The Valley of Flowers: A slice of heaven!

“I will lift up mine eyes upto the hills, from whence cometh my help”, read the memorial of the British student botanist Joan Margaret Legge, who while collecting some flora samples lost her life after a fatal slip back in 1939. In this heavenly place that is the Valley of Flowers, where the mind is in a state of total ecstasy, this memorial acts as a stark reminder of our mortality.

Located within the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, in the Chamoli district in Uttarakhand, the Valley of Flowers is a national park where over 500 species of flowers, are the main attraction. It is open to the public from July to October, when most of the flowers are in bloom. The trek up to the Valley of Flowers starts from its base point – a small hamlet known as Ghangria – which seems to have more mules and horses than humans.

No sooner had I started the trek towards the Valley, than I noticed the stench of mule piss and dung being replaced by the fragrance of the wet earth and the countless flowers – a highly potent mix. Even though it was just a 3 km uphill trek, I was taking my own sweet time as I was surrounded on my way with exotic flowers. They came in all hues – blue, violet, yellow, orange, red. My mind kept wondering, if this route itself is so full of flowers, what lies in store at the actual destination?

It’s a stony pathway going downhill and then uphill, with the edges covered with green-coloured metal railings to lean on to. There are some patches however, where the road is quite narrow and definitely not meant for those suffering from vertigo. Halfway into the route, I was treated to my very first glacier sighting. In fact, a portion of the route went right through the glacier. And the glacier-n00b that I was, I slipped a couple of times, not anticipating the change in grip. My Woodlands which were ace grippers on the muddy path, were more like roller skates on the icy surface.

Clouds can be real mood-killers here, covering a majority of the high-rising black-coloured snow-peppered mountains. In the verdant greenery, those mountains look almost lifeless but when seen from the human vantage point, look quite majestic. Only when a drifting cloud engulfs you and reduces your route visibility for a while do you fall in love with the clouds. That is one experience no trekker is ever tired of.

After a couple of hours of negotiating various patches, slippery muddy and icy roads, I finally came across a wooden bridge mounted above a stream of gushing pristine water which led to a board that read in the Devanagari Script “Fulon ki Ghati me aapka swagat hai”. After already having been subjected to so many flowers and changing landscapes enroute, my expectations were on a much higher pedestal, than when I had started my trek. This was a UNESCO World Heritage site we were dealing with, after all.

I wasn’t disappointed. The sheer variety of flowers I came across, as I made my way through the narrow gravelly path surrounded by lush greenery, made me feel like I was bang in the middle of a flower-encyclopedia. A botanist I am not, so I didn’t really know the scientific or, for that matter, even the common names of most of the flowers. Blue poppies, Himalayan balsam, Brahma kamal, Edelweiss are just some names I am able to remember from some of the experts who were there to check out one particular species. Everywhere I looked, it seemed as if someone had maintained a garden, but it was all wild growth. There was a method to the flowery madness for sure. Patches of pink, yellow, white, purple seemed to be scattered in places. The textures on each of the flowers were quite different, it made me wonder how completely illiterate I am as far as flowers are concerned. Also how awfully over-rated a rose is!

The Valley of Flowers spans over a huge area and it is surrounded by green hills. I lost count of the number of streams and brooks that dotted the landscape. Intermittent mild showers and winds sometimes made it a task to get a good macro shot. But in a place like this, you are bound to go nuts with your camera. There is just so much to shoot and so little time.

I used to think that ‘a land of fairies’, was only the figment of someone’s imagination. But sitting beside the stream of fresh mineral water and beholding that colourful sight of the valley I realised, that this might just be one of those places. I have been on countless treks, but no other place has been as remote as this, as away from humanity, as visually brilliant! Where the only sound you can hear is of a waterfall cascading down from some mountain nearby, where the fragrance from the earth and the flowers around you is so over-powering you will hardly miss your perfume, where all your senses are excited to their limits, but the mind is still at peace.

This is one of those places.

Joshimath – exploring without a plan

I stumbled upon this write up I had written around six years back when I’d taken a solo trip to the Valley of Flowers. This is about Joshimath, a place I stayed enroute, before proceeding to the Valley of Flowers. 

“Sahab, yaha pe kuch dekhne ko nahi hai. Aap Auli jaao,” these were the words I was greeted with as I was settling down in my hotel room in Joshimath, which was the last thing I wanted to hear after a back-breaking eight hour car journey.  

Located on NH58 at a height of 1875m and about 9 hours from Rishikesh, give or take a few hours depending on the efficiency of your Sumo driver. I had left Rishikesh around 9 in the morning and reached Joshimath around 4pm. Did not bother hunting for the right deals at hotels, as the first one I went to gave me a two-bedroom room with attached bathroom at an affordable rate.

Vinod, the hotel guy, I realised, wasn’t lying. For a tourist there is nothing in Joshimath, he should proceed to Auli. Joshimath is basically used as a stopover point, by travellers going to and returning from Govindghat, a base for trekkers to proceed to the Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand. It’s also a point from where people can proceed to the charming Auli – a ski destination during the winters. There’s a ropeway which transports you from Joshimath to Auli in around 45 mins.

Having already missed the last to and fro ropeway to Auli, I had no option but to explore Joshimath. It was still 5pm and I had around two more hours of light. So I set out to explore.


Joshimath is a sleepy town, with tonnes of hotels strewn around the main market area. I did the regular touristy thing by visiting the Adi Sankaracharya Math, which according to the Vinod, was the only place to see in all of Joshimath. It is located at a height from the marketplace, from where one gets a great vantage point. The hills on the opposite side of the valley were majestic. Clouds were shrouding the peaks every fifteen minutes or so, making photographing them tricky.

Sankaracharya Math was constructed in 8th century AD. It has a Laxmi Narayan Mandir at the entrance. The bright yellow color of the temple really looks out of place in the surrounding greens. To the left, one comes across a huge meditation hall. Proceeding ahead took me to the cave where Sankaracharya used to meditate called Shree Totkacharya Gunfa. The floor of the cave was comparitively cooler. The view from the cave was stunted by the staircase leading upto the Shiva temple.

I came back on the main road. I remembered seeing a milestone talking of some Narsimha Temple. Now Narsimha, as we all know is the half-human, half-lion Avatar of Vishnu, who killed King Hiranyakashyap. The story goes something like this: King Hiranyakashyapa was blessed with the boon that no human, no animal could kill him either on earth or above it. Neither would he be killed during the day nor during the night, by no weapon known to mankind. He is drunk on power and is hellbent on killing his son, the Vishnu devotee Bhakt Pralhad. So the Narsimha avataar (half-man, Half Lion) gets Hiranyakashyap on his lap (thereby him not being on earth or up above) and kills him by piercing his nailed paws in Hiranyakashyap’s stomach (thereby satisfying the condition that no weapon can kill Hiranyakashyap). Hindu Mythology sometimes really does fascinate me to a great extent.

Having known the legend behind the story beforehand, a first for me, I decided to look out for this temple. The path leading up to the temple took me through the quaint alleys of Joshimath. This gave me an opportunity to pass by local houses and witness the villagers going about their lives first hand. The pathways sloping all throughout, kind of reminded me of Gangtok. I guess this characteristic is common with all the high altitude towns. One house in particular with is white columns, wooden balconies and windows, reminded me of a scene from an Indipop song called ‘Piya Basanti Re,’ by Ustad Sultan Khan which has been shot in Himachal Pradesh. There were many such houses I came across while taking this out of the way route towards the temple.

The temple was located in a corner. One really has to search for it. It is a temple complex, not really huge in size. But still it has many a confusing pathways. There is a Hanuman Temple, a Narsimha Temple and other temples. It also has a Math or a religious place, which is conspicuous due to the bright yellow paint spread over its exterior. The place was really quiet, I mean I could hear a pin drop. It is rare in temples in India to be so quiet. Another thing worth noticing was the cleanliness around the temples. Maybe the fact that some part of the complex housed the Pandit’s family was a reason. But it was pleasant to come to a quiet and clean temple. The one thing that fascinated me here was the roofing system. The roofs were made out of flat stones, again something I assume is a characteristic of high altitudes.  

I met a local lad who gave me his version of the Narsimha story which was obviously made up. It was fun talking to him though and he told me about my next pit stop. I proceeded ahead off the main road. Came across another road which had jeeps parked. I would be on one of these the next morning heading towards Govind Ghat. I feasted on the local chaat and sat on a park bench with the wall of mountain in front of me with a valley leading up to it. Around me were people discussing local affairs in their mother tongue, which was slightly different from Hindi, but I was able to follow. This is one of the things I like, about visiting small towns. The chatter is so hyper-local, so completely cut off from the mainstream, that it’s refreshing. Being connected to the Matrix (global media) our conversations inevitably centre around pretty mainstream things, if the topic of discussion isn’t personal.

It was quite peaceful just sitting there observing people, admiring the tiny waterfall trying to make its way out of the wall of mountain. The zig-zag roadways on the mountain in the distance brought home the reality of the troubles people living at a height have to face. No wonder a lot of the residents have brilliants stamina. I could sit hours staring at the mountains. There’s something about mountains, that makes me feel irrelevant in the larger scheme of things.

I had not kept any track of where I was headed, so was but natural for me to forget my way back. But it was not very difficult finding my hotel. There was a ‘bandar-ka-khel’ sort of a thing happening under my hotel. There was quite an audience to watch the shenanigans of the two kids who were doing stunts which were impressive. Last time I had seen that in the city was when I was as old as the kids. It seemed cruel to me, but that was what gave that family its dinner. I gave 50 bucks to the father and headed to my hotel room.

Take Care,

Portraits 7: The nameless baba

I was shooting along the banks of the Ganga at Rishikesh, when i heard someone calling me. I turned around to find this dreadlocks-sporting baba. He first made the sign of a chillum, asking if i had any. I smiled and said no. He smiled back.

I then went ahead and started talking to him. He seemed to be sober, for a change. We had a good 15-minute conversation and to date i can’t remember his name, but i still remember the conversation. This was probably my first ever attempt at a street portrait as i had just bought my Canon S5 IS back then.
He told me that he along with a group of other Shiv-bhakt babas stayed around the banks of the Ganga in Rishikesh and their main aim in life was to practise Shaivism, meditate and lead a nomadic life. He said he had lead this kind of lifestyle for close to 15 years.

“How do you manage your meals then?” i asked. He replied that they completely relied on bhiksha. In a tourist-friendly town such as Rishikesh, there is an abundance of bhiksha and food for people like him. They have very few belongings and would sleep, bathe and smoke chillum along the ghats of the Ganga. There are some sort of open quarters around the Ganga at Rishikesh where a lot of these godmen stay and sleep.
I asked him if he only stayed in Rishikesh or does he move around, to which he said, “Jab garmi badh jaati hai, to hum pahadon me jaate hai. Uttarakhand ya Himachal. Ek hi jagah nahi rehte.” (When the heat increases, we take off to the hills. We keep moving around in Uttarakhand or Himachal but do not stay fixed at any one place).

I did not have the heart to ask him anything about his past or his family. So i took my leave and requested if i could click his picture. He agreed.

Whenever i look at those peering eyes, i am instantly transferred back to Rishikesh. What a lovely place that is!

Take Care,