[This story has been contributed by Mrinal Bahukhandi]
In April 2019, I set off on a solo bike trip to my homeland, Uttarakhand, the Himalayan state in North India. With no definite plans, no set route, no targets to be clocked, I only wished to ride Iris (moniker for my 500 CC Royal Enfield) into the upper reaches of the Himalayas, to witness the majestic mountains that I am supposedly a native of. I ended up clocking over 2000 km over three weeks riding from Delhi-Dehradun-Chopta-Niti-Wan-Kausani-Binsar-Munsiari and lastly to Kathgodam where I shipped my bike back to Mumbai.
After spending four splendid days in Chopta, I was seeking suggestions from the locals to decide my next destination. The kitchen staff of my friend’s homestay recommended Niti Village, the last human establishment before the Indo-China border that leads up to Niti Pass, one of the low lying passes used as a trade route in the past. Due to its proximity to the sensitive border, one has to seek an inner-line-permit from the Sub District Magistrate of Joshimath to visit Niti.
Seeking this permit and riding through an excellent road, about 20 km before Niti is a village called Malari that I stumbled upon and immediately fell in love with. I had no clue that this village was a world heritage site and somehow attracted to its charm, I decided to stay put there. Beset in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, Malari is a village with unspoken and indescribable beauty, surrounded by snow-clad mountain peaks including Kunti Bhandar, Dronagiri and Hathi Parvat. A river tributary of Ganga, Dhauli Ganga flows by this small hamlet that has houses made in the traditional Himalayan way (with wood and stones), some of them dating back to at least 100 years. People, especially women in this village wear traditional clothes made of sheep wool and sport jewellery while doing their daily chores.
On one end of Malari is a vast step farm that stretches out like a massive green carpet from the main road. Situated right after a military establishment and just before the first ITBP (Indo- Tibetan Border Police) check post, marking the start of the inner line, Malari is also vital in a seemingly unfavourable way, so that past this point, there is no cellular network, no internet and most of the times, no electricity. No surprises then that Malari is a quaint and beautiful village!
Checking into a homestay, I soon got friendly with a neighbouring local named Dharam Singh Kunwar in his mid 60’s, who ran a small convenience store and a kitchen selling tea & Maggi instant noodles. Chatting with him was enriching since he was well informed about the local history and culture, especially about the Into-Tibetan trade relations that used to exist between the two regions up until 1962. For hundreds of years, he told me, there was free trade between the two trans-Himalayan regions of Tibet & India. Niti Pass, Mana Pass and other low lying passes were used by traders from both regions to trade goods like food grains, cattle, Tibetan salt, wool, gold and more.
Tibetan salt was very much in demand for its medicinal properties. Dharam Singh also told me that every year when Kedarnath temple gates would open, prasad was sent to Lhasa and similar offerings were sent back, marking the opening of trans-Himalayan trade routes, traversed on foot by the trading community from both sides carrying trade-goods on pony backs. This relationship was strained when the British were trying to find their way to China via Tibet in the early 19th century. The trade eventually stopped in 1960 when China claimed Tibet followed by the Indo-China war of 1962. Overnight, names of villages were painted to their Hindu versions obliterating the Tibetan versions.
He also spoke of many stories about Hindu Gods and Goddesses including that of Lord Shiva, originating from Tibet, not to forget rivers Indus and Brahmaputra, both of which originate from the Tibetan plateau and enter into India from either side of the Himalayan range. He seemed saddened by the blockade of centuries old Indo-Tibetan trade routes while narrating folklore of the region he had heard from his ancestors.
Next day, after visiting Niti and adjoining villages of Bampa and Ghamsali, witnessing breath-taking views and photographing, I returned to Malari and soon enough, found myself chatting with Dharam Singh again. I noticed there was an analogue film camera lying casually in a glass shelf at his shop. My interest in analogue photography immediately drew me to the camera and I asked him for permission to examine the make of it. It was an Agfa Click III Point and Shoot medium-format camera, with a thrifty plastic body, popular in the 1980s. I opened the back of the camera and closed it immediately after noticing a film roll inside. 120 film roll has a paperback, so I knew there were marginal light leaks due to this accident but all was not lost.
In hindsight, I should have opened it in subdued light but I didn’t really see that coming. Seeking his permission again, I then wound the film roll and removed it out of the camera. I had with me a Sakuracolor SR100, a Japanese-make colour roll. He told me that it must have been in the camera for at least 20 years or so, lying untouched. I spoke with him about my analogue practice and he allowed me to take the film roll back with me to Bombay, so I could develop and send the recovered images back to him.
Images from film rolls from many years ago have been recovered successfully after taking careful measures. The good thing about this particular roll was that it was perfectly stored, considering Malari gets six-eight months of snow and a cold climate all year and since, film is best preserved in a refrigerator, this film roll was naturally well preserved. After researching a bit, and procuring a fresh batch of colour film chemicals, I developed the roll using a Tetenal C-41 kit to get satisfactory results. These pictures have light leaks, of course and the colours have definitely been shifted, but after lying in a camera for nearly 25 years, the proof is in the pudding.
I was recently able to establish contact with Dharam Singh through his son and was able to share the images digitally to get to know about his reaction and learn more about the history of these photographs.
A total of nine images were recovered from this film roll which were printed, framed and sent over to Mr. Dharam Singh. For what are photographs if not memories preserved? Maybe someday, I will visit Malari again and see one of the photographs decorating the wall of Dharam Singh’s little shop, his camera still in the shelf, lying empty and idle and I’ll be tempted to load that simple device with the magic of film and click some images of Malari to relive the experience.
You can check out his films here.
Check out his website here.
All Photographs courtesy Mrinal Bahukhandi & Dharam Singh
If you enjoyed reading this article, we suggest you also read: