Early British travellers to the Garhwal were invariably government officials out on a tour after the Gorka War or intrepid soldiers exploring the rugged mountains. This anthology brings together writings by men like Pahari Wilson, the English freebooter who married and settled down with a local girl, and Jim Corbett, the shikari who stalked man—eating leopards and lived to tell the tale. Contemporaries like Ruskin Bond, the honorary Garhwali, and Bill Aitken carry on the tradition in a Homeric quest that is never really over, specially when the quest is an end in itself.
Born in Mussourie in 1948, Ganesh Saili’s love for Garhwal has taken him to the remote corners of this famed land of the Gods. For over three decades he has researched and trekked the high mountains while capturing in words and on film the all-defying beauty of these regions. Numerous periodicals, journals and books are a testimony of this love. Saili is settled in Mussourie, where he teaches English and American Literature at the local post-graduate college.
I was ten or eleven years old when Grandfather first took me on a walk through the hills of Garhwal. ‘Come!’ he said with a sigh, ‘an old bullock can only plough the lowest fields.’ Bereft of friends, he seemed intent on forgetting the past, while I was eager to absorb whatever there was to learn. With a battered Brownie camera slung proudly over my shoulder, I was to learn to load my first roll of film.
Those early pictures of our home in the village, smudged by the grubby thumbprints of loving hands, have faded. But time has been unable to erase the warm halo of nostalgia. Yes! Garhwal is a wonderful place, especially in the eyes of the young, and for minds filled to the brim with stories and tales. Here every little place, cave, rivulet or brook is, to this day, dedicated to some saint or ascetic for whom that place meant something special.
Father Time’s relentless scythe has taken care of all the rest. Even those pre-historic buses with their wheezing engines and shuddering windows are all gone, along with those sign plates, ‘Upper Class’ or ‘Lower Class’ (which were not put there for snobbery!). Of course, this was a very long time ago and today as I leaf through an old diary, a thin brahma-kamal wafts, ghost-like, to the floor. Flat as a tissue, brittle to the touch, it is like my memories—the only other survivor of that first journey with Grandfather.
‘Beautiful flowers, like some women, must suffer for their beauty’, he used to mutter, picking Himalayan wild flowers off precipitous slopes. Was it Grandmother he was thinking of? I do not know. I had heard he had lost her very early, during the Great Plague. He wouldn’t tell. With only a smile on his lips he would draw deeply on his portable hookah, finger his battered spectacles, sometimes toy with a nosegay clutched in my hands and nod. How much that nod meant to me! More than all the treasures of childhood. It was to plant in me a love for Garhwal. And the vale of Gods was to become home to me.
So when I set out this time looking for material for this book I had hoped to find treasure troves, but it was not to be—Rahul Sanskritayan, Kaka Sahib Kalelkar, Dr Govind Chatak, Shivanand and Vidyasagar Nautiyal, to name just a few, all wrote in Hindi but with no translations available of their works. I wonder who it was who said: ‘Poetry is what is lost in translation’?
I went all the way past Adi Badri to Gairsain (the home of the freedom-fighter Chander Singh Garhwali) and arrived in Ranikhet to meet Samar Bir, son of the illustrious Thakur Surbir Singh of the Tehri Durbar, in search of material for this book. But once again, it was not to be. His collection was available only in Prakrit!
I was back to square one. At Gangotri, I could not help but agree with an old timer as he hurled invectives at a cloud of dust churned up by a cavalcade of official vehicles, ‘There they go . . . back to the plains. You’re worried about a hill-state? You won’t even get a belch from the likes of them.’ Yes! VIP’s carry more charge than those ravenous clouds among the high mountains. In today’s world, we are often only too weighed down by the pomposity of people in power.
In my search for material on the first British arrivals in Garhwal, I found that the spring of 1789 had brought the famous artists, Thomas Daniell and his young nephew William Daniell, to Srinagar with an impressive escort of two British officers and a guard of fifty sepoys. They were the first Europeans to visit these cloud-enveloped mountains. Waves of nostalgia washed over them as they saw the familiar fir-trees, wormwood, wild cherries, yellow raspberries and even the assertive stinging nettle!
After a series of ‘down-to-the-river and up-the-opposite-hill’ they looked down at the expanse of a wide valley where on the banks of the Alaknanda River lay the town of Srinagar. Crowds of curious locals flocked to gaze at them. At dusk, with much ceremony, Raja Praduman Shah (mied 1785-1804) paid a visit. He was presented a watch and a pair of pistols while he gave the visitors three lovely birds, some musk and a yak’s tail.
What fascinated the Daniells was the Bridge of Ropes across the Ganga, jammed with people fleeing in panic with their pots and pans from the pursuing army of a neighbouring king. Of this bridge ‘240 feet in length and an ingenuous contrivance’ at least nine versions were sketched. However, not wanting to get involved in local feuds, they had to leave the place a few days later. And it was not till 1796 when another European set foot here, namely, Major-General Thomas Hardwicke, a zoologist and botanist, who made his appearance to collect plants in the north-western Himalayas.
In selecting my authors, I realized I would have to look for writings in English, so I went for readability. The most meticulous work remains that of E. T. Atkinson, published in 1882 as The Himalayan Districts. It is an index, a sort of ready- reckoner, and an encyclopedia on the region. How little we know about the man, that special breed of self-effacing civil servants typical of the Raj. All we have is two bulky tomes to judge him by.
G. R. C. William’s account of the crucial Battle of Nalapani which brought an end to the Gorkha occupation of Garhwal) is, to say the least, a most impartial one. It gives credit where due: to both the victor and the vanquished, who fought bravely. Initially, it was quite a mystery to me why the British troops stood stubbornly by and let themselves be slaughtered by the Gorkhas. Quite by chance, in another context, I found out that apparently, General Gillespie was quire a tippler and not too popular with his men. When he died, his body was preserved n alcohol for burial in the Meerut cemetery and a wag had commented, ‘Pickled in life and pickled in death too!’
The outcome of this single battle was to have far-reaching effects on Garhwal. The portions that lay to the vest of the Alaknanda were restored to the Raja, while the British retained lands to the east to create ‘British Garhwal’. In 1859, Sudershan Shah died without an heir and according to the terms of the treaty the state lapsed to the British, but in consideration of past services Bhowani Singh was allowed to succeed, with a sanad confirming his adoption.
I have included Lieutenant White’s account of his trip to the Himalayan region as it is one of the earliest impressions available. At Kharsalee, the last village on the way up to Yamnotri, there is a delightful description of crossing those angry mountain torrents by sangha. ‘These [sanghas] were rudimentary—just bare tree-trunks thrown across the waters’, complains Lieutenant ‘Vhite. ‘You’ve got to clamber [across] like monkeys where side-rails are considered superfluous.’ Later, once they arrived in Gangotri, they found the scene stupendous, and though he claims it ‘cannot be described by words’ he proceeds to try, with a barrage of adjectives spilling over several pages!
Then, there’s my guru, Ruskin Bond, the honorary Garhwali, who has single-handedly done more to promote the place, sort of put it on the map, as it were, than all those sponsored seminars. How has he managed to do this? Simple. By ploughing his lonely furrow through both good times and bad. He writes with sensitivity and love without just romanticizing. Here are a couple of lines from his poem ‘Garhwal Himalaya’.
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