Sunday, 12 October 2014

On (in)Human Demands in the Himalayas and Few Photographs

The Gandhi Smriti Library at the academy is a delightful place. There are three fat volumes of Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, an absolute must read (or reread in my case) for the weary and tired souls. Or even Mills & Boon series of titles. The variety of subjects on which books are available continues to amaze me. One can find books on topics as esoteric and seemingly far removed from civil service as gardening to thick tomes on a dozen and more varieties of law.

The mountains bring out the best and the worst in man. A common ailment that most people suffer from when they go to the hills is what Bill Aitken in 'Seven Sacred Rivers' describes as the 'altitude's debilitating desire to demand things by right.' Thus, one finds normal, reasonable people turn irrational and demanding, oblivious to the obvious limitations in the higher altitudes. For example, hot water for bathing at remote huts and barely there dhabas. Or, food of sufficient variety to satiate the palate where the best option for nutrition is grass. Or accommodation of a standard not possible in places where the nearest roadhead is 20 km and/or a day's trek away. Of course, it could be that the 'normal, rational' people may not be normal and rational to begin with. Then, they are the worst thing that could have walked the mountains. Loud, boorish, insensitive to local customs and rude, they are anything but civil in trying circumstances. Perhaps I am harsh in my words. My peevishness can be explained by the fact that the endless antyaksharis and the catcalls and whistles and loud conversations scared away the Himalayan birds and animals that I was eager to see and capture on my camera. I was lucky to have heard, even over the man made din, the songs of many birds and spot a few. The guide, a local birdwatcher trained by the Bombay Natural History Society was knowledgeable and readily shared his knowledge of the fauna and flora. Thus one learned of interesting facts like how Ban Oak when yet a plant sports spiny edged leaves so as to discourage animals from feeding on it and as it grows the leaves change shape at the higher reaches while the leaves on the lower branches retain the spines. Like how the 'kutki' plant whose rather bitter roots are supposed to have a diabetes regulating effect besides being useful in treating digestive problems.
Kukti- Used in Ayurvedic medicine for treating digestive problems. Image source:
Or the pleasant fragrant leaves of the 'atrasu' plant which when brewed as a herbal tea is supposed to warm the body. There were a variety of edible 'bers' and 'jamuns' which the guide was kind enough to point out to us. We had our fill of these berries. Lesson being, a good guide can negate the ill effects of even the worst kind of antyaksharis. There is a wealth of knowledge among the locals. Traditional knowledge systems have to be tapped in order that they benefit the wider community. There is a scope for resource extraction without killing the mountains and cheating the locals. The current practice is of exploitative and extortionary resource extraction where valuable medicinal herbs and forest produce is being pilfered by unscrupulous elements, often being smuggled across the porous border between Uttarakhand and Nepal and then further in to the end market, China. The guide recounted examples of how 'dalaals' (brokers or middlemen) come visiting their villages to offer monopolistic prices for few herbs which they then sell to their customers in China at inflated prices. The guide suggested that the government can and needs to step in to curb the smuggling as well as regulate the trade in the herbs.

Below are few photos of the birds and animals and plants I came across during the trek. Help in identifying would be most appreciated.

Pika- Cute guy was munching on leaves near a place where we were filling our water bottles from a stream.

Pika- Posed patiently for few minutes before withdrawing shyly.

Indian Tortoise shell

Queen of Spain

What crested bird is this?


Again getting confused- is it a blue throated warbler or oriental magpie?

My camera was good

Sun lovers.

Size does not matter, attitude does.

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