And the many continents in between. Bill Aitken on mountains as a means of self-discovery
“Surely the hills were made that we should appreciate our strength and frailties.”
Frank S Smythe
Indic civilisation celbrates prakriti (nature) as a manifestation of divine energy, offering an array of inspirational aids for our inner growth. Her wonders include oceans, rivers, mountains, flora and fauna. For some the sea has been a magnetic pull but I have always been drawn by the upsweep of the earth. The Semitic view of nature adopted by the West takes a more critical stance on nature, qualifying any claims to its glories as falling short of divinity. The classical Semitic estimate of nature’s status is summed up by TE Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “the ever present idea of world-worthlessness”.
European historians maintain that mountains were shunned by the natives until 200 years ago, when the pens of the Romantic poets and the Impressionist touch of Turner’s brush captured the public imagination with intimations of nature’s sublimity. But they choose to ignore the evidence of pre-Christian stone circles that honoured the sun. India, on the other hand, had taken to the hills millennia earlier and the rapture occasioned by darshan of the Abode of Snow is caught by the Sanskrit dramatist Kalidas.
The Indian instinct has always been to worship nature by building shrines on hilltops whereas the British in India, driven by economic compulsions, built either trig points or dak bungalows. The preference for devotional regard over the urge to exploit when assessing natural features derives from the pre-monotheistic perception that nature is the footprint of the divine.
Mountains can both ennoble by sharing a beauty that lifts the human heart and bring out a meanness in mountaineers who make false claims in the hope of worldly advancement. For many, to view, climb or explore mountains elevates the heart into a silent dialogue with the dimension of eternity and that this holds true for both the Himalaya and the least of mountain ranges I can vouch for. Two mountains located in different hemispheres and of wildly contrasting proportions have had, by virtue of their character, an inspirational impact on the direction of my life.
Though I have lived in the Lesser Himalaya for the past 50 years, I was born at the foot of the Ochil Hills in central Scotland, a puny range yet possessed of sterling character as well as alluvial gold. These steeply sided round-topped hills running from the monument of Braveheart Wallace to the golf resort of Gleneagles make for perfect hill-walking country. Our village sits in front of the looming escarpment high point of Dum-y-at (pronounced “dum-eye-at”), the site of an old hill fort 418 metres high. This puts it in the league of “Marilyn” peaks, which are not assessed by altitude so much as by their prominence in relation to their neighbours. A Marilyn peak is reckoned to be half the height of those in the higher “Munro” category and needs to possess some orological oomph, which explains why it enjoys half of the shapely Marilyn Monroe label.
Dum-y-at, rising sheer from the windings of the river Forth, exudes the dignity of a peak impossible to ignore, and it was our good fortune that my father’s cottage sits right on the mountain’s first uprise. I delighted in scrambling up the springy turf scattering the grazing sheep to top out on to what Sir Walter Scott averred was the finest view in Scotland. It commands the width of the nation from the Forth Bridge to the firth of Clyde. In the near distance lines of warehouses held the ageing whisky casks of Cambus distillery, then the biggest in Scotland, their ardent evaporating spirits wafting up to further intoxicate Sir Walter’s opinion.
As a growing child forced to attend the dreary Church of Scotland kirk with its puritanical doctrines, the joy of climbing Dum-y-at released a wonderful sense of freedom. Combined with the inspirational beauty all around, Dum-y-at seemed to be everything the kirk was not and for me became the symbol of real religion.
I questioned the kirk doctrine of how “God the father” could boast of a son without acknowledgment of a wife but learned never to give voice to these loaded objections. This meant the latent divinity I sensed in the turf of the Ochils’ soft and springy underfoot, and the sensuous spread of fragrant heather when it empurpled the slopes in an ecstatic cascade would remain, like sex, part of an emasculated experience of nature stunted by my childhood conditioning. It was only after a tour of Britain’s magnificent cathedrals—and declaring Stonehenge to be the winner!—that I realised I must be descended from Druid stock.
When the Great Depression of the early 1930s made whisky too expensive to drink my father moved to the English Midlands to brew beer. It was the lingering elemental beauty of Dum-y-at recalled after this sudden displacement to the ugly industrial surrounds of Birmingham that decided me to quit city life the moment I completed my higher education. This involved the study of Comparative Religion at Leeds University, where I learnt the value of the Yorkshireman’s worldly advice: “Say nowt, pay nowt.”
To sidestep military conscription I did a diploma course in education, which was so deadly dull I would have much preferred to lead a bayonet charge with my stuffed lecturers as the target. During teacher training, when I announced I was setting off to hitchhike around the world, I was advised I was committing professional suicide. Aged 25 how could any canny Scot possibly risk his old age pension? Just weeks after receiving my postgraduate degree I set off anyway, heading overland in the general direction of India to check out the religions I had studied. To prove my suicidal tendencies I was carrying all my life savings, amounting to 50 pounds.
Along the way the most marvellous mountain encounter was with the snowy spread of Mount Ararat on whose slopes Noah’s Ark is believed to have rested. Like a beached Moby Dick the massif ran for miles, paralleling the Turkish highway to the border of Iran. The most depressing place had been Jerusalem, set on a series of arid hills. To my dismay its three Semitic faiths were all at each other’s (and one another’s) throats. Because of the feuding Christian sects, the key to the church of Calvary had to be entrusted to a Muslim. After all my Sunday School expectations, the Holy Land would turn out to be a Godforsaken landscape. It was a relief to think I had shaken the dust of my feet from this arena of hatred when I crossed into Iran and made for Maulana Rumi’s beloved Tabriz. But the religious hatreds that simmer in the Middle East peaked and I found myself in airborne mode as I was unceremoniously evicted from the Ayatollah’s mosque in Qum. I landed on the pavement, where a policeman had been posted, I assumed to help the evictee to his feet. But his job was to commiserate my misfortune at having been born an infidel.
Taking the weekly train that trundled over the desert from Zahedan to Quetta, the subcontinent wackily announced itself when turbaned and liveried bearers bobbed up outside the window on the footboard of our moving carriage to hand in trays of sweet milky tea and plates of hot buttered toast. The seva of the Golden Temple in Amritsar gave off the fragrance of real religion and being fed in the langar restored my badly dented faith in institutional religion. Kolkata lived up to its reputation as the revolutionary city of joy and I landed a job in a school where the principal had been Arthur Osborne, the biographer of Ramana Maharshi. When I had left England the going-away present from the boys in my class had been Paul Brunton’s book introducing the Maharshi to the Western world.
Arrival in Bengal during the puja season guaranteed that everywhere I looked were the most exquisite images of the Goddess. My eyes popped, for having been accustomed all my life to divinity either wearing the stern mien of a father figure or the funereal mode of crucifixion, I was now confronted by it sporting a seductive face. This marriage of the spiritual with the voluptuous blew my theological socks off and years of insular conditioning went for a toss. It was to experience the truth of Max Müller’s observation, “to make the inner life of Europeans more perfect, universal and human, I should point to India.”
To reinforce this breakthrough, I happened, while browsing through the shelves of the Asiatic Society library, to chance upon Eric Shipton’s Nanda Devi, the account of the first entry into the sanctuary sacred to the goddess Nanda Devi done by a small party in the company of three Sherpas. Shipton’s thrilling write-up about the Devi’s magical enclosure literally changed the direction of my life. Overnight, all my plans to go around the world evaporated. All I wanted now was to follow in the footsteps of Shipton and touch the feet of this most desirable of mountain beauties.
His book had introduced me to what would become an obsessive affair with a ravishing mountain goddess. I would have to win my way into her affections, for Nanda was known to be jealous and only allowed in her sanctuary those she deemed worthy of her favours. Apparently the others she threw out on their ear.
It took 20 years from that first encounter to finally set foot on the sacred sanctuary turf. The intervening period was spent in two Himalayan ashrams in Kumaon that offered a close-up view of the mountain I had set my heart on. The first ashram was run on Gandhian lines and took a dim view of the local animal sacrifices that in the 1960s were still acceptable at the annual Nandashtami festivities. I attended a village devta natch where the goddess was summoned by an electrifying drummer to enter the body of a human oracle who then pronounced on matters of importance to the village economy. To climax this hair-raising event the prasad of the goddess was to give me a prolonged bout of typhoid which involved several relapses and a 40-day fast. It seemed a bad bargain until, free of the body, one floated in the wondrous realm of heightened consciousness. The utterly marvellous experiencing of that parallel universe of reality exposed me to the truth that everything I had been conditioned to believe about life and religion was laughably bogus and ludicrously off-target. But the very first mouthful of food brought the body down to earth with a crash. It made me so disconsolate I walked out in desperate search of that briefly-won and now-lost paradise.
Good fortune led me to another ashram further along the ridge where Sri Krishna Prem cautioned me that the reactivation of such ecstasy would involve a lot of conscious suffering. His advice was to forget the outer Nanda and tread the more painful path to find the Devi within. To soften the blow he gave me as guide Prithwi, a fellow disciple, arguing that only a woman could help break my cerebral approach to life’s mysteries. Moving to Mussoorie, I was blessed with Prithwi’s light on the path for 38 years.
In 1980, circumstances finally conspired to allow me to follow in Shipton’s footsteps. The fulfilment of that long-standing vow was achieved but only just, after terrifying exposure to the rock slabs of the Rishi Ganga gorge. The success of the venture, performed during the dicey monsoon season when the high-running river took no prisoners, depended entirely on the sturdy support and companionship of Natha Singh and Pratap Singh, two shepherd guides from Lata village. Cheating bodily dissolution on several occasions the trek climaxed in a mood of such exalted consciousness that had it lasted I could have written several Upanishads. The chastening effect of recognising the whiff of death’s perfume altered one’s consciousness to such an extent that it seemed as a final grace Tennyson’s lines, “Come down, O maid, from yonder mountain height”, had been brought alive to salute this survivor. But it was to command me to write of the beauties of the way and recount the courage, stamina and loyalty of the Devi’s village devotees.
It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast between the snowy crown of Nanda Devi’s main peak, rising to 7,816 metres, and Dum-y-at’s craggy cockpit, cresting at a measly 418. However, in terms of character, presence and age, the gap is by no means as great. These two mountains share common ground by their potential to inspire and shape individual destinies.
The search to understand the nature of divinity sensed on both Dum-y-at and Nanda Devi would be rewarded in my home province of Garhwal. This area of Uttarakhand, sanctified as “Dev Bhumi”, is assumed to have been so named because the great gods of the Hindu pantheon reside here. But the real sanctity of the area, it could be argued, derives from the dharmic practices of the local villagers who for thousands of years have welcomed, assisted and fed with devotion pilgrims from all over India en route to the high shrines of the inner Himalaya. These, till recently, could only be reached by physical effort and local assistance. Before the coming of the motor roads, tired and hungry pilgrims slogged their way past small settlements whose steep terraced fields yield barely enough grain for the farmer’s own family, let alone feed others. Yet incredibly, you never hear of any pilgrim going hungry. What little they have the villagers instinctively share.
Extraordinarily, the higher you climb and the less appetising the terrain becomes the more spontaneous the generosity you will find. In the snug tents of nomads crowded round by their flocks will be found the most genuine of welcomes, courteous, sincere and selfless. One can almost quantify this spontaneous stirring of goodness and compassion according to the increasingly threatening locale. Normally one would expect the poorer the circumstances in progressively bleak surroundings to bring out the animal rather than the divine in man yet often one finds the kindest humans are those with the least possessions. These devotees of Nanda Devi, at times of crisis, are heroic in risking their necks to save the lives of others. But for these unsung porters of the Devi, neither Shipton’s party nor I would have got near her sacred enclosure. Their loyalty and devotion, as Frank S Smythe puts it in The Valley of Flowers is “rarer than gold”. In that exceptional account of his Garhwal adventures, Smythe’s valediction sums up the potential of mountains to change lives for the better: “We climb the hills to discover a contentment of spirit beyond all earthly striving.”
Above and feature image illustration: Harshad Marathe
This article was published in April-June 2017 issue on The Himalaya. The issue is guest edited by Stephen Alter.
Elsewhere in this issue, Nandini Purandare and Deepa Balsavar explore the unsung heroes among the climbing Sherpas and Bhotias of Darjeeling, Mamang Dai gets nostalgic in her lyrical reminiscences about the mountains in Arunachal Pradesh, Martin Moran is equally wistful writing about the pleasures of pioneering in the smaller peaks of the Himalaya. Janaki Lenin explores the oscillating relationship between the villagers and shepherds of Kinnaur and Sankar Sridhar depicts the life of the Bakarwals of Kashmir in his photo essay. Gautam Bhatia’s sardonic drawings of the imagined ruins of Delhi make us laugh—and cry. While Anurag Banerjee’s unobtrusive camera captures stolen moments and intimacy in public spaces in Mumbai, Stuart Freedman’s photo essay on the Indian Coffee House evokes an era fast disappearing.