Large phalanxes of trees cover the hillside. Our car’s tyres are crunching pine cones and scattering feral dogs. Leopard fodder. My husband is reading Jim Corbett’s The Muktesar Man-Eater aloud, exciting our imagination. We’re in Kumaon, a district in Uttarkhand made legendary by the stories of the man-eating tigers of yore.
The British established hill-station retreats such as Mussoorie, Shimla and Nainital at around 7,000 ft, high enough to be cool all through the summer, and low enough not to feel shortness of breath. We’re at the same altitude now, with the Sitla valley dropping down to one side, and the hill rising up towards Mukteshwar temple on the other. A pristine, protected forest of deodar and pine trees blankets the hillside, home to hares, foxes, jackals, pine martin, barking deer, sambar and the odd leopard passing through. It’s quiet and serene and feels as though we’ve left the world behind. The air tastes delicious.
Our friend’s home, where we’re staying for a few days, is a modern beacon leaning into the views. And it’s through these glass walls and terraces we first take in that breathtaking view of the snow-clad Himalayas. Nanda Devi—the highest peak entirely in India at 7,816 m—elegantly holds herself aloft and flanking her on both sides, are the distinct shapes of Trishul, Nanda Kot and Panchachuli—an assemblage of five-pointed peaks. The tallest mountain chain on the planet, where India collides with the rest of Asia, is impressive not just in height, but also in its 2,400-km breadth. India’s north-easterly sweep has a fitting tiara of glittering ice-diamantes.
The mountains are more than a beautiful sight, they’re awe-inspiring and challenging and they elicit spirituality, as they represent eternity. We see them over and over again, on our walks through the reserve forest, meanders between village huts and hikes to the hilltop temples.
One afternoon, Nandu, our friends’ cook takes me down into the valley to meet some of the Kumaoni village folk. They’re warm and inviting, and quick to press a glass of tea into my hands. At every threshold, a hand-painted red and white aipan pattern has been drawn. Little footprints lead deep into the house, to guide goddess Lakshmi in when she visits during Diwali. The small rooms preserve the heat, and the kitchens daubed in traditional mud and cow dung. Painted tiles with images of Hanuman, Kali, Durga are embedded into the walls. The very state of Uttarakhand is known as ‘deva-bhumi’, the land of the gods, and they’re everywhere, from the myths of the mountains to the shrines in the tiniest homes. Even the handsome Himalayan cedar is called deodar (deva daru), or the divine tree.