A rainy spell has all the powers to strengthen your mood. As I write this post, a steady sound of pouring rain is comforting my ears and assisting my thoughts. All of a sudden, my mind is flooded with memories of my numerous sprees to the famed Mall Road of the famous hill station of Shimla. Just at the juncture of the four trails on the Mall Road lies an equally famous landmark intriguingly called the Scandal Point.
Quite interestingly, the point where the Ridge and the Mall Road converge is being called the Scandal Point since as far back as the late 19th century. But what exactly must have transpired that the junction, now a raised traffic police platform, was called a Scandal Point still continues to be a mystery. In her book Scandal Point, the Chandigarh based author Manju Jaidka, a professor at Panjab University, attempts to solve the mystery.
Although entirely a work of fiction, the story goes that it was here that the Maharaja of Patiala had whisked away the daughter of the then Viceroy of India. The already married Maharaja later eloped with her; causing much furore in the royal house of Patiala as well as the British authorities. This even led to the Maharaja being permanently banned from entering Shimla by the British authorities. As a reaction to this ban, the Maharaja constructed himself a new palatial summer retreat at Chail, located at a higher altitude than Shimla. In her historical fiction, the author Manju Jaidka has tried to weave around a tale of romance, politics, bureaucracy, jealousy, revenge as well as luxurious, royal lives of Kings; combining some basic popular facts with fiction.
The story sequentially relates the Maharaja’s routine visits to the Viceroy Lodge in Shimla, his first meeting with the daughter of Viceroy, love at first sight, her stay at Patiala and their eventual marriage. Their son was named Richard Ram Rahim Singh. The author talks about the jealousy of the elder Maharani and the attempts on the life of Viceroy’s daughter Betty as well as the infant prince. Such circumstances force the Maharaja, Betty and the prince to part ways. Subsequently, the story talks about how Maharaja addresses this situation and continues performing his duties as a King. A good part of the story is about the life of prince RRR Singh, later called Kartar Singh, as he reconstructs this story.
Howsoever romantic or intriguing the story might have been but the author, in my mind, has failed to practically consider the sequence of events from the annals of history. Although, the author has clearly written in the beginning of the book itself that most of the events related here are imaginary and have to be taken as such. To this day, the “mystery behind Scandal Point” continues to be a permanency of Shimla and rest everything feels like a fairy tale consigned to the sphere of fantasy. Despite the lack of tangible relevant facts, despite any evidence to corroborate the story of the elopement, the Scandal Point continues to be a concrete landmark of the queen of hills. Today, a visitor to the Mall Road at Shimla would possibly get as many answers as the number of people questioned.
Negating the author’s version, the author and columnist Khushwant Singh says, “Though I’d love to cling on to this legend as much as anyone who has got pictures clicked at the Scandal point, the demi-official letters and notes which I came across at the British Library London might prove to be killjoys to a tale which has been passed from generation to generation with delight and pride”. “There is no denying that the Maharaja of Patiala married an Irish woman during the same period as attributed to the Scandal Point episode. However, the entire scandal apparently took place in Patiala, thus rendering the Shimla tale to a mere fiction”, he adds.
In about 227 pages, the author takes you through the royal lives of Patiala Palace, Nabha State, Kapurthala Palace as well as the Viceregal Lodge at Shimla popular for hosting Friday evening parties. Published by Rupa Publications, the Scandal Point is available at an average price of Rs 136 at Flipkart and Amazon. I recommend this book to all Shimla and Chail lovers who wish to know more about the region or love reading fictions in general.
Monsoon is my favourite season after winters to enjoy reading books. Even as the much-loved seasonal rainfall continue to elude my region for fifth year in a row; so far, I have wrapped up over half a dozen books. Before getting back to sharing travel stories on bNomadic, I’d wish to share my thoughts and reactions on a few more titles I came across during all this while. The current one in line is A Mountain in Tibet, a travel bestseller written by the master travel author and historian Charles Allen.
For over three decades now, the master storyteller Charles Allen has been bringing out thoroughly researched and lucidly narrated books illuminating the field of travel writing, colonial or regional history. And just so, carrying his signature expression, this particular book packs a researched and unprejudiced narration that traces the natural history, myths, legends and information surrounding the Kailash Mountain and particularly the sources of the Great Rivers of Asia. From the astonishing geographical properties of South-Western Tibet that are celebrated in Hindu and Buddhist sacred literature to the Indian surveyor spies called the Pundits who explored it in disguise or the controversy surrounding Sven Hedin’s claims and more, the author takes an objective approach to trace the origin and true sources of the River Ganga, Sutlej, Indus and Brahmaputra in Tibet.
The book comprises ten interesting chapters; each talking about a specific period or activity related to the legend of the sacred Kailash, the queen of lakes – the Mansarovar, the true source of the Ganga, Sutlej, Indus, Brahmaputra and its course through the forgotten frontier, etcetera. Through this book, Charles Allen has tried to present a historical glance into what Sven Hedin would call, “a geographical mystery that had captured and held men’s imaginations ever since the first Aryans penetrated the great Himalayan mountain barrier some three thousand years ago”. Even as the Kailash remains the centre point of the book, the author has particularly emphasised on enticingly tracing the true sources of the four great rivers whose upper courses lay hidden in the Kailash Mansarovar region. The journey to retrace the rivers starts with description of the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s attempt to order the first systematic inquiry into the sources of India’s great rivers and fine-tunes with details coming out of the most recent satellite findings.
The author explains that the mystery around the Kailash was centred on the belief shared by a large slice of humanity that somewhere between China and India there stood a sacred mountain, an Asian Olympus of cosmic proportions. This mountain was said to be the navel of the earth, the axis of the universe and from its summit flowed a mighty river that fell into a lake and then divided to form four of the great rivers of Asia. It was the holiest of all mountains, revered by many millions of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains as the home of their gods.
The trans-Himalayan plateau of Tibet is a vast, sterile, and terrible desert, too cold and too arid to provide more than the meanest of existences. Till about a century ago, the Kailash remained an enigma to the outside world. With the onset of the twentieth century, a succession of few enterprising travellers, remarkable explorers and enthusiastic pilgrims who took up the challenge of penetrating the hostile, frozen wastelands beyond the Western Himalayas; reasoned out the mystery to some extent. Gradually the true sources of the four mighty rivers: the sacred Ganga at Gaumukh, the Indus, the Sutlej and Tsangpo-Brahmaputra in the Kailash Mansarovar region were identified.
Comprising 290 pages of full excitement, A Mountain in Tibet is available at an average price of Rs 270 at Amazon and Flipkart. I totally recommend this book to someone who is interested in knowing more about the Kailash Mansarovar region or the sources of the four great rivers.
I have always enjoyed reading fiction or non-fiction emerging from the days of Raj and particularly if the book has anything to do with travel or the Himalayas to be more specific. And led by this active interest, a few weeks back, I bought this book from a popular bookshop at the Khan Market in New Delhi. Titled The Himalaya Club and other entertainments from the Raj, the book was originally authored by John Lang in 1859; a few years before he died in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand.
The book is divided into five chapters in which Lang has weaved random titbits of the colonial India British society particularly stationed in the hilly sanatorium of Mussoorie or Shimla. The Himalaya Club is just the first story of the book. Sarcastically weighing the social life of the British community, the author skilfully talks about the scandals, flirtations, adulterous relationships, gambling through cards or billiards, ego-related duels or quarrels, hierarchical disputes and disciplinary commands, etcetera. Lang’s description does portray a realistic picture of the hill town’s social life along with the typical differences of the social and travel life of Mussoorie and Shimla (Simlah) during those days.
The next story Military Matters satirically depicts the farcical proceedings of a court-martial trial. The story The Himalayas talks about Lang’s babu-style travel to Almora (Almorah) along with his two European friends. The Returning features civil court cases involving Indian under-trials at the Magistrate’s court of Bijnore. The author highlights corruptness of the system where occurrence of injustice and unfairness was a commonplace. A man was sentenced to death for committing a murder in place of his prosecutor who was the real murderer.
Going by the title of the book, I was hoping to find a good deal of information related to the natural history of the Himalayas or at least the initial adventurous pursuits of the British or Indians. Save for the story The Himalayas that describes their super luxurious game-hunting travel to Almora, another hill station occupied by the British at the time of writing, there isn’t much in the book to look forward to from the perspective of the Himalayas. The book might be of interest to someone who wishes to read about page three talks and party gossips of the hill stations of Mussoorie and Shimla.
The foreword of The Himalaya Club, which is possibly its only saving grace, is penned by the much loved author Ruskin Bond. In his typical nonpareil writing style, Ruskin Bond, himself a resident of Mussoorie, narrates just how he learnt of John Lang and his works. Quite venturesomely, Bond later successfully discovered Lang’s burial site in an old English cemetery at Mussoorie. John Lang was born in Sydney, Australia in 1816 and was among the first from that land to set foot on the Indian mainland. Other than being an elusive writer, Bond describes Lang to be a master barrister who represented Rani of Jhansi in her legal battles against the East India Company.
Anyhow, the 135 page slim book does provide a humble overview of the social life of colonial India. Mannerism, dubious actions, doublespeak and such habits form the undercurrent of the book. I bought this book at an undiscounted price of Rs 199, however, the same is available at a current average price of Rs 145 at Amazon and Flipkart.
Last few days have been very hectic on the work front. Travel stories from whatever I could manage in-between will follow soon but before that I wish to share my thoughts on an evergreen Himalayan classic A Hermit In the Himalayas written by the eminent travel and spiritual writer Paul Brunton. Shuttling between travels and assignments over the past few weeks, I got a good deal of time to savour this book written by the man who was among the first to champion the Himalayan spirituality and Yoga in western world.
The sultry summer heat of May and June is an unlikeable period to inspire spiritual wisdom in the mind. Nonetheless, the book provided me with inner rewards and a subconscious dose of Himalayan-induced spirituality; making up for the loss of not being in the lap of the Himalayas. Honouring his journalistic as well as traveller’s instincts, the author does talk about the harsh clamour of contrasting cultures, politics or fates from across the globe but, indeed, much of the book is about the spiritual beauty of the grand solitary spaces of the Himalayas.
The book was first published in the year 1937, during which time, the author travelled extensively in the East particularly Indian and the Himalayas in search of peace and spiritual isolation. It is but natural that much would have changed in the world since Paul wrote this book but at the same time many things continue to remain the same particularly the calmness of the Himalayas and politics of its kingdoms. Hoping against the hope of securing a permission to visit the Sacred Space of Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet, the author, Paul Brunton sojourned in comfortable yet peaceful confines of a forest bungalow in a wooded hillside of Tehri in Garhwal, Uttarakhand. Although he failed to conquer the diplomatic hurdles to visit Tibet, he nevertheless met the celebrated Kailashi Swami Pranavananda as a visitor to his forest home who narrated his perilous journey to Kailash Mansarovar through Kashmir and Leh.
Compulsively fond of drinking tea, particularly the one he obtained from Darjeeling, he turns his expression towards nature; penning every simple thought coming out of a hermetic retreat in the Himalayas. Brunton relates his communion with various dramatic elements of his Himalayan abode; from the silence of a starry night to reading constellations, from soaking in the Deodar air to confronting a leopard, from exercising self-control to the efficacy of Yoga, from giving first-aid to a sheepherder to counting icy peaks and mountaineering expeditions, etc. And yet he accepts the importance of a city life,entertainment, of concrete jungles with equal ease and need. The underlying theme of his discourse in the book is to seek “a pathway into the deep stillness of our higher self through scared communion with nature itself”.
Embodying the grand forces of nature, the Himalayas he believes, “are an oases of calm in a world of storm”. Sweetened by the love emanating from the Supreme Being himself, the pure Himalayan air revitalises the soul. The mountains are flushed with beauty that belongs, not to them, but to God; leaving us with an inspirational poetic symbol. “The steep paths of the Himalayas are akin to the steep paths of life itself. But I adventure up the rugged trail with music sounding in my ears. God is luring me on”. Calling the Himalayas to be his novitiate for heaven, he adds that in these grand solitudes I may prepare myself for the sublime solitude of God.
In about 190 pages, the book captures the author’s spiritual takeaways from the Himalayas in an expression that suits a spiritual journal. Like most Europeans, he too travelled in a typical British babu style. Preferring to not isolate himself from the world around in real sense of the word, he kept an orderly to assist him in his mountain life where he was in constant touch with the outside world through letters and notes or even visitors.
I suggest this book for every Himalayan lover. Read this to feel the beauty, clarity and solemn silence of the godly icy mountains; in words. The book is currently available at Amazon or Flipkart at an average price of INR 382.
Not many people would have noticed that an open conical snow-covered peak is visible from Chandigarh on clear winter days. Foregrounded by the Kasauli and Sirmaur hills of Shivalik Range, the peak is distinctively noticeable from the plains of Chandigarh. Bearing a romantic name of Chur Chandani Ki Dhar or the mountain range of silver bangle, this is the nearest snow-peak to the national capital territory of Delhi. Referring to the glittering snow, the intriguing Himalayan feature of Churdhar humbly holds snow for more than seven months of the year and is visible from the hills around Mussoorie and Shimla as well as from the plains of Chandigarh and up to Saharanpur.
I recently climbed this grand peak in rather spontaneous circumstances. Aman Sood, the founding member of Chandigarh ByCycle and my partner in crime on most such outings asked me to join him on this trek on one fine weekend of recent autumn. Even while doing our post-graduation at the Panjab University in Chandigarh, we would often see the Choor (as the Britishers used to call it) and admire it; the first peak of prominence rising above the Shivaliks. Having budgeted a week-full of free time to explore the Rajgarh Valley, we planned a quick trek to Churdhar, a ridge popular for religious as well as historical values offering quite moderate approaches.
The peak of Churdhar is accessible from many approaches but the popular and safest ones are northern one from Chaupal and southern one from Nohradhar at 2160m. We were keen on climbing the peak through its southern face from the base located at Nohradhar. We self-drove from Chandigarh to Nohradhar via Rajgarh, a bumpy ride on a popular orchard trail of the state. The trail to Churdhar begins adjacent to the PWD Rest House (2191m), where we parked ourselves. In the evening we took a few acclimatisation walks around that area and the main market. Calming down the gusts of dust and heat coming from the plains, the valley of Nohradhar is fairly wooded where orchard economy is valued over grains. The market is very basic but the supplies necessary for the trek could still be sourced. A few locals have converted their house into guesthouses for visitors like us. Depending upon the facilities they offer, a room should be available from Rs 500 to a thousand including basic dahl, chapatti and rice meal. Planning to start early the following day, we slept earlier than normal.
Next morning at 0730hrs we began our steep climb to the ridge above the settlement of Nohradhar and then proceeded along this gentle and lightly wooded ridge to reach the first popular campsite at Jamnala, also referred to as doosri. Part of a religious trail, the various rest sites on the route as we climb higher are known by pehli (2422m), doosri (2885m) and teesri (3258m), popularised by locals. These are also the sites where you could have a refill of water from fresh mountain springs. I’d recommend carrying good quantity of water with you from Nohradhar itself if you are not prepared to drink the spring water of mountains. Refraining from creating any further plastic on the mountains, we carried our bottles from the base and kept topping them up on the way from such streams; which is what I suggest. It took us nearly three hours to reach Jamnala at 2885m where a couple of enterprising families from Nohradhar had put up a seasonal dhaba providing a fixed menu of rice, dahl, tea and biscuits at a slightly premium rate. Surrounded by tall deodars, the Jamnala meadow is at a sunny spot and offers excellent camping grounds as well as water facilities. We took full advantage of the salubrious charm of the site and took a nap after polishing a plateful of dahl and rice.
The entire stretch of the trail from Jamnala to teesri passes through a wooded section of the ridge where spotting Himalayan birds and infrequent wild animals becomes easier. I was lucky to come face-to-face with a male Himalayan Monal as also a Himalayan Griffon. Unlike the stretch from the base to doosri, where you steeply gained 725m over a distance of 6.7km; this stretch from doosri to teesri is relatively easier on the gradient. In about a couple of hours’ time we covered a distance of 4.9km to gain 373m and reach the windy campsite at 3258m. From teesri, 5.5km of distance spanned over an altitude gain of 384m takes you to the summit at 3647m.
Intending to complete the trek over a weekend, many people prefer to halt for the night at teesri meadows but being on a curved part of an exposed ridge from both sides, it can be really windy to put up own tent. Save for the availability of water nearby there isn’t much comfort insofar as a campsite is concerned. And in case you plan to stay inside dhaba owner’s hut, be prepared to face mammoth-sized rats. But then the views! From here we could see right up to the Kullu Himalayas including its lower peaks and the prominent Deo Tibba as well as Indrasan. As we sat admiring the panoramic view, we met Panditji who introduced himself to be a farm owner at Nohradhar and a member of the Chur Devta committee, which looks after the affairs of dharamsala and the temple. Having munched on a maggi, biscuit and tea diet outside a makeshift seasonal dhaba in a shepherd’s hut, all of us headed towards the temple dharamsala located a little below the summit.
Just 1.1km ahead of the teesri at 3310m is the last point before the dharamsala where you could refill your bottles with water. For the first couple of kilometres from teesri, the route takes a gentle gradient to climb after which it steeply ascends to reach the temple. This is of course the best stretch of the entire route; scenic as well as easy on the go. As the gradient becomes steeper and boulders appear, the route bifurcates into one that leads straight to the summit through its south face and the other one skirts the ridge to approach the summit through its north face via the temple. The direct route is shorter by a kilometre but is very steep and exposed. We took the longer one that passes through a boulder strewn mountain-face, which made our going even more tiring. The boulders and humungous outcrops of granites of course bear a testament to the geological riddle of the Himalayas.
As we slogged our way ahead, Panditji told us stories and anecdotes about the region and the religious importance of Chureshwar Mahadeo, an incarnation of Lord Shiva and the guardian deity of the Churdhar. Even though, the trail is more frequented by pilgrims than adventure seekers, the mountain has been popular with both including natural historians. Located in the watershed of the Sutlej-Yamuna, this region has been popular with adventure enthusiasts since ages. Even as George Everest stationed himself on this peak to survey the heights and reach of the Himalayas, the maharaja Yadavindra Singh of Patiala popularised water sports through his activities in the river Giri, located west of the mountain. The climbing records of Choor have references of British expeditions from 1820s.
Taxing the knees, our traverse through the rocky crags and boulders was more frustrating than the windy gushes. Wild flowers of all colours and curious shapes popped up from among the stones. By six pm, just in time to witness one of the most remarkable Himalayan sunsets, we made it to the rocky slab above the temple. It was a stunning place to be to soak in an awe-inspiring Himalayan wonder. For the first time I saw the Great Himalayan spectacle at sunset right from Kullu and Kinnaur to Garhwal. The peaks of beautiful Swargarohini and the Bandarpunch that had eclipsed the peaks of Gangotri region looked distinctively golden.
As it became darker, the pilgrims made a beeline towards the dharamsala that remains operational throughout the pilgrimage season. The facilities at the dharamsala are most basic and don’t expect more than a mattress and blanket to spend the night. The best part is that you can get a meal plus potable water if you knock at their doors at right time of the season. Otherwise, there is no dearth of camping space on top. The air we inhaled was clear and blessed by the Himalayan spirits. That night, apart from Sirmaur region, we could see right up to the lights of Mussoorie hills and Doon Valley that seemed just a few minutes away.
Next morning as I woke up and began to pack our gear, Aman had already made a return from the summit of Choor that offered a remarkable 360 degree view of lower Himalayas. Above a compilation of rocks and slates, a statue of Lord Shiva adds the required five feet to make it a 12,000 ft peak. The view wasn’t as free of haze as we had expected it to be. Shimla hills lay to the northwest and the Ghaggar plains to the southwest. Observed from the top, the lesser ridges appeared to be arid in contrast to the wooded patch we had hiked through yesterday. Far in the distance, the Great Himalayan Range majestically stood above everything else on the way.
Aiming to reach the base at Nohradhar before the sunset, we started our descent by 1000hrs. Even as the descent was more taxing on the feet and heels than the ascent, we were down to Nohradhar by 1900hrs in the evening. Back in the room, the same evening, we met with a local political leader who reciprocated to our greetings from the Choor. We were happy to have finally climbed the peak from where the Mughals used to source ice to keep their imported wines chilled during the summers in Delhi.
Total distance: 17.5km (one way)
Time taken: Two days with a night on top
Base (2160m) to Pehli (2422m): 2.5km
Pehli to Doosri (Jamnala) at 2885m: 4.2km
Doosri to Teesri at 3258m: 4.9km
Teesri to Temple at 3454m: 5.5km
Temple to the Peak at 3647m: .4km