Off the beaten Trek!

Chapter 6

Good food is a very important ingredient in the making of really great ‘chhutti’. On such holidays, not only do we eat a loooot more than normal, but also end up eating a lot of stuff, that is not usually a part of our everyday diet. The samosas, pakodas, puris and parathas, bhaturas and the rolls, not to mention the meetha….gulab jamuns, jalebis, rabri and the halwas… talking of desserts One of the Kumaoni meethas that just cannot be missed is their version of the popular Mal-Pua, which is a part of our Kumaoni menu. It is also disturbuted as Prasad at Kainchi Dham on the Pratishtha Divas or Foundation Day every year on June 15th, where thousands of people queue up for it.

And the best way to digest all this and more, here in the mountains, they say, is to go for a trek…so go on….put on your hiking shoes and before you know it, a bit of movement and the clear mountain air will work wonders on your metabolism – leaving you hungry for more!!

So get ready! Steady! And lets’s go….Have you noticed the way the locals walk? How nimble and sure footed the locals are? Like mountain goats, how easily they are able to walk on and climb the sheer slopes here….if you observe them closely, you will notice that when they walk uphill, they lean a little to the front and lock their hands behind them. This gait helps to maintain balance, by keeping one’s feet straight below one’s centre of gravity. And as they say, in Rome, do as the Romans do, here….so likewise here in the pahads, we do as the pahadis do! If we don’t lean forward, and keep perpendicular to the slope, our feet would be in front of our center of gravity and we’d topple over to the back. In the same manner, when you go downhill, you have to lean backwards or you’d topple over to the front!! So let’s start here and now….

As you start walking up the ramp, do observe the roof of the main house. You may not be aware, but on this property, we have tried to be environment friendly, in many ways than one! Large double insulated glass windows and skylights let in huge amounts of natural light into the home making it look cheerful and at the same time passively heats the spaces, by retaining the warmth of the sun within. The hot water that you have been using is heated through a solar heater system, installed on top of the main house. The same solar heat that cooked your maggi in the solar cooker is captured through the apparatus on the roof and stored in the special cells. The energy stored in these – solar panels or batteries is then used to heat the water for the entire house.

And water we all know is a very precious resource – and more so in the hills. Totally dependent on the rain and the snowfall for water, there is a very elaborate system of rain water harvesting that is practiced on the property, so that we can provide running water at all times. However, the running water should not run short! So do abide by the simple ‘dos and don’ts’ so that while we consciously consume what we need, we don’t waste – we use but we don’t abuse. ‘Conscious Consumption’ need not be restricted to only water, and only in the hills, but can be applied to any resource that we use,  anywhere and everywhere, including electricity, vehicles, food….And the mention of food brings us back to our walk!!

So as you come out of the main gate and start your walk in the hillside, you could get off the beaten road and follow the villagers’ ancient footpaths, which meander among chir (pine), oak, kharso, kafal forests and terraced fields of potatoes, cabbages, peas and wheat. Do you know what these narrow old paths in the countryside are known as? These are called ‘pagdandis’ -pag meaning “foot” or “step” and dandi (literally “small stick”) meaning “line”.  Btw, did you know that in Nainital there is a road called the Thandi Sadak, which is a 1 km long pedestrian only road which is pleasant at all times as it is lined with a thick growth of Pine, Deodar and Oak trees that provides shade and keeps it Thanda at all times! Most people come there to get away from the hustle and bustle of Nainital to take a quiet stroll as you are doing here. As you wander along the forested hillside, you will notice that apart from the lovely fruit bearing tree that form a part of the natural flora and fauna of this region, the chief trees that dominate the hillside are the Chir(pine), Himalayan Cypress, Pindrow Fir, alder and saal. This would be an appropriate point to point out that recent studies show that disconnection with Nature is bad for our health. A new term ‘ physcoterratica’ was coined to describe this newly discovered malaise.

And luckily, the prescription for what ails us turns out to be a simple fix that is inexpensive and has no negative side effects. And as it turns out that all we need to do is just “rewild” regularly, spending time outside, especially among trees!

Thanks to the findings about the tonic of the wilderness, Forest bathing, one of humanity’s oldest pastimes, is now experiencing a sudden resurgence in popularity. Our forefathers one about the healing effects of trees and had intuitively understood that the woods do people good, while distance from nature makes us sick!

As you meander along the trails and climb the mountainside, reestablishing the broken connection with Nature, you are bound to get their good tidings…the crisp mountain breeze will blow their own freshness into you and the dappled sunshine will envelope you in a warm hug, the quiet peace will soak in to reach the very core, while the cares will fall off like autumn leaves…

And how can one leave out the Deodar trees?? The name derived from ‘devadaaru’ in sanskrit which translates as the “tree of the gods” – quite apt for the land of the gods to be forested by the tree of the gods, wouldn’t you say??!! Btw, for those who didn’t know, Deodar or the Himalayan Cedar, happens to be the national tree of Pakistan! It may be interesting to also know that, Ayurveda advises people suffering from asthma and other respiratory problems to sit under the deodar tree early in the morning. Due to the fact that it is easily available, and that it happens to be one of the strongest conifers which is insect and termite resistant and can, in its untreated avatar withstand long periods of weather erosion, it is not surprising that it is extensively used in hill construction.  While on the subject of tree, it may not be out of place to mention here, that the main house at Gagar, was actually built around the huge Walnut tree in the rear lawn. So if you happen to be staying in Room 5 – Quietude, and you get to hear funny little thuds on the tin roof followed by a grrrrrrating noise in dead of the night, don’t get spooked…..these are only the ripe walnuts that are falling from the tree and rolling off!

No walk in these hilly forests would be complete without talking about the wild life here… will be very interesting for you to know about a guest that came to the riverside a few years ago, who happened to be the owner of more than a dozen  pure bred dogs. And he became quite friendly over his visit. Impressed with the property, he said a place like this begs for a dog, and promised to gift one that suited the personality of the place. And sure enough, he lived up to his promise.

One fine December morning he called to say that the pup he had earmarked for the property was born on the 2nd, but was too early for it to be separated from its mother. He said he would call back in a couple of months once the pup was ready to leave the litter. But the timing of that call was a bit awry! On one such journey, enroute to Delhi, while crossing Rudrapur, the gentleman called again! He said the pup was 8 weeks old, and as luck would have it, was in Rudrapur itself!! And insisted that the pup be picked up – and so picked up he was, but on the wrong side of the journey! So instead of heading to the riverside, Theo, as the pup is now known, was collected and headed Delhi wards – never to return to where he was originally destined to live! A twist of fate and a few years later, the pup is now a full grown handsome gentle giant of an English mastiff.  But he seldom visits the riverside and thankfully so! And do you know why?

Because, the hilly forests of Kumaon are home to some big cats! And you know what good friend’s dogs and cats are – don’t you? And here we are not talking about just any cat – but the big wild ones that prowl in the wilderness, better known here as the Tendua – or the Bagh!! Grrrrrrr…….now you understand! On Theo’s first visit to the riverside, the staff warned us, “Isko sham ke baad bahar bilkul nehi chhorna. Iski khushboo se Tendua aa sakta hain” – a warning that was heeded with great care. And Theo would take his last walk about before sundown, guarded by a couple of locals, after which he would retire indoors to spend the rest of the evening with his family – safe and sound!

And because it rains ‘cats and dogs’ here in the monsoon, and snows in the winters, the forests in this area regenerate to offer excellent cover both for the tenduas and their natural prey, namely, spotted deer, which again have been spotted at the riverside.

When the locals fear the presence of a Tendua in the vicinity, too close to their own habitation, they get together to scare it away by drumming  the 16 litre oil ‘pipas’   rather than violating any Wildlife Protection laws which in this area, attracts stiff penalty. Ironically, while the Tendua is feared, the villagers also realise that their presence deters the infestation by wild boars which damage the potato crop, for which this region is famous. The villagers realised that wild boars had multiplied manifold as their main hunter, the big cat, dwindled due to their own vengeance and the greed of wily poachers. The locals understand that Nature is innately balanced, and to keep it so is essential. And to maintain this animal to animal and man to animal balance is our prime responsibility.

But, yes, in the meanwhile, we will keep Theo safe, whenever he happens to visit his holiday home in the woods! Hope the story about the tenduas has not freaked you out and you have not already cut short your trek in the hilly woodlands!!!

While you roam the countryside and try and identify the trees mentioned above, it is important to know that this is the land of the Chipko Movement too! Have you ever heard of the Chipko Movement?

Just a little before we were pondering about this inbuilt harmony in nature …simply put it means that everything in nature is in just the right measure and proportion to enable the cycle of life to continue and move on effortlessly. And this balance is maintained by the auto correct mode also built into the functioning of nature. The right number of wild boars is maintained by the right number of tenduas, so on and forth, to keep everything in balance as it should be. Just like there is an animal to animal balance, there is an animal to man balance, running on the same principles as well. And the stage is set for Life to roll on idyllically. But the drama cannot unfold without the villain, so greed and ignorance make their grand entry into the minds of humans….and wreaks havoc and throws harmony to the winds.

Disharmony is a situation where, too little of one thing means too much of the other, and this imbalance creates problems, for which the ultimate sufferer are none other than the human beings themselves i.e.  Over hunting of the tenduas in the name of self-preservation and poaching means a manifold increase in the numbers of the wild boar, which in turn leads to the problem of crop spoilage. And who is eventually affected by the damage? Humans of course!!  So those who caused the problem in the first place are the ones who pay the price for it eventually! Nature is very fair and just in its dealings! And funnily enough, this formula can be applied to almost any sphere of environment. Too many trees being cut down on the hillsides for timber, means too little roots left under the terrain to hold the soil in place, creates the problem of landslides – and no prizes for guessing who get hurt in the bargain….

Human nature fuelled by self-interest and greed is such that it knows no moderation. It does and then over does anything and everything, not knowing where to draw the line or when to stop, till a crisis is reached. Humans are masters at first creating a problem and then go looking for solutions….sounds a bit like the old Kumaoni adage we spoke of earlier… (आग लगै पाणि दौणन्) – trouble makers turn trouble shooters!!

And it was the Kumaonis who saved the day and the trees! and not just any Kumaoni, but it was the women who rose to the occasion.   Wise enough to know that the ‘Forests are for them’, and how their very existence rested on the existence of the forests, they knew that now it was now time for them to stand up for the forests! This consciousness gave rise to the non-violent Chipko Movement, aimed at protection and conservation of trees and forests. Inspired by the Gandhian philosophy of peaceful resistance, the villagers would ‘chipko’ to or in other words hug the trees and protect them from being felled.

It would be interesting for you to know that, a landmark event in this struggle took place on March 26, 1974, when a group of women in Reni village, formed a ring around the trees, hugging them to prevent the trees from being cut down and reclaimed their traditional forest rights that were being threatened.

At this juncture, one cannot help but be reminded of a phrase that seems just right for here…Let her sleep, for when she wakes up, she will move mountains – words that acknowledge the dormant power of the womenfolk. For reasons wrong and unfair, patriarchal societies has always dominated over their better halves….to make them the lesser ones. And vested interest have remained vested in keeping the balance of power so…..Knowing very well that the day this ‘woman’ wakes up, she will be a powerful force to reckon with.  Just as we ordinarily wake up, when the light enters, so will she when the light of knowledge shines upon her…and then there will be no boundaries to what She can achieve….mountains will then, truly be moved! Though the process has started, it still has a long way to go….before She rises to claim her sacred rightful self….So beti padhao, beti jagao….not just in the family, but beyond too….maybe the ancients, recognised the true potential of the She – energy, and that’s why most, if not all ancient civilisations honoured and celebrated the original She-ro – the eternal Mother Goddess…who is especially revered in her multiple forms up here in the mountains. And how epic it would be if the same respect and reverence shown to the Devi, would overflow the temples and touch the lives of their mortal counterparts…

Because what the women of Reni did was no less epic…maybe unlettered and unread, but their awareness was so strong, that their actions inspired hundreds and thousands fellow peasants at the grassroots level throughout the region. And maybe that is the reason why we are still fortunate enough to be roaming these hillsides that are so green with tree cover. Maybe the trees are also silently saluting and rustling a word of thanks to these feisty women of the mountains…

कोमलता जितनी अंग अंग, रग रग में छाई,

उतनिही मज़बूती उसने अपने हिस्से में पाई

जिसकी अटूट भक्ति…

की डोर में ही समाई

है उसकी सारी शक्ति

धैर्य से भीतर धड़कती….

रोके, तो भी वह न रूके,

आज़मॉ ले…

कोई भी लाल या उसहि की माई!

रंग ला रहा,


बदल रहा है मोहर लगा रहा है

पन्नों पर लिख रहा है, वक़्त ही

उसका नाम, लेकर उसहि की स्याही!


Times are certainly changing….Some things are certainly changing….But some stay timeless….like these beautiful pines….

Did you manage to identify the tall pine tree?  Close your eyes and take a deep breath – and you will smell the freshness of the pine trees. But have you ever wondered why city dwellers like us long for this kind of fresh air? Simple! Because we don’t get it where we live! You can apply the same formula of balance or rather imbalance here too….back in the cities, too much pollution means too little fresh crisp air (like in the hills here) creates all kinds of respiratory illnesses and allergies…and who suffers because of it? We! Who else? Wouldn’t it be cool if only we could bottle it up and carry it home with us! And take a whiff or two out of it and transport ourselves here whenever we ‘Pine’ for the crisp mountain air!!

In the absence of clean air in the cities, a poor substitute being prescribed is an air purifier…however, these bring down the levels of suspended particulate matter, but what about the carbon dioxide that still remains – the levels of which keep increasing in a closed room? Ever thought about that?? You see, this is not a problem peculiar to just us….in fact NASA had a very similar problem on their hands when it came to long-period manned space missions. They needed an efficient, lasting source of clean air to keep astronauts alive and thriving during extended interstellar travel. Not to mention that tons of research with lots of top organisations went into finding a viable solution for this problem….and what they came up with after all this effort was amazing! What they discovered is that a few common houseplants, and one in particular—Mother-in-Law’s Tongue (botanical name: Sansevieria trifasciata)—did the job wonderfully….Taking a cue from NASA’s findings, a CEO of a Delhi based software company worked with Indian Institute of Technology and The Energy and Resources Institute and discovered two more air purifying plants that formed a ‘holy trinity’ of clean air. In addition to Sansevieria trifasciata, they discovered that the Areca palm and the superstitiously named money plant, a long wandering vine, also produced copious amounts of clean air while simultaneously removing toxins. Such a simple solution!  What could be better than to bring in plants that thrive indoors, to work in tandem with the purifiers? Genius! Genius of discovery – something existential that was brought to light by years of patient research and study!

But what to say about the Genius, that put the stuff there in the first place, for it to be unearthed and understood?? Just observe the shape of the pine tree itself. Nature is at work in all its genius! Just like it gifted the swallows with the skill of flying in and out of their homes, Nature has designed the trees of these mountainous trees in such a way that they can survive the cold hard winters. How? Let’s see:

If you step back and look at those trees geometrically, you might notice that, like all those Christmas trees you’ve drawn on homemade cards, the wide base and narrow top forms a triangle. When you see that triangle from multiple sides on a real tree, you realize it’s shaped like a pyramid! In these snowy areas, trees with traditional oval or circular tops would have a hard time surviving. The heavy, wet snow would collect in their upper branches and cause them to break off, damaging and possibly killing the tree. Evergreens, on the other hand, have narrow tops that help prevent heavy snow from building up.

Now if you see closely, you will notice that their leaves are like needles. Instead of flat leaves, pine trees have needles. These needles are the key to the winter survival of the pine trees. Needles cut evaporation so trees can save water so dear in the winter months moreover, the needles have a thick, waxy coating that retains more water than a regular leaf. Experts believe the unique pyramid shape of these trees is an adaptation that has evolved over thousands and thousands of years.

At this juncture, as you trek back, towards the end of the day, one cannot help but mention a couple of lines, written by the author of Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling, in ode to the Himalyan hills… “the last puff of the day-wind brought from the unseen villages the scent of damp wood-smoke, hot cakes, dripping under growth, and ….. pine cones. That is the true smell of the Himalyas, and if once creeps into the blood of a man, that man will at last, forgetting all else, return to the hills…..” Wonder if you got the whiff…??? And wonder more, if it will creep into you…??? Wonder as you wander along!

And as you do, do pick up a pine cone or two that you will find strewn on the ground….for something later!