The Himalayas (the abode of eternal snow) were formed only recently in geological terms, the Indian subcontinent pushed into the southern continent of Asia causing the Himalayas to rise into the sky. The mountain range is nearly 4000 miles long and ranges from all the way into Afghanistan in the west to Burma (now called Myanmar) in the east, and sits like a ‘crown’ on the head of India. The mountains have ancient myths and influenced history and culture. The Himalayas formed an impenetrable barrier to outside migrants and ‘protected’ the human society in the Indian subcontinent for centuries, allowing them to reach a high level of cultural sophistication.
The Hindu God, Lord Shiva, or Nattaraja or Maheswar, which are only some of his many names, was said to reside on the lofty peaks of Mount Kailasha with Goddess Parvati, his consort. This mountain is located in the western Himalayas (Tibet), and is near Lake Manasarovar and Lake Rakshastal, close to the source of some of the longest Asian rivers: the Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra, and Karnali also known as Ghaghara (a tributary of the Ganges) in India. Mount Kailash is considered to be sacred in four religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Bön.
Mythology and belief have evolved over thousands of years and left India with a rich culture and unparalleled architectural and sculptural art. How closely our beliefs and lives have been knitted together by the awe-inspiring Himayalas.
A sand stone sculpture of Shiva and Parvati (also known as Umamaheswara), from Central India (10th AD), was intricately carved showing the royal couple in a tender embrace. Shiva holds his trident and lotus bud, they are surrounded by a retinue of apsaras (angels) above; below, their children the elephant-headed Ganesha and Skanda are noted on either side. Directly below is Shiva’s great bull (Nandi), who turns around to lick Shiva’s feet, a sign of veneration. His throne is on Mt Kailash.
In the panel below, Ravana and his attendants are shaking Mt Kailash to rip it from the Himalayas and take it back to Sri Lanka, since he was angered by Shiva having denied the passage of his flying chariot from crossing the Kailash mountain. In this sculpture, both Shiva and Parvati gently press down with their feet to suppress the annoying Ravana, and squashes Ravana down into the earth to stop the earth from trembling. (Lahiri Collection)
The most famous depiction of this wonderful story is seen in the temple of Ellora, my most favourite monument in India, where there is a shrine to Lord Shiva, in Maharashtra, India.
Ellora is one of the largest rock-cut monastery-temple cave complexes in the world, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It features Buddhist, Hindu and Jain monuments, and an intricate temple sculpture, dating from the 600-1000 AD period. Cave 16, in particular, features the largest single monolithic rock excavation in the world, the Kailash temple, a chariot shaped monument dedicated to Shiva. The Kailash temple excavation also features the gods, goddesses, and mythologies found in Hinduism (mainly Vaishnav and Shivite) as well as relief panels summarizing the two major Hindu Epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata).
There is a rock-cut large scale sculpture of Shiva and Parvati in their abode in Mt Kailash, Ravana (the ten-headed King of Sri Lanka) is seen shaking the mountain (and earth). In this depiction, Shiva gently presses down with his big toe to suppress Ravana and enclose him under the mountain.
I first saw the Himalayas when I was 6-7 years of age from the ‘Hill station’ called Darjeeling, nestling in the Himalayan ‘foothills’ at an altitude of 7,500 feet above sea level. My mother’s uncle, the then Maharaja of Maimanshing had a chalet called ‘Dingle’ on Jala Pahar (watery hill) just below the famous St Paul’s School for boys, and I was lucky to have been back several times, the last when I was 14. Even at that age I realized that I was seeing a vision meant for the ‘Gods’. The lofty snow covered peaks of the Kanchenjunga range seemed to hang in the sky as if it was a heavenly abode of those mystic supernatural individuals who fill the pages of the 4000 year old Indian texts, the Upanishads. The base of the mountain was a changing purple, violet or sometimes a greyish white mist which covered parts of the range. To a young boy, it seemed that the snowy peaks of the mountain were indeed like the domes, turrets and pinnacles of some heavenly palace, gleaming in different coloured hues during the day and glimmering under a full moon at night.
Kanchenjunga, in Tibetan means the “Five treasures of the high snow”, and these 5 treasures are- gold, silver, gems, food grain and religious texts, usually Buddhist. The Kanchenjunga is the 3rd highest peak in the world and it is in the Eastern Himalayan range extending from Nepal to India. Its astonishing beauty and allure have attracted tourists, artists, poets and film makers over the years.
These wonderful series of woodblock prints were made in 1931 by a Japanese artist, Hiroshi Yoshida, who was captivated by the same ethereal apparition the Himalayan range.
The days in Darjeeling were wonderful, particularly the pony rides in the winding mountain roads, where each turn was greeted by the most amazing kaleidoscope of colours and views; either of dark and deep mountain gorges, tumbling white crested water over huge boulders from mountain rivers at the bottom of a gorge over a thousand feet deep in places, or the dramatic snow peaks of the Kanchenjungha. Unfortunately, the sure-footed mountain ponies always went to the edge of the biggest gorge to munch on the green succulent grass that grew at the edges on the road. This gut-wrenching experience was not pleasant, however, we managed not to sail down the precipice. The young Sherpa’ lads who led the horses were not concerned at all by the behavior of the mounts, and often found it funny that we ‘plains people’ were terrified.
Darjeeling had a major attraction to us as children due to its famous Himalayan narrow-gauge railway. We used to jump off the train when it slowed at a loop or steep incline, then we would run across and jump on when it came around the bend; but this was done when my mother was not with us!
If you are lucky, as I have been, an early morning jeep ride from Darjeeling to Tiger Hill can be rewarded by a spectacular sunrise over Mt Everest seen only at a distance.
The dramatic beauty of the Darjeeling ‘Tea Gardens’ are yet another attraction. Tea was brought to Darjeeling in the 1830s by a British doctor who grew tea plants from ‘stolen’ Chinese tea seeds. It has been a flourishing culture, and the lustrous emerald green lower Himalayan slopes are covered by tea gardens. As a child I wondered why the Darjeeling hill women were only allowed to pick the tea leaves, and I was fascinated with the large conical woven baskets that they carried on their backs, which was strapped to their foreheads. The happy musical chatter interspersed by singing was nostalgic sound of the lower ranges (or known as ‘foot hills of the Himalayas). Why tea was only grown in quantity in the Darjeeling belt is not clear, but it may have to do with the rainfall and suitable soil. However, Darjeeling tea is prized worldwide as one of the most fragrant and healthy drinks.
We spent some of our summers travelling to some of the ‘Tea Gardens’, which had a very British feel to them even in the 1960s. I was also excited by the presence of wildlife around some of the gardens. There was indeed a vast species of fauna, which included big game such as elephant, tiger, leopards, Gaur (Indian bison- largest bovine animal in the world) and a plethora of others.
I remember sitting around a camp fire with my father and some of his friends hearing bone-chilling stories of man eating tigers and leopards, and how they hunted the hunters (or shikaris who went after them). I remember reading one of Jim Corbett’s first hunting novels, and I stayed up for almost 3 nights in fear, though Corbett had lived at least 30 years ago and in a different part of the Himalayan foot hills (Garhwal), some miles from Darjeeling. To those interested in the interaction between humans and wildlife in Northern India at the turn of the century, there is nothing as sobering as Corbett.
There is another legendary vision. This is the flowering rhododendrons and wild flowers in the Himalayan valleys. As if by a hidden switch, long swathes of the valleys turn pink, red and all colours of the rainbow in spring (March/April). It is best that you do not have pollen allergies, otherwise you can be rather uncomfortable. This is a fascinating region to discover and will remain unforgettable memory, as it has in my case.
Those who wish to visit can contact my good friend Sunil Verma at Cox and Kings, New Delhi (firstname.lastname@example.org; Telephone:+91 97-11-992052). He has been arranging all the nitty gritty of Indian travel for my friends and me over the last 15 years, though many of the travel ideas are mine.
Rock cut caves of Ajanta and Ellora are within 60 km from the city of Aurangabad, Maharashtra, a 45 minutes flight from the metropolis of Mumbai. Both are UNESCO World Heritage sites, and are supervised by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), a very robust government organization. Ideally, one requires 3 days to do this trip, since Ellora and Ajanta are a day trip each. Good guides are essential and there some very good ones, but they get booked up. The best months are from late October to March; December and January are very busy with tourists, both local and foreign. These two sites are symbolic of the ‘Indian ethos’ rathwer than the typical ‘Golden Triangle’, where tourists are driven like cattle from one Rajasthani palace to the next.
Ellora is dramatic, and there are spectacular Jain caves with nude (Sky-clad) Jinas from the 9-11th AD. A Jina is a Jain spiritual leader- meaning a ‘spiritual victor’ in Sanskrit, and describes a human being who has achieved omniscience and then teaches other people the path to liberation. The ceiling and walls are richly decorated with sculpture, each a masterpiece. What veneration was required for such delicate work on such a massive scale, one has to ponder! Each image has a story- we Indians are great story tellers! If you are interested, the guides will keep you entertained for 6 hours and you will not realise how the time has gone.
There are of course some younger and modern yogis- my daughter, Dr Nayana Lahiri and my 7 year old grandson, Arun, seems to have found the right note and are sitting in the lotus position like the Jain saints behind them.
Mr Tajinder Singh Gulati (email@example.com) the best tour guide I have come across after 4 visits to these shrines, seems to have a captive audience, and he entertained 7-70 year olds with equal passion. It is best to remember that good guides get booked up many months in advance.
I cannot end this article without a few words about Ajanta, in fact, tourists really go to Aurangabad to view the mesmerising cave paintings dating back from 2-5th AD in the extensive cave temple complexes of Ajanta.
An important British art critic wrote some years ago, ‘I thought that the perspective in painting was discovered in the 15th century during the Renaissance period. Little did I know that this was discovered 1000 years before in the paintings of Ajanta, dating back to 4-5th century AD, in the Gupta period’.
The Japanese have donated considerable monetary support, as has UNESCO, to preserve the caves. These paintings are certainly one of the ‘Wonders of the World’. Visiting the caves during December and January can be difficult due to the volume of tourists. Even though it is the best time to visit due to pleasant weather, be prepared to face long queues, however, your guide will take you through without too much difficulty. Be prepared to climb and walk in Ajanta more than Ellora.
Well, back to the Himalayas, where we started. A few words about travel to Darjeeling. Kolkata (Calcutta) is the capital city of the state of West Bengal in North East India. It was the home of the British East India Company, and Darjeeling became the ‘summer residence’ of the Viceroys of India. One would fly into Kolkata and then take a flight to New Jalpaiguri in the lower reaches of the Himalayas, and then take the fabled Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.
The Darjeeling toy train, officially known as the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, transports passengers through the lower reaches of the Eastern Himalayas to the rolling hills and lush green tea plantations of Darjeeling. Like most other hill settlements in India, Darjeeling was once a summer retreat of the British. The railway was completed in 1881 and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
The train route runs for 80 kilometers (50 miles) from New Jalpaiguri, in the state of West Bengal, to Darjeeling via Siliguri, Kurseong, and Ghoom. Ghoom, at an altitude of 7,400 feet above sea level, is the highest point on the route. The railway line climbs up steeply through a number of fascinating reverses and loops. One of the most scenic of these is Batasia Loop, between Ghoom and Darjeeling, which provides a panoramic view of Darjeeling perched on the hill and Mount Kanchenjunga in the background.
The train also passes over five major, and nearly 500 minor, bridges.
It is difficult to describe the wild flowers of the Himalayan spring. March-April are the best months if you are interested in the Himalayan wild flowers, including the fabled rhododendron.
After the monsoons, when the mountains are a verdant green, October and November are good for the clarity of the mountain ranges.
Trips to Gantok, Tiger Hill, Ghoom monastery are easily done by car or 4×4 wheel drives. It is an absolute must that one should relax a few days at a tea garden before returning from the mountains.