Posted tagged ‘mountains’

The favours of Goddess Nandadevi

11 February 2009

Mountains are always associated with all that is holy and sometimes also of things supernatural. The rarefied air and dizzying heights permeate an unworldly atmosphere which easily drives away a person’s atheistic beliefs and skepticism which may be the unshakable core of his beliefs while living in the plains. The mountains unsettle you and you begin to feel that perhaps it may be wise to believe just this once, for awhile, at least until one returns safely to civilisation. Events and chance coincidence may reinforce this belief. But as always the mountains return you to civilisation a little humbler and more understanding of your own miniscule standing in the cosmos.

As part of the celebrations of the Golden Jubilee of our College in 1993, the Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army decided to try their hand at Nandadevi, 7817 metres high, located in a protected valley between Garhwal and Kumaon, close to the Tibetan border. Nandadevi, that most beautiful of peaks, outshining in splendour all other Himalayan mounts of greater height. Nandadevi, that holy mountain, second only in holiness to Kailas, the abode of the Gods. Nandadevi which resisted every attempt to find a path from the Milam road to her feet for over fifty years, from the first attempt in 1883, right until Shipton and Tilman reached it in 1934. Two years later Tilman and Odell climbed the mountain for the first time. Tilman served with the Bengal Sappers in World War II.

The majestic peak of Goddess Nandadevi

The majestic peak of Goddess Nandadevi

In the fifties, an American mountaineer, Willi Unsoeld, awestruck at his first glimpse of the magnificient Goddess, had vowed to name his then yet unborn daughter after this most beautiful of mountains. He returned in 1976 with his daughter, Nandadevi Unsoeld, and the Goddess had taken her for her own. The last time in 1980, when the Sappers had attempted to climb the peak, the Goddess had denied them her blessings and they had returned safe but unsuccessful, thwarted from an altitude of 7600 metres. As that grand old mountaineer, Mr GK Sharma of the MES, told me, “we could not have defied the obvious signs of bad weather, since the Goddess, who is a manifestation of Shiva’s consort, Parvati, is not known to take kindly to defiance.” A couple of years after that, the paratroopers had climbed Nandadevi, but not a single summitter returned alive.

Nandadevi, is surrounded by a cohort of supplicants, the lesser peaks of Dunagiri, Changabang, Rishipatthar, Trisul, Nandaghunti, Nandakhat, Mrugthuni and Maiktoli, who form a more or less an impenetrable ring around her. Too many expeditions into the catchment of the Rishiganga, which arises from the bosom of Nandadevi peak, had ravaged the fragile ecology and as a result in 1988 the govt had declared Nandadevi off limits by making it a National Park with the mountain in the core zone and had also designated the area around the National Park as a Biosphere reserve. And so Nandadevi had been left severely alone for five years by mountaineer, forester and poacher alike. It was obvious to the team right from the beginning that success would depend greatly upon luck, as you may call it, or the Goddess’ blessings as we called it. We hoped she would give her blessings since we were not only climbing, but also carrying out a complete ecological study and also cleaning all the trash left by previous expeditions. Yours truly was put in charge of the wildlife and ecologicy guys, but that’s another story.

Nandadevi is served by only one entry point – a high altitude track leading from the bugyals of Lata Khadak and Belta Khadak, on the outer slope of the watershed in the west, across a precarious track to the Dharansi pass and to the first campsite – a picturesque vale called Dibrughetta. A pioneering effort to enter the sanctuary by Capt Vivek Gupta, found the Dharansi pass was snowbound and impenetrable in late April forcing Maj VK Bhatt, our expedition leader, to enter the sanctuary through the Rishiganga gorge; we would need to cross the Rishiganga five times before we hit the traditional beaten trail at Dibrughetta.

After much wangling and a lot of luck, the expedition got the vitally important clearance required from the State Govt and the team moved from, where it had arranged its administrative loads and rendezvoused at the Bengal Sappers Centre at Roorkee. After much feting by the Bengal Sappers, the team moved off to Joshimath, in time for the traditional opening of the Badrinath road and the blessings of that deity were obtained by all. Daily training treks now began to Auli to toughen the members who received as a daily reward the ‘darshan’ of the mountain from the ski slopes of that famous winter resort.

In the last week of April, the team staged forward to Lata village, for all practical purposes, the gateway to Nandadevi. Lata village stands poised on the western slope above the Malari road on the western slope. The track to the high altitude bugyals of Lata and Belta Khadak begins here. Very importantly, the temple of Lata village is consecrated to the goddess Nandadevi herself, so the team came here first of all to propitiate the Goddess. The prayers were accompanied by vows of abstinence by the complete team of liquor and cigarettes. The entire team felt that it was on a pilgrimage to pay homage to the this holy devisthan. We prayed that the Goddess had accepted our offerings. Since the roadhead was Lata, a couple of jawans remained there throughout the expedition as a radiolink. More about them later.

The expedition began on 01 May 93 with a stiff march up the Rishiganga along steep pine slopes of the Raunthi forest on the southern bank. On the morning of our third day, we had our first river crossing. A few logs felled zig zag across the river between rockfalls in the stream bed, with a single horizontal rope for help in balancing, was all the support one got to cross the river. Balancing precariously the team began to cross carefully. At mid-morning however, a porter carrying a gas cylinder, slipped and fell into the torrent. The body could not be recovered. Naturally, a grim mood settled on the team. While writing the sitrep, Maj Bhatt asked the porter’s mate as to what name this crossing place was known by. He replied ‘Kalikona’ (Corner of Goddess Kali).

There was pin drop silence as both the expeditioon members and the villager porters realised that no propitiation had been done before crossing at that spot to Goddess Kali who signifies the destructive aspects of Shakti. This was invariably the practice in the past, but since the sanctuary had been closed so many years hence, even the porters who belonged to that area had forgotten about it! It looked as if the Goddess Kali had taken a ‘jivdaan’ herself when it appeared that she had been forgotten. The performing of the puja accompanied by a ritual sacrifice of a goat lifted everybody’s spirits and returned the previous vigour and enthusiasm to all concerned. And true to reputation, this and all subsequent river crossings were attempted successfully without untoward incident. Coincidence or divine intervention – this was the first manifestation of the supernatural.

As one penetrated deeper into the sanctuary, the landscape and mountain light took on a unreal clarity and brightness. The air was fresher, the breeze colder, the morning sunlight sparkled off the dew drops and glistening streams bubbled between rocks. As we climbed higher – the vegetation changed. Oak and deodhar forests were replaced by stands of pine and birch and later by hedges of dwarf rhododendron and finally by large meadows of wild flowers. Ghorals, which populated the cliffs above the Rishiganga, were replaced first by musk deer at Dibrughetta and the next few marches and then by Bharal or Blue Sheep above the tree line. The ravens at the roadhead vanished and that ubiquitous companion of high altitude, the yellow-billed chough made its presence felt. On the alpine meadow of Sarson Patal, rare snow apollo butterflies flew amongst the myriad wild flowers. Everywhere old skulls of bharal interspersed with dried scats spoke of the mysterious and elusive snow leopard.

Reaching Sarson Patal requires two days of stiff climbing. The first day, we ascended Swarg Sidi (Ladder to Heaven), a razor-thin path skirting steep cliffs over deep gorges which had just enough space to place your boot and where fixed rope and pitons had to be placed for us to climb. This lethal path is one of the most dangerous spots in the Himalayas. However, we felt the Goddess’ favour on a number of occasions. No matter how carefully you traverse, a slip on rubble or overbalancing while crossing a bush protruding from the rock-face may become a headlong descent into a turbulent river deep below. Yet each time, there was a timely hand of support or jerk of the rope or an icepick extended in anticipation and our large column of mountaineers and porters climbed the stairway to heaven safely. I was myself saved on more than one such occasion. The second day we stepped around a veritable devil’s maze of sharp rocks and chasms, as we crossed Patal Khan, the mine of slate. Again, we negotiated this obstacle with supreme confidence and more importantly without injuries. None of us could deny that divine favour shone upon us.

The base camp was reached and camps established smoothly. The establishment of camps and upward ascent began smoothly and on 13 Jun at 0320 hrs, the summit team, comprising Maj Amin Naik, Capt Anand Swaroop and Mr GK Sharma, was poised at Camp IV for the attempt on the summit. The Goddess gave the team one shot at success and they set off at and climbed the peak at 1710 hrs. Maj (now Maj Gen) Amin Naik recalls, ”When we reached the top, it was completely white bound. We could not see the mountains all around us. We planted the flag, thanked the Goddess, took photographs and immediately began our descent back while the weather was good. We reached back only at 2330 hrs!”

The Goddess had favoured them en route – Amin Naik had a very close call when he slipped just short of the summit but could miraculously recover on his own. On the return back, the Goddess allowed the exhausted climbers to reach back safely – a privilege she had denied the Paras in 1982.

The summit team had sent a success signal at around 1730h on the short range radio set to base camp. Base Camp in turn relayed this wonderful news to the ecological team who were at Ramani to relay it to Lata and then onto Joshimath and New Delhi. By the time, the radio message could be passed to me at Ramani through the crackle of the ether, it was dark and around 1845. After much trouble I could get through to the Lata radio detachment. On getting through, they immediately congratulated me profusely, which came as a surprise to me, but I assumed that somehow the message must have got through. Almost immediately the fog came down and our communications also snapped. I put the matter outside my mind.

The very next day the monsoon broke and since we had already climbed the mountain and finished our ecological studies, the leader called off the expedition. Since the Rishiganga was now a monstrous torrent which could not be negotiated under any circumstances, we returned via the traditional Dharansi route which was now clear of snow. On the 21st, the expedition marched into Lata and camped down at the confluence of Rishiganga and Dhauligangs on a flat bank below Rini village for rest and celebrations. The main celebration was a tremendous campfire dinner with the porters and villagers of Lata and Rini. The villagers sang Garhwali folk songs and the school children danced their traditional dance to the Goddess! I still remember them saying ,”Nandadevi <something something>, godi mein Lata Reni”.

We plied the villagers with rum while they plied us with their traditional rice-beer and rice-wine. I found myself standing next to the signal NCO who was in charge of Lata village. I remembered and asked him – how come he had come to know of the success of the exhibition before I told him.

He said ”Sahab, we were sitting in the temple courtyard that afternoon and around 5 O’clock, all at once, the bells began ringing. Since there was no one inside the temple, we were amazed. The villagers started jumping around with joy saying ‘Nandadevi Mataji ne darshan diya’. We then climbed the ridge and looked at the mountain. It was stormy, with thunder and lightning all around, as if the mountain itself was celebrating! We realised that this must be the case and hardly had I got back when your call came through!” The village patwari of Lata hastened to corroborate these events.

Divine providence? I like to think so. The Goddess had shown her favour to the team who returned safe and sound having achieved all their objectives and bringing back over a thousand kgs of garbage from the mountain.


  • Image of Nandadevi – author Anirban C8. Used under Creative Commons Sharealike 3.0. See Wikimedia Commons Sourcepage
  • MES – military Engineering Service, the parent organisation of Mr GK Sharma.
  • darshan – audience, as that given by a religious head to his congregation.
  • bugyal – high altitude meadow.
  • sitrep – situation report.
  • jivdaan – ritual sacrifice of a living creature.
  • puja – religious worship ceremony.
  • Deodhar – Himalayan Cedar (Cedrus deodara)
  • ghoral – Himalayan Ghoral (Naemorhedus goral), a goat-antelope.
  • bharal – Blue Sheep (Pseudois nayaur)
  • patwari – village headman.

Don’t forget to read – Sarson Patal.

Dark Clouded Yellows amongst the Rhododendrons

7 May 2007

Singba rhododendron sanctuaryLachung is characterised by the high mountains with snow covered slopes bordering both sides of this beautiful Himalayan valley. The snowclad summits give way to dwarf junipers, to bubbling streams amongst rockfalls, large snowbanks where the steepness ends and finally onto Rhododendron covered valleysides. The sun shines crisply, there is a brisk cold breeze and wild flowers of various kinds abound with alpine butterflies.

As you climb up from Lachung town, after three kilometers you come across the Dombang Mod. If you choose to accept this alluring invitation, you follow a winding path amongst large conifers and huge boulders on which are to be found ‘rock gardens’ and which ends in a miniature paradise. We turned resolutely from the inviting detour towards the main road for we were after the Big Fisshh…the Singba Rhododendron Sanctuary. My father-in-law Mr Nandan Kalbag, is a plant person – he loves plants, studies them, both wild and domesticated, and they reward him for his attention and affection with a living. And this is why I have chosen Lachung for our holiday – his first meeting with Rhododendrons.

Singbasanctuary gateYou dont need to carry maps to reach Singba. The road from Lachung goes straight through. After Singba, it leads to the hotsprings, and then to the alpine meadow of Yumthang and terminates in a series of hair-pin bends at Shiv Mandir. Ahead of this, the status of the road is uncertain. There is a kutcha track which leads to the border outposts of the ITBP under the shadow of the majestic Paunhunri massif. Ahead of this is the Chumbi valley, which is part of Tibet and China.

Rhodo 00An arch across the road indicates that you have reached the Singba Rhodo sanctuary. An inviting notice finds you stopping the vehicle to know more about the sanctuary, but sadly, it is the usual govt bureaucratese…Singba is a boulder ridden slope punctuated by wide fastflowing streams. In between the rocks are interspersed the Rhododendrons.

Rhododendrons come in glorious variety. At first glance, you notice nothing but the flower bunches which adorn the bushes and trees. The rich red colour seems to directly nourish the soul and it is difficult to draw your eyes away. After feasting awhile on this sight, you now begin to notice that amidst the red swathes, are  bunches of white, pink, mauve, yellow and purple flowers. You realise that the Rhodos are everywhere – trees, bushes, shrubs and herbs, all with oval dark green leaves of various shapes and size. The trees are well spaced apart, about fifteen feet high at the most. Sunshine and cool breeze wafts through.

Primula with DCY 1We wander around, Papa looking at the flowers, Aashay and Aditi are thrilled at the snow banks which have come onto the road, and they begin throwing snowballs. Amita and Amma lounge by the Gypsy, content to drink in the sights and watch the antics of the children. I wander around to look at the butterflies.

primula with DCY2Between the rhodos, small patches of moss-covered earth harbour rosettes of green leaves from which arise pale-green stalks tipped with beautiful purple globes of Primula denticulata. Here, these are the only flowers to be seen, asides from the reds. Butterflies zoom between them, sometimes basking on a rock or bough or sometimes sipping from these beautiful primulas. There are tortoiseshells, blues which never let me get close and an occassional large cabbage white. And the stars of this place – the Dark Clouded Yellows Colias croceus. You see them first as deep rich patches of yellow which flit from bloom to bloom.

DCY angledThe clouded yellows perch on the primula, show their open wings for awhile, and then fold them. They are wary, do not allow me close, and they are restless, the cold breeze causing them to relocate frequently. They have the quaint habit of high altitude butterflies of perching at an angle. You can see this in the third snap. I noticed this in Nandadevi with other butterflies – dark clouded yellows, tortoiseshells and snow apollos;  all of them did this – why? To get more sunlight? To avoid losing heat? To cater for the wind? It is one of those behavioural problems worthy of investigation.

During the time we were at Singba, the Primulas seemed to attract Dark Clouded Yellows only, the Tortoiseshells prefer to bask on rocks. The blues favoured thin small white flowers of an indistinct herb. The Rhododendrons seem to attract no butterflies at all! Singba is lovely, the Dark Clouded Yellows are lovely! But Pappa has photographed seven varieties of Rhododendron and we have to move on to Yumthang, if we are to be back in time to have lunch in Lachung.

The ubiquitous Tortoiseshell

24 April 2007


Once you cross an imaginary line in the Himalayas – generally the point at which the hot biodiverse foot-hills end and the cooler lower mountainsides appear, a curious thing happens. The hotpot and profusion of tropical butterflies begins to disappear and some other species which are never seen in the plains begin to appear. Not just appear but also to dominate. These are the lepifauna of the temperate zone of the Indian Himalayas. The variety is less, but the butterflies stand out amidst the heavenly wild-flower, mountain peaked and glacial streamed countryside. God’s own country indeed. The three commonest butterflies that I came across in this North Sikkim trip were the Indian Tortoiseshell, the Dark Clouded Yellow and the Indian Cabbage White.In this blog, I shall be rambling about the Indian Tortoiseshell or Aglais cachmiriensis aesis (Kollar, 1844)(Family Nymphalidae).

Kalimpong Officers InstituteMy reacquaintance with Indian Tortoiseshells began on 16 Apr 07 in the Kalimpong Officers Institute, a hundred year old wooden building with an old British style garden – large trees, large lawns, lots of flower beds with profusion of blooms punctuated by very interesting bushes. The first butterfly I saw was a beautiful Painted Lady basking on the lawn – a bit faded from age with ragged wings, but still beautiful in her prime. As I eased up to capture her on camera, she was buzzed by a dark brown fast moving form. Startled, I looked up and found my very old friend – The Indian Tortoiseshell. With a chequered pattern and yellow, red, black and brown, it is quite striking to look at. That evening, there was a host of Tortoiseshells in the garden flitting in the warm sun and despite the stiff breeze in most of the exposed lawns. The breeze did not deter them at all and they zoomed around till sundown, defending their turf vigourously against all other butterflies.

The foodplant of the Tortoiseshell is the Stinging Nettle or Bichhoo booti (Urtica dioica Linnaeus) which is common between 1000 mtrs to 2500 mtrs in the Himalayas. I found stinging nettles at places all along the way to North Sikkim, very common in Chungthang and in the Lachung valley till around 9,000 ft. The nettles are found in profusion as rank undergrowth in the seamier parts of hill towns and also occassionally interspresed in the hedgerows along the road.

Beyond Lachung the vegetation changed and we had moss-covered conifers, rhododendrons of all sizes and colours and beautiful globed purple primulas; yet the Tortoiseshell remained ever-present right upto Shiv Mandir (approx ht 13,000 ft) and also along the Chhaten valley just short of Thhanggu (approx ht 14,000 ft). Beyond that strong prevailing winds really reduce the biodiversity to some lichens, dwarf junipers, snow pigeons and the yellow-billed and red-billed choughs. Unfortunately, there are no high altitude meadows a la Garhwal next to the road where we could see the very special Parnassius or Snow Apollos.

In 1993, when I had been to Nandadevi, I had seen ‘Torties’, as we referred to them, right upto Base Camp (16,000 ft) where they seemed perfectly at home in the glacial moraine, muddy ice and deadly cold ponds. One climber recorded a Torty at Camp II about 19,000 ft, but this is obviously a stray. Now here is something interesting – Torties, as per Haribal occur from 900 mtrs to 4,800 mtrs. Obviously, they feed on more than one hostplant – possibly high altitude Torties are feeding on a related spp of Nettle, Urtica hyperborea Jacquem ex Wedd, ( as per Polunin and Stainton recorded between 4100 and 5100 mtrs on stony high altitude steppes). Are they feeding on some other host plant too, in the middle elevations or are they locally migrating to higher altitudes? They were very common where their hostplants were absent!

Throughout my trip the Tortoiseshells were there in the high altitudes – a comfortable and reassuring motif in North Sikkim, that land of avalanches, flash floods, glacial lake bursts, lightning and snowstorms – a very scenic but potentially deadly terrain.