Autumn is my favourite season here in the mountains. It has been so all my life, though I did always love the romance of the monsoons. (come to think of it, my favourite season seems to change with every season…anyway… for today this would do… :))
Monsoons brought a gentle pause to the conflicting pace of our small tourist town lives. After the hyper buzz of the summer, everything stopped; almost stopped. The tourist flow thinned down to a trickle. Spending time outdoors became limited to completing chores and drying bedding on the odd sunny day. We would get to spend more time together as a family and sometimes went on small holidays further into the mountains. It also bought respite from the invariable summer-paucity of water, and the springs and Naulas got replenished, ready to foster life for another year. The parched land looked alive again. The divine smell of wet earth seeped through everything.
But there is definitely something as too-much-of-a-good-thing when it comes to the rains. Towards the end of the monsoons, the clouds that would have inspired beautiful verses across time and cultures, would become drab and depressing. Everything went damp, and so went our spirits. We became fidgety about being able to move freely again. The music of raindrops on the tin roof lost its charm. The gentle pause that the monsoon brought would by now seem like the overstay of a guest who was invited for lunch and was welcome for tea but had already stayed well past dinner! And most importantly, we missed the sun. Every now and then, it would peek through the clouds for a few minutes as the shape shifting clouds played with the breeze, just to disappear again.
As days passed by the peek-a-boo through the clouds would become more frequent though. And soon, though not soon enough, it was autumn!
It was autumn, and it was only autumn, when the life-green cover of the neighbouring forests could be enjoyed with hikes and picnics, and the just-out-of-cloud-veil Himalayas could be stared at, eliciting deep sighs from famished mountain loving hearts. I remember the first time I saw Nanda Devi from Chaukori in late September on another one of our Himalayan escapades.
We were on a road trip of sorts through Kumaon in our Mahindra DI jeep. Not the most comfortable of vehicles, but dependable on all kinds of roads. We had driven to Jageshwar from Nainital and decided to carry on to Patal Bhuvaneshwar the next morning after a stopover at KMVN, Danya. The stopover was another interesting little side story. It was a sad state of affairs there, with damp rooms, and creaky beds. We would not have stayed there but for the fact that it was late evening and there were no other options. We settled down for the night anyway, but not before hunting through the village market at seven in the evening looking for a board game to pass the night. We scored a chessboard! That cheered us up, and distracted us enough for the next couple of hours to eventually fall asleep and wake up to a beautiful early autumn morning. When we requested for hot water the next morning, the care taker brought a contraption of a plastic bucket and an element from an electric heater or some such. Scary though it was, it worked! After a hurried bath and an excuse of a breakfast we planned a route to Patal Bhuvaneshwar through Ghat Panar, Rameshwar, and Gangolihat. It seemed there were two trips going on. Mum was happy that we were visiting all the temples and the rest of us were just enjoying being out there. I am not much of a temple going person but the advantage of temples in the hills is that they are invariably in the most scenic of spots, and these were no exceptions. And it was at Gangolihat that I was told for the first time that my favourite tree, the Deodar, is named so, as it is a guard-to-the Gods (Dev-Dar). (If you have seen a Deodar forest, you cant but help fall in love with it. There are only a few left as a lot of Deodar forests in Kumaon were exploited to lay the railway tracks in Northern India. There is a small forest near Jageshwar and another one around Gangolihat. The best of these are near Lohaghat and Champawat though. And if you ever travel that side, the place to stay is the Abbot Mount Cottage at Abbot Mount just outside of Lohaghat).
Back then, the road from Ghat to Gangolihat was being made and we were glad for the bring-it-on attitude of our army retired driver and the jeep. After a long rattling drive and stopovers at Rameshwar on the banks of Ramganga river as well as Gangolihat Kalika temple, we reached Patal Bhuvaneshwar in the afternoon. This is a fascinating place – the guides there will tell you that a visit there is equivalent to doing the Chaar Dhaam, as the cave tunnels are connected to all of them. In the various formations of the limestone caves, you will be shown snippets of our Hindu mythology and the whole Pantheon of Gods. The place also finds mention in Skand Puarana and was used by some of our spiritual gurus like Swami Vivekananda for meditation. To me it is a fascinating place independent of the myths and legends. To others it is a major Hindu shrine. It is a matter of faith, and best left at that.
We did not stay at Patal Bhuvaneshwar as we wanted to move on to Chaukori, about which we had heard such a lot. In another hour or so, we reached KMVN, Chaukori. The upkeep of the place was a pleasant surprise and we happily checked in. (Back then, it was the only place to stay and boasted of amazing views as well as comfortable rooms. Today, there are multiple options to stay there but it has lost its charm of a tiny village as it is surrounded by concrete structures everywhere you see.) We spent a pleasant evening in the gardens of the rest house and slept early after a much needed good, albeit simple, meal.
We woke up at dawn to the enthusiastic chattering of some guests in the gardens. Though the clouds covered the fabled view of the Himalayas from Chaukori, it did not dampen our spirits too much as the morning was crisp with just a hint of a soothing breeze that early autumn brings. A little later we had our morning tea in the garden. The breakfast was a tactfully chosen menu of bread toast and scrambled eggs with sweet tea. (Any place in the mountains will serve you this menu with decent taste and fresh ingredients; it is difficult to not get scrambled eggs right!). We had an unplanned day ahead and did not know where we would stop so we wanted to start early. We were mildly disappointed with missing out on the view and prayed hard for a miracle to happen. And what do you know – it did happen!
It must have been the high altitude and proximity to the Gods, or the lack of any interference in our message that the clouds relented, even though for just a few minutes. The sun came out and the cloud veil parted over Nanda Devi. It was a sight to behold! Seeing the two peaks for the first time that day, was the beginning of a life long love affair. I remember holding my breath for that first rendezvous. Even today, as I type this, I can smell the crisp mountain air, feel the gentle touch of the mild autumn morning sun, hear the silence that only the mountains can bring, see the humbling sight of the highest peak of the Indian Himalayas, and feel the elation in my heart with a tingling sensation all over. It was another beginning of my story of life in the mountains.
Years later, I would be drawn to this area, and find my little piece of heaven nearby, at Jhaltola. There, I would make a home where every window looks out at the mighty Nanda Devi. There, I would make a life that I would be able to share with my family, friends and guests who became friends and family over time.
It was meant to be. The universe works in simple ways – prodding us on to the path our soul seeks. This first rendezvous with Nanda Devi on a crisp early autumn morning was a gentle prod towards my soul path, and for that, I am ever grateful.