Sometimes I wonder if heaven is real. And then I witness the most incredible sight ever.
I find myself taking shelter from snowfall under a grand oak tree somewhere in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district. I am hiking to Bedni and Ali bugyal from a small village called Kuling, via Dedina. My companions are my elderly, experienced guide, Jawahar Singh Bisht and the constantly changing weather.
The distance between Dedina and Ali bugyal is a mere 9 kilometres but the weather has played spoiltsport and we have had to make multiple stops. I have heard about Ali bugyal’s endless beauty from Bisht over the last two days. Eager to experience it, we continue our walk towards the bugyal.
The term ‘bugyal’ originates from the Garhwali word ‘bugi’, which refers to the grass endemic to Uttarakhand. These grasslands grow only at an altitude of 10000-11000 feet, and the grass itself does not grow beyond two-four inches in height. This height is maintained without any external influence, like grazing animals or extreme snowfall.
A strong hailstorm interferes our journey, as we cross Ali’s ridge. Unable to witness its beauty, I pray to the weather gods for a fair day. In a couple of hours, my prayers are answered. With the setting sun, I see the crisp snow peaks of Trishul and Nanda Ghunti from my fibre tent.
The following morning, we pack up to make our way to Bedni bugyal, but not before visiting the temple of goddess Parvati at the hilltop, facing Ali bugyal. As I kneel in front of the goddess’ six-inch idol, I feel the power of faith that the people of land have bestowed upon her through Bisht’s words.
Every year the palanquin of Nanda Devi (or Parvati) is taken from her paternal home in Kurur, a village near Karnprayag, to her wedded home in Kailash, in Tibet. This Nanda Devi Jaat (or yatra or religious procession) happens in the months of June, July or August when it is believed that the goddess is returning to Kailash after her 6-month stay at home. This event takes place on a much grander scale once every 12 years (Nanda Devi Raj Jaat), when palanquins from different parts of Kumaon and Garhwal unite at Nanda Keshari, 60 kilometres from Karnprayag, and lead up to Homkund, at 3755 metres altitude, crossing the bugyals of Bedni and Ali.
Separated by a distance of 3-4 kilometres, Bedni and Ali bugyal together form one of the larger bugyals in Uttarakhand. The other prominent meadows are Dayara bugyal and Panwali bugyal. I, however, choose to explore this twin-bugyal on foot to follow a part of Parvati’s life journey, who is also known as Nanda Devi and Bhagwati in this part of the world.
According to Ved Puran, Parvati and Shiv had performed a part of their martial customs in Bedni bugyal. They then proceeded towards Kailash on foot through Roopkund. This whole trail derives its name and relevance from Parvati’s life and journey.
‘Ali’ literally translates to ‘are you coming?’ in Uttarakhand’s Garhwali language. Legend has it that after their wedding, Parvati would often experience melancholy from Shiv’s daily meditation and other habits and would make her way to her maternal home. Troubled by her frequent trips back home, Shiv one day asked her to stay with him without such frequent breaks. In his quest to persuade her to stay, he walked as far as Ali with her. Here the goddess decided to rest before her onward journey. When she awoke, she saw numerous Himalayan monal (state bird of Uttarakhand) bobbing at her head, at her feet were the adorable lamb and by her side a vast garden of flowers. Enticed by Shiv’s creation, she returned with him.
Like Pravati, I too am smitten by the beauty around me — the bugyal’s panorama is simply breathtaking. On one side is the thick grove of oak trees and a majority other the rolling green meadows. As I try to soak in its beauty, Bisht tells me that flowers bloom during the months of May-June here. I can’t tear my eyes away from this sight.
We then proceed to Bedni bugyal where I see the reminiscence of yesterday’s hailstorm add to the beauty of the scenic trail. Apart from being the venue for the union between Parvati and Shiv, Bedni Kund bears another significant historical relevance. Mahishasura, the buffalo-demon, chased goddess Parvati around in an attempt to kill her. To end this chase, she returned to Bedni expecting aid from the gods here. Upon her arrival, she hid in the Kund. Unable to find her, Mahishasura pierced a horn into the Kund, lest she hid there. Soon her sari surfaced and the goddess herself made an appearance. She tricked Mahishasura and beheaded him.
I place my things in the tent and set out for a quiet walk with Bisht towards Panchkoti, a hilltop above the Kund. Just below Panchkoti, I overlook Ali bugyal on my left, Bedni at the centre and the high trekking route to Roopkund with the peaks of Trishul massif on my right. At this point, I am convinced that this could be a reflection of heaven.
Bisht and I pack up early on the last day of our trek. We will negotiate a descending trail to Wan and thereafter, Gwaldam by car. But before that, we walk up to Parvati’s temple by the Kund. A religious Brahmin, Bisht offers prays and chants to the goddess. And I sit facing her stone shrine with my back towards the magnificent Trishul.
On our 12-kilometre walk back to Wan from Bedni, Bisht points out various spots along the forest trail citing incidents from Parvati’s life— somewhere she had stopped for a fruit and elsewhere she took a shower. All along I sense Bisht’s belief system strengthen its influence around me.
On my return to Tridiva, my homestay in Talwari, about 10 kilometres from Gwaldam, I see Bisht’s belief echoed by Pradeep Singh Rawat, the caretaker of Tridiva. A local of Tharali village, about 10 kilometres from Tridiva, Rawat tells me that he participates in the Nanda Devi Jaat without fail. In fact, in the last 12-year yatra in 2014, he with his friends had made their way as far as Homkund. These journeys and experiences strengthen their faith in the goddess even more.
Packing my rucksack to return home, I am convinced that the people of Dev Bhoomi have allowed these beliefs to guide their lives. This becomes an important aspect in all their decisions. And when such evidence is present all around, it is difficult to refute or question its power and existence.
All I know is that the land of Nanda Devi was created by the gods. The myths and stories, enchanting forests, endless bugyals and the insurmountable mountains complete the frame of what heaven may look like.
Which are your favourite mythological stories in India?
An edited version of this story has been printed in the Indian Express, Eye.