Uttarakhand, the twin province of Kumaon and Garhwal is known for its dramatic mountain scapes and Sahastra Talurious torrents. The British turned geography on its head and called Uttarakhand “Kumaon Himalaya” although Garhwal is bigger and holier.
To generations of Hindu pilgrims Garhwal is Dev Bhumi, the land of Gods. Kumaon on the other hand is not considered holy and the reason for this proves how well ancients understood the geography of the Himalayas. Almost all the streams that go to make up the Ganga rise in Garhwal. It is the Ganga that makes Garhwal holier than Kumaon.
As well as the majestic peaks and furious thundering streams, symbols of aloofness of Shiva and also of his dancing form, Shiva Natraj are the calm, hidden lakes high on the shoulders of the great Himalaya. They symbolise the cool detachment of the enlightened mind which can only be reached by stern disciplining of the animal nature. On the old pilgrim route from Gangotri to Kedarnath, between the Bhagirathi and Mandakini laid the high, hidden lake of Sahastra Tal, the lake of the thousand petalled lotus of the universal mind. Not many could reach it for the way was rugged and known to few. According to legend only those the Gods deemed fit would be able to reach the lake, and it was called locally by the name of Darshan Tal.
During a particularly dismal monsoon period in Mussoorie, my friend Ashok Dilwali, a dedicated mountain photographer suddenly appeared out of the mist in his jeep and asked me to accompany him to seek out the mystery lake. Anything to get relief from the swirling clouds decided me to join the search. In my red tracksuit at least I could justify my presence as a photogenic extra on a colour slide. When we reached Uttarkashi we had to spend a whole day trying to locate porters who had actually been to the lake. We were only able to find Kesh Bahadur who had been to within a few kilometres of the goal, and Nand Bahadur who had heard the local descriptions of the route.
We learned that instead of one lake there were seven, each layered above the other in sequence and each separated by roughly the same distance. The name Sahastra Tal had been given by sadhus to indicate the presence of many other smaller lakes in the area. But the real name was Sahsyu Tal, which in Garhwali means not a thousand but seven. The symmetry of these seven holy lakes added edge to our explorer’s appetite and it was clear that we would need a village guide who had seen all seven.
Since Ashok’s trip was limited to one week, kesh bahadur suggested we take a short but steep route from Malla to the source of the Philanagana stream which rises very near of Darshan Tal. It meant a tree day back-breaking climb from five to 15000 feet.
The first night was spent in an open buffalo shed on the tree line. As firewood was plentiful we had no problems dozing off in comparative comfort. The second night found us in a damp cave with a flapping canvas awning rigged up to divert the driving rain. The porters preferred to share floor space with a Gujjar in his grass hat along with his family, goats, sheep, buffalo, calves, dogs and fleas. One bonus of our five-star grotto was to feed on khir the Gujjar kindly supplied. There was so much milk available that we were able to make khir for the next day’s march, cooking it so dry that we could stuff it into a plastic bag and use it as a pillow if necessary.
Our porters were turning out to be worth their weight in gold. Kesh bahadur could get a fire going in the dampest of corners, industrially shaving off the wet outer layer of bamboo to allow the inner core to burn. Our old guide by contrast was turning out to be a liability. On seeing anyone receive a pill for backache, stomach ache or headache he would demand all three just to be on the safe side. He was slow on his feet and continually falling behind on the march which was hardly in keeping with his status as the guide. Following all the way from the village was his old, faithful sheep-dog. Most of the time the shaggy Bhotia led the way. When he stopped, Blocking the way looking back, we knew that his master had fallen behind and that we would have to wait for him to catch up with us.
Early in the morning the weather was glorious and we experienced the full meaning of Khush Kalyan. The flowers were breathtaking in their variety and intensity. Soon however the mist swallowed the warmth and we were again playing hide and seek with the drizzle-laden clouds.
We were surprised to pass above a lake and were told there were several others in the vicinity. As we toiled upwards we were rewarded with a fabulous clear snow view northwards. The whole rampant of the Great Himalayas was spread before us from Bandar punch to Kedarnath. Right in front was the elegant peak of Jaonli seeming only a stone’s throw away, but closer study revealed horrendous layered snow fields blocking access and a week of hard work lay ahead of any climber who sought closer acquaintance.
Now the shepherd trails petered out and we moved uncertainly along the terrifying edge of precipice running east-west towards a sharp black spire that conveniently marked the site of Darshan Tal. It was not until late in the afternoon that we staggered into the small dharamshala hut frozen, sodden and miserable. Nearby were the curious terraced meadows one finds in many parts of Garhwal and always called Pandav Sera, the rice fields of the Pandava brothers. This dharamshala was built some ten years previously by a district magistrate who had made the trek to Darshan Tal. Unfortunately half of the timber roof of the stone-walled hut has already been burned by unrestrained visitors. Ashok and I elected to sleep in the tent.
Today was D-day. We had to reach the goal by ten before the clouds made photography impossible. However the immediate problem was whether they would lift in the first place. After tea, heated on Ashok’s small gas stove we headed off up the hill in search of the seven lakes. The first one lay a kilometre from the dharamshala, a small, circular expanse of smooth water about fifty yards across. Our guide called this Lam Tal. I suspect he was wrong for the next lake half way up a steep rocky hillside was long narrow like Scottish loch. By now the mist was disappearing with strong sun and the lake lay before the snow like a diamond necklace on a cape of ermine. The guide called this long lake Kokhuli Tal.
The stiff climb continued unabated to the top of Kokhuli Ghar. On the way we saw a monal silhouetted against the craggy edge of the ridge. The view from the top was well worth the effort but now we had to lose all that height. Ahead, across the valley, lay the sharp black spire. Strange and beautiful to behold lay a circular lake half way up the slope. This was Pari Tal and the first high altitude lake I have seen with a well defined island in the middle. On closer inspection this lake proved the most beautiful. We sat admiring it and shared a tin of fruit cocktail. But judging by the black spire a lot of climbing lay ahead and time was running out. Another steep bout of bouldering brought us near the Pilangana glacier. A huge square rock like a 12 ft Rubek cube marked Dhudi Tal, a small circular expanse of water which, as the name suggest, was clouded by sediment.
We pressed on- panting from the exertion and conscious that it was already past ten. Suddenly the old man remembered and pointed up a side feeder of the glacier, right under and opposite the black spire landmark. All we saw was a sea of tossed boulders, huge elemental like a set for King Lear. Then as we picked out way through, we spotted a saffron flag fluttering. A few more paces, scrabbling to get the lens cap off, and there was the serene emerald expanse before us, a large ethereal lake of distinctive shape, with curious pillared walls and that magic intimacy only the explorer experiences after an agony of expectation. Discovery has its birth pangs and all the misery of the long climb evaporated on beholding the loveliness spread before us. Quickly before the clouds tantalised the camera, Ashok went along the shore while I climbed the rocky heights to get a wide angle view.
The lake was shaped like an artist’s palette, the waters reflecting the moods of the weather. When the sun burst through it was turquoise and green, then turned to deep blue as the clouds acted as a filter. I was nearly on my knees with the exertion and as I snapped the last coloured slide the clouds billowed over to turn the surface into a grey monotone.
We had been granted darshan with moments to spare. When we had set out everyone said we were mad to go in the rains, mad dogs and photographers out in the monsoon mist. As it happened our adventure and sense of extraordinary grace at achieving our goal within the time limit was not quite over. As we stumbled back to our base at dharamshala our guide made a fatal mistake and led us in the pea-soup fog over the southern face of the precipitous ridge. The porters held back and a heated argument ensued. Then the guide’s dog took over and led us back up to the original track, like the faithful hound in the legend of Yudhistira. When we reached safe ground the Bhotia looked round to check on his master’s presence, as if to say “To find the lake of the mind you need to harness your animal instincts.”