Mid November saw me conducting a workshop for Traditional Birth Attendants in a remote village near Berinag in Uttarakhand serviced by a NGO called AVNI. After completing the workshop, we trekked and ‘jeeped’ back to the base centre in Tripuradevi for late lunch. At the meal we were joined by young international volunteers who declared their intention to observe the meteor shower expected that night. Ric felt it would be best viewed from a hilltop in the neighbourhood. Rajnish quickly disagreed as there was a large flock of sheep there, parked enroute in the downward cycle of transhumance. And leopards always hovered about such assemblies for a chance bite!
At the stroke of 2 am five of us stumbled out of our cosy beds, clambered up to the flat roof of the AVNI office and lay down on quilts to gaze at the sky. Freezing cold notwithstanding we were glued to the moonless night sky studded with a zillion stars. Someone called out the constellations and we sighted the Milky Way clearly. Several minutes slowly ticked by and we were just about losing interest when we spotted the fist shooting star: a momentary short track on the western horizon. A couple of minutes later there was another, in a different part of the inky blue sky; Then there were more and before we knew we had witnessed 30 odd meteors in a celestial show par excellence.
A power nap and again we were out in the open by 6 am, to capture the sunrise in our frames. The Panchachuli peaks were clearly visible and the day promised to be bright and sunny. By 7.30, Lalita, Manisha, Rajnish and I started for Chaura village in the ramshackle utility jeep. The winds turned icy as we passed Berinag and Chaukori, continuing up the road to Bageshwar, past the ashram where Gandhiji’s disciple Saralaben spent her last days we turned left to reach Chaura village. Rajnish and I breakfasted on hot aloo paranthas and adrak chai and were
joined by Rajesh, a local youth from Chaura, trained in solar technology. The marigolds were still in bloom and I gathered this had become an important source of income for this predominantly Bhutiya villagers. The flowers are dried and a brown dye is extracted to colour the cloth that is woven here.
It was past 9 when we started our ascent to the hill named Shikhar. The Shri 1008 Mool Narayan temple located atop the 9000 ft hill in Sangaad division of Bageshwar District is one of many in Uttarakhand. The annual mela and pilgrimage commencing from the Nauli Devta temple in Sangaad takes place during the Navraatras. The trek route starts from behind the weaving centre in Chaura and is first a steep ascent to a ridge and then down to dark and dense forest. The trail carried us across a stream over slippery stones, up a barren slope to the ridge overlooking the Saryu River and past a pretty village, Baasti. We climbed down the other side of the ridge by a staircase of uneven narrow steps hewn out of the rock face and had to hug the cliff wall at odd junctures praying that we don’t get blown away by the strong cold breeze. A half hour later we were at the tea shop situated on a promontory straddling the next hill. Manisha and Lalita gathered flowers for worshipping and we quenched our thirst with warm water. We could see Shikhar from here, high up in the sky, where the temple was presumably located and were informed that villagers took two and a half hours to reach the temple!
The climb was steep and we kept a brisk pace since there were three devotees in our group who would not even drink water until the ‘darshan’. Soon I began panting for breath and took a couple of halts to recover. We were passing old oak forests and the view from the next ridge was spectacular. The road to Munsiari was visible at a distance and the hillside was pitted with landslides all along with the snow-clad Himalayan peaks strikingly clear in the horizon. Rajnish pointed out the twin peaks of Nanda Devi, Nepali-I and Nepali-II in the Panchchuli range. At the top of the hill we made the final bend to reach the temple gate – the climb had taken a little over five hours.
We prayed to the presiding deity, Laxmi-Narayan hewn out of marble. The resident saffron robed baba treated us to khichri while I took pictures of the mountains from the grandstand. The first spoonful of khichri was offered to the birds – minivets, flycatchers, crows, and even squirrels and ants partook of this prasad. We ate, rested awhile basking in the warm sun while Rajesh showed our sadhu several solar powered gadgets he had in his possession. By 4 pm we began our descent and in one and half hours we reached Baasti. We ventured into a house for a cup of tea and were suitably shocked when we were informed that 23 families lived in that building! And to my delight they many of them had a solar powered lantern in their possession. We met a girl studying in senior school and learnt that she walks for two hours to reach school which does not boast of a single lady teacher or a washroom, walks back home at twilight, carrying head loads of twigs to kindle the hearth and completes her homework by the lantern. I was amazed at her determination to be educated! By nightfall we arrived at the jeep by the river and drove back to Tripuradevi for a well deserved dinner and rest.