Updated version of a story originally written in 2012 about a family from a Kumaon village and their connection to Traill Pass in the Himalaya
Harish Singh handed me a brightly colored, plastic cover with ` Raj Fashions’ written on it, the name of a ready-made garments shop in Bageshwar where the family had likely shopped. It had come all the way from Khati to Song and then with Govind, in his jeep to Ranikhet.
Within the bag was a small piece of Pindari Glacier-history.
Khati is a big village. At the time of first writing this story in 2012, Khati was a compact aggregation of houses, packing in several families into a modest expanse of land located steeply above the point where the Pindari River meets the river flowing down from Sunderdhunga. What it lacks in scale, Khati makes up for on two other fronts – it is the last major village on the popular tourist trail leading to the Pindari Glacier; as last village it has access to sizable forest lands beyond and forest produce therein. Notwithstanding this local prominence, Khati is actually a young village. Its neighbors are older.
Harish, who works in Ranikhet, hailed from Khati. He had heard that the area where the village stands was originally called `khata,’ a general reference to any place where goat, sheep and buffalo are brought to graze and their dung settles into a good manure for grass to grow. Usually animal shelters are built at such places and the people come up seasonally with their flocks. There are similar grazing spots at altitude trekked through even today in the Himalaya, where if you visit off-season you are met by stone buildings and sheds with neither man nor animal around. It’s of course a different story in grazing season.
Over time, Harish said, people from nearby villages like Pattag, Sorag and Supi moved permanently to the `khata,’ forming the nucleus for the families who currently reside in Khati. Harish used to be very close to his father, the late Pratap Singh. A former soldier, Pratap Singh, after retirement, ran the family’s small enterprise in Khati – the Himalayan Hotel. Begun by Harish’s grandfather, Gopal Singh, it was a small restaurant with a shop and two adjacent rooms for travelers to stay over if required. What was in that plastic bag was an old register kept at the hotel, titled simply ` certificate book.’
If viewed in perspective, the book’s contents were very engaging.
History begins from the very first certificate on page one. Addressed to Gopal Singh, it was written on July 8, 1925, by Henry G. Hart, Secretary of the Lucknow Young Men’s Christian Association. Talking of his decision to mail Gopal Singh a little axe as token of appreciation for assistance provided on his trip to Pindari, Hart said, “ I am enclosing a copy of a letter which I have just written the Deputy Commissioner, Mr Rutledge, in which I recommend your help if he tried the Pass again.’’ Two things merit attention. The ` Pass’ referred to here is likely Traill Pass or Traill’s Pass or even Trail Pass and Trail’s Pass as all these spellings exist in our world’s reservoir of information. George William Traill was the second British Commissioner of Kumaon. The pass named after him lies at the top of the Pindari Glacier. It is at an altitude of approximately 17,400ft on the southern shoulder of Nanda Devi East (24,091ft) and Changuch (20,741ft). It links the Pindari valley with the Milam valley via Lawan Gad. Mr Rutledge is most likely Hugh Ruttledge, the well-known explorer of the Himalaya, who once served as Deputy Commissioner at Almora. Besides his explorations trying to find a route into the Nanda Devi sanctuary he was also involved in the early expeditions to Everest. A brief account of Ruttledge’s 1925 attempted crossing of Traill Pass can be seen in the archived issues of the Himalayan Journal brought out by the Himalayan Club.
H.W. Tilman, in his account of the ascent of Nanda Devi, says it was Ruttledge who first called the Nanda Devi Basin, `Sanctuary,’ a name by which the area within the outer ring of high mountains and guarded by them, has become popularly known. Tilman then quotes a passage credited to Ruttledge and opening with the famous sentence, “ Nanda Devi imposes on her votaries an admission test as yet beyond their skill and endurance.’’ In a letter to the London Times in 1932, Ruttledge described the challenge, “ A seventy mile barrier ring on which stand twelve measured peaks of over 21,000ft which has no depression lower than 17,000ft except in the west where the Rishi Ganga rising at the foot of Nanda Devi and draining the area of some 250 square miles (799 square kilometers) of snow and ice has earned for itself what must be one of the most terrific gorges in the world.’’
In his book `The Nanda Devi Affair,’ Bill Aitken has dwelt on Traill and Ruttledge, plus a third person who is the reason for this article. “ Traill’s perseverance in crossing the dangerous ice-fall linking Milam with the source of the Pindar was rewarded with the naming of an unfixed pass after him. On top of this, his explorations have been accorded sporting status. It seems more likely his search for a shortcut had been occasioned by the East India Company’s desperation to get a share of the `shawl wool’ filtering over the passes from Tibet (shatoosh happens still to be the most expensive fabric in the world). If Traill is to be termed the discoverer of the pass what does that make Malak Singh, the villager who guided him up and over the ice-fall? The descendants of Malak Singh continue to remind all visitors on the Pindari glacier trek of their ancestor’s prowess but unlike the Chomolungma lobby that deplores the imposition of `Mount Everest’ there is as yet no insistence on dislodging ` Traill Pass’ for `Malak La,’’ Aitken wrote.
George William Traill went over the pass that has since borne his name, in 1830. Malak Singh – he became known as Malak Singh Buda, that last bit denoting the position of being an elder – was the grandfather of Gopal Singh, in whose time the `certificate book’ appears to have commenced its life. That makes Harish, the current caretaker of the book, the great-great-grandson of Malak Singh. In the Pindari area, Gopal Singh held an official designation called `Sarkari Bania,’ which, according to Harish, was akin to being a government appointed supplier of food and essentials. In that role, he appears to have assisted many travelers on the Pindari trail. Harish remembers family talk of his grandfather as a locally important person thanks to his position and the people he encountered so. Thus there is even a touch of royalty to the contents. On October 3, 1940, at Furkia (also spelt Phurkia), a halt up the trail from Khati towards the Pindari Glacier side, a letter was issued by the `Baroda Camp Officer’ certifying that Gopal Singh had accompanied the Maharaja Gaekwar of Baroda to the Pindari Glacier. “ The note issued on paper bearing the seal ` Huzur Office, Baroda’ – it is there in the book – says, “ His Highness has presented him (Gopal Singh) a wrist watch in appreciation of his services.” Another piece of similar paper work from the past is the certificate issued in May 1935 by the President of the United Provinces Legislative Council.
However, even as the certificate book engages attention, Malak Singh’s role in the history of exploring these parts of the Himalaya, does not seem to have had any impact on how that history was recorded.
In October 1987, a party signing in the book as “ D.P. Nad & Party” from Asansol confirms hearing the story of Malak Singh and Traill Pass from Pratap Singh. The letter promises “ to negotiate transactions at governmental level to alter the name of Trail Pass.” There is also an old clipping from a Hindi newspaper – date not available – in which the Nainital Mountaineering Club is reported to have sought renaming Traill Pass to reflect Malak Singh’s role in exploring the route. The Hindi word used in the report to describe Malak Singh’s work is `khoj’ which means search or explore.
The most endearing story revolving around the book from Khati should be the one linking the following two certificates.
On October 9, 1936, F.W. Champion, Deputy Conservator of Forests, West Almora Division, wrote, “ Gopal Singh ran an exceedingly good bundobast for us while camping at Martoli on the Pindari Glacier. I had a large number of followers and mules, but I did not have any sort of complaint from anyone – which is unusual. He also seems to be a very pleasant mannered man, only too keen to oblige and I am sure that his presence here as sarkari bania is of great assistance to people touring to the glaciers.” Seventy years later, on October 9, 2006, there is an entry in the book by James Champion from Scotland where he has recorded his gratitude to Harish and his father for having looked after him well when he was retracing the steps of his grandfather F.W. Champion, IFS, who had made the same journey in October 1936 and was guided by Gopal Singh, Harish’s grandfather.
Following Pratap Singh’s demise in 2006, the hotel he commenced was shut down. In 2009, while on an expedition to attempt Baljuri (the bid failed subsequently; for more on that expedition please click on this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2015/12/18/humbled/), I chanced to spend a few days in Khati amid torrential rains. Years later, Harish would tell me, I had stayed in a room right next to where his father’s hotel used to be. The wooden balcony I idled on waiting for the rain to taper ended in a stone wall, on the other side of which was the hotel’s erstwhile location, albeit on the ground floor. Pratap Singh’s children, save one – Harish’s younger brother – have moved elsewhere from Khati. It is now late 2017. Three years ago, after several months of effort, Birender – the sibling still staying in Khati, started a small hotel, this time on land right next to the trail leading to Pindari Glacier. According to Harish, the new enterprise features an eatery, a shop and provision for travelers to stay over. The family named it: Himalayan Hotel.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article draws from two earlier articles the author wrote on the subject and appeared in the The Hindu and the Facebook page of NOLS India.)