Chevening 35th Anniversary Celebration at the residence of British High Commissioner Sir Dominic Asquith KCMG! 27 March 2019
GOOD EVENING INDIA programme
15.40 minutes onwards…
The Kalka-Shimla Railway
Like smoke wafting lazily from a candle, blown by a kiss of the wind, chugs the Kalka-Shimla train. The mist, held by the hills and the pines, lowers itself in a welcome to the traveller. Its freshness brings alive the sensations hitherto forgotten and buried under the pace of life.
If you look down history lane with a telescope, you find the gallant and fearsome Grouches of Nepal walking into Sikkim in 1814. The ruler of Sikkim, helpless, appeals to the East India company and the Company Bahadur extends security. At the close of the war in 1816, under the Nepalese Peace Treaty the British `mandarins retained a huge tract of land, which also included the ridge on which Shimla was later built.
One Major Kennedy, built for himself a house at Shimla in 1822. The Governor General’s were quick to realise that the environs of Shimla offered them an England in India. Lord Amherst spent the summer in 1827, followed by his successor Lord William Bentick. However, the journey was not particularly comfortable for the Gora Sahib. Ponies, or jampans – sedan chair fitted with curtains, slung on poles borne by bearers, over a 43 mile mountain track made mule of a man.
It was only for a correspondent, to conceive the idea of a railway line, that time waited for, till Nov. 1847. A passionate plea in the Delhi Gazette by this gentleman advocated the sketching of a railway line to Shimla – “We may then see these cool regions become the permanent seat of a Government, daily invigorated by a temperature adapted to refresh a European constitution, and keep the mental power in a state of health, beneficial both to rulers and the ruled”. The earliest field surveys were conducted between 1884-95. While the railway surveys were on, The Hindostan and Tibet Road, 58 miles, was opened during 1850-56.
The signing of a contract between Secretary of State and the Delhi Umbala Railway Company in 1898 signalled the beginnings of the line. The journey to a cooler paradise became a reality in Lord Curzons’ time.
The bosom of the highly erratic Shivalik hills was parted by a 96 km. railway line on Nov. 9th, 1903. Three years of labour by dedicated engineers and labourers in limestone and shale rocks saw through an astounding feat.
The line passes over 864 bridges and under 102 tunnels. Two-thirds of the formation is laid on sharp curves– sharper than a damsels !
The British chose the narrow gauge dimensions of 2′-6″ as the hills tolerated no more than a whisper to rise the arduous 1519 m between the plain and the hill. The treachery of the hill formation was bound by a silver thread, reassuringly. Lofty stone bridges, arched in their effort of holding the rail, at times three-tiered too, arrest the sight of a traveller.
The dark tunnels aplenty on the ascent, bring more than an opportunity to a honeymooning couple. Excited whistles and natural cries rent the air when you travel. A curious mix of chill and warmth permeates the atmosphere.
The journey from Kalka to Shimla is absolutely out of the world. Immediately on arrival at Kalka one sheds off his inhibitions like snake-skin. The toy train provides a breath-taking view of the Kushalya river, the moment it enters the foothills. The serpentine splash of mercury keeps disappearing and reappearing with each bend for some time. Passage through the Koti tunnel makes you hunt for a coat and the air jabs you, the moment you hit Jabli, 1240 m above sea-level.
Three picturesque loops near Taksal, Gumman and Dharampur provide photo-opportunity to an enthusiast. But wait, more is to follow. The ascent is steady. The train huffs and puffs its way across green meadows, capsicum fields, red-roofed chalets and half timbered houses. Each coach has chuckle under its wheels. Through aged in service, it does not sigh, for it carries a pleasant burden. About seven coaches form a train, to accommodate about 200 passengers per trip. The extremities of weather do not dislodge the determination of the 700 horse power B-B type diesel engines. They run to the call of duty in temperature ranging from 0-45 Celsius and in snow which averages 2 feet during winters. What to talk of the annual rainfall of 200-250 cm received by the hills! The average speed of 25-30 kmph ensures that “hurry” is removed from the psyche and replaced by a naturalness of demeanour.
If you want to taste the beauty of nature in exclusivity, travel in the Rail Motor Car. There are four of them and three date to 1927, while the last dates to 1930. A group of 18 can be housed in this vintage experience. You will be surprised to learn that the original White & Pope petrol engines fitted by Drewery Car Company Ltd., London, were replaced during the second World War as petrol was scarce. Americans supplied the diesel engines to the car, from General Motors, U.S.A.
Surprises escape the visage as nature unrolls its bounty. Gurgling brooks flowing down mountains, passing under the stone bridges, present a pleasing sight. Clouds of mist decide to tumble down and gingerly touch you, enlivening your senses. The train meanders through Kumarhatti, then enters the Barog tunnel which is more than a kilometre long, precisely 1144 mts. This tunnel crosses the Panchmunda ridge, about 900 feet below the road. At Barog, it is mealtime, on the morning trip.
Through the English firm of “Spencers” which built the restaurant at Barog is no longer there, but the English hospitality continues to live.
From Barog to Kandagthat the train runs downhill, past beautiful and quaint retreats of Solan and Saloghra. The final climb begins at Kandaghat. Gradually, solemn forests of deodars and pines replace the meadows. The abundant green fills the soul. At Shogi, a heartwarming view of the Chail valley brings numerous anecdotes associated with a Prince to the fore. It is said that this Punjab Prince, pinched the bottom of an English class on the Shimla ridge, and was thence banished from English society at Shimla. Undeterred, he built for himself a palace at Chail, a nearby resort.
Past Taradevi, the railways take you under Prospect hill to Jutogh, winding its way like a naughty current of air teasing you, tickling you, till it pauses at Summer Hill.
The prospects of a fullsome holiday brighten up the spirits of each traveller. Finally, like the last birth pang it burrows under the Inverarm Hill, to emerge and deliver a happy child at Shimla.
The transformation of a traveller from an adult to a child is complete.
As little as a train journey brings out the child in the man, to chuckle, laugh and indulge in childlike pranks around the invigorating forest paths of Shimla.
Travellers must move on towards the destination, the source of life. There are always halts filled with magic en route, but the journey of the ‘seeker’ makes him plod on and on. While traveling to Gangotri I have taken a night halt at Bhairon Ghati, 9 kms short. Next morn, I leave the Bhairon temple in the care of its tree cluster, the GMVN Tourist Rest House happy in its hollow, and the rigid crags that tower above the place to their permanent positions. They have enacted the role of a protective godfather all through, as if shielding the hamlet from some danger. They have also successfully hidden the pleasures of the journey beyond as if they are a grave finality.
The thought of river Bhagirathi, like a mystical light shining in the distance, led me ahead till Gangotri was reached. Gangotri is a temple town, a holy place for most Indians. It is also the end of pilgrimage for some and the beginning of pilgrimage for others. The height above sea-level is 3140 m and you can feel the sharpness of the wind. Cars and jeeps line the thin metallic road and cops have a tough time organising orderly parking.
The religious significance of the place is immense. It is believed that river Bhagirathi owes its origin to the foot of Lord Vishnu, wherefrom it started flowing first, and was captured by the jatas (hair-locks) of Lord Shiva. That was a tale of heavens above. On earth, King Bhagirath, unable to bear the suffering of his people due to water scarcity worshipped Lord Shiva at Gangotri. His devotion so pleased Lord Shiva that he asked him for a boon. Bhagirath prayed that Ganga be released from Lord Shiva’s hair locks for the benefit of his people. So was granted Ganga to the earth. It is named after Bhagirath as river Bhagirathi from the point of its descent at Gaumukh up to Dev Prayag. At Dev Prayag, the river Alaknanda merges with Bhagirathi and thence onwards it is called Ganga.
An arched gate, gifted by the Border Police to the town, greets the eye. Everyone has to pass through it, the destination being Gangotri, temple, the bathing ghats or the steps leading to the trek route of 18 kilometers to Gaumukh. Gangotri temple is small. It is erected on the sacred stone where as per tradition Bhagirath worshipped Lord Shiva. The building is non-ornamental, rather ordinary in appearance. There are no statues on the exterior and its height is also about 12 feet. E.T. Atkinson wrote of it in the 19th century- “it is quite plain, coloured white with red mouldings, and surmounted with the usual melon-shaped ornament commonly known as Turk’s cap.” The temple is quite the same save that the colour combination is now white walls and silver top.
The serious trekkers take to the steps, which connect the Gangotri ghats and the trek route. Buy a walking stick— you might need three legs on the way ahead. The river Bhagirathi is a pleasant companion all through right up to Gaumukh. Sometimes the mountain rocks to your side echo the forceful holler of rushing waves. Yes the river makes them sing. The snow peaks enveloped forever in a clouded embrace of the Meghdoot (cloud messenger) sit happily above their unsteady glaciers. It is a treat to lift the eyes from a rivulet meeting the river bed; slowly caress first the green cover, then the black, rough and prominent crags; then allow the vision to melt in the snow at upper reaches.
The trekking route is tough, full of uneven stones, even dusty at times. It is a real test for the muscles of the legs. You really get to know more about your own legs than you believed. Tree trunks have been used to bridge rivulets and one has to balance steps lest the boulders in the water have the last laugh. The trek is a story of ascents and descents. You rise again as the path decides to lift itself from the riverbed. It is good to feel the heights. You tend to pause before every new face of a snow peak, which is revealed to you. The edges of the black crags are to be admired. The eyes can feel their razor thin sharpness and also their blunt prominence.
Shacks en route provide plastic comfort to weary travellers. They offer biscuits, potato chips, simple roti-dal (bread and pulses), paranthas (oil-fried bread), and bottled water. Mattresses to recline on are luxury! There are slogans displayed on banners about the ill effects of plastic and non-biodegradable waste. The glacial river must not be polluted with polythene or plastic wrappers. Thanks to these gentle reminders erected by environmentalists, the route is remarkably free of poly-pack litter. Travellers were seen actually heeding the advice and using dustbins.
Bite into something at Chirbasa, 9 kilometer deep, from the origin of the trek at Gangotri. Have some tea with a dash of salt, it will pep you up. The hamlet of Chirbasa is a cluster of pines rushing from the heights in a straight descent to the riverbed. Shacks are perched on space created between boulders on the ridge. This ridge you cross. Do not halt too long lest the legs refuse to lift again. Bhojbasa, 5 kilometres ahead, has to be reached for a night halt. And of course, sunset must be enjoyed at Bhojbasa before you hit the bed.
The flora along the trek route is different and interesting. Ganga Tulsi, a shrub with a heady scent, used as an accompaniment during Hindu worship, and White Jungle Rose, each flower with only four petals, almost line the route.
Yellow wildflowers too have a word to say! Some concerned environmentalist groups are trying level best to not only generate public awareness but also give a green cover to the Himalayas where it is most needed. So we see plantations of Spruce, Silver Fir, Blue Pine and Himalayan Cedar along the way. A little ahead of Chirbasa, some educationists nurse a Bhojpatra nursery. This effort at preserving a threatened specie is laudable. The Bhojpatra Utilis has a distinct white bark and round green leaves. Its botanical name is Betula Utilis. The bark of this tree served as paper for recording ancient Hindu religions texts. I peel some. It is actually as thin as finest quality paper. I keep it as a memento, but it is not enough to write a song!
There are no wild animals to sight save herds of mountain goat and deer. We see one. A goat blessed with a pair of curved horns is perhaps the leader of this herd and his posturing on a rock proudly proclaims it. The coat of the goats blends with the rocks. The black mountains have yellowish-brown traces. So does the goatskin. There are no trees on these hard infertile rocks and shrubs are sparse. How beautifully God has provided them protection by making them look like rocks! You are left wondering?
The sun plays hide and seek on a June afternoon. Clouds drift at will. Sometimes you see a snow mountain half-concealed by clouds and half-visible to the eyes. It is like watching a Venus, thinly clad, sensuous in demeanour, and amorous in the eye, whom you would like to only see and not touch!
The Bhagirathi river continues to sing its song as we continue upstream. It is past 4 p.m. in the evening. Our guide warns of falling stones in a patch ahead. A warning signboard and we smell trouble. True enough it rains stones on the route ahead. We do not carry hard hats. I hide behind a huge boulder clutching the hand of my 10-year old son. Stones keep rolling down. They can break bones or even throw a person deep down towards the riverbed by sheer impact. One has to exercise caution. This phenomenon in the evening is due to harsh winds blowing across. The mountains in this patch are loose stones embedded in mud. So the peculiar rain. It is strange coincidence that this is the 13th kilometer from Gangotri, I observe! We run across carefully finding our steps when the fury if the mountain is spent.
The last leg to trek for the day to Bhojbasa is tougher still. A stream has to be crossed sans a log bridge. You have to place your feet in the bed on firm stones so as to save your shoes from getting wet. My son exclaims aloud—“Tough route, tottering wooden bridges, falling stones, icy wind, quite deadly.” Still he makes the 14 km trek in good seven hours.
Alas my desire of watching the sunset at Bhojbasa is not fulfilled. The clouds just whisked away the sun in a swift move! I have to wait yet another day braving the biting wind on the Bhojbasa ridge. There is a GMVN Tourist Rest House, an Ashram and several shacks, which serve as night shelter. You come back in life to just hoping for basics; a toilet is a luxury.
The Bhojbasa valley is panoramic. It is really huge. Gaumukh is seen as a cluster of rocks from this ridge. It is the source of the river Bhagrathi or Ganga, regarded by Indians over the centuries as mystical, spiritual and holy. Three peaks of Mount Bhagirathi tower above Gaumukh. It is an unbelievable sight—one, which you deserve in a lifetime. The three summits, Bhagirathi I, II & III perhaps symbolise the trinity of beauty, truth and peace, which I presumed was exposed earlier to me on the trek. How wonderful!
The morning was proclaimed in a loud exclamation. The moon had not left its rightful reign of the night sky and the sun was raising expectations of travellers as it continued in its upward stride. Pure magic was being played all around Bhojbasa Valley by the Great God. Straight above Gaumukh, the cloud curtain was gradually being lifted from over the three Bhagirathi peaks. They were being revealed like sacred verses are spoken to listeners. If you lose them in that pure moment they are gone, sucked in by that force, which transforms the present into the past—the churning wheel of time.
Sure enough an overpowering cloud fall barred the snow peaks from sight in the next few minutes. So were gone two beautiful virginal peaks to our left, one, which was bravely trying to cradle the moon in its last sojourn! The sheer transience of the scene was mesmerising, just like elemental man-woman associations, which charm you as long as they last.
The last 4 kilometers to Gaumukh are tougher. Especially the very last! The trek reduces to nothing but trapeze walk over accumulated boulders. Only faith and will power can take you ahead. Finally Gaumukh, 4000 m above sea-level, is reached. I find a perch on a rock before the cave, the source, and settle down to my thoughts. As I look at Gaumukh, I feel the sensuousness and abundance of love. That love, which knows no bounds. That love, that gives and gives always and forever.
Gaumukh is a cave surrounded by glacial bottle-green ice. Water, the source and preserver of all life on earth, keeps gushing out in good measure. The spectacle is akin to a mother giving birth to a child. The half-moon cave is the source, the water life at birth. And you son of man, a part of this beautiful creation!
People bathe, pray here. By doing so they believe that they have purged all sins. I feel the icy water and look at the slab of ice bobbling beside the rock I sit upon. I look again at Gaumukh or the cow’s mouth, the name given to the glacier cavern. Next moment, I am in the water, my hands clutching a rock and my lungs holding my breath. I have done it! Yes how many get the opportunity to worship the mother source of a holy river at its hideout deep into the Himalayas. The sun is benevolent. It lights up eyes and many lives. The ice sparkles. Sometimes chunks of ice fall down from the top of the glacier cave to meet the water below. Huge blocks of ice and the current of water play a game with each other. The stream cuts into the blocks and pushes it mid-stream. The block tries hard to stay put on its temporary throne and breaks the current into two. The game continues here in a hitherto unusual unseen mirth of ice and water; both same and yet so different!
Above Gaumukh is Tapovan. All saffron clad barefoot or slipper-sporting sadhus (holy men) are headed for that territory. It is place across the Bhagirathi glacier where Rishis and Munis did penance and meditated. Today there is some alarming news from Tapovan. One traveller slipped and fell some distance below to hurt his head on a rock. He was evacuated on a makeshift stretcher by locals and some foreign trekkers. It will be almost ten hours before he reaches Gangotri, where first-aid is available. Bhojbasa, I think, demands a doctor, a medical unit and telephone connectivity for evacuation by helicopter in dire emergencies.
The Himalayan glaciers have long fascinated the British explorers who arduously mapped and recorded their uniqueness. Colonel Gordon (Roof of the World, 17) writes—“the glaciers of the Western Himalayas are twice as extensive as those of the Alps, and are probably the largest in the world or at all events larger than any others out of the polar regions.” How do you recognise a glacier and the river it has given birth, must be understood. I am tempted to quote Lieutenant R. Strachey on the appearance of a glacier—“It seems to be a vast rounded mass of rocks and ground utterly devoid of any sign of vegetation, standing up out of a grassy valley. From the foot of its nearer extremity the river, even here infordable, rushes in a turbid torrent out of a sort of cave; the top of which is but a few feet above the surface of the water. Behind this, the glacier rises less steeply like a bare gravel hill, to its full height, which is probably 500 feet above the water of the river when it leaves the cave.”
After a tete a tete with Bhagirathi glacier and river source one must return to Bhojbasa or if possible Chirbasa for a night halt. Walking early morn on return is pure satisfaction to the visual and olfactory senses. Start about 6–6.30 a.m. The clouds are still lazing in the valley. Their effortless glide up the mountains is inspiring. The atmosphere is filled with the fragrance of plants and shrubs, especially Ganga Tulsi. You become part of generous nature. Many prayers come to lips in such circumstance—God make me a mountain stream so that I can quench the thirst of earth, plants, and men; God make me a wildflower, so that I can enliven a jungle path; God make me a birdsong so that I fill the woods with music; God make me a cloud so that I roam anywhere at free will; God make me a mountain summit so that I tower above everything else; God make me the wind so that I can give life to the world; God make me a star in the sky so that I fill the eyes of your children with dreams. Any one of these prayers could be yours. The prayer of humility, of freedom, of power, or dreams; it just depends how you feel. I, for one, would like to end up as a birdsong in a forest!
All good things these days end up in a mix of concrete, machine and artificiality. Should you come here once, you would be happy that for some days you were only a child of benevolent Nature.
Bikaner, had been successful in evoking may images in the past in my mind; the temple where rats run like devotees, the grandeur of the Junagadh Fort Palace; Lalgarh palace splendor; Gajner palace and the serenity of its lake; the sharp shooter Karni Singh, erstwhile royal of Bikaner, and a somewhat blurred image of gold work on camel leather.
I enquired and set off to search for this Usta Kaam, name I learned later, and stopped by at some small dusty, clumsy shops, where creativity was at its best in humble surroundings. The flawlessness of the work stood out in sharp contrast to the scratches on multi-purpose work cum display tables.
Behind the counter stood a thin young man carrying the burden of legacy despite its odds. He was born in the community of Usta’s, who were originally from Multan, now in Pakistan, and had migrated to Mughal Court. The then Raja of Bikaner, Rai Singh invited them to Bikaner to work on the Junagadh Fort and Anup Mahal walls and ceilings. Naqqashi, is also known as gesso painting and what the craftsmen did to the Raja’s Fort and Palace is nothing short of being miraculous. Delicate floral and animal forms in resplendent gold have left the palace still looking like a decorated bride about to be wed.
Later on, the Usta’s shifted their work to be executed on camel leather as in declining kingdoms and later Independent India there were no royal courts to patronize their work and provide sustenance. The process though appearing simple is very painstaking. First the camel hide is softened and stretched and then placed on clay moulds. To remind you of the strength of camel hide, it was used to make saddles for horseback warriors and shields in war! The mould is removed after drying it for two days in the sun. Then the craftsman draws lines of the design he is going to make on the piece. The items can be in different shapes, like wine flasks, with long or short stem as the case might be; goblets; vases; perfume containers; water-bottles; jewellery boxes, lamp shades, picture-frames; wall hangings; and mirror-frames!
Akbara, is the technique of the design process, wherein a paste of powdered bricks, animal fat, jaggery and fenugreek seeds is embossed on the surface. The coloured portions are first painted and then outlined with fine black lines. Then the glamorous green and red colours are applied on the item and finally a coat of chandras, local varnish seals the fate of the beauty!
Kamladevi Chattopadhyay elaborates the process thus, “The portion to be ornamented is raised by repeatedly applying a special preparation of shell powder, mixed with glue and a kind of wood apple. Alternatively, sand from a ground earthen pot is mixed with glue and jaggery to create the required paste. The embossed surface is then painted upon. Usually a colour called paveri is applied first. Then a colour made from sindur and rogan is applied. Rogan is prepared by mixing chandras and linseed oil. Bat is applied to area where gold is to be patched.
Mohammad Haneef Usta distinguishes between different kinds of Naqqashi:
- Golden lacquered Naqqashi, in which flowers and leaves are golden
- Golden lacquered Naqqashi with mina, in which colour is applied to flowers and leaves
- Golden lacquered Zangali, in which the work surface is emerald green and rest in different colours
- Golden lacquered Tantla, in which surface is golden while flowers and leaves are in colour, and details are in white
- Ranga Baijee in which the work surface remains white, flowers and leaves are painted in transparent colour and partly shaded
He further clarifies on motifs:
- Turanj, in which identical patterns are transcribed at the base and the top
- Chande, in which a small and intricate design is repeated all over the decorated area
- Bharat, in which the entire surface is filled with motifs and patterns leaving little visible “
The most popular patterns are called Tarabandi; star-studded sky and, Naqqashi; floral and animal patterns!
Before the families practicing and nourishing this art are forced to abandon it for want of poor network and appreciation in international markets, the society or a start-up should think of ingenious ways to reach this rare art to markets and museums of the world! It is a gift of God!
Unable to curb my urge to possess one such piece I requested Javed, an artisan to make me a wall hanging with the profile of a famous Rajasthani princess in the centre portion…like she is sitting in a chhatri and waiting for her lover with longing in her mystic eyes!
Note: All photographs have been shot in the natural environment of an artist’s workshop !
I photographed the #Oriental #White-eye in my garden today. It hardly settles down for a fraction of a second. Here, in some photographs the bird can be seen drinking droplets of water from jasmine leaves. Sharing the beauty !
“The Oriental white-eye (Zosterops palpebrosus), is a species of white-eye in the Zosteropidae family. It is a resident breeder in open woodland in tropical Asia, east from the Indian subcontinent to Southeast Asia, extending to Indonesia and Malaysia. They forage in small groups, feeding on nectar and small insects. They are easily identified by the distinctive white eye-ring and overall yellowish upper-parts. Several populations of this widespread species are named subspecies and some have distinctive variations in the extent and shades of yellows in their plumage.This bird is small (about 8–9 cm long) with yellowish olive upper parts, a white eye ring, yellow throat and vent. The belly is whitish grey but may have yellow in some subspecies”. (http://animals.wikia.com/wiki/Oriental_White-eye)
To be with Nature is to be in Nature!
May 18th 2017