(Painting by Alexander Ivanov)
We wake well before the sun, even though we had stayed up late last night. I try to kiss her, wondering if my morning breath would bother her. She had never complained before. I am observing a fast, she says, dodging me. It’s the day we are visiting her ancestral deity in the Garhwal hills. As we get in the car, our 3 year old is bursting with excitement. And here we thought he would be cranky, having been woken unceremoniously this early.
On the road, a cool breeze welcomes us. The tarmac is a patchwork quilt of moist and dry spots. It must have rained last night. Grey sky peaks from irregular windows of darkness and everything is covered in the dark hue of olden oil paintings.
Soon, the sun comes up. The hills are already looming ahead like giant sleeping bears. Our car zooms past Rishikesh (Ascetic's Tresses) and into the hills, running alongside a thin rushing stream of infantile Ganga in the valley on our right. On its pristine white sandy shores are mushroom farms of colourful river rafting camps with weekend tourists from big cities.
This Ganga is newly born at Devprayag further up on our journey by the union of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi tributaries. After Devprayag, we journey with Alaknanda (daughter of the heavens), now on our left.
The journey through the hills is fairly monotonous, uneventful and a little tough on the car. It's good that we hired a taxi. The lower Garhwal hills are covered with scabs of calcified sedimentary rocks, so parched that most of them look like vast piles of rubble. Instead of waterfalls, there's more loose rubble streaming down on the roads at places.
It takes us 5 hours to cross Srinagar and reach Devalgarh by 10am, home to the ancient temple of Sri Raj Rajeshwari, my wife’s clan Goddess. We ring the priest on his mobile phone to inform of our arrival. I carry my son on my shoulders upon the steep climb to the temple, while the priest’s middle-aged wife, much tougher than soft city-folks like me, helps with the heavy baggage. The kid is still as excited as he was when we had started. I have to caution him to be careful upon the treacherous terrain.
A long puja later, we have our lunch, rice and daal cooked upon open fire, and start our descent (They do have a gas stove but there’s an ongoing scarcity of gas cylinders, we're told). Half way down the hillock is the Gauri temple, another ancient temple established by one of the Nath kings of Garhwal, a government heritage site, no less. We pay a quick visit, for there’s yet another mother deity to be visited on the way back. Legend has it that Dhari Devi is the sister of Raj Rajeshwari and it is customary to visit both the Goddess sisters on a single visit. Her temple is by the Ganga stream in the valley. My wife, son and I climb down the steps. After the puja, I contemplate bathing in the icy cold river, but decide against it when I see some visitors washing their clothes in the stream. The uphill climb is tedious and tiring, especially with the kid on my shoulder. I have to stop several times to catch my breath. A young native girl with a heavy baggage on her back trots past, reminding me of how unfit I am.
Our journey home is punctuated by two brief tea-snack-leak breaks. This time, the car rushes through sun and shade as the night slowly mounts the dying day, and we run as if being chased by the legendary man-eaters of Garhwal. We take a quick stoppage at Rishikesh to fill our jerry cans with holy (and icy) Ganga water. By now, the soft beds back home are luring us with their siren songs of providing rest to our creaking bones.
Images from this public album by Dr. Anurag Ayachit
Thus spake Manish Bhatt