East Himalaya

Friday, March 28, 2014

Shivalok, Devbhumi Uttarakhand

Uttarakhand is safe to visit, to give this message to the world, the Adventure Tour Operators’ Association (ATOAI) inaugurated their 11th Annual Convention at Shivpuri, about 20 kms River Ganga upstream along the road. This is supposed to be a niche association at the National level in India, considering the others that of tour operators, travel agents and hoteliers. This was the first time that a National level tourism industry association in India could come out of the four walls of hotels and the wrappings of suits and ties, completely in the outdoors, where their stake lies to organize their National convention. Congrats, and when you call Incredible India, it itself means adventure. Several acts of responsibility and discussions were the main show of the first day.
The venue of the convention at day time (above) and in the evening (below)
Shivalok, the home of our great Lord Shiva. Devbhumi, the land of the Gods. This is Uttarakhand, detached from Uttar Pradesh about 16 years ago. Being close to Delhi, there are many International visitors who come to this land and so does a lot of domestic tourist and the largest number is that of the pilgrims. Hence, this is also the face of India. About three decades ago, I had an opportunity to work over here, particularly at Shivpuri, at Rafting Camp. This was the only camp then which was started by Avinash Kohli, who could be recognized as the first organizer of white water rafting as a tourism activity in India. I had very little interaction with him, but I can certainly say that all those who are engaged with white water tourism activities in this country today owe him a salute.
That was a time, a Swamiji or Sadhu (person who has left his house and family to pray for the good of this world), lived beside the camp. Shivpuri, was the samsan ghat (place for burning of dead human bodies near river) of the local people and people were afraid to visit after dark. Khushi, the cook and Vikram, the caretaker of the camp was often gone when there were no tourists. I often shared the landscape with Swamiji. We had sanitary toilets in the camp, but Swamiji woke up in the very early hours, it used to be almost dark to go to the river bank and finish his toilet and bath by the river. While he sat for toilet in the outdoors, he often drew a line around him on the sand with a stick, chanting a mantra, and while he sat for downloading, not even a ant or snake or any living being could enter the boundary line (rekha) which he had drawn. Haridwar and beyond, we never thought of any non-vegetarian food, in our camp even onion or garlic was not used in cooking, as this was supposed to inauspicious near the River Ganga. Any liquor or alcoholic drink was strict no-no. There were tourists and pilgrims then too, and the available infrastructure then would fall short in the seasons.
My granny (mother’s mother) often told me this story in the childhood, when Swami Bhola Giri used to live in Haridwar, his disciples often referred to his age being 100 plus, yet strong in service of the people and meditating. Once a half mad or crazy lady was going around Haridwar and often called Swami Bhola Giri with names and beat him also in such a way as if he was much younger to her. When Swami Bhola Giri’s disciples asked him, why he did not object to her acts, he said “she is a few hundred years older to me, it is her yogic powers which has kept her look young, she has achieved the power of wish death of her body, and there are many such Siddhi sannyasis and sannyasins (enlightened men and women) who live deep in the Himalaya and sometimes come to localities.
I often thought that some of the Garhwali dialects often sounded like Nepali and there were many similar words in use. Even the dance in the evening yesterday at the ATOAI convention was very similar to Nepali folk. This is when a local delegate, who ran angling and trekking groups confirmed that this area was once ruled by the Nepal king and hence many traditions in the Garhwal Himalaya matched with the people living in the Nepal Himalaya. Pilgrims still come from remote villages of India and Nepal to Rishikesh and still today prefer to walk to the Char Dham (four holy places). Here, at the convention, we were discussing better roads, 02 phase entry flights (Delhi to Dehradun/Rishikesh and then fixed wing sorties to more deep in the Himalaya) mainly for tourists who did not have enough time and could effort the luxury. The local raft operators complained about the increase in licence fees from 5000Rs to 25000Rs and the step motherly attitude of the forest department towards them.
As I walked along the banks of River Ganga at Shivpuri, I still saw several birds and smaller animals, inspite of the back to back camps on both sides of the rivers. They all served the best of the food at par with Delhi. While drinking a cup of tea at a local shop, I overheard many interesting discussions in connection to the upcoming elections. One local person was complaining about the quality of education at the local village schools. Most of the time the teachers would not be there, and this I knew was a common problem across the Indian Himalaya. He also talked about an extraordinary solution, all the Government jobs should go to only youths who have passed out of Government schools and that all the Government service holders should put their sons and daughters in Government schools. Also, another local person was discussing about rafting licences, about 92 local outfits with trained guides had their application for licence pending. He suggested that if the Government was sincerely interested about local ownership and empowerment through tourism, they must see the capability and quality of the local outfits and give them the licence free of cost. These local outfits should also be then given the responsibility of emergency rescue on the river and conservation of nature in the local area. Another person discussed that the forest Department should put most of the fees collected from the camps for capacity building of the local youth, waste management and health facilities at the local level.
It was nice to see that some of the ATOAI active members had adopted a local Government Health Centre, some supported the waste management program, most of them trained and engaged local youths to a great extend and most of them had a major stake in the region as per their operation strength. They were able to contribute meaningfully during the last flood devastation during monsoons. And finally this convention, supported by the local Government to project a fresh face of this country through Uttarakhand.       

Monday, March 24, 2014

Loss in the Limboo Land

The flowering season is approaching at Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary
The more you go up, the more you reach towards Hell, which is what the cyclists told me during the Khangchendzonga Challenge Cup International Mountain Bike Competition. Yes, this is the name of a place as you climb up from Hee Bazaar to Hee Patal. Patal, the Indian word, translates into Hell in English. When the Bikers reached the Red Panda gate of Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, they forgot to collect their glucose, chocolate and other energy boosters from us as they were undergoing the “wow” factor, seeing the forests in front of them and the mighty snow capped ranges of Mt.Khangchendzonga at their back.

All of us, the advisors to event were putting up at the Barsey Jungle Camp, next to this Red Panda gate, a typical Limboo homestay, the 400 years old residence of the Great Great Grandfather of Til Bahadur Subba. He was the Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) of Sikkim, Hee Bermiok Constituency from 1979 to 1984. When I first went to meet him a few years ago, I made sure that I should carry some sweets for the 79 years old ex-MLA (they are supposed to be VIPs in India). Birendra, my friend and his elder son called him as we walked through the forest and cardamom plantations. The ex-Mla was atop of an almost 03 storied tall tree, cleaning the dry branches.
Tourism still had not started in Hee. The process of introducing tourism had just began with the then MLA, NK Subba organizing the Kaleej Valley Ecotourism Festival. The old MLA, TBji and his wife at Hee Patal were so far sighted that they agreed to start the first Homestay and engaged their 02 sons and daughters in laws. TBji often referred to Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker and other British officer using this route from Darjeeling through his house. It is said that the entire area of Sikkim once was inhabited by the Limboos and Lepchas. The Limboos extended from Eastern Nepal from Dharan-Dhankuta to the present areas of West Sikkim. Slowly with more enlightened visitors to this Homestay, the old man dreamt to have a Limboo Museum near his house.
He also showed me a piece of land which he wanted to donate for this museum. He and his wife had collected several items to be displayed in this museum. I had approached several people to help with making this museum, but my appeal was probably not as sincere. I thought I had time and the same would happen, but TBji left for eternity 10 days ago. I cannot forgive myself; I could not live his dream. I wonder how I shall face the mother of the house, who laughed and happily shared her house with every guest.
All photographs in this post have been taken from Dr.Arunava Das, with whom I have traveled to several places in Sikkim and North Bengal. The last painting is from the walls of Polestar School at Hee. 

Sunday, March 9, 2014

100 Years of Teesta valley, a book review

This is the third time that I have a slip-disc attack since 2001. Those who have suffered know how painful this can be, but I managed to reach Siliguri with all the pain. Day before yesterday, Gourida (Gourishankar Bhattacharya), a hardcore traveller and a popular travel writer in Bengali language, who publishes his own books, heard of this mishap (he thinks so, because he says Raj stagnant for the next 10 days is a punishment to him), and visited me home yesterday and gave me his new publication, Sinchular Chayay – Buxa Fort ‘o’ Ananya. As I was opened the book today morning, the first chapter which opened was on Teesta Valley Extension, and extension of the World Heritage Site, Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which is history now. Started in 1915 and ran till 1951.
I was reading his description, he talks about his interview with Runuda, one of the Teesta Valley Extension staff, who is still alive. “Runuda used to be a Guard of the TVE Railway. Though he is old now, yet when I suddenly asked him ‘Runuda, do you remember Geilkhola?’ How can I forget, one day I was on duty, and the train had just crossed Baikanthapur and reached Sevoke, my driver Sailen Chakraborty slowed down and shouted at me, ‘Runuda, look at the Tiger drinking water’. Really, I could see the huge Royal Bengal Tiger, bent in a crawling position, was drinking water from the Teesta. Almost every trip, I used to see elephants, gaur, deer, wild boar and many birds. He continued, after Sevoke, Kalijhora was the watering station for our tiny engine. Kalijhora to Relli siding and then to Geilkhola. The ropeway from here used to bring down raw wool, yak skin, butter, oranges, timber and many more items. Main buyers were Sardarjis (Buyers from Punjab with traditional turbans) from Amritsar, Ludhiana etc who waited here to them back home for brands like Lal Imli, Dhariwal and many more.
Tears roll down my cheeks voluntarily. It had happened once, when I lost my mother. I did not want to cry, but tears kept rolling down from my eyes, not wanting to stop. It remind me of the Nature Study and Adventure Camps, which we organized at Samco and Najuk. Sudipto Majumdar used to be the Camp Commander of each camp, my friend from my childhood days, but had his own character and charisma in those days. Friends like Timir da, Nitish da, Biplab, Konika, Soma, Ashukaku, Babu and Sanjib volunteered to be the Deputy Field Director, Quarter Master, Instructers, Guides and so many more roles. There was this goods ropeway from 29th Mile by NH31A to SAMCO on the other side. Siemen Daju was on this side and Raphael Daju on the other side. Temporary wooden benches were put and we tied the campers and officials to the other side, crossing the Teesta and Relli rivers. We used to hear Raphael Daju calling “Samtar calling, Samtar calling” and Siemen Daju used to reply from the other side. Towards sunset, while we were still crossing, I often saw the orange streams of Relli Khola, Geil Khola and 02 more of them meeting Teesta with the pillars of the Teesta Valley Extension Railway remains at the backdrop. When I see the hill between the Road and Najuk is gone, a dam, the grand structure of development has replaced the hill, I cannot hold my tear.

Dr.K.C.Bhanja in one of his books as described by Gourida, mentions Teesta Valley is one of the most beautiful valleys in the world. Teesta Valley line was open for traffic in the year 1915. First 12 miles from Siliguri the line crosses the deadly Terai, and almost level tract of land lying at the foot of the Himalayan range...The train enters the Sal forest and soon after crosses Sivoke River spanned by fine bridge... From here right upto the terminus at Gielle Khola, the line passes closely along the right bank of Teesta, the greatest and mightiest drainer of the lofty snowy range of Kinchenjunga group...the emerald green Teesta of the winters, the white milky Teesta of the monsoons are now only memories. The gushing Teesta of all times, the extreme under current is today merely a stream being crossed by cattle and people alike in the winters. The 12,000 sq kms of catchment area and drainage valleys through the approximately 300 kms river, the home for the tiger, elephants, gaurs and royal pheasants are today shops, defence settlements, power project settlements, village settlements, educational hubs, mining colonies and development zones.
Inspite of all this developments, we do not have any real people to people passage through the ancient routes of Jelepla and Nathula, we do not have any meaningful connection with the people in the hills and plains, we do not have any priests who offer prayers for protecting Teesta Mother and we do not have human hearts which cry for the dying Teesta. The train, let us see the glorious Siliguri Station, which is now Siliguri Town station, the traces of Siliguri Road Station, the turn table at the FOCIN gate of present Kanchenjunga Stadium (earlier Tilak Maidan) are buried under development (development? Please explain). The tax villa of the Jalpaiguri Raja, the map of Sikkim Raja is all dumped under the boundaries of modern demands.
I remember from my childhood days, a neighbour aunt, Uma Kakima, who was a wonderful singer had one of her Gurujis visiting her once in two years or so. The gentleman was a wonderful singer, the entire classical world of Siliguri of those days would get together to listen to him. He was in blind love with Teesta, he used to walk from Siliguri to Sevoke, sing to Teesta for almost half the night and would then jump in the Teesta waters from Coronation Bridge early in the morning. Later his hosts would find him senseless, lying on the banks of Teesta, all drenched, but not sick. There is a spirit of the Teesta, which people understood in the past, today for us this is just another river.
Handful of fishes, water for the paddy fields and so much of life for all, how could you say that she is just a river, a river with water? If she did not have life, how could she give life for hundreds of years? She has been flowing on the path of Korotoya for than 02 centuries, the Korotoya, which legend says the flows down the hand of Shiva and Parvati, when they were getting married. For our Lepcha friends, Teesta is the river which has given birth to all modern living beings, the mother of the region. Now, do you have time to stop by her and softly say, Hi!

In the pix: The forests are now full of falling leaves. These leaves will decompose and the monsoons will spread a rich top soil. 
Toy Train pix: These have been provided by photographer friend Sanjit Nandi.
Elephant pix: This has been taken by nature photographer Subhajit Roy of Aaranyak in North Bengal and has been provided by Gouri da.