Taking a path less travelled

Mohit K. Sharma and Gaurav Sikka

The barbarous routine of a school involving morning assembly, classes, lunch break and sports lessons is generally followed everywhere around the globe. This creates a dull and boring environment as well as an unpleasant learning experience for the young learners.

A holistic approach of schooling, wraps things beyond these conventional parameters. Gone are the days, when the teaching and learning system was confined to the four walls of the classroom. The root method of interdisciplinary education is centralization of various branches of education.

‘History should be taught geographically and geography should be taught historically’ – Herotodus

The turbulent Gori Ganga river meandering through the barren landscapes of Greater Himalayas.
Taking the Herotodusian spirit within us, a high altitude trek to Milam Glaciers (3500 mts) was planned by Birla Vidyamandir, Nainital for 15 students. Pioneer linguist, journalist and an environmentalist of the Kumaon region, Raj Shekhar Pant guided us in this audacious expedition to the Milam Glacier.

Milam lies in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand. It falls in Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand.

This trek was undoubtedly a source of valuable learning for us as well as for the young minds of our school. Expeditions like these are believed to not only serve as a source of learning compassion and experiencing a belongingness to Nature, but also to aid in personal growth and development of an individual. Qualities like self-discipline, management of interpersonal and intrapersonal skills outgrow in one’s character during such expeditions. Milam was all in all a unique expedition and redefined the traditional learning paradigm for us.

Myunsyari, which is at an altitude of 2298 mts served as the starting point of our trek. Myunsyari once used to be known for cultivation of kidney beans and potatoes. It is also a gateway to Johar valley.

Map of Uttarakhand: Route of Milam Glacier from Nainital
Johar valley is a cultural blend of bhotiya, tharo and kumaoni people. This valley faced disastrous floods in 2013 which brought some drastic changes including a decrease in transhumance and disruption of trade with Tibet. With the passage of time, a road network was built including the areas in the buffer zone of Nanda Devi biosphere reserve. Tourists now have better access to the valley, During our stay in the hotel, students interviewed Beeru, a professional mountaineer and also the hotel owner. While discussing the current status of subsistence livelihood of the people residing in the valley, he stated that, ‘the Johar villages are turning into ghost villages and people are deserting the valley at a rapid pace’. Lack of support from government authorities in providing roads and transport systems to bring essential items from Myunsyari to the remote native villages are some of the reasons.

Our journey began with an early morning view of Panchashuli peak from Myunsyari, which was bliss. After obtaining permits from the local authorities, we initiated the first leg of our trek.

The first leg of the trek was an easy walk on the road. The foremost stoppage was at Lilam, a small isolated village. The youth of the villages had already moved out and only a few eateries for visitors or ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police) personnel were located in the vicinity.

In the next stretch of 17 kms, we did not find a single settlement till we reached our destination, Bagudiyar. The track along the gorge of Gori Ganga was extremely mindboggling and breathtaking. The trail throughout has been rendered more difficult because of innumerable ascents and descents due to flood damage.

For the next leg, we had to pass two successive slopes to reach Nain Singh Top, named after the 17th century spy explorer Nain Singh Rawat from Myunsyari village.

Nain Singh Rawat was the first one to draw a map of Tibet for the Britishers. He was selected for this tedious job because he was young, literate, well acquainted with the mighty Himalayas and had Tibetan features. Nain Singh disguised himself as a Buddhist monk and estimated accurate observations about the ‘Forbidden Land’.

A stone construction; which is believed to be the home of Nain Singh Rawat as per local narrations.
He stored mercury in the false bottom of his tea bowl, had a 100 beads rosary instead of 108 and carried route surveys, notes and compass hidden in his prayer wheel. In 1876, his achievements were acknowledged in the Geographical Magazine (an official monthly magazine of the Royal Geographical Society, U.K.). Apart from many accolades that he bagged for his contribution for the Survey of India and for the Royal British Geographical Society, Nain Singh was presented with an inscribed gold chronometer by the Royal Geographic Society (RGS) in 1868. On June 27, 2004, an Indian postage stamp featuring Nain Singh was issued commemorating his role in the Great Trigonometrical Survey (initiated by the Britishers to measure the lengths and breadths of the Indian Sub-Continent. William Lambton started measuring India in 1802 followed by Sir G. Everest).

We reached our next stop, Bagudiyar, by dusk, where our documents were examined at the ITBP post. Close to our camping site, Himalayan Blue Sheep (Bharal) were spotted which was indeed a treat for all. The next stretch to Rilkot via Nahardevi temple was an adventurous but scary experience. The Himalayan landscape modified significantly from being dense temperate to a barren high altitude. Proceeding toward our destination, the road was covered with cascaded waterfalls on one side and turbulent Gori Ganga gushing down on the other.

At this point a road was being diverted to Milam village. While conversing with GREF (General Reserve Engineer Force, a branch of BRO) personnel en route, we came to know that the machinery for road cutting was air dropped.

The next stop was Rilkot which lies in the heart of Johar valley. The mode of subsistence for the population of Rilkot was illegal business of Keeda Jadi, commonly known as Yarsaghumba1. Selling keeda jadi illegally fetches exorbitant money which could aid in bringing profitability in the valley. According to a local resident of Rilkot, Luv Raj Pangti, “The bread earners of the family leave home in search of keeda jadi for months and the money generated will help the younger ones to acquire education.” People of the valley try to strike a balance between survival and satisfaction, natural charm and cemented development.

For the next leg of our trek to Milam, we passed the deserted villages of Burfu, Martoli which are the trekking intersection for the mighty Nanda Devi Parvat. Both the peaks of Nanda Devi Parvat (west and east) were so gigantic that we could spot them from a distance. Finally, we reached Milam on the fifth day of our adventurous learning program.

Milam Glacier, lying between Hardeol and Trishuli peak.
Milam, a popular village, was once known as the biggest and most thriving summer settlement, having more than 1800 souls back in 1900. It lies on the old silk route, linking Kumaon and Tibet. The well flourishing town of Milam faced a setback after the Indo-Sino war of 1962. The transhumance trade2 between Milam and Tibet came to an end and Milam valley experienced a great migration of its natives to the terai region of Uttarakhand. The village was abandoned and many homes were deserted, but still few families continue to live here and farm during the monsoon season and feed the handful of trekkers.

We meet a local granny, Lakshmi Devi, who answered all our questions. She also showed us the house of Nain Singh, which was also used as a jail as per her narratives.

For our destination, Milam Glacier, a trek of about 7 kms was still left in the northward direction, a rugged land partially covered by junipers. Luckily we had a panoramic view of Milam Glacier, clasped between the twin peaks of Hardeol and Trishuli.

It was a once in a life time experience. Ayush Yadav, a student of class 12 says, “It was my first and unforgettable experience of wandering in the lap of the Himalayas. Now we actually sensed the importance of water, food and how the people in the upper reach of Himalayas survive without any connection to the mainstream society.”

A boy filling up his water bottle from natural source.
Getting out of our comfort zones was one of the many things we achieved during our trip. During the course of traversing the mountains, we spent our evening playing games, team building exercises, listening to folklore by locals and our guides.

We also learned how the expansionism of one nation combined with the indifference of another transformed a sizable chunk of humanity. We also learnt the changing patterns of economy in this region since the knocking off the bottom of Himalayan trade and their allied activities like sheep rearing and marginal agriculture.

A local resident of Milam village, Kamlesh Sahi, did not mince words and spoke about the impact of climate change, “I have seen Milam right from my childhood but for the last two years Milam Glacier has reduced substantially, now it is almost on the verge of extinction and that because of the construction of a road on either side of the border.” Just like a hidden treasure, Milam has many uncovered stories, some of them we could unfold. Truly, it was an answer to enduring pain and pleasure and going beyond limits. Mr. Pant rightly concluded the adventurous learning by giving it the title of ‘Silence of timeless perfection’.

At the end, students learned the biased dichotomy of our ruthless society with its emphasis on conspicuous consumption rather than beautification of the real inner self and acquiring qualities such as courage, sensitivity towards nature etc. “The spirit and the lure of the Himalayas are now spreading all over India among our young people. That is a symbol of the new life and the new spirit that is coursing through India’s veins” – Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru.

Acknowledgement: We thank the Principal, Birla Vidya Mandir, Nainital for providing necessary support in organizing this field visit.

References

  1. It is a fungus that grows on insects. The only legal vendor of yarsagumba is the Uttarakhand Forest Development Corporation, but they hardly provide ten per cent of the amount of requirement. The locals supply Yarsagumba through Nepal and China with a lower cost roughly Rs.5-6 lakh per kg. The costs of Yarsagumba in the international market reaches Rs. 20 lakh per kg.
  2. Transhumance is used to practise pastoralism. It is also associated with the trade of dairy products between Milam and Tibet before the Indo-Sino war. Here transhumance trade stands for the dairy products and agricultural products trade between Milam and Tibet.

Mohit K. Sharma is a Teacher Educator, Birla Vidyamandir, Nainital, Uttarakhand. He can be reached at [email protected].

Gaurav Sikka is Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, L.N. Mithila University, Bihar. He can be reached at [email protected].

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