FROM TONS RIVER TO RUPIN PASS
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)