the midst of them. And in the Kumaon I encountered life’s compass points: love and death, religion and cricket.

I set off one bright morning with a guide and a porter from the ridge of Kasar Devi above Almora. The sun was warm, the mountain air cool and fresh. The path wound through terraced fields and rice paddies, and snaked through pine and oak woods. Substantial houses with carved window frames and terraces like wide verandas presided over tumbling slopes. Haystacks were stitched into the lower branches of the trees like overgrown bird's nests. Old women fed dusty buffalo, tied up outside houses like family pets. And on the wide circular threshing floors, the only flat spaces in a vertiginous landscape, boys were playing cricket with handmade bats.

So much of India is about a sweet nostalgia for a vanished past. We come to see grand Mughal monuments or Rajput palaces or Raj relics. But in this India the past is present. Kumaon is a humble world that is largely unchanged. While empires fell, and conquerors came and went, while Curzon plotted the defence of British India and Gandhi arranged for its demise, people here got on with carving terraces in the hillsides, plotting irrigation channels, shearing sheep, sowing wheat, having children. The grandeur here is that of the landscape itself, and the tenacious persistence of its inhabitants.

In the Indian state of Uttarakhand (formerly Uttaranchal) in the western Himalayas, Kumaon has largely escaped the attentions of backpackers and trekkers. It remains a pedestrian world. As well as no other tourists, I walked for three days without seeing any roads or cars or motorbikes. Everything came and went here – as both Curzon and Gandhi had done – on foot: crops, building materials, supplies from town, letters, social visits, government pensions, schoolchildren and brides.

We came upon a bride at our first lunch stop, at a village overlooking a long valley. The ceremony was already under way on the terrace of her parents’ house beneath strings of gold tassels. Surrounded by large crowds of family and friends – women in saris of eye-watering colour and men in shabby grey sweaters – the couple sat cross-legged in front of a small fire of sandalwood and a pandit, or priest, chain-smoking roll-ups. Everyone was in high spirits except the bride, who sobbed through the entire ceremony.

The arrival of unexpected guests, especially foreign ones, is always a good omen at an Indian wedding. Aunties waved at me to come and sit by them. Uncles tried to ply me with local moonshine. An elderly grandmother offered me a spliff. The pandit was guiding the couple three times round the ritual fire, murmuring Sanskrit prayers out of the corner of his mouth. In a complex sari, that looked like it might swallow her, the bride looked small and young and vulnerable. She dabbed at her eyes and blew her nose into her mother’s hanky, a tricky manoeuvre given the enormous nose ring.

“She has always been a little difficult,” said a maternal uncle with a tin cup of rocket fuel in one hand and me in the other. “You know how it is with young girls. They want this, they want that. They never know what is best for themselves.” I asked how old she was. “Sixteen,” he shrugged.

Our bride had met her husband only twice, in a roomful of relatives. She was a young girl distressed at leaving home to start a new life among strangers. She had no idea what to expect of married life, or of this man. “She will be fine,” the uncle said. “She just needs time to adjust. She is sad to be leaving her mother. It is understandable.”

I queued to present my wedding gift to the Official Receiver. He sat at a rickety table recording the presents in a large ledger, an accounting of the intricate pattern of obligations and exchange of these mountain villages. The largesse of the Mysterious English Stranger – £5 in cash and a couple of jumbo packets of biscuits from our supplies – drew gasps from the surrounding guests.

Then I made my excuses and we set off again into a sun-raked afternoon. Our trail curved through pinewoods filled with resiny aromas. The wind murmured in the branches and set the bells tinkling in the small shrines. Then we dropped down into the Naini valley where a 10th-century temple, the Narayan Mandir, stood among terraced fields. Inside, carved reliefs of Shiva and Parvati hovered in the gloom.

An old sadhu materialised out of the shadows, a bare-chested apparition of stringy arms, a white beard and a forehead smeared with ash and vermilion kumkum powder. He spoke in whispers to the guide. The conjugal relations between Shiva and Parvati were central to the world’s continuation, to all rites of fertility. Every night, he said, he laid a bed of fresh rose petals for the divine couple. When he returned in the morning he could see the impression of their bodies in the petals. He made a gesture with his ageing hands, cupping them in the dark temple, to indicate the mysterious hollows left by the lovemaking of the gods.

We crossed the valley, picking our way through the terraced fields where an old man was opening the irrigation channels to allow the water to bubble among the new shoots of wheat. On the far slope we came upon a silent group of men sitting above the trail. They were waiting for the corpse of a friend who had died that morning. The sons were carrying it down from the village above. Only men attended the dead, as women attended a birth. They would accompany the body to the confluence of two rivers, traditionally a sacred spot, further down the valley, where the funeral pyre would be lit by the eldest son.

Out of respect, we sat until the body arrived. “These are his fields,” said one of the men, motioning to the terraces below us where the crops the dead man had planted were now flooded with life-giving water. “He never left these valleys,” said the man, surprised by his own admission. “Never went further than Almora. Until now.”

After a time, four young men appeared carrying a white bundle on their shoulders. Death makes everything seem so small. Wrapped in winding cloth, their cargo looked too insubstantial to be a person, an entire life. They passed without speaking, and one by one the waiting men fell in behind them.

An hour later we arrived at our home for the evening – a long village house overlooking the Naini valley. Steps led up from the wide terrace to low doorways flanked by carved blue pillars. Inside a small bedroom my bags were waiting.

Luxury is largely a question of perspective. Having arrived on foot in this remote village, every detail of my evening seemed like delicious indulgence – the water heated over the fire for my bucket bath, the simple candlelit bedroom with hand-woven rugs, pressed cotton sheets and a hot-water bottle warming my bed, the pre-dinner gin and tonic on the terrace, the fire burning in the pit as the evening chill descended, the succession of brass-lidded pots with curries, dhals, nans and parathas ferried to my table overlooking the valley. Such luxury would have gone almost unnoticed in the middle of Mumbai.

On the fourth morning we arrived at a road where a car waited to take me deeper into the mountains. There was something else on this itinerary and, remarkably, it was something even more beautiful. We drove most of the day on roads that could double in the next life as fairground rides. Climbing endless switchbacks to dizzy passes, we plunged into deep valleys where shepherds in felt cloaks chased goats through the fields, where women beat flat rocks with their laundry and where uniformed schoolchildren trailed home with leather satchels.

At the end of the road we came to the village of Leti. Beyond, as far as the border of Tibet, almost 100 miles away, there were only mountain tracks. We left the car and set off again on foot. The day was drawing down as we ascended the last slopes of a steep ridge on the far bank of the river. On the top we found 360° Leti, a Himalayan retreat whose solitude would have pleased Gandhi and whose sense of style would have impressed Le Corbusier. Four cottages were perched round the edges of the ridge – elegant creations of glass, teak, and dry-stone walls, accessorised with brass fittings and plain pale cottons. On a remote mountain-top in northern India, such luxurious elegance verged on the miraculous.

In the main lounge, where a fire was roaring in the stone fireplace and drinks were being served, I sank into a deep leather armchair. Brazilian jazz was purring somewhere. Canapés arrived, served on slate. I browsed in the library, among coffee-table books of Himalayan wildlife and the journals of Kumaon mountaineering expeditions. Dinner was served at a long candlelit table, three courses of inspired culinary excellence. I hadn’t eaten half as well in my posh hotel in Delhi. I began to wonder if I was dreaming, if I would wake to find myself in a leaky tent on a mountain pass, with something dangerous snuffling outside the flaps.

I spent three days at Leti in a contented daze. If the interiors at this remote lodge were beautiful, the exteriors were breathtaking. Every morning I sat in the sun with my coffee savouring the spectacular views while lammergeiers circled lazily above my head. The only sounds were those that the wind carried from the villages in the valleys below, disembodied voices, faint and far away, or from time to time the drums of some village festivity.

Our ridge was an island. On three sides it fell steeply away into lower valleys and further mountains. To the south was the village of Leti, scattered picturesquely across the slopes. At night it was a fallen constellation. To the east we looked down into a succession of sinuous valleys cut by the Ramganga River between blue mountains. In the mornings the valleys were swathed in mist, in the afternoons they were sunk in seductive shadow.

But the north, the direction that my glass-walled cottage faced, was the reason to be here – undoubtedly one of the finest views of Himalayan peaks. The great snow peaks of Nanda Khat, Hiramani and Nanda Devi commanded the northern horizons. At 25,646ft, and long before it was first climbed in the 1930s, the latter was believed to be the highest mountain in the world until Sir George Everest found something just a little bigger in Nepal. Nanda Devi means Blessed Goddess; for Hindus the mountain is the origin of all life, the mother of all the other gods. For climbers she has been one of the great Himalayan challenges. Surrounded by 12 companion summits, each more than 21,000ft, she boasts one of the world’s steepest summits.

The whole mountain range is dedicated to Shiva. But it is believed that Parvati, his consort, lives on Nanda Devi and Shiva visits her there every night. This divine couple seem to get everywhere. If you squint your eyes and allow yourself to dream a little, you can almost make out the impression of their bodies in the high snow flanks.

See also

India, Treks