By mid-morning, the peaks are veiled by thick billowing clouds, and the low wooded hills fade into the distance.
The coquettish rays of the sun escaping the grasp of the towering pine trees, a young winter morning courted by the whistling wind rushing through the swaying trees, pine cones rolling down the hill slope covered in a carpet of green grass and the distant music of the sheep herder’s flute dancing in the lap of the Himalayas; these are a few fond memories of the nature walks I undertook, as a restless young kid, with my grandfather back in the early 90s. Every winter I had excitedly awaited the family’s annual visit to my native village; nestled in a valley close to the hamlet of Berinag in Uttarakhand, it was a quintessential Himalayan village. A few houses scattered amid green fields fenced by jungles of oak and pine, orange and malta trees lining the modest orchards, shrubs of rhododendron ornamenting the stone pathways and the white Himalayas glistening in the far-off distance; it seemed as if nature had conspired to befool and overwhelm the human senses. One could take as a companion the friendly trail threading the woods and experience a myriad of emotions; the love inherent in the warmth of the sun, the joy in the chirping of birds, the contentment in a gulp of sweet water and the fear in the darkness of night. The jungle paths recounted their numerous adventures with free-spirited travellers and accepted with open arms the lost pilgrim; mirrors reflecting the desire of humans to be one with nature. Though walking was a need, it was also considered a privilege, a chance to nourish a friendship with mother earth and an opportunity to expel haste from the hectic mundane life.
Today, the fruits of progress have brought motorable roads to far-reaching corners of Uttarakhand and the old jungle trails have been lost in the march of time. They fight a losing battle with the relentless jungle which reclaims them as its own. Hidden deep in the wilderness, they occasionally venture close to human settlements searching for their past glory and are often disappointed to find that the bond they once shared with the fickle humans has been forsaken.
One such forgotten trail unites the hill station of Binsar to the temple town of Jageshwar and an early autumn morning of 2012 I set out to discover a part of my childhood in the midst of pompous peaks and suave forests. Binsar is a destination for the recluse and unlike its cousin Kausani, it has successfully rejected all advances of civilisation; it is here the great Himalayan peaks lose their inhibitions and reveal themselves to the willing seeker.
The aforementioned trail originates at the KMVN guesthouse and descends through tangled bushes of rhododendron to the dense oak jungle below. To the left the shy Nanda Devi, in her white cloak, touches the blue sky; to her right the Panchachuli glows in the morning sun and to the left the imposing Trisul stands firm. Valleys shrouded in the morning mist stretch to the horizon awakening from their slumber. The muddy path is decorated with colourful wild flowers, brown leaves and persistent creepers which climb down the trees and cling to the trail. The jungle is alive with a thousand sounds—the cooing of birds, the chirping of crickets, the call of a barking deer, the rustling of leaves and the creak of the old trees.
The dense oak forest eventually gives way to rows upon rows of pine trees as the trail joins the motorable road from Almora to Munsyari at the settlement of Dhaulchinna. Dhaulchinna serves as a pit stop for the vehicles plying on this route and is famous for the sumptuous food it offers—the traditional Kumaoni dish of aloo ke gutke with cucumber raita, sweetened tea with crunchy pakoras and daal bhaat flavoured with pure desi ghee. From here one has to follow a narrow jeep track which snakes through lush fields and the silent forest; this track rides along the hill slope for a few kilometres and then climbs above to the motorable ridge at Saukiyathal. To the left, the Himalayan Vista is visible again but by mid-morning the peaks are veiled by thick billowing clouds; to the right low wooded hills fade into the distance. A couple of kilometres beyond Saukiyathal is the revered shrine of Vridhya (old) Jageshwar, which dates back to the 6th-7th century. One can relax in the shade of a tree in the temple courtyard, enjoy the delicious prasad and behold the soothing Himalayan views while the bells toll in the temple and their chime reverberates in the woods. Here time slows to a crawl, no longer dictated by the whims of humans it rejoices, intoxicated in the care of nature. Beyond the temple the trail descends sharply through a dense pine forest; the jungle floor brown and slippery and warm air darting past the trees creating the acoustic illusion of flowing water. Goat herders cool off in the shade of the trees sharing their lunch as the uninterested goats wander aimlessly.
Jageshwar has a temple complex dedicated to Shiva and has temples dating from the 7th-18th century. Located in a densely wooded valley of Deodar trees with a sparkling stream garlanding the temple complex, Jageshwar commands admiration from both pilgrims and nature lovers. The lore and mythology associated with Jageshwar is abundant; from caring gods to courageous kings, from maligned demons to revered holy men the tales enchant the listener. Some come here in search of the divine and some to feel the pulse of nature; I am certain both attain the elusive peace that we so desperately crave.
In the 90s, we frequently went for picnics in the jungles close to the hill station of Almora. Two or three families would pack mouth-watering delicacies, walk to a secluded spot in the woods and spend a day away from the hustle and bustle of the nearby town. The adults indulged in banter, the kids would run after the butterflies, slide down the hill slopes and collect souvenirs to be traded. Those footprints have been washed away long ago but I think that laughter still rings in those woods and those jungle trails still embrace the occasional passerby and serve as a gateway to a world which has been conveniently forgotten.