There goes lunch on a matchstick! (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

There goes lunch on a matchstick! (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

I don’t know how this catamaran business got into my head.

I was quite terrestrial, mediocre swimmer; yet prone to trying things beyond me. That often meant embarrassment for oneself; entertainment for others. It didn’t take long to realize that the ultimate getaway was the sea. Its blue expanse is much bigger in size than land. And what better way to be at sea than in that tiniest of crafts – two or three logs stashed together; a catamaran.

Derived from the Tamil word, `kattumaram,’ the British fashioned it into catamaran and took the description overseas. The word was used to describe the multi-hull boats of South East Asia and Polynesia as well. No better than a big float and deeply enmeshed into man’s history of seafaring, the ancient craft was ubiquitous on the Kerala coast, where it was called kattamaram. Every time you saw a fisherman or two in the distance bobbing up and down in the waves as though they were sitting on the very ocean itself, you knew it was a catamaran below. The minimalist design, almost the lack of it, held a raw appeal. At the onset of monsoon local newspapers loved to publish the photograph of fishermen throwing themselves and their catamarans from a cliff top, into the sea.

I did not have to explain all this fascination to Jason, who had suddenly surfaced just outside the low boundary wall of the resort at Poovar near Thiruvananthapuram. I tracked his movement, shoulders and head visible above the wall and gauged from the smooth, mildly bobbing drift that he was standing on a canoe or something similar. He was hawking his day’s catch of a few small fish and oysters to the resorts bordering the estuary. I looked down from the wall and saw a frail catamaran under his feet. “ Can I sit on it?’’ I asked. He studied me for a second and simply said, “ take it. Go out into the estuary.’’ Then realizing he had dropped a bomb in my brain, he offered, “ don’t worry, I will swim alongside.’’ That presented a dilemma. For the journalist, no matter how badly he writes thinks himself as descended from the first revolutionary. The sahib-servant relation was abhorrent, unthinkable. This was just that – me on a catamaran, Jason in the water. Slavery!

“ No, no, that can’t be,’’ I said, sweating as a pantheon of ghosts, from Abraham Lincoln to Mahatma Gandhi, admonished me for even hearing the suggestion made. “ How could you?’’ they thundered. I cringed fearing their wrath.

But Jason’s problem was real – his catamaran of three thin logs could take only one person. Add a second and it would become a large overturned log; the sort ship wrecked sailors of yore clung to as they drifted to a remote Pacific island. Eventually, we decided – I would venture out into the estuary, Jason would instruct from land.

There were two possible postures on the frail craft. Jason preferred what I call the geisha pose, on your knees with legs tucked painfully under your butt. Given a painful middle aged knee, I couldn’t do that. So, I opted for the normal kayaking position. With one powerful push, Jason launched craft and me into the estuary. We shot out like an arrow into the silence of the deep. As the distance between me and land rose, my mind became a multiplex and playing on screen was the shark’s view from below – there goes lunch on a match stick. And as though to serve my imagined predators well, Jason’s energy transferred to the craft petered out and lunch-on-match stick slowed to a solemn halt. I looked into the water waiting for a shadow that would grow bigger and bigger till it erupts out of the water, the world goes black and Spielberg says, “ cut!’’ Jason must have sensed my nervousness. “ Take the oar and paddle,’’ he shouted from ashore. I took the oar – oar? Here I was, seated in the best kayaking position copied from TV and I had a five feet long wooden plank for oar. It was uniformly broad, thick and heavy. How the hell was Jason using this? He has to be a superman – I thought.  Several strokes later, I was a panting mess beginning to question what I had got myself into.

This was my predicament somewhere in the middle of the estuary when the sound of outboard engines came from my right. Two boats were bearing down on me. Panic is not plain fright; it is the fright over what can be. In other words, the less you know the braver you seem, the more you know, the more panicky you get. And I knew what could happen (journalists always do).  Those boats would generate waves high enough to upset me. Throw me into the water. Now technically speaking, the catamaran is deemed more stable at sea than the popular mono-hull boat. In fact when the multi-hull design emerged from Asia, western boat builders were both taken aback and too prejudiced to acknowledge its capabilities. It took many years for the catamaran to find acceptance, that too after several western interpretations that were no more than reinventing the Asian wheel. Today it is the stuff of power boat races. However, this debate was likely truer for the multi-hull. When you have two logs stashed together like the home made contraption I was balanced on, science was a luxury. Greater certainty seemed an unwanted exploration of marine life in the estuary. My paddling went askew. The tips of my `oar’ splashed frantically on the water’s surface hardly moving the craft, then from being wood, the oar metamorphosed to cast iron and my aching hands stopped paddling altogether. Resigned, I did the next best thing – kept the oar on my lap and sat there like a Buddha contemplating the mysteries of life. Both shores were far off, the bottom was far below, the sky was high above – so sat the hermit impervious to the outcome as two ferocious boats ploughed through the water at him. In reality the journalist was outthinking everybody else; TV crew interviews the eyewitness and he says, “ man, wasn’t that guy calm?’’

I sat there like a Buddha (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

I sat there like a Buddha (Illustration: Shyam G Menon)

The first boat with its load of tourists whizzed by in front; the second followed on the other side. One swell, then the next – surrender worked, I rode both pretty well. My little matchstick was a toughie. It was to remind me later of a yacht I had boarded in Kochi. The Australian couple who owned it was sailing around the world. It was a beautiful, well appointed boat with a sense of security to it. I looked at the other yachts in the harbor, particularly a small one. “ That man should feel scared crossing a vast ocean,’’ I said. The husband narrowed his eyes. “ Look carefully. You see those hammer marks, like dents on the hull? That’s a home-made boat. He probably built it in his garage. Looks unsafe but when in trouble he would know it like the back of his palm. And he won’t be troubled often either for his boat is small. Unlike a big ship that has several stress points, this one will ride the waves like a matchbox; too small for the ocean to break.’’ At that moment in the estuary though, two swells tackled and the remaining ones dissipating into gentler bobs, I was just relief incarnate.

“ Keep going,’’ Jason shouted. But I had had enough even though I was slowly getting used to that oar. Direction now set toward Jason, I set off. Strangely even as I moved toward him, he drifted off to my left. The current was carrying me in a straight-right direction; like a general at a military parade with everything going past. The guard of honor – by now a couple of idle watchmen from the nearby resorts had also joined Jason – stared open mouthed at this demonstration of paddling skills. The battle now was to stop the drift, which I did by somehow heading for a resort’s wharf. Except that the current carried me under it; I was now safely lodged among a dozen wooden pillars that supported the structure. “ Hello…Sir?’’ If it was the Buddha garb in deep waters, I now responded to Jason with the air of an accomplished engineer, “ doesn’t anyone maintain these things? They look rather worn out underneath.’’ It struck me then that I had said the obvious and the best thing to do, was get out. But before that vanity struck. I glanced out to see if my antics were causing general alarm. My cousin Rajeev appeared settled into a hammock, reading a book. His mother, sister and family were chatting. Only Jason, watchmen and journalist seemed involved. Good. I nudged the craft inelegantly out from its refuge. And so, the greatest catamaran journey of all time ended with an emergence from under the wharf and on to Jason’s side.

He reluctantly accepted fifty rupees; lingered to finish a smoke with the watchmen and then neatly paddled off to his fishing village nearby. On the estuary, Jason looked like a monk with divine powers, seated on water and using mere will power to navigate. The whole thing worked like a well oiled piece of machinery – his effortless paddling, comfortable position and the catamaran, skimming along on the surface of the estuary. It could have made for a movie: Flying Jason; Hidden Catamaran – Ang Lee’s missed opportunity. Jason didn’t look back. I stood there watching him; the watchmen stood there looking at me. The British adventurer and buccaneer, William Dampier, is considered the first westerner to report on the `kattumaram’ of the Coramandel coast in the 1690s. “ They call them catamarans. These are but one log or two, sometimes of a sort of light wood….so small, that they carry but one man, whose legs and breaches are always in the water,’’ he had written. Dampier circumnavigated the globe thrice.

Pretty big connections for one really small craft, I say.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)



Looking towards the Upper Rupin Valley (Photo: Suma Rao)

Looking towards the Upper Rupin Valley (Photo: Suma Rao)

On the frail suspension bridge to Mora village in Uttarakhand the mind easily surrendered to blissful disorientation.

The wind blew as it pleased while the Tons River flowed furiously in a direction set centuries ago. Right below was a swirling eddy. What you stood on was too narrow and minimalist to intrude into the frame – you felt afloat like a feather. Looking down into the river seemed great to unwind; as an element, water was soothing, the patterns of flowing water were as soothing. In the near two months spent rafting and hiking in that region, I did this quite a few times to forget Mumbai and occasionally my outdoor camp, not all students there committed to making life easy for an instructor. That day however, the last batch was in progress. Once the camp ended four of us planned to hike upstream and cross the mountains into Himachal Pradesh. Although meant to relax after extended work, in my journalist mind it was assuming the shape of an unexpected river story.

The Tons was a tributary of the Yamuna, joining the latter at Kals in the north western part of the Dehradun valley. It was born from the confluence of two rivers – the Supin, which arose from a glacier near the Har-ki-dun valley in Garhwal and the Rupin, traced to a glacier in the environs of the Rupin Pass on the border of Uttarakhand and Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh. Between the two originating rivers, the Supin, draining waters from the Bunderpunch, Swargarohini and Black Peak massifs, was the greater volume generator accounting for a bulk of the flow in the Tons. The unassuming Tons, tucked deep into the folds of the Himalayan foothills was in the news during the days of the Vajpayee government, when much interest was shown in rediscovering the vanished river of the Vedic period – the Saraswati. Some researchers had argued that the present day Tons represented the upper reaches of that mythological river.

The Tons was a tributary of the Yamuna, joining the latter at Kals in the north western part of the Dehradun valley. It was born from the confluence of two rivers – the Supin, which arose from a glacier near the Har-ki-dun valley in Garhwal and the Rupin, traced to a glacier in the environs of the Rupin Pass on the border of Uttarakhand and Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh.

If I remember right, I first saw the Tons after I quit my regular job to be a freelance journalist. That would be post-2006. Our camp then was in a wooded spot on the river’s bank. It was a damp place with occasional rain and the river’s sound for constant company. Just before and after the camp were small beaches, ideal for a few moments of solitude.  Across the river was a rocky cliff. Perfect. However, in the summer of 2008, much confusion had preceded the arrival of the annual rafting camps. The authorities wanted a shift in camp site; we found ourselves considerably upstream bang in the path of the daily storm. Every afternoon we hung to our tents to prevent them from flying off and when the wind became too powerful, we simply collapsed the tents ourselves and waited out the swirling dust. Strictly speaking, this area while mountainous qualified to be the approach to the real giants beyond. We were in the foothills. From camp, you could easily do treks that took you to 8000 feet or more. That was nothing in the Himalayan world. But then, the very scale used for measurement here was different.

I clearly remember realizing this on my first mountaineering expedition in Zanskar – how small the hills of the Western Ghats (a long north-south mountain chain in peninsular India, not far from the west coast) seemed when compared to the sprawl of a bump in the lower Himalaya. Mountain features are universal but scale made every inch of this terrain engaging And that, included the hills surrounding our river camp. The Tons River though had to be viewed differently. For those fascinated by size, the enormity of the Brahmaputra’s waves would probably make a passage down that river the big mama of Indian rafting experiences. I haven’t been on that river, famous for its high volume of water and in river rafting, the size of swells it sported as a result. One river guide who worked there annually on a near 200 kilometer-stretch told me, “ if you can handle those swells you should be able to endure the trip.’’ The Tons was a pigmy compared to that colossus barreling down from Tibet, but it was a tricky pigmy.

River runners considered the Tons to be a technical river, which indicated requirement for skill. The river was shallow in parts, the waters were fast flowing and rocks abounded, to the extent that a prominent danger if thrown overboard was foot entrapment. You could get pinned down. It was also a chameleon of a river. For long in May, it maintained uniform temperament and the daily ritual of rafting grew to being predictable. The student groups came and went but the instructor stayed. Slowly, you came to know by heart the next curve in the river, the next rapid, the angle to hit it and even how the raft would behave as it cleared the section. Something was lost. Looking at the safety kayakers skimming by – a lone person in a tiny boat – I longed to taste their freedom.

River runners considered the Tons to be a technical river, which indicated requirement for skill. The river was shallow in parts, the waters were fast flowing and rocks abounded, to the extent that a prominent danger if thrown overboard was foot entrapment.

Then one day, the regular valley weather with its occasional light shower and heavy wind, befriended a larger system blowing in from far. There was heavy rain. The region’s main village was Mori. Located at a turn in the river, it was a cluster of buildings on either side of the road; eateries, provision stores, couple of saloons, fuel shop and a flour mill. It was a village settled into its own pace those two months, except when the inter-village cricket tournament started at Khunigad, few miles down the road. The game was a serious affair and Mori had a team in it. The area was clothed in pine forests, the pine trees here being quite tall with one late specimen having ranked as the tallest in Asia. When the downpour came, villagers counted the number of vehicles coming in from Netwar and Shimla and concluded that the Shimla road downstream was in trouble. They could sense it from the volume of vehicular traffic. They were right. That road was blocked by intermittent landslides, something we discovered the hard way after our small pick-up truck got bogged down in landslip-mud.

Waiting for a bulldozer to nudge our stuck vehicle free, I noticed the change to hill streams pouring into the Tons. Their waters were dark brown, caused by erosion and landslips up in the hills. That was not a good sign. With the normally clear stream water rendered murky, it would soon become imperative for hikers in these hills to either boil water or at the very least add chlorine tablets for safety. Working and hiking despite the weather, I was soon a candidate for antibiotics. What else can I say; it just got you – the damn bug. I am no botanist but from what I have heard, those pretty pine forests had much to do with soil erosion and probably, all that mud in stream and river waters. Although pine was dominant vegetation, environmentalists reminded you that pine was not indigenous to forests in these parts. Identified for its merit to make sleepers for railway tracks, the British had planted it purposefully. Growing aggressively, the pine found a new home in the Himalaya. It also extracted a price. Unlike a tropical rain forest canopy that split heavy rain drops into gentler ones, the tall pines had no such leaves to do the job. The drops landed like bullets on soft soil, which, having only a carpet of pine needles for cover was quite unprotected. The needles had another property – they made the soil too acidic for other trees to grow; trees that could have held back soil with their extensive roots. The result was alpine beauty and monsoon misery.

Meanwhile in Mori, the Tons had become an angry, muddy flow, crashing into rocks and attacking its banks. It stayed swollen for three quarters of that day spent freeing our vehicle. By evening, its original grey color returned. A week or so later, it rained heavily again. The river went through the same transformation with an added twist – a dense fog hugged its surface. It was a fog confined to the river, tracing its shape and course. The water was terribly cold. At camp, friends housed in tents close to the river shivered through the night. At least one came down with high fever. Rafting the usual stretch next morning was a surreal experience. You couldn’t see beyond fifteen feet, it was smoky white all around. The ice cold river slapped against the sides of the raft while dense fog settled on the water to a certain height, before the craggy cliffs on either side broke through and towered above. What made the ambience unique was the silent passage of the rafts, river guides straining to see the next raft and the way this scene appeared – like a mysterious boat-load of people emerging from the mist to make contact.

Rafting the usual stretch next morning was a surreal experience. You couldn’t see beyond fifteen feet, it was smoky white all around.

That afternoon, it rained again.

Next day, the lead river guide stopped me on the way to the usual rafting spot. He had brought a raft with him to try the river from quite upstream where the rapids had always been of a higher grade. “ I have never seen the river so furious before,’’ he said. Looking back, I am unsure if he actually meant that or whether that was bait dangled. The fish in me fell for it hook, line and sinker. For me, it was an adrenalin moment, the sort outdoor enthusiasts found difficult to ignore. As in climbing, where routes on rock had specific names and grades; so did rapids in a white water river. From the Tons, I recall names like `Let’s Go,’ `Give Me More’ and `Sticky Sarla.’ And like climbing routes which changed grades depending on prevailing route condition, so did these rapids. That meant, the river’s new found fury changed everything.

We had two safety kayakers this time. Aboard we were a team of five in the lone raft. The moment we hit the current, the gravity of the challenge crashed home in full measure. The river was fast, water volume was sizably up and the rapids’ grades had risen correspondingly. I noticed that the safety kayakers were also playing it by the book, avoiding direct confrontation with the rapids and staying secure by the side to keep a vigil on the raft’s progress though the heavy stuff. Usually with clients and students, outdoor instructors were a well mannered lot, role-modeling to the best of their ability. Now for the first time in weeks, expletives laced the commands on the raft, as we struggled to face the angry river with some dignified rafting. Save an impression of people watching high up from the bank I have no clear memory of anything beyond what immediately mattered – the guide, my raft, the river and the safety kayakers. That was my world. At the end of the run we were a happy, exhausted bunch. “ Please excuse the outburst and expletives. But somehow in India we work well only when the whip is cracked,’’ the guide said. Everyone smiled.

Weeks later, an Internet post on kayaking down the Rupin would correct my euphoria and bring me firmly down to ground level. The post highlighted the essence of river running in these parts. Paddling much upstream from where we had been the Canadian author – he too had been working at a rafting camp near Mori – assessed gradient at approximately 200 feet for every mile of the river and cited falls ranging from three feet to ten feet in the “ boulder filled creek.’’ If you are trying to imagine the mentioned parameters, add gushing river water to complete the scene with a kayak in it.

River guides added character to the Tons valley around Mori. Rafting being the main sport here, they upheld the outdoor tradition. Every smile was valued. Give one and you got one back with a wave thrown in for bonus. Stay long and you saw them on their daily outings. Mornings were usually busy, spent rafting with clients. Mini-trucks carrying rafts and guides plied the narrow roads. By evening, the small river running community, split into several camps along the river, paid visits to each other or went for a stroll to Mori. Hard work and long weeks in the outdoors had made them athletic. Needless to say, it was a matter of pride for me to acquire after many days, a similar spring in step and confidence in self. In all my extended visits to wilderness this eventual transition to a life of few wants – a trimmed lifestyle – was the best return on investment.


(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He would like to thank Suma Rao for permitting the use of photos from her collection. A slightly abridged version of this article – ie parts one and two of the river story, combined – was published in Man’s World magazine.)



In accordance with our plan, a day after the camp at Mori ended, we drove upstream to Netwar.

I saw more furious sections of the Tons. The water was slowly thinning in color from Mori’s brooding grey to a playful shade; its froth and foam, a clearer white. Yet its power was uncompromised. Memories of rafting the flooded Tons still fresh in mind I engaged myself with imagined visuals of negotiating these rapids.

The temple (Photo: Suma Rao)

The temple (Photo: Suma Rao)

Past Netwar, we picked up the Rupin and spent the next week, hiking upstream on its banks. Popularly called the Rupin Pass trek, the mood was set as soon as one left Netwar for Dhola. The half hour-drive on a narrow road was ethereal; the Rupin flowing furiously beside that uneven terrain of bouncy road, thick foliage all around and ample shadow. The road ended ahead of Dhola village, on land cloaked that rainy day in squishy, black mud giving it the look of an oil prospecting outpost. The imprints of vehicle tyres and peoples’ boots ran deep in the mud, each depression gathered water in the pouring rain. Curious faces peeped out from a nearby shop to inspect the visitors. You almost expected to see a John D. Rockefeller or at the very least, Daniel Day-Lewis as mineral prospector Daniel Plainview, brooding harsh capitalism in one of the decrepit shacks around.

Near Dhola and from Dhola to Jakha village, the river’s flow was taut. There was crisp freshness to its waters although the occasional human settlement stood mired in dirt. The route passed through the villages of Sewa and Jiskon. The former had a well stocked store selling everything from noodles to coffee and adjacent to it, a beautiful wooden temple.

It was about twenty years-old, square tower with pagoda for roof. It was a style that strangely left you thinking about Japanese and Korean design sensibilities with a dash of the Hindu tribal, thrown in for flavor. The village had hung several shields and trophies to its wall. “ We won them playing cricket,’’ the shopkeeper said. The trophies seemed gifted to the local deity in return for blessings to the village team. The first flood plains since leaving Dhola were also in these parts. The broad swathes of sand guarded the river’s deceptively obedient course.

You almost expected to see a John D. Rockefeller or at the very least, Daniel Day-Lewis as mineral prospector Daniel Plainview, brooding harsh capitalism in one of the decrepit shacks around.

On the trail; Rupin River below (Photo: Suma Rao)

On the trail; Rupin River below (Photo: Suma Rao)

Jakha, perched high on a cliff, was waking up to commerce from the tourist trail. The owner of its first lodge – a still incomplete wooden structure with a couple of rooms ready – was waiting at the entrance to the village with claims of the Rupin Pass trek being the toughest in the Himalaya and the consequent importance of rest. “ This is the toughest,’’ he said shaking his head; then for good measure, “ a group, which went ahead of you is already in trouble.’’ Strange were the compulsions of commerce – where there was money to be made, the trail was tough; where there was no money to be made, the trail was easy even if what was amiss was the trail itself! Amid all that hard sell, I was enamored by two unforgettable sights – the region’s lovely wooden houses and the view from the balcony of the lodge with the Rupin flowing way below in the valley. The buildings were made of wood from the Deodhar tree and according to the lodge owner villagers had free access to fallen trees in the surrounding forest. That restricted his material cost to transporting the wood and getting the structure built. The lodge was pretty, even amusing given the posters of Hindi film heroines inside the rooms. However, the architecture lacked the sophistication of similar woodwork from South India, where mathematically precise joints and wooden pegs characterize traditional wood work. Up here, it was hefty sections and big nails; hammer and go. The simplicity of the craft was evident in the carpenter’s tools, a glimpse of which we got later near Sangla. An old carpenter there worked with just three tools; a small saw, a heavy planer and a mini-axe to both chisel and hammer. Under prevailing law, land could not be sold to outsiders even if they loved the place and the houses. Perhaps it was best that way. Yet truth be told, sometimes I have wished for a small house somewhere up there, my window to the snows.

Camped beside the Rupin River (Photo: Suma Rao)

Camped beside the Rupin River (Photo: Suma Rao)

It reminded me of a conversation once had on the drive from Ranikhet to Kathgodam. “ If you like the hills so much, why don’t you marry a girl from here? You will get land and house,’’ the taxi driver had said. I laughed and inquired of his life. He had shifted with family to the plains. Wife and children were all down, only aged parents remained up there. “ What is there in these hills?’’ he had asked. For a brief while, I tried explaining what I liked about the mountains. Then I gave up, for it seemed lost on him. Besides my habit of attempting to articulate the best clarity within me always muddled my talk and confused others. Although born to the mountains the driver’s baggage in life seemed no different from the social baggage of the plains, mono-cropped so by marriage and family. To me, the compulsions of marriage appeared universal. In the backseat of the car, I had wondered – would I want to be in the mountains in such a fashion? No – was the answer I heard upstairs.

Beyond Jakha, you got the first of several snow bridges, structures that some crossed blindly but would do well to test for a route before walking over. Snow bridges were typically found on streams and gullies used by running water. Snow deposited there, lasted longer than snow in areas more exposed to sunshine. Thus below your feet, when on a snow bridge, would be flowing water. If it was minor stream, the consequences of bridge breaking were limited, save a wetting in ice cold water. If it was a major stream, the worry was more. If it was a river underneath, you had to be seriously careful when plotting a path on that slowly melting bridge with varying weaknesses and trajectories of slide, should you slip, in place.

Looking towards the Upper Rupin Valley (Photo: Suma Rao)

Looking towards the Upper Rupin Valley (Photo: Suma Rao)

Roughly a day’s hike from here, you reached the Upper Rupin Valley. It had the shape of an amphitheatre with a valley as exit to the lower hills, now behind us. At places, the Rupin had braked to a gentle flow with beaches alongside. You could see through the reflected blue of the sky, into the aquamarine water and read the surface texture of rocks way below. Where an eddy or rapid formed, the froth went past the best traditions of pure white to add a touch of blue. In the right season, it should be a very pretty place sporting colorful blossoms, agile small birds, the patient vulture and plenty of cattle let lose to graze and multiply. You may also see trekkers clients and their porters, the former on holiday, the latter with a 25 kilo-load on his back. Still upstream, the verdant landscape was traded for severe terrain as the altitude gained and the river disappeared again under snow bridges. Beyond the last snow bridge in the valley you saw the river gushing out from a rock face. And high above that was a magnificent waterfall. It was a cascade that presided over the entire valley and visible in the distance from the moment you stepped into the amphitheatre. From its lip, you could look down into the whole valley and see the Rupin’s course. At your feet, it was a thunderous spray leaping off the edge into thin air. For some distance back from the precipice, the river had carved a narrow channel through hard rock packing force into the waterfall.

Beyond Jakha, you got the first of several snow bridges, structures that some crossed blindly but would do well to test for a route before walking over.

Upper Rupin Valley; waterfall in the distance (Photo: Suma Rao)

Upper Rupin Valley; waterfall in the distance (Photo: Suma Rao)

Further up, the Rupin was a playful stream that merged into the snows. As we moved towards the snow clad Rupin Pass, we veered off the river’s banks. Eventually, a frozen pond just ahead of the steep climb to the pass was all that indicated a river’s presence somewhere in that world of snowfields. Nothing moved. Even the water was mostly ice. Where it trickled off into the proto stream that would eventually become the Rupin, you could perhaps put your ear close to the water and catch a faint gurgle. Else, the only sound around was you crunching snow underfoot as you walked; your strained breathing at altitude. I thought of the Tons way downstream and its many shades, the people along its banks. I also thought of how different this whole journey had been from the typical mountaineering expedition, wherein I would have been focused on reaching a summit and judged for performance; never been at peace. Being on an expedition was like going to office. This time, I had just ambled up into the mountains after work. Here I must pause and mention that our already small team split into two teams in the Rupin Valley, to respect peoples’ itineraries. Ravi (he would later become Director of the outdoor school, NOLS India) and I had more time on our hands. So we spent an extra couple of days camped out in the Rupin Valley and made our way slowly up to Rupin Pass. The other group led by Suma Rao, camped a day in the Rupin Valley and moved on well before we us, across the pass towards Sangla.

Shepherd from the Rupin Valley (Photo: Suma Rao)

Shepherd from the Rupin Valley (Photo: Suma Rao)

My introduction to the outdoors had been through a trekking club that hiked hard and then, through rock climbers and mountaineers who obsessed with objective. Hanging out with Ravi in the Rupin Valley was the first time I was in the outdoors without an objective. It was initially tough for my city bred ways demanding entry and exit from outdoors with claims and photos to prove the passage to folks back in the city. But which city can you cross over to for immediate relief from the Rupin Valley? And quite frankly speaking – what was that need for proof; the need to tell others that you did this and that and feel vindicated by their appreciation? Slowly I adjusted to sitting still and concerning myself with simple things like maintaining a tent well, getting a fire going and cooking; or just absorbing the stillness. That was my first real education in the outdoors despite several years already spent frequenting the outdoors. In the Rupin Valley, I learnt to let the outdoors in.

Eventually our leisurely amble through the valley would take us to Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh. There were three mountain ranges in Kinnaur – the Great Himalayan, Zanskar and Dhauladhar. We seemed to be on the third. Besides the fact that the Dhauladhar formed the divide between Kinnaur and Uttarakhand, the mountains we were on fitted the classic description of the Dhauladhar as steep, dark-colored and rocky albeit of modest height. The exact height of the Rupin Pass was a bit of a mystery. On the Internet, estimates ranged from 14,000 ft to 16,100 ft. At the top of the pass, panting from the ascent, none of that mattered. A place full of `chortens’ and prayer flags, we sat down for some coffee from the thermos. For the first time, I understood what a mountain pass was. In that icy world the steep ramp which we had come up on, was the sole weakness in the nearby mountain walls for a crossing. I wondered how long it must have taken to find it and how prized it must be for people on either side of the barrier as a link to each other. Yet for all its elusiveness and fragility it was a historically important pass, for years back the Kinnaur kingdom used to have influence in the villages we had come through. The Tons area had an ethnicity that reflected this cultural mix. Pinpointing details may be difficult because history in these mountains, wrapped up in legends and oral traditions, was very different in texture from the better recorded history of the plains. One had to navigate with a few assumptions in place as context.

Being on an expedition was like going to office. This time, I had just ambled up into the mountains after work. The Rupin Valley was the first time I was in the outdoors without an objective. In the Rupin Valley, I learnt to let the outdoors in.

While there were references to the hill tribes as possibly people who were driven out from the plains by invaders, the first formal attempt at recognizing their strengths and organizing them for governance or military assistance seemed to have occurred during the time of the Mauryan Empire. Chandragupta Maurya actively involved frontier tribes in his efforts to establish a vast rule. Until then, quite the same way as life feels isolated in each valley even today, the tribes were independent and separate. The Mauryans brought them under one scepter. Remote Kinnaur was also believed – only believed – to have been part of these tides in Himalayan history. After the Mauryans, the next big emperors were the Kushans, whose greatest ruler was Kanishka. During his time, Kashmir became part of empire. Inclusion of the mountainous regions into the ambit of North Indian empire-building continued through the Gupta Age and up to the demise of Harsha who ruled from Kanauj. This last great ruler of the plains died in 647 AD and with that the mountainous regions were said to have relapsed to their old feuding principalities. This was further fuelled by princes seeking to extend their territorial sway.

According to some accounts, the area between the Sutlej and the Baspa rivers all the way up to Manasarovar had been under the Thakkers even during the time of the Maurya and Gupta emperors. From among them, the Thakur of Kamru emerged the strongest, annexed the territory of other nearby chieftains in the days after Harsha, and laid the foundations of the state of Bushahr, to which Kinnaur belonged. Its comparative remoteness worked to Bushahr’s advantage, helping it to persevere with a policy of territorial expansion even as some of the other hill states succumbed to Mughal rule during the Medieval Ages. But remoteness in relation to one side could turn out to be proximity for others. There were references that claimed Kinnaur came under the influence of the Guge Kingdom of Tibet in the ninth and twelfth centuries. What that actually meant historians know (I am not one), although centuries later the region was known as Chini Tehsil, tehsil (also spelt tahsil) being a small administrative unit. In the nineteenth century, Bushahr came under attack from the Gurkhas of Nepal. The ruler fled leaving behind a rich treasury in Sarahan, which the raiders looted. While the Gurkha invasion – it advanced till the Kangra valley – was checked by the ruler of Kangra and Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, in ensuing years the development served to grow British influence in these parts. As part of protecting the region, the British eventually defeated the Gurkha King, Amar Singh Thapa, in 1815. Kinnaur, known by then as Chini Tehsil, was merged to form a part of Mahasu district.

In 1951, Chini Tehsil etched its name into the history books when a group of Buddhist residents, eager to cast their ballot ahead of the winter snows, became the first people to vote in a general election in independent India. This has been mentioned in the book `India after Gandhi’ by the well known historian, Ramachandra Guha. In it the author noted, “ One place even Nehru didn’t get to was the tahsil of Chini in Himachal Pradesh. Here resided the first Indians to cast votes in a general election, a group of Buddhists. They voted on October 25, 1951, days before the winter snows shut their valleys from the world.’’ While there was a side story in a book on trekking in the Himalaya that said Chini was renamed Kalpa to wipe out any Chinese claims to it, the present day Kinnaur district was born from a reorganization of these border areas that happened around 1960. I don’t think I will ever meet anyone in my lifetime who can tell me convincingly when the Rupin Pass was discovered. But it sure seemed a pass that had seen footfalls from many lifetimes before me.

Suma's group near the Rupin Pass (Photo: Suma Rao)

Suma’s group near the Rupin Pass (Photo: Suma Rao)

As always, hot coffee in the outdoors felt really good. There was nothing that could adequately describe the spread of warmth from cup to your hands and from liquid to your insides. Our passage through the Rupin Valley had seen occasional rain; once, rather heavy downpour. A touch of warmth for the insides invigorated. In the mountains, nothing is same for long. Gradually, the pass began betraying signs of approaching cold. The sky turned cloudy cutting off sunshine.  In the outdoors, if it rained or snowed, you try not to be at some high, exposed point. The descent on snow to the other side was labored, I started slipping. While ascending the pass we had kicked steps in the snow with the toe box of our shoes, creating small ledges to stand on. Unfortunately, I had come to the Himalaya prepared for work in foothills. The trek over the Rupin Pass had been an addition born at river side camp in Mori. I was wearing light trekking shoes, which bent when kicking snow, not to mention – no grip underneath. There was no solid heel to my shoes either. Atop it, I was also bit tired. After one inelegant slide, I decided on a tender traverse with steps again. It took time. Snow field done, we passed through mixed terrain of snow and rocks, then finally, grass.

Way below in a ravine was a stream. It had been visible from the pass. Over that day and the next, it led to the Baspa River. The Baspa valley had several passes – Rupin Pass being one – linking it to Uttarakhand and two major ones that took the traveler to Tibet. The river’s fury near Sangla in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh had me thinking yet again of the Tons. But downstream from there, the Baspa gathered mud from the ongoing Karcham-Wangtoo hydro-electricity project and three hours down the road from Sangla to Shimla, the river ground to a halt in the brown slush of a reservoir. It was an eyesore. True the Baspa flowed beyond, even recovering its complexion, but a dam to a river was like a choke to your neck. Seeing it I hoped fortunes stayed better for the Rupin and Tons on the other side of the mountains.


(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He would like to thank Suma Rao for permitting the use of photos from her collection. A slightly abridged version of this article – ie parts one and two of the river story, combined – was published in Man’s World magazine.)