Expressing Things Without Mincing Words

Category: Travel

Roopkund – the Centuries Old Mystery of the Himalaya

Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Located at a height of approximately 16,500 feet in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, the Roopkund Lake is a popular site among all adventure junkies. It is one of the popular treks in Uttarakhand which boasts of its enchanting beauty varying from the magnificent views of the great Himalayas, dense virgin forests, gurgling brooks, lush green Ali and Bedni bugyal (meadows). The spectacular scenes of Mt. Trishul and Nanda Ghunti will leave anyone mesmerised. In addition, adventure fanatics get to see Chaukhamba range, Neelkanth peak, Kedarnath, Kedar Dome and many other mountain ranges during the Roopkund trek. Among them, the Chaukhamba range is clearly visible from my house in my paternal village in Uttarakhand. 😀

However, this two-meter deep lake has remained an unsolved mystery for scientists, anthropologists and historians for so many years. And the reason for their keen interest in this area is 800 human skeletons which are found all around this lake. This entire area remains snow-covered throughout the year. It is only during autumn season, when the snow starts melting, when these human skeletons scattered all over this place become visible. Scientists and experts hold different views in terms of the history of these skeletons.

Courtesy: indiahikes.com/

These skeletons were very first found by a British forest guard in 1942, who chanced upon this lake. Initially, these skeletons were believed to be of Japanese soldiers of the WWII. Whereas, many British explorers and scholars held that these skeletons were of General Zorawar Singh and his men, who while returning after the 1841 Tibbet War lost way in this area and eventually succumbed to bad weather. The radiocarbon tests in 1960s rejected this theory and established the time of all these skeletons from the 12th to 15th century. This led many historians to maintain that the skeletons belonged to the unsuccessful attack of Muhammad Tughlaq on Garhwal Himalaya. Others believed this to be the case of an epidemic while some anthropologists saw it as a ritual suicide. Thus till the initial years of 2000, DNA studies supported the theory of these skeletons’ South Asian ancestry.

In 2019, a special report by National Geographic presented a clear picture on these skeletons’ history. After the full genomic analyses of 38 sets of skeletons, experts reached to a new conclusion. According to their findings, out of those 38 people, 23 had South Asian ancestry who died between the 7th and 10th centuries. Other 14 died there between the 17th and 20th centuries – probably in a single event. Unlike the South Asian skeletons, all these 14 skeletons were found to have Mediterranean genetic ancestry of Greece and Crete. The last person, who died at the same time as these Mediterranean people, belonged to East Asia ancestry. The analyses also suggested that all these individuals were  not related to one another in any way. Further, the additional isotopic studies revealed that the South Asian and Mediterranean groups used to eat different diets. Even after these findings, researchers still do not know the reason of this Mediterranean group’s travel to Roopkund and their cause of death.

Courtesy: www.rachnabisht.com

Scientists do not believe them to be the casualties of war. These skeletons include both, males and females. There is no proof of any kind of combat violence nor any weapons have been found here. All these individuals were healthy during their death, thus it rejects the theory of death due to any epidemic. 

If a popular local folk lore of the region is to be believed, it talks about a royal procession. For centuries, a pilgrimage named Raj Jat is organised every 12 years in this area which is dedicated to the Goddess Nanda Devi. It is believed that during medieval times the King of Kannauj Jasdhawal undertook a pilgrimage to the Goddess Nanda Devi in the Garhwal Himalaya on the occasion of his heir’s birth. During the journey, the boisterous dance and music infuriated the Goddess. As a result, “iron balls” thrown from the sky killed all of them.

This strengthens the possibility of these people being the pilgrims who got killed during heavy hailstorm. Experts have found parasols that were used during the procession from those human remains. There have been unhealed fractures found on some of the skulls which indicates towards a severe hailstorm – the “iron balls” as mentioned in the folk lore.

That’s why to verify this and other aspects, an international team of researchers was formed which performed genomic analyses of the Roopkund remains. The finding of the Mediterranean ancestry in the Indian Himalaya came as a big surprise for the team.

Courtesy: blog.getsholidays.com

Now, the question arises did this Mediterranean group come here for this pilgrimage and stay here for a long time during which they died. William Sax, head of Heidelberg University’s anthropology department and author of Mountain Goddess, a book on the pilgrimage, does not see any sense in this belief. Sax, himself, visited the lake thrice with his last trip made in 2004 as part of a National Geographic television show. 

This year in 2020, researchers had the plans for another expedition to the Roopkund Lake to study the artifacts associated with the skeletons. At present, the chances of this are very low seeing the current scenario of the coronavirus pandemic.

River Rafting in Rishikesh

In Arpil 2018, my friend, her husband and I decided to go for river rafting in Rishikesh. We decided to first go to Har Ki Pauri as the couple wanted to conduct their daughter’s mundan (tonsure) there. My mother, friend’s mother-in-law, my another friend and her mother also joined us in this trip.

We were supposed to leave Delhi by 12:30 a.m. to avoid heavy traffic. Thinking of having a thrilling rafting experience in Rishikesh, we were so excited but for us the adventure started right from Delhi.

On the night of departure, the driver came so late at around 3:30 a.m. with excuses of traffic. By 4 a.m., he picked all of us and finally we set off for Rishikesh. It was not even 2 hours since we started our journey, my friend saw the driver dozing off many times. When asked, the driver told us that he had not taken proper rest so my friend’s husband took the wheel while the driver was sleeping on the middle row of the seat. He was in such a deep sleep that many times, he fell towards my friend’s shoulder.

At Har Ki Pauri with friends

My friend’s husband drove till we reach Har Ki Pauri around 10 a.m. By that time, the driver had a good sleep and was ready to drive us. My friend’s daughter was tonsured there. After that, we all took a holy dip in the holy River Ganges followed by breakfast and then left for our hotel in Rishikesh.We reached there around 11. Our mothers stayed back in the hotel with kids and soon rest of us left for rafting. We stuck in heavy traffic jam there for almost 30 minutes but somehow reached the rafting spot.                                             

Ready for a thrilling experience

Waiting for our turn

Like our driver, our raft guide also contributed in making the entire adventure memorable. Before going, he gave us few instructions on how to raft throughout the trip. But only my friend and I did it properly.

Rafting on calm waters

Entering the rapid

Thrill unleashed

Many times our instructor lost his cool. It was really very hilarious. His frustration with us was clearly visible throughout the rafting expedition. 😆

Once it was over, we had light meal and came back to our hotel.

The next morning, we checked out of the hotel. Then, we visited Ram Jhoola as much as we could because of time limit and finally set off for Delhi.

Mothers

Throughout the entire journey, the driver showed us tantrums. Therefore while we were still in Rishikesh, he received a strong rebuke from my friend for his misbehaviour. Her strong dosage of rebuke worked and after that he drove us to Delhi without any drama. But no, there was still some adventure left in that journey.

We were supposed to reach Delhi maximum by 11 a.m. But due to severe traffic at many places in Uttar Pradesh, we were late by many hours. During the journey, I fell asleep only to wake up with the scaring views of huge fields at night. It was all dark around and nowhere we could find any roads or houses. There were only fields everywhere. To avoid heavy traffic, they took the route suggested by google map and ended up nowhere. This thing again happened to us during our Dehradun trip in 2019. So, I advise never to take any shortcut route suggested by Google Maps until and unless you are sure about it. Except kids, we all were awake and bit scared. But finally, we crossed that entire area and found the main road to Ghaziabad. We all breathed a sigh of relief!

From there it took us around 1 hour to reach Delhi and finally, we all reached our homes safely by 3 a.m.

The First Solo Trip

Since childhood, I knew that I was fascinated by nature. Somewhere, this love has deep connection with me belonging to the hill state Uttarakhand. Various family trips made during childhood ended up in my unbreakable bond with nature.

During my trip to Kainchi Ashram in Uttarakhand, I got the opportunity to explore the nearby areas.

In this blog, I am sharing my experience of discovering those places.

The first day after visiting the ashram in Kainchi, I left for Garam Pani which was about 12 kms. Private cabs are available from Kainchi to Garam Pani but the owner of the restaurant, where I often used to have my meals, advised me to take a bus. One can easily get buses or shared jeeps from Kainchi, which are available in every 10-15 minutes and the fare is also reasonable.                                         

The main road outside Kainchi Ashram

Like any other place, buses here are usually overcrowded in morning and evening. Since, it was already half past noon, the bus I took was less crowded. The journey to Garam Pani was comfortable. One thing I strongly experienced during my entire Kainchi trip was that people there were so decent and helpful.

I reached Garam Pani in almost 20 minutes. After deboarding the bus, I simply walked towards the local market area. I can’t recall the last time when I strolled so freely in my city life. I was just walking down the road purposelessly. It was the month of September and the weather was little hot but overall I enjoyed it.        

                                   Shops in Garam Pani                                                                                               

While returning, I again chose to walk a little. After some time, to my sheer surprise, I found a place where I saw zip lining activity being performed. So, that was it. This adventurous soul tried her hand at the thrilling activity. 😎

Then, I went down towards the stream and spent some time there soaking my feet in the cold water. After some time, I left the place and took a bus to my hotel.

Next morning, I was waiting for a bus to travel to nearby places. There I met Monika, a doctor from Delhi, who was staying in a homestay close to my hotel. Soon, we gelled with each other and decided to visit the nearby tourist sites together. We took the bus for Kamal Tal and within an hour we were there.                                                                             

Like me, Monika turned out to be a great nature lover. So from there, we both set for a leisurely walk towards Naukuchiatal adjoining Kamal Tal. The views we came across during our nature walk left us awestruck.

Such enchanting views kept coming our way.                                           

On our way back, we stopped at Cafe by the Lake. What attracted us about the cafe was its outer decor.                                                                 

When we entered the cafe, we were equally struck by its interior beauty. The ambience, lights, music, books, furniture; all were complimenting one another. Food at the cafe was too amazing. Just sitting there was so relaxing.

Monika and I decided to leave together for Delhi by train the next day. Her friend arranged for our train tickets. Somewhere, we were not yet done with our sightseeing thing. So, the next morning both of us left for Sattal. We had only an hour to explore the place. Tourists at the lake were trying their hands in kayakaying and other activities while we two were busy in capturing the wonderful aspects of nature.              

We got so engrossed with the beauty of the place that we ran short of time. Both of us skipped our lunch in order to make for the lost time. We left the place in a hurry and took a bus to Kathgodam Railway Station. Luck was on our side that day. Both of us were literally running carrying our luggage but somehow we reached there just on time. Finally, I boarded the train with Monika cherishing many beautiful memories of Kainchi trip with me.

And yes, we finally had our dinner in the train. 😛

Getting Back to My Roots

I remember visiting my native place in Uttarakhand in 1998. It was my distant cousin’s wedding. Since then, I never seriously thought of going there. Gradually, the cosy lifestyle of this city dweller overpowered that thought.

Such houses are a common sight in my village

I always felt nostalgia for my village. For, it was the place where I had spent many beautiful moments of my life. But the availability of very limited basic amenities discouraged me to consider the very idea of visiting it.

A house on way to my home

It was in November 2019 when I had to rush to my village due to my mother’s sudden illness. At that time, my parents were staying there for the reconstruction of our old house.  

The beautiful flowers seemed like welcoming me

The place brought me back to those beautiful days of my life. I could see many changes but what actually struck me was the fresh air and clean sky – a rarity in cities like Delhi.

Early mornings can never be as perfect as this one

Morning bloom

I still cherish those childhood memories when I, with my siblings, used to roam around the entire village and have unlimited fun. Like other houses in the village, ours, too, bore a traditional look.

My ancestral house in a dilapidated condition

Few years ago, it collapsed and now has been replaced by a new house – a concrete one. Still, there are traditionally-built houses in the village but the sign of modernisation can be easily felt. Now, villagers prefer concrete houses over traditional ones as they require less time, efforts and money. Moreover, they are easy to maintain. The architecture of Uttarakhand is based on locally and easily available materials like stone, clay and wood. It represents the rich cultural heritage of the state. That’s why, I believe this trend of concrete houses should be the reason for concern seeing Uttarakhand’s distinctive heritage.

A traditional house in neighbourhood

Once reaching there, I did not leave a single chance to explore things around my village. After having tea at my uncle’s house, I went on to discover the surroundings.

A usual day in the village

On my way back, I met a lady who was returning after collecting fodder for her cattle from fields. She invited me to her house. Both of us along with her husband had a fantastic conversation over tea. After some time, I took their leave and came back.

The hospitable couple

But perhaps, I was not done yet. So, I went on meeting people in my neighbourhood. The usual busy urban routine hardly allows us to think about life’s other beautiful aspects. I had this realisation while visiting these naïve people.

Happy in their own world

The generosity of the village people touched me. I found them to be simple and affable. It came to me as a big surprise that they are happy in their own world, caring little about the superfluous things. One may think of them being complacent but I will definitely call them contented people.

Village people have their own extraordinary charm

The simple life of a village, however, comes with many challenges. Living in a rural area with few basic facilities is really a tough deal. Water scarcity is still a huge challenge here. There are many households which have piped water supply in their houses. Others fetch water from hand pumps or water tanks (locally called diggi) which are almost 1 km from the village. Humongous task indeed!

Villagers store water in all possible ways

Migration is another huge problem here. Most of the houses in this village are either abandoned or occupied by older people. In my case, my grandfather and father left this village owing to their respective jobs in Delhi. Eventually, they permanently settled there. Therefore, my siblings and I had our upbringing in Delhi only. So, we never really had that much connection to this place except from attending few family events and spending some school holidays.

An abandoned house after its only occupant died few years ago

Once farming used to be a major source of livelihood in this village. But with the passage of time, people moved to big cities desiring a comfortable and prosperous life. Villagers here grow few grains, vegetables and fruits for their basic needs. But the constant threat of monkeys and langurs often result in the destruction of their crop. Today, almost all vegetables, fruits, etc. here come from other states.

Farm animals are still an integral part of the village

Another challenge which I personally experienced here is the limited transport options. Usually, sumo jeeps are easily available in every 15-20 minutes but getting them on public holidays can be a reason for inconvenience. However, efforts towards the overall development of this village are on.

Solar lights have proven to be a big help for villagers

A government school in the village

The place proved to be a perfect retreat for me from a mundane city life. Summers here are not too hot, whereas winter season is extra cold.

Nights here are equally amazing

The mesmerising beauty of this place is something to be experienced. Seeing people living such a simple life gave me many valuable life lessons. I can say that I have imbibed little bit of their qualities towards leading a less complicated life.

A Mystic Saint Called Neeb Karori

It all started in 2018 when I first read about Baba Neeb Karori (or Neem Karoli as pronounced by his foreign devotees) on Quora. Intrigued, I started reading more about him through all the stuffs available on the internet. In addition, my curiosity regarding him grew more when I learnt that Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg had visited his ashram (religious or spiritual retreat) in Kainchi in the Indian state of Uttarakhand. Hollywood star Julia Roberts chanced upon his photo while shooting in India and ended up embracing Hinduism.

Shri Neeb Karori Baba Maharaj Courtesy: Google

So while reading about Maharaj ji (as respectfully addressed by his followers), I got to know many surprising and miraculous incidents related to his life. Maharaj ji, whose birth name was Lakshmi Narayan Sharma, was a devout follower of the Hindu Lord Hanuman. In 1967, an American youth Richard Alpert visited his ashram in Kainchi and what happened after that is history. Young Richard became Ram Dass and devoted his entire life in the service of his guru and mankind. On 22nd December, 2019, Ram Dass left for his heavenly abode but what he has established in his more than 50 years of spiritual journey is absolutely overwhelming. Like Ram Dass, there are other devotees who are carrying forward Baba Neeb Karori’s legacy. Krishna Das, Bhagavan Das, Lama Surya Das, Rampriya Das, Jai Uttal; to name a few; are spreading their guru’s teaching all over the world. Today, Baba Neeb Karori has followers across the globe. There are temples dedicated to Maharaj ji in the United States and Germany.

Eventually, this curiosity of mine made me to visit Maharaj ji’s ashram in Kainchi in September 2019. For my stay, I chose a hotel which was approximately 200 meters away from the temple. Every morning and evening, I could easily hear aartis (devotional songs sung in the praise of the deity when the light is being offered) and the sound of bells from my hotel room.

Kainchi Ashram in Nainital

So, as soon as I got fresh, I straightaway left for the temple. Surrounded by hills, the perfectly built temple is a wonderful experience to visit. What really impressed me was the serenity pervading the entire temple premises. The sound of the stream flowing adjacent to the temple was an additional delight.

Once I entered the temple, I found many small temples devoted to various deities, including Lord Rama and Hanuman. There is a temple dedicated to Maharaj ji with his statue perched on a marble platform. Opposite to his temple is the room where Maharaj ji used to sleep and would often meet his devotees. Visitors can get photographs, books related to Maharaj ji and other items from the ashram library. Photography inside the temple is prohibited.

There is also a temple dedicated to Siddhi Maa and Jiwanti Maa, Maharaj ji’s female followers.

Siddhi Maa with Maharaj ji Courtesy: Google

One more attraction of the ashram is the wooden bed outside another room which is always covered with a blanket and flowers offered to it. 

Like any other temples in India, morning and evening aarti is performed here. But what really caught my attention was seeing children (who undergo vedic education and live in the ashram under the residential schooling system of Gurukul) leading the aarti. Watching them was a pleasant feeling.

Maharaj ji with this foreign devotees Courtesy: Google

So far, I have come across many miraculous stories related to Maharaj ji on his various disciples’ accounts. And they have only brought me closer to this holy saint, who considered all human beings equal despite their caste, creed, religion or ethnicity. He never believed in preaching or delivering religious sermons. He simply used to say, “MAIN KOI MANTRA NAHI JANTA. MAIN SIRF RAM KO JANTA HUN” (I don’t know any mantra. All I know is Lord Rama.)

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