A Little More Living: How I Found The Embrace Of The Mountains In The Johar Valley

A typical village landscape of farming communities in the Johar Valley.
A typical village landscape of farming communities in the Johar Valley.Kalindi Kokal

Why did I give up trekking? Or did I never really give it up? At the peak of my teenage years, somewhere when I was between 16 - 21 years, I was learning to learn about myself. My stepmother, I remember, encouraged me to go for my first trek to Pindari Kafni. The independence this experience lent me and the challenge this geography provided made me feel so good about myself that I wanted to do it again and again. Every summer I would enrol for a new trek in the Himalayas. And when I was not doing that, I explored the Sahyadri mountains in the Western Ghats, roughing it out through heat, dust and limited amounts of water. But as I grew older and I continued to feel drawn to the Himalayas, I realised that I wanted a more meaningful, deeper and possibly unique connection with these ranges — a connection I could call my own. 

 Rituals of worshipping the local spring during the Bhannar Mela ensure a symbiotic relationship between the mountain people and the forests that surround them.
Rituals of worshipping the local spring during the Bhannar Mela ensure a symbiotic relationship between the mountain people and the forests that surround them.Kalindi Kokal

Walking these terrains that were sometimes lonely, but mostly amidst conversations with fellow trekkers, never lent the sense of attachment I had begun to yearn for more and more as I returned to the ranges every year. And that is when I took the leap. In 2007, a twenty-something version of myself — strong, confident and adventurous — stepped away from the annual trek to spend six months in the Kumaon Himalayas volunteering for Avani, a not-for-profit organisation, in what was then a remote part of Kumaon, Uttarakhand. I wanted to live in the mountains and embrace them in their entirety — through their people, through the language and through the life this topography enables. I remember being the only English-speaking person at this, then small, organisation for over three months. I lived in a small guest room self-sufficient with its own washing area and bathroom, but no hot water. I would haul up a bucket of hot water every morning and two on days when I needed a hair bath. I concluded I did not need one so often and picked a shorter hairdo on one Delhi trip that I took intermittently. The preference for shorter hair has remained to date! Dependent largely on solar electrification — already a privilege in the region — monsoons meant less sunlight and we had to conserve electricity because the sun did not come out so much. Cell phones were charged in the early morning hours only and the remaining power was saved up for office work. I learnt that daylight was sufficient through the day until the electricity was switched back on for our homes, towards dusk.

These circumstances have slowly changed over the last 15 years that I have continued to return to this organisation. Lays chips and Maggi has become more easily available along with the most sought after smartphones — the branded versions of which still have to shipped in from Delhi through an overnight bus. Amazon has found its way to some parts of this terrain and English medium schools have mushroomed in even the smallest market towns. The out-migration has only increased and farming has become an even less desirable activity. My experience speaks for only a very small part of the Pitthoragarh and Bageshwar districts of Uttarakhand, but literature and the news tell us that the situation is no different in other parts of these mountain states. 

 A temple of Golu Devta, a deity of justice, along the way to a village in Kumaon, Uttarakhand.
A temple of Golu Devta, a deity of justice, along the way to a village in Kumaon, Uttarakhand.Kalindi Kokal

When I used to trek in, what I know today is locally called ‘Johar’ — the glacier regions, I used to watch with curiosity, local men and women walking the same routes in rubber slippers with a small cotton cloth bag loosely slung across their foreheads. Where were they going? What business did they have in this remote region? How long would they stay? Would we cross them again? Over the years, I learnt that Johar is home to the Shauka community that resides there for six months in the year, the time they use to graze their sheep and farm medicinal plants at these high altitudes. Johar is also shrouded in the story of myths and mysteries, as locals believe that this is the abode of the gods. As magnificent is their show, as magnanimous is their power. My local friends would raise their eyebrows in awe when I recollected casually that I had been in the close vicinity of peaks like the Panchachulli, Pindari and Nandadevi. For me, it had been a trekking expedition, for them, it was to be a life-changing experience that some of them were saving up for, some of them felt they were not yet ready for and some had reconciled that this was only a distant dream. But why? I wondered. Here, were local people who could climb so well, had so much endurance for changing weathers and tricky terrains and a lineage of stories from Johar. Why did they think that these expeditions were a distant reality even though geographically the destination was in what seemed like their neighbourhood?

A view of the snow capped Panchachulli range.
A view of the snow capped Panchachulli range. Kalindi Kokal

And this is where I began to discover a meaningful connection with this grandiosity. To my local friends, these peaks were neither an endurance challenge nor something to be conquered, as is often the description of their feats by arduous hikers. The mountains were beings that had a personality, an emotion and an aura which was only to be experienced in an embrace. An embrace like one of your friends, like mother and child, and even like lovers. These spaces spoke of a mysticism that was to be respected and cherished, but not to be discovered or unravelled. And in that I found that whenever we walked along ridgelines and deeply forested valleys, it was the mountain that led us, showing us the way and deciding our route. And for a long time, I only observed how this occurred. There was a conversation I began to witness, one in the language of silence, respect and love. 

Seasonal produce makes for the enroute snack which much be cherished amidst a banter of local Pahadi melodies.
Seasonal produce makes for the enroute snack which much be cherished amidst a banter of local Pahadi melodies. Kalindi Kokal

This year, after many many years of my visits to Avani and walking up and down forested pathways to villages and their temples, some of my friends and I decided that we would go to an overnight procession of a local deity (mela). The temple was in a thick forest of oak (baanjh) and one had to walk three hours along a narrow path to reach the temple. I walked this path twice on that day and once on my return, while heading to the temple of Banjayan Devta, which ended up being past midnight. The route was steep in parts, slippery in places and lonely all the way. Devotees from near and far were walking to the temple for this celebration. But there was never a crowd. Everyone was almost always walking alone occasionally passing someone else. Mothers with children on their backs, newlywed couples all dressed up as though for their own wedding, young girls and boys using cell phones and selfie sticks, a small group of women singing the glory of the forest in a local tune, older men and women pacing themselves hands locked behind their back and possibly a young child taking a rest on a rock along the way. Some came in slippers, someone in high heels and some barefoot. Everyone smiled. And everyone called out the deity's name as they headed towards the temple. It was only at the temple that I realised how many people had probably walked the various routes reaching the temple to witness this annual ritual of respect and celebration of this forest and its deity. 

At one point in the day after we arrived there was a hail storm. A dear friend who had walked this way up with her little daughter said this was an indication for her to return. Without any hesitation or disappointment, she bid the deity her farewell and left. Pressing an orange into her daughter's palm, she lifted her on her back, waved at us and set foot on her way downhill. A melody from the hills must have been on her lips as she would have charted the route that we were supposed to have walked together all on her own. The decision everyone nodded was well made. It rained more at night and it also became very cold. By this time I thought my friend must have been home with her child who was probably safer and happier in the warmth of their kitchen fire. 

 Late at night that day when we were to return from the procession, it was pitch dark along the way. It was late October and so the wind was cool. We used the torches from our cell phones to walk downhill. No one was rushed and all of us maintained our own pace even if it separated us a bit. The sound of the dol, a local instrument used to invoke the gods and goddesses, played in the background. There was a reassurance in the rhythm even as it grew more and more distant. The forest fragrance began to fade as we neared the road at about 4.30 in the morning. I was tired, but I was also awestruck. We had walked through a thick forest, along steep mountain ridges in the middle of the night without feeling the least bit threatened or uncomfortable. "But what is there to fear?" asked my friends. “You are in the embrace of the mightiest. All you have to do is to receive wholeheartedly!”

 I have not been to Johar or any other hiking holiday in over a decade now. I want to go back to the glacier region once more but this time with the shepherds; the Shauka community themselves. A slow journey paced out over several days, I know that making such time will sound like a privilege to our fast urban lives. But I know now that this is how my walk in the mountains is supposed to be, one that is far-flung from fitness and fancy gears; one that is about a long-term relationship.

About The Author: Kalindi Kokal has a PhD in Law. She straddles the worlds of law and anthropology with passion and enthusiasm. Her research focuses on understanding how law unfolds at the grassroots through everyday practices in rural India. When she isn’t asking questions, she likes to think about her walk with the shepherds one day.