The Himalayan Mahakumbh: A recount of a once-in-12-year experience

Siddhartha Sen shares his experience of the Nanda Devi Raj Jat, one of the most arduous pilgrimages in the world.

Last Updated: Sep 22, 2014, 09:08 AM IST
The Himalayan Mahakumbh: A recount of a once-in-12-year experience

By Siddartha Sen

Siddhartha Sen shares his experience of the Nanda Devi Raj Jat, one of the most arduous pilgrimages in the world.

Every 12 years, Nauti, a non-descript village in Garhwal's Chamoli district wears a festive look belying its otherwise desolate existence. This picturesque hamlet situated at 1,500 m is Nanda Devi's paternal home and the starting point of the Raj Jat (royal pilgrimage), which ends in Homkund. The yatra covers th journey Nanda Devi undertook after marriage during the Bhadrapad period (August–September) to her consort's (Shiva) home in Mt. Kailash. For the villagers it symbolises giving away a daughter as Nanda Devi is the main deity of Uttarakhand and the hill state has several shrines dedicated to her. Some consider her an avatar of Parvati and have established a loving relationship with her in various forms as a daughter, mother, sister and daughter-in-law. The rains during this pilgrimage signify Nanda Devi's tears as she leaves her father's home. A strong message of women emancipation and environment conservation also emanates from this socio-cultural event. Hence this yatra is important in these parts.

Believed to have been initiated by Raja Kanak Pal, the head of Chandpur Garhi in the 7th century AD, the Raj Jat is an embodiment of the unique relationship between humans and their deities. According to legends, one of his descendants, Raja Ajai Pal consolidated 52 different regions of Garhwal into one kingdom and the rights of conducting the Raj Jat were conferred upon his descendants, the Kunwars of Kansuwa. They are the first sewaks of the yatra. The Jat begins with the villagers finding a chausingha khadu (a four-horned ram). They then inform the Kunwars, who bring the ringal ki chhantoli (ringal is a stick akin to bamboo and chhantoli is the umbrella like structure attached to it) used to cover the seat and the golden statue of goddess Nanda. Thousands of pilgrims from Nauti accompany the chausingha khadu and the goddess to Homkund.

Dressed in modern and local pahadi, the yatris sets out at a brisk pace till Wan, but as they ascend the higher Himalayas, their pace slows down. Chants of jai maa nanda devi, different shlokas, Kumaoni and Garhwali folk songs fill the air along with the friendly banter among the yatris. In the night, people rest in makeshift tents, houses of villagers, who open their homes to the yatris and sometimes even in the open. Food is provided by the villagers, government agencies and village organizing committees; it normally includes local pahadi dishes such as aloo ke gutke and jholi bhaat (like kadhi rice). The next day, the yatra generally commences at 11 am.

The total distance traversed in this pilgrimage is approximately 280 km, out of which only 70 km is motorable. The rest is negotiated on foot by the devout through cedar forests, amidst dense rhododenron bushes, going past steep ridges, beautiful glaciers, lofty passes and mighty snow-capped mountains. Of the19 halts, all of  which are located between 1,200 m and 4,300 m,  the major halts are at Kansuwa, Koti, Kulsari, Nand Kesari, Wan, Bedini Bugyal, Chandniya Ghat, Roopkund and Shila Samudra. The rough terrain and sometimes inclement weather makes this yatra one of the toughest in the world.

As the procession proceeds through its pre-planned path, it is joined by several dolis, dev chhantolis (same as the ringal ki chhantoli) and Nanda idols from the various villages it passes through. Nand Kesari, the ninth halt at 1,200 m, is like a sangam where people from Kumaon join the procession with more chhantolis. There is an atmosphere of bonhomie and revelry at every halting point and people perform various rituals in honour of Nanda Devi, including traditional dance forms like Chholia, Chanchri, Chaunfula...

 

The head spinning ascent to higher altitudes starts from Wan, where all tourists have to undergo a thorough health check-up organized by the Uttarakhand government. Those in good health then go through a mandatory biometric registration process and only then can they proceed further. The state government makes other safety arrangements like oxygen cylinders and support from the paramilitary forces, state police, SDRF and ITBP. Wan is also home to the famous temple of Latoo Devta, Nanda Devi's brother; locals hold him in high esteem. The Nautiyals, who are the only ones allowed to perform rituals in the shrine, open the doors of this temple at the time of the Raj Jat. It is believed that Latoo Devta welcomed Nanda Devi's doli at the place where this simple, ancient temple stands. People stand in a circular manner around the temple. While many sit, some stand to get a better glimpse of the rituals taking place.  After the prayers are over, the doors are closed again till the next Raj Jat.  The route ahead takes you through alpine meadows, more passes and mysterious lakes; their natural beauty has a spell-binding effect on the yatris and is the point at which many photographers, trekkers and writers join in. Beyond Wan lies the famous Nanda Devi Biosphere, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1982.

As the path becomes more difficult and non-motorable at Bedini Bugyal, the crowd start dwindling. The majestic snow-clad Trishul and Nanda Ghunti peaks are clearly visible from Bedini Bugyal as one stands  amidst the famous 'Brahma Kamal' blooms.

The route continues to the mysterious Roopkund lake, a high-altitude glacial lake, which is like an oasis amidst flat lands. Lying in the lap of the Trishul massif, it is famous due to the hundreds of human skeletons found at its edge. Folklore has it that in medieval times, King Jasdhawal of Kannauj wanted to celebrate the birth of an heir by undertaking a pilgrimage to the Nanda-Devi mountains. However, he disregarded the rules of the pilgrimage with boisterous singing and dancing and his entourage earned the wrath of Latoo Devta. They were caught in a terrible hailstorm and thrown into the Roopkund Lake.

The ascent to 'Juraagli Top', the highest point of the yatra at an altitude of 5,333 m, is considered the toughest part of the pilgrimage due to lack of oxygen and the sheer steep climb. One has to cross this inhospitable pass to reach Shila Samudra, which means 'Ocean of Boulders'. The views from here are great, as Mt. Trishul stares you in the eye. While the descent from Jugraali to Shila Samudra is a steep downward slope of about 1,500 feet, the climb is more of a challenge.

The yatra finally ends at the scenic pond of Homkund, situated between Nanda Ghunti and Trishul peaks, where all the chhantolis are immersed after an elaborate yagna (a ritual sacrifice with a specific objective). The four-horned ram too is set free and people believe that it accompanies Nanda Devi to Mt. Kailash, her husband Shiva's abode. After the teary-eyed vidai (farewell) to their daughter Nanda Devi at Homkund, devotees return to Nauti with a heavy heart.

Nanda Raj Jat was scheduled for 2012, but due to natural calamities like cloudbursts and floods, which had engulfed Uttarakhand, it was postponed to 2014. Over the years the pilgrimage has seen several changes: sacrificing the four-horned ram and some other rituals have now stopped and unlike earlier, people can now cover the yatra till Wan in a vehicle. Biometric scans, medical check-ups, helicopter services (from Lohajang, near Wan to Bedini) are all recent additions.