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Behind Mountains and Woods

When you think of the Himalayas and Mt Everest, what comes to your mind?

I don’t know about you dear reader but, icy terrains, snow-covered peaks and below freezing temperatures, add to those an occasional group of mountain climbers - that’s what comes to my mind.

However, recently I discovered there was more to those awe-inspiring mountains.

Borrowed a book from the library.

It was heavy, more a coffee table book than one that I could tuck into my handbag and pull out whenever I needed something to read.

The title had caught my eye.

‘The Hidden Himalayas’.

It was filled with photographs of not just the Himalayas but of the people who inhabited a certain region of the mountainous stretch.

It brought to the fore the lonely Himalayan section of Humla, spread across a ridge at 2900m, the most remote district in the far northwest corner of Nepal.

The photographs by Thomas L Kelly were enthralling and the text by Carroll Dunham created a most vivid picture of life in that region.

The ancestry of the people of Humla goes back to the early Moghul invasions during the thirteenth century. According to Dunham, Hindu Chhetri and Thakuri ancestors of warrior and royal castes who were the inhabitants of the desert lowlands of Rajasthan fled and sought refuge in Humla.

She states, ‘They brought with them ancient Rajasthani gods, language, and folk beliefs - gone now from Rajasthan itself’.

The pictures reflect, as I had presumed, a way of life filled with hardships.

Yet, as in all such groups of people who have had to flee their homeland to eke out a living elsewhere, they seemed to have adopted and developed a way of living that, in its own way, brought them a realization of their own ideas of comfort and moments of happiness.

None of the womenfolk in the pictures had their hair neatly combed nor were they adorned in what the rest of us would consider “pretty” clothes.

All the women in the pictures had disheveled hair, and grimy complexions.

Close-ups showed dirt inlaid fingernails.

Everything about these people reflected a hard life.

Yet they appeared happy in their own way.

Dunham’s description of the womenfolk is most engaging.

She states,

‘The women embody an enigmatic femininity. Shy, yet seductive and sensuous, they quietly move through the landscape, swinging their hips as they carry bundles of wood or brass pots on their heads. Silent except among themselves, they hide behind mysterious veils. Nose rings glisten, bangles and thick silver ankle bracelets jingle as they rustle across barren fields in long pleated skirts.’

What a charming picture!

Very much a reflection of women in many parts of rural India.

Here I am reminded of a scene from the undisputed classic of Indian movies, “Mother India”.

It depicts the life of a woman of the soil, the little moments of joy in her life in the village she married into and all the hardships she had to bear caring for her family. It embodies the virtues and endurance qualities of the ideal Indian woman, aptly named Mother India.

It traces her life from when she enters her husband’s household as a newly wed to when she reaches old age.

The role is played by actor Nargis, the main character in the movie.

Dunham’s picture of the womenfolk as indicated above, reminds me of a scene from Mother India.

Nargis is a young bride leaving her father’s home just after her marriage ceremony.

The song in the background is in the rustic voice of Shamshad Begum and tells how the bride leaves her loving mother, father, sisters, brothers and all her loved ones behind to start a new life with her husband.

Nargis’ entry into her matrimonial home shows her stepping into the household in mehndi-adorned and anklet-clad feet. Throughout the whole song and scene, not once does the bride lift her eyes to look at anyone.

She breathes femininity and such exquisite beauty.

Her husband is mesmerized and cannot take his eyes away from her, while, eyes downcast, neither smiling nor frowning, she exudes such calmness and charm.

It is decades since I saw this movie, but this scene is etched in mind.

To return to Humla….

Dunham’s observation of seasons in the Himalayas seems to resemble the cycle of life itself.

According to her, Spring is like ‘a rebirth’ that cleanses the grime and sobriety of winter.

Except for the melting of snow, all the happenings in Spring seem an echo of that which takes place in so many agricultural regions of countries throughout the world. There is laughter, merriment and boisterousness. Spring is the time for sowing.

As for summer, it is a time for work in the farm and villages, time to watch grazing animals and to churn butter. Yet it is a time to laze around too. In Humla, ‘the air turns brisk, and the faint echo of pounding grain once again fills this lonely land’.

The pounding of grain is a forerunner to the rhythm of fall – autumn.

Harvesting, chaffing and winnowing grains, the farmer toils to prepare for the long winter soon to come.

People living in modern homes with heating facilities and travelling in cars with the heater on in modern cities consider several inches of snow piled up in their yard and outside their home as terrible, formidable.

In comparison, the plight of the natives of Humla and in like regions is indeed almost unimaginable.

The extreme cold in the mountains ‘penetrates the soul’.

Dunham observes, ‘one can almost hear the mountains tremble in the lonely cold’.

Yet, she adds, ‘despite the unbearable weather, the cycle of necessary tasks – gathering water, fetching wood, shoveling rooftops – must continue’.

Truly a replica of the cycle of life with its ups and downs.

The book provides an insight into a person’s ability to withstand hardship. I marvel at man’s endurance level and at how those in remote regions lead such hard lives and yet, are able to find that which is often elusive to

city-dwellers - peace and contentment.

At this point, my thoughts gravitate towards the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

His book, “Thoreau In The Mountains” gives detailed insights into nature.

Heavy reading.

I do not read too much at one go.

For me, it is a book that has to be savored in small doses in order to be enjoyed thoroughly.

It was also an eye-opener of life in the woods.

Thoreau writes, “I believed that the woods were not tenantless, but choke-full of honest spirits as good as myself any day, - not an empty chamber ……. but an inhabited house….

Your so-called wise man goes trying to persuade himself that there is no entity there but himself and his traps.”

He adds, ‘In fact, the deeper you penetrate into the woods, the more intelligent, and, in one sense, less countrified do you find the inhabitants.

That was certainly food for thought.

As one delves into the wonders and inherent intricacies of nature, it becomes clear that the woods and forests are sanctuaries not just for animals but for man himself.

It is where he sheds the trappings of technology and gadgets, and then perhaps, begins to realize and acknowledge, his real self.

A different kind of connection takes place - one that does not require Wi-Fi connectivity.

It is a connection that may seem superficial, yet can become as deep as you would allow it to.

Various quotes come to mind as I delve further into nature.

My inadequacy to express the intrinsic nature of the woods has me resort to the following quotes for they are simple, yet profound.

"..........If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.” Alan Watts

One may not delve into philosophy or mysticism, yet without even seeking it, some kind of peace seems to envelope one during a walk in the woods.

Such is the fascinating charm of nature.

On such occasions, a man sheds his professional image for the need to impress others does not arise.

“And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”

John Muir

The following words ring true and would be most appropriate here.

"Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt

In a world where chaos of one kind or another, internal or external, seems to be fairly prevalent, often there is a search for answers.

When one's spirit begins to lag and the heart and mind are in turmoil, Rabindranath Tagore's words offer peace.

"Be still my heart, these great trees are prayers."

When writing about mountains and woods, one's thoughts tend to gravitate hauntingly towards Kerala and its lush greenery that is not only a visual treat but also helps us connect with Mother Earth.

I am reminded of an old Malayalam song.

Here’s a part of the lyrics….

"Nin madiyil chaanchaaduvaan,

Nin priyanaatham kelkuvaan

Paayukayaanen maanasam

Shyamala komala keralame……

Bad transliteration that.

Here are the lyrics, in its natural untouched beauty.

നിൻ മടിയിൽ ചാഞ്ചാടുവാൻ നിൻ പ്രിയനാദം കേൾകുവാൻ പായുകയാണെൻ മാനസം ശ്യാമള കോമള കേരളമേ……….



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