A city dweller’s one-year communion with nature in the Indian Himalayas

Of clouds, wind, and snow

By Anirban Bagchi

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Published: Thu 15 Sep 2022, 6:38 PM

I am a city dweller. In the unrelenting monotony of the various cityscapes that I have, at various times, called home, the days are indistinct from each other in a way that makes the seasons irrelevant.

Nature appears distant, like an impediment that technology hasn’t managed to control yet. You don’t really experience the seasons — you merely dress for the season, watch the sport of the season and regulate the time you spend in the park according to the season. Holidays come and go with a vague sense of growing older.

It was only really when I spent a year in the Indian Himalayas, in a village called Sansari near the little town of Ukhimath in Uttarakhand state, that the weather began to determine the pattern and perspective of my daily life.

Sanasari is a village that clings to the mountainside at 2,000 metres, commanding a view of the town and valley below, and the snow-clad mountain massif of Chaukhamba in the distance, with its 7,000-metre peaks. Around a bend on the Delhi-Kedarnath road it appeared, long after the shrubbery of the plains had given way to a lush, verdant mountain foliage with a character all its own.

It was late March — spring. The plains were already sweltering under a remorseless sun. But here in the mountains the air was crisp and dry. On some days, cold winds from the eternal snows would scream through the valley like ghouls, and in minutes it would be winter again.

The one constant in this changing weather was the sound of the river at the bottom of the valley. Like every spring, it ran strong with the voices of melting snow, filling the days and nights with its roar until you got so used to it that you hardly noticed. But listen intently and there it was, a thundering woosh of a sound.

The cool spring air chilled the sweat off my back as I climbed the stone paths of the town. Buds formed on the apple trees and by mid-April the apricot trees burst into flower.

By summer the days grew warm enough for it to feel pointless to carry a jacket. But once the sun slipped below the western ridges, you remembered why.

I was there to teach at the village school, but the children loved to play truant. And they had the perfect excuses: the village livestock needed to be taken up to the high alpine pastures where the green shoots that had just sprouted were juicy and sweet. Or the terraced paddy fields sloping down to the river needed to be cleared and ploughed, ready for the monsoon rice planting.

Often, despite myself, I gave in to their demands. We were friends by then, and on really clear days, I’d go with them to a waterfall an hour’s walk away and gaze at the rainbows cast in the spray and remember what a magical world I lived in.

The stars guarded the valley at night like a host of angels and the air was so clean and clear that the distant snow peaks of Chaukhamba glistened under the full moon.

I slept out on the verandah until the sun turned the peaks pink at dawn. Then I’d grab my camera and snap away as the peaks turned light crimson, then orange, then light yellow and burnished gold, before finally settling into a dazzling white as the sun ascended from the eastern horizon.

The monsoons arrived, putting one’s mountain spirit to the test. The rain came down on the tin roofs so hard at times that it was impossible to maintain a conversation above the din and I had to give the kids more holidays.

Monsoon in the Himalayas is definitely a season with personality. At times the rain had an almost British punctuality, arriving every day at 3pm sharp and you shaped your day around it. Then it might rain every night for a week before it switched to raining all day and leaving the stars crystal clear at night.

But just when you had got used to the idea of going nocturnal, it went into a couple of weeks of almost 24 hours of rain. Nothing you put on your washing line ever got dry. You looked up at the sky and asked: How is it possible for so much water to be up there?

The clouds blended with the forests on the opposite slopes in a shifting collage of black and white. It was like poetry in the sky. With the summer sun cut off behind the rain, it got to be too cold to wash and I’d just stay indoors until I became too smelly to sleep with myself. Then I’d crack and run down to the town temple to wash in the baths — natural thermal springs — and buy cinnamon rolls in the bakery.

Flowers bloomed overnight and vines grew along any surface they could, gaining inches by the day. And the farmers planted their paddy on the rain-flooded terraced fields. The air was pregnant with aromas of a myriad mountain blossoms.

Occasionally, the clouds would part and the huge snow-white columns of Chaukhamba would come into full view, framed by red rhododendrons, the deep crimson of the flowers setting off the dazzling white of the fresh snow in the distance that the monsoon clouds had brought.

By early November the cold began to creep in again at night. The first snows began to fall on the slopes below the eternal snows, increasing the field of white in our vision. As December began, everyone chopped wood. Each family is entitled to a tree and they prepare for when the valley turns white in a few hours.

The winter clouds set in and pieces of the sky fluttered down on the hills, transforming them magically into white. With the power cut, if it wasn’t for the temple baths you’d never have gotten warm again. We got into snowball fights and then regretted them for the rest of the day, shivering around in wet clothes, trying to dry them on the slow-burning wood stoves of friends and succeeding only in filling our lungs with wood smoke.

Huddling around the stoves as you melted snow, now that the water pipes had frozen, it seemed that despite the hardship and the biting cold, this was indeed paradise.


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