Life in the Hills: Anecdotes from the Garhwal Himalayas
Life can be interesting as well as calm nestled in the lap of the Himalayas. Landour, looking benignly from above, on the tourist beloved Mussoorie, has an enchanting tale to tell.
Thunder rumbles as the clouds sweep in, sealing off the valley below. Sitting high up on the water tank of our home, I can look down at the clouds. Around me are swirling puffs of greyish-white, which will form thunderheads as the pressure builds. My forehead throbs; yes, an electrical storm is moving quickly our way. Landour, perched precariously in the Garhwal Himalayas above the tourist hill station of Mussoorie, is no stranger to storms. It is me, who is unused to seeing them from this angle.
Around me, the sky turns an eerie orangish-blue as the thunderheads seal off the Doon Valley below. I can no longer see the Yamuna meandering lazily between the hills, or the scattering of buildings that is the Woodstock School. The birds fall silent. Even the hoot of the Hanuman langur and the chatter of the macaque are cut short. The circling Himalayan griffons glide on invisible thermals and land on a craggy cliff to take shelter. I slide off the tank and rush inside, taking up a position at the big open window in the attic.
The first strike of lightning can be smelt before it is seen. The air around me, even inside the house, heats up, and my ears hum as the smell of ozone fills my nostrils. Then comes the flash of light. The lightning pierces through the clouds sealing the valley, blinding me momentarily. My vision is dotted with gold, and I have to close my eyes to try and clear it. The ozone crackles around me and thunder booms. Perched up in the mountains, I am above the wrath of the storm, a piece of flotsam in the thunderclouds.
The Bhutia dogs are enormous up close, with thick fur and powerful jaws. The locals keep them to guard against leopards, earning them the nickname “leopard dogs.” The big cats are common up here in the Garhwal Himalayas, where they make away with stray dogs, goats, and chickens. Human deaths are rare in Landour, but the fear of leopards is palpable.
I never used to worry too much about encountering a leopard, even though I was often out and about in the dawn and dusk hours when the big cats hunt. There were always signs as to the leopard’s presence, however, and I learnt to be observant. Scat, rake marks, scrapes on trees, the pungent odour of fresh urine, pugmarks on the muddy edges of roads – these marks were visible only to those who bothered to observe. I would dart up the path towards Three Sisters Bazaar, my ears open to the sounds of wildlife on the move. Monkeys were abundant on the path to the bazaar, and their chatter and screeches were a sign that there were no predators on the prowl. The villagers, too, owned Bhutia dogs. I used to pass a goatherd daily while on my morning walk. His flock of goats would be milling about the road, stripping bark and leaves off of saplings and bushes, and generally causing a ruckus, while his solemn dog would trot alongside the stragglers, nudging them occasionally to spur them forward.
There was one evening, while walking back from running errands at Prakash Stores, when I felt a shiver go down my spine, the shiver that accompanies the feeling of being watched. I turned my head, careful not to make jerky movements, but could not see much in the twilight. Yet I could smell a slightly sour odour, like rotting flesh. I have read enough accounts of carnivores to know the odour of carnivore breath, even if it was from descriptions. My muscles tensed, but I knew better than to run. Running would only instigate a chase, and I very much doubted that I could outrun a leopard (for I was sure of what animal was watching me that cool, dark night). Instead, I did the only thing I could think of doing; I pursed up my lips and whistled piercingly. Up ahead were the first few houses that marked the downward trail to my hostel. A black shape appeared outside the first house, ears pricked up. Sheroo, one of the dogs I had come to know well. He trotted a few steps towards me, tail wagging, and then paused, only to growl menacingly. I kept walking at a steady pace towards the huge dog, keeping my tone cheerful. Sheroo, usually quite amicable towards me, was tensed up and growling low in his throat. Suddenly, he lunged towards me, teeth bared. I froze, and the dog rushed past me, tail whacking my hip, a volley of snarling barks erupting from his throat. There was a hiss and I heard the sudden crashing of tree branches as something heavy leapt up into the oak trees lining the path. The dog had his paws against one of the trees and was snarling, and I heard an eerie wail that was the call of a dissatisfied leopard.
The trees in these mountain ridges hide many secrets.
Flag Hill is one of many small mountain peaks in the vicinity of Landour, and one of my particular favourites. Adorned liberally with strings of Tibetan prayer flags, the hill is bright with splashes of reds, greens, blues, yellows, and whites, all flapping vigorously in the breeze. One can see down into the river valley cut by one of the tributaries of the Yamuna River, and up the other side to Bear Mountain. Red berries dot the bushes and trees, and my mouth waters at the memory of their tart sweetness. Down in the valley, cattle graze around fields of wild hemp, and tiny rock temples to local deities crop up beneath trees. Himalayan black bears feast on fish in the river and on berries and honey, ambling peaceably down the moutainside without fear of humans. Jackals follow them warily, hoping to find the remains of a bear kill. Black kites and Himalayan griffons soar far above Flag Hill on air thermals, and the top of the hill has a copse of trees known to house a mating pair of leopards. People always warned us to avoid that woodland patch. Rhododendron trees and deodars line the sides of Flag Hill, the latter standing tall and remote against the blue sky. The scent of pines is exquisite. Giant squirrels sit on the lower branches, nibbling on nuts and cones.
From the peak of Flag Hill, one can look over the various faces of the Doon Valley. The mountain road pops up stark brown against the vivid greenery, winding down towards Dehra. Very few vehicles go past Flag Hill, mostly tourist vans, bullock carts, and the occasional lorry or Mussoorie taxi. Their horns – and the bells jangling about the necks of the bullocks – announce their arrival. The langurs, macaques, deer, and I watch them go by, these momentary distractions to our daily routines up in the hills. It is easy to forget the modern world while living up in the mountains. I carry only my camera, my binoculars, a bar of chocolate, and my field notebook wherever I go, my skirt billowing around my sandal-clad feet. I do not remember at which point Landour began to feel like home, but Flag Hill has become as much mine as it belongs to any of the other denizens of these hills.
Like the deodars and the oaks, I believe I have begun to set down my roots here.