The crescendo of drums reaches a deafening roar drowning the excited chatter of thousands of people assembled in this forgotten corner of the Himalayas. The narrow lanes, criss-crossing the village, are flooding with anxious devotees and hundreds crowd the sloping slate roofs of white-washed houses eager to grab the choicest of vantage points. In the courtyard of the temple, shlokas bathed in the fragrance of camphor ride the sound of the conch and invoke the deities. All eyes are fixated on the path climbing to the temple courtyard where dancers in colourful dresses indulge in casual banter. A palanquin appears at the far end of the alley surrounded by pilgrims carrying flags and banners that flutter against the backdrop of a blue sky. The cheers grow louder as the palanquin-bearers thread the frantic gathering and stride to the coterie of priests. The entire village erupts with unbridled joy; tears roll down the wrinkled cheeks of doting grandmothers who have silently suffered the pangs of separation. After 14 years, the patron Goddess of Uttarakhand, Nanda Devi, has finally arrived. People across the state have descended on this quaint settlement of Wan to pay respects to the Devi who is returning to the high Himalayas. Ladies from Lata adorned in their traditional attire of Angras and nose-rings, men sporting white kurtas and woolen jackets from Martoli, singers from Bageshwar, musicians from Srinagar, teachers from Nainital, doctors from Uttarkashi, social workers from Gairsain, cattle herders from Joshimath and farmers from Purola—it seems the whole of Uttarakhand has gathered here to celebrate this union of the mighty Himalayas and its sturdy inhabitants. And for a while even the stoic mountains peek from the veil of fluffy cotton clouds and dance to the tune of bagpipes and drums as the golden evening sun disappears behind the hilltops.
The Nanda Devi Raj Jat is a pilgrimage, undertaken usually every 12 years, to honour the Goddess Nanda Devi and commemorate her journey to the Himalayas from her maternal home in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand. The legend of Nanda is rich in the folklore of Garhwal and Kumaon and dates back to 9th century when the Katyuri Dynasty ruled over present day Uttarakhand. Her legacy has been passed down over the centuries in the form of songs called jagars that are still performed all over the hills. Some believe that she was the daughter of Katyuri king Bhanupratap while others accord her a divine status alongside other goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. The various narratives, however, agree that the king had taken an oath to organise a grand yatra to bid farewell to Nanda as she departs to her snowy abode and it is this tradition that has survived over time. The yatra, aptly called the Himalayan Mahakumbh, entails walking a staggering 280 km in the hinterlands of Garhwal and passes through serene villages, deep gorges, lofty mountains, lush grasslands and high altitude passes. This year, the Nanda Raj Jat that got underway on August 18 from the village of Nauti has travelled for 10 days visiting Chandpur Gadi (the old and ruined capital of Garhwal kings), the elegant temple cluster at Adi Badri and numerous settlements on the bank of River Pindar. The yatra comprises dolas or palanquins and decorated chantolis (umbrellas made from dwarf bamboo) borne by representatives from far flung villages with a four-horned ram leading the whole procession. Wan is the last inhabited village en-route and here the yatra rests before it embarks to the higher reaches of the Himalayas far from the grasp of civilisation.
On this clear monsoon morning, Wan is bereft of the usual calm that pervades a Himalayan village and is alive with music of the Gods. The inadequate pathways heading out of the village are crammed with yatris slowly climbing to the high-altitude grasslands of Bedni Bugyal. The otherwise quiet jungle is echoing with tinkling of bells, bleating of rams, the call of a conch and acclamations to the Gods. The crowd is an odd mixture—teenagers in a hurry, 80-year-old veterans, trekkers in fancy hiking gear, barefoot believers, sadhus in ochre robes, ladies decked in jewellery, photographers lugging their tripod stands, porters carrying heavy loads, a disabled person walking on crutches and mules ferrying the tired. By midday, this mass of people reaches the campsite of Gairoli Patal, grey clouds are rolling in and a slight drizzle ensues. The perilous ridges above the tree line are hidden in an opaque curtain of fog and offer no protection from the approaching thunderstorm. The three-km climb to Bedni from Gairoli Patal tugs at the frailty of human resolve; weary, hungry and thirsty pilgrims lumber on in anticipation of hot food and warm shelter even as the weather takes a turn for the worse. The sprawling grass fields of Bedni Bugyal are dotted with scores of colourful tents and makeshift eateries. The verdant slopes rejoice in plentiful showers even as thunder shakes the earth and lightning roams unhindered. At sundown, the rains ebb and a couple of rainbows arch across the sky framing valleys overwhelmed by rampant clouds. The sparkling stars behold several groups of men and women singing traditional songs to the rhythm of drums all night long. With the break of dawn, the majestic Trishul throws off its garb of mist and bares itself to the mesmerised onlooker, to its left the summit of Nanda Ghunti is still shrouded in mystery. The snow-clad peaks are reflected in the still waters of Bedni Kund coloured green by algae; the palanquins rest on its bank enveloped in incense smoke and are subject of myriad rituals.
A day of festivities in Bedni Bugyal and the procession marches on to the next destination of Pathar Nauchaniya, which sits at the base of a towering mountain and offers gracious views of peaks in the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. Several people continue the back-breaking climb, in incessant rain and freezing winds, to the small temple of Vinayaka gracing the top of the aforementioned mountain. Beyond the temple, the trail levels off and dashes across the face of the mountain to the campsite of Baguwabasa. Perched at a height of around 4,700m, Baguwabasa is an inhospitable place strewn with huge boulders with precipitous cliffs on one side and sudden drops on the other. It is battered by forceful gales all throughout the day and the lack of oxygen is evident. The slopes are beautified by innumerable Brahma Kamal blossoming among other radiant blue, yellow and white flowers. In the evening, the sun makes an appearance for a paltry five minutes, fighting a losing battle with an overcast sky, but the meager warmth is elixir for exhausted morale. As the resurgent rain returns, people huddle in their tents and tarpaulin sheets to battle it out with the cold night and pray for a bright morning.
A precarious three km trail of loose rocks and gravel, fraught with danger of rock-fall, runs from Baguwabasa to the glacial lake of Roopkund. Hasty streams fed with the waters of melting glaciers rush down eroded rocks glistening in the mid-morning sun. The greenish-grey lake, situated at a height of around 5,000m, is surrounded by craggy peaks grabbing onto rubble. Human skeletons that have been dated to 9th century are scattered around the periphery of the lake; it is yet to be ascertained who these ill-fated people were and the details of their demise. Many pilgrims offer prayers at the lake, others resume their ascent to Jyura Gali—the Valley of Death. Tackling the pass demands navigating a treacherous path cut into the jagged rock with a vertical fall to the left that leaves very little room for error. Huffing and puffing, a single line of trekkers disappears in the fog at the crest of the mountain and emerges on the other side to witness glaciers running down the white slopes of Ronti Saddle. Thereafter, the descent to the pastures of Shila Samudra is quick as the brief lull in the rains ends.
Amid both jubilation and relief, tents are set up and stoves are fired up. The journey of the Goddess from Nauti to the enchanting Kailash nears its culmination—its final destination, Homkund—and subsequently head to the village of Sutol. For these past few days, the human soul revelled in the presence of the magical Himalayas and the mountains celebrated the devotion of pilgrims. It is this union of the spirit of mountains and humans that is the core and essence of this yatra. The senses scramble to capture the fleeting moments of unadulterated euphoria as the curtain falls on yet another Nanda Devi Raj Jat. In the distance, a raspy voice breaks into a song to bid farewell to the Goddess and a promise to return again. The wind whistles to the tune, the rain pours with elation and the glaciers rumble with respect as the daughter of the Himalayas returns home.