The Arms of the Lord

Each time I travel to Garhwal, I feel as if I have come home, and that my life has lightened in some way. I guess it is a common feeling. The Himalaya has always attracted people seeking to redeem themselves. It started with the mythical Pandavas who went to Garhwal to cleanse themselves of the sin of the war with their cousins. The region is full of legends of their travels. Every rock, stream, and mountain seems to have some link with the great epics.

One such beautiful story has the Pandavas looking for Shiva to worship him. When they found him, that reclusive god turned into a buffalo, and hid himself among a herd of cattle. To catch him, the brothers then stood Bhima astride a valley, and drove the animals towards the gap. Refusing to stoop beneath Bhima's feet, the buffalo Shiva dug himself into the earth to escape, provoking the Pandavas to pull him by the tail. In the melee that ensued, Shiva's body stuck out of the earth at five places in Garhwal, which became the sites of the Panch Kedar temples. The buffalo's hind quarters emerged in Kedarnath, the most famous of the five shrines. The god's face appeared in Rudranath, his navel in Madhya Maheshwar, and his hair in Kalpeshwar. The highest of the five temples, Tungnath, is where the arms of Shiva surfaced.

A sultry town

The taxi from Haridwar to Srinagar in Garhwal is a ramshackle Ambassador, driven by an elderly man leaning forward to peer at the road. Srinagar is a sultry place. We are in the last week of June, and the monsoon has been early and intense in Garhwal. It had rained heavily two days ago, but now the weather is muggy. The GMVN hotel seems better appointed than it was when I stayed there six years ago. In the night, the restaurant in the hotel is full of pilgrims who have stopped in the town on their way to one of the Char Dham temples, or to the gurudwara at Hemkund.

The next morning, I found another taxi to take us from Srinagar to Sari, a fairly large village off the main pilgrim route from Kedarnath to Badrinath. We wanted to go to Devriya Tal, a lake high in the mountains above Sari. The taxi was a sturdy Tata Sumo, and its driver, Jai Singh, a smart man in his early thirties. As the road climbed into the mountains, he loosened up and started talking about himself. He had worked for several years as a lorry driver at a construction company in Pune. His salary there was better than what he earned now, but most of it went into the costs of living in a big city. So, he returned home a few years ago, and got a job driving this taxi. He is happier here near his family than he was in Pune. The elder of his two small daughters goes to school in Srinagar.

Srinagar was the old capital of Garhwal, and an important place in the history of Uttarakhand. Though other cities like Dehradun have since become more prominent, it is still a considerable town. The Garhwal University has its main campus in Srinagar. There are other colleges in the town, an industrial training institute, and several schools. There is a reasonable hospital at the government medical college. With all these facilities, the town has become attractive to middle-class home-buyers. Jai Singh said that land prices have shot up as a result, and that it has become difficult to buy any land near the town. As the town spread outward, land prices in Rudraprayag, 35 kilometres from Srinagar up the Alaknanda river, also have started rising.

I asked Jai Singh about the changes in the region during the years that he was away from home. He laughed, and said it was too much to explain. Still, a couple of things did stand out. Most people he knew have stopped farming their land. The work is too hard, and the returns too meagre to provide against the rising costs. Easier money in the plains is an attractive alternative to the unequal struggle of tilling the terraced fields in the mountains. With the exposure to city life, and to the increasing numbers of tourists and pilgrims from the plains, there has been a change, he said, in the food habits of the local people. Many young people now prefer noodles and other fast food to the traditional rice, roti, and dal that he likes.


Our route from Srinagar to Sari passes through Rudraprayag, and then follows the highway to Kedarnath until a place called Kund. We turn here onto a highway from Kedarnath to Badrinath, drive through the ancient temple town of Ukimath, and reach the small village of Tala. At Tala, we take a side road which ends at Sari.

We reached Sari in the afternoon. Some kind friends of mine had arranged for our visit there, and we were met by relations of Kunwar Singh Negi, a businessman of the village who owns small hotels at Devriya Tal, a lake high above Sari, and at Chopta, a pilgrim halt along the highway from Gaurikund to Chamoli. These two men would accompany us to the hotel in Devriya Tal, and cook our meals there.

I walked around Sari while waiting for lunch at a small dhaba run by a bustling old man. The road stopped at the edge of the village. There were a few cars which had brought some pilgrims adventurous enough for a day trip to Devriya Tal on their way from Kedarnath to Badrinath. A lorry with construction materials stood beyond the cars, and seemed to have been parked there for several days. The sky had turned cloudy, and it was pleasant in the mellow light to look at the green fields below the village, and at the children playing near them.

The overcast weather became rain soon after we set out along the trail from Sari to Devriya Tal. There was a graceful temple of black stone for Shiva next to the path. The loudspeaker on the temple's tower bespoke noisy mornings. As we walked up through the drizzle, we met the pilgrim party returning from the lake. The young girls looked uncomfortable coming down the steep path in fashionable canvas shoes, which were perhaps too tight for their feet. The men in the group were boisterous, and set a healthy pace. One of them slipped while trying to take a shortcut, slid several feet down the muddy slope, and picked himself up, unhurt but embarrassed.

It was an easy walk of just two kilometres from Sari to Devriya Tal, and the trail was well made. A rainbow spanned the valley below a resting place along the route. The elder of the men carrying our luggage, Jagmohan Singh Negi, was middle aged but well built. He suggested that we take the younger person, his cousin, as a porter when we went to Tungnath. They weren't put out when I told them that it'd be inconvenient because we were spending a day at another place before going to Tungnath.

Reflection lake

Devriya Tal is at an altitude of about 8000 feet, in the mountains above the village of Sari. In recent years, the lake has become popular with tourists, who found that in clear weather there were good views of the Chaukhambha massif from there. Pictures of the mountain reflected in the water have fuelled the interest, and some people now go to the Tal expressly to see the phenomenon. Capitalising on this trend, a few villagers from Sari have started a small hotel and put up a few tents next to the lake to house the visitors.

It started raining as we neared Devriya Tal. The lake itself was not visible from the hotel, but a short path from the hotel, past a small dhaba, led down to it. The rain stopped soon, but it was followed by a mist, which obscured the sunset entirely, as it did the fabled reflection of the Chaukhambha. The path continued around the lake, and it was partly covered by a thick canopy of trees. A view point stood on high ground next to the path. There were a couple of other visitors, who were staying in one of the tents near the lake.

The rain resumed later in the evening, and kept on through the night. Hoping for a good view at sunrise, I woke at four in the morning, but hearing the sound of the rain returned to sleep. The rain stopped after an hour, and I went to look at the lake again. The weather was still too cloudy for the reflection of the Chaukhambha, yet it was nice to walk around in the drizzle and the mist around the lake. The constant rain had rotted the fallen leaves on the trail, making the soil even more fertile than usual. There was a profusion of ferns on the forest floor, and a sense of regeneration all around. It was the end of June, and several early summer flowers had appeared in the grass around the water, prominent among them the potentilla that is ubiquitous at this time in the mountains of Garhwal.

Hira Singh Negi was the owner of one of the dhabas next to the lake. Although he had just woken up, he gave us tea and joined in with his young wife. He lived in the hut through the year, but his wife went down to Sari when the winter set in. He said that many animals came to the lake in the cold months, with no one to disturb them. Hira Singh seemed a colourful character, and told tall stories about the wildlife and the potency of the medicinal herbs near the lake. He knew that his name had appeared in several accounts of Devriya Tal on the Web, and drew lines on an imaginary page in the air as he described them.

Later in the morning, on the way down from Devriya Tal to Sari, the weather cleared a bit, and I could see villages perched on the slopes below. There was only one man in Sari who owned a taxi to take us to Dugalbitta. While waiting for him, I sat with Jagmohan Singh and his cousin for a last cup of tea in the small dhaba.

Magpies and buffaloes

The jeep from Sari takes the small road until Tala, retracing our route of two days ago, and then follows the state highway to Dugalbitta. We reach Dugalbitta too late for lunch. Mayadeep Herbal Resort is an imposing name for the rather basic lodge we are going to stay in. The caretaker initially seems unfriendly, but soon he and his colleague in the kitchen bring us tea and a snack.

The balcony on the first floor of the hotel looked out onto a bugyal opposite the building. A couple of gold-billed magpies hopped about near a buffalo and her calf that were enjoying a siesta next to the stream between the bugyal and the hotel. Dugalbitta, its neighbouring village Chopta, and their environs are well-known to bird-watchers. There was another stream above the hotel, cutting through the bugyal. When we went to walk there, a couple of Bhotia dogs guarding sheep nearby chased us back. The bugyal abounded with leeches in the monsoon.

In the evening, I ran into Dinesh at one of the small dhabas on the road. He worked for a friend of mine, and had helped us find a room at the hotel near Devriya Tal. He now took us to Magpie Camp, a resort down the road to Tala. It was a nice place with comfortable tents next to a bugyal. Dinesh told us that there was a nice view of the mountains from there, and that the approach road to the camp was left raw to stop cars from entering and polluting the place. The tents were empty because a large group had just left the hotel, and the friendly staff gave us one more cup of tea. It hadn't rained in the afternoon, and we sat outside the tents, looking at the bugyal opposite.

Back at Mayadeep, I found that a large group of pilgrims bound for Badrinath had taken over most of the other rooms. They were moving around noisily from one room to another. The caretaker said that he was ill, but he and the cook gave us a hot dinner in our room. Dugalbitta had electricity, but the power would go off at night, so we had to dine early.

The caretaker looked worn out the next morning too, complaining of a stomach-ache, and said that he would go down to Ukhimath to see a doctor later that day. When I went to the kitchen to get some tea, the cook was sprinkling salt on one of his feet to take out a leech. His feet were full of marks made by leeches. He agreed to take us to Chopta in his jeep after our morning tea. The drive was beautiful, passing several bugyals along its course. The dhaba-owner's young son also came along for the ride. One of the bugyals, the small boy said, was famous because several film parties had come to shoot there.


Chopta is a small village with a hotel and a few dhabas. A couple of Nepali porters offer to carry our luggage to Tungnath. The trail from Chopta to Tungnath is that luxury among Garhwali trails, a chey-footiya, a six-feet-wide path. It is well made, the incline is gradual, and the walk is easy and pleasant. Mist has covered most of the valley below as the trail climbs up. A troop of gray langurs watch us from a distance. There is a small dhaba in a bugyal half-way along the trail, and when we stop there for tea, the owner's wife exhibits her delightfully healthy baby son for our admiration.

The weather worsened as we neared Tungnath. A small path branched off the trail towards an alpine plant research centre belonging to the Garhwal University. The constant drizzle had turned into a heavy shower, and we ran into a shelter beside the trail. After the rain let up a bit, we walked up the last few hundred metres to Tungnath.

The first dhaba we saw in Tungnath belonged to Sujan Singh Rana. He had two rooms to let, and a constant supply of hot food and tea. The few pilgrims who braved the heavy rain stopped at the dhaba to eat. Many of them bought small baskets of the flowers of the bugyal to offer at the temple. An elderly Japanese woman came up the trail on a mule, her raincoat dripping. She didn't know any English, but seemed comfortable sitting near the fire, in the middle of a party from a nearby village. After her tea, she rode on to the temple a couple of hundred metres up the trail.

In the evening, we went to see the aarti at the temple. The temple is about a thousand years old, and has an austere beauty that is accentuated by the black stone of its walls. The aarti was calm and understated, and the handful of pilgrims watched it quietly. At the end of the ceremony, a young priest took the flame out to offer it at the smaller shrines around the compound.

Back in the dhaba, Sujan Singh's nephew switched on the lights in our room, which were powered by a solar battery. The Bhotia dogs guarding the cows in the bugyal below the dhaba barked through much of that night. The sounds kept moving around, as though the dogs were making a large circle about the herd. Perhaps they had sensed a prowling bear or leopard. The dogs wear metal collars for protection against wild animals. When I came out of the room after midnight, the clouds had dispersed, and to my surprise I saw the bright lights of Sari just below the mountain.

Chandrashila is a small peak just behind the temple of Tungnath, well-known for its view of a wide panorama of mountains. The rain was pouring again as we trudged up the kilometre to the peak in the morning. The trail had become a stream like the other streams that ran down the ridge, and only the food wrappers along it marked it apart from them. It was nice to walk through the downpour, though it hid the views.

The weather and poor visibility finally forced us to give up just below the temple to Ganga at Chandrashila. We traced our path back from a small shrine beside the trail. As we walked down, some people who had lost their way up in the rain hollered from below for directions. Until then, we were alone in the mountains above Tungnath.

Yesterday's porters had already walked up from Chopta, and were having their breakfast at the dhaba. The rain eased a little on our way down to Chopta. An old man in one of the shops next to the trail invited us to come in and have some tea, and sold us a wholesome barfi made from the milk of his cows.

Taking leave

Nilkanth Hotel in Chopta is a pleasant place to stay in. There is a light in the room, powered by a solar charger as in Tungnath. In the evening, we go for a walk along the road leading down to Dugalbitta. There are some chaans below the road, huts belonging to itinerant cowherds. A Himalayan mouse hare runs around next to the road, a shy creature busily feeding on the wide variety of grasses and herbs in the bugyal. It scurries into a hole when it hears our voices, but comes out soon to resume its meal.

In the morning, we walked a short way along the road to Mandal, on the state highway from Kund to Chamoli. It is a beautiful road, a narrow line hugging the mountainside, and passes between giant ramparts of rock just outside the village. In the clear light of the dawn, I could see cows grazing in the bugyals below. However, as the morning advanced, the mist descended again, hiding the valleys that were visible until then.

There was moisture all around, in the streams and the ponds of the bugyals, in the puddles on the road, and in the continuous dripping of water from the mountainside above it. There were plenty of flowers, among them Himalayan knotweed and big hip roses. Large cacti too, and cobra lilies everywhere. It was reminescent of the sense of revival that I had felt in the forest around Devriyal Tal. Soon it would be time to leave, and to return to the plains, but I was content for now. I was near the arms of the lord.

N. Raghavendra
Updated: 2012-11-17T13:23:24+05:30