Journeying down nostalgia and longing ahead of returning to the city’s chaos, a writer pens down her love for the hills—one heartfelt memory at a time. Text by Vagmi Joshi; photographs by Kamal Kumar Joshi
I have known places, at least far more than I could know a person. It’s a few more months before I shall be off to a harsher world all on my own, amidst crowds that choke and scare, leaving behind Kasar Devi.
Having settled myself on a cane chair in the balcony, I now behold the hills–some too far, others too near. Each glance brings back memories—of walking up narrow stony tracks, of rolling on the soft Himalayan meadows, of sitting on rounded rocks in a rivulet with feet dangling down, gently touching the shallow sand-beds. As though it were the permanent specialness of first love, my gaze is transfixed to the familiar hill dotted with pines, with an orange hint of a temple. This is the Kashay hill, where lies, Kasar Devi, a place I had first seen even before my little feet had trodden the Earth.
Situated approximately seven kilometres away from the town of Almora, Kasar Devi has always attracted people from different corners of the world. The earliest I have heard of is Swami Vivekananda, who visited in the 1890s and is said to have had a deep spiritual experience in one of the caves. Later, in the early 20th Century, many renowned personalities spent parts of their lives here—Lama Anagarika Govinda, Li Gotami Govinda, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), Sunyata Baba, Timothy Leary, Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, Robert Thurman, Earl Brewster and D H Lawrence, to name a few.
I have grown up reading and forgetting their names, yet whenever I stand on the Crank’s Ridge that winds down the temple stairway, I think of all footsteps that have preceded mine. Some came in a quest for the spiritual energy that exudes here, some as a part of the Hippie movement, and some to capture the place in words and pictures.
On the far end of the Crank’s Ridge lived Alfred Sorensen, or Sunyata, a Danish mystic. “He lived in ‘silence’,” recount old villagers of Kasar Devi who, as young schoolboys, accompanied Sunyata and his dog, Sri Wuji, to the town. Later, he was kidnapped and flown to America by members of the Alan Watts society who were impressed when Sunyata told them that he had “nothing to teach and nothing to sell.” Those who remember him or have read his works smile widely as they recall this man who was invited to India in 1930 by Tagore to “teach silence.”
Presently, some come here for a newer reason: to get high at these highs, thereafter stooping low enough to litter the place. As for me, there has not been any such reason. My father frequented Kasar Devi in his childhood days when the roads were not edged with multi-storied resorts and hotels, and the majority of tourists that thronged the place were hippies. His eyes gleam as he recounts those trips. The trees would be laden with kaafal (local red berries) and rhododendrons blooming in red glory.
When I was six months old, my parents took me to Kasar Devi every Sunday. Of the little that I remember, I would nibble at Ma’s sweater until she caught me eating the wool. Then, when I was transferred to Papa’s shoulders, I would munch on his sweaters’ wool, too!
We would stop by at Kishan da’s small tea shop. Opposite to the shop was a bench overlooking the snow-clad peaks, where Kishan da would bring steaming chai, smiling. Sometimes we would visit the restaurant run by Tiwari ji whose family, I later learnt, had been closely associated with Sunyata. We would relax on one of the blue wooden benches, talking. But my attention would drift away too quickly to the pantry where I could see buns being toasted, sliced, and smeared with fresh butter.
Walking on the moss-covered trail and on climbing stairs, we would reach the temple entrance and remember to ring the bell hung on the top of the gate, which echoed in the quietness of the woods. A few more steps led up to the main shrine, which dates back to the 2nd Century. The temple extended to a gallery where tiny bells hung in a line. On climbing another stairway, one reached the Shiva temple. Built in the 6th Century by a South Indian saint named Rudra, the temple, now renovated, was a pious place offering views of the surrounding hills. I have seen martens running and jumping in the grasses below the road and grey jungle-fowls uttering their distinctive ku-kayak-kyu-kyu.
Now, the sun has set. Golden-red clouds are darkening over Kasar Devi as I finish typing. Only a dark outline of the Kashay hill is now visible. Places can hold so many memories. I sigh! A few more months of beholding these mountains, but then, we do leave places to return, don’t we?