Archipelago of paleolithic humans

800px-Andaman

A view of Andaman islands  (picture from Wikimedia commons)

On the name

“The Malays called the archipelago ‘Pulan Hantuman’ or the `Land of Hanuman’ and this we have corrupted into Andaman,” wrote Sir Maxwell in the Journal Straits Branch (June 1886) of Royal Asiatic Society of England.

I-Tsing, a Chinese Buddhist monk, referred the Andaman islands as Lo-jen-kuo (Land of the Naked) in 672 A.D. The Tamil Cholas who conquered and ruled South East Asian countries in 11 the century AD called them as Nakkavaram meaning land of the naked people. This changed to Nicobar by the end of the second millennium.

‘Andaman and Nicobar’ consisting of 572 islands and islets are territories of India located on the South Eastern Bay of Bengal.

Original inhabitants of the islands

The original inhabitants of Andaman are pygmy Negritos, considered by anthropologists as belonging to the earliest groups of humans to migrate from Africa. According to researchers they arrived at Andaman about 30,000 to 60,000 years ago. Genetic and cultural studies suggest they may have been isolated from other populations of the world since the Middle Paleolithic (30,000 to 300, 000 years BC).

A 2003 report from scientists of Central Forensic Science Laboratory and Anthropological Survey of India, Kolkata states “the Negrito populations of Andaman Islands have remained in isolation for a longer period, even more than the descendants of founder populations of Africa.”

Centre for Cellular Micro Biology, Hyderabad, India report of 2006 says: “Our mtDNA and Y chromosome studies lead to the conclusion that the Andamanese “Negrito” mtDNA lineages have survived in the Andaman Islands in complete genetic isolation from other South and Southeast Asian populations since the initial settlement of the region by the out-of-Africa migration.” Further: “The Andaman “Negrito” populations do not show particular affinities either with the African populations or with the Indian populations, confirming their unique origin. ”

However, a limited archaeological survey conducted from January to April, 1985 was unable to find evidence of the existence of pygmy Negritos on the islands beyond 2,200 years ago.

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How the pygmy Negritos arrived

It is held that migration of early humans from Africa proceeded along two routes after reaching West Asia. A sub group turned south and spread, generation by generation, around the coast of Arabia and Persia until they reached India. Another group went north and branched into Europe and from central Asia into India. The former group headed along the southeast coast of Asia, reaching Australia between 30,000 and 55,000 years ago.

A panel in the Anthropological Museum in Port Blair, Andaman shows migration routes of pygmy Negritos from eastern China through South East Asia into Andaman.  However considering the stupendous distance from Africa to Andaman, in the absence of convincing reasons for them to choose the isolated islands in an age when better terrains were available, makes this theory questionable.

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A panel at Anthropological Museum, Port Blair

Could they have sailed from Africa to Andaman? This might not have happened as larger sea going vessels necessary for such a voyage such as long boats with several oarsmen and then boats with sails appeared much later, about 4000 to 6300 BC. Supposing they had indeed the capability to reach by sea it is inexplicable why they stopped sailing long distance forever after that.

Were they shipwrecked near the islands? Black slaves used to be sourced from Africa to be sold as commodity by traders of some ancient and later day sea faring nations.  It is possible that a cargo of slaves who were ship wrecked reached  these islands but what rules out the present population being a descendants of such slaves is that the blacks on Andaman are remarkably short in stature compared to the African Negros of recent millennia.

There were settlements of Pygmy Negritos in other parts of Asia but even if some of them had reached the islands after a shipwreck it is inconceivable that they forget their more ‘civilised’ way of being and habits of the past and become a tribe of naked people hunting in the forests shunning all contact with outsiders. Migration of the pygmy Negritos from Africa by both land and sea being, at best, remote possibilities leaves yet another possibility that has not been explored so far: the islanders might be from a landmass that was connected to the islands or existed not too far from them but which sank under sea later.

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Zonal Anthropological Museum, Port Blair

According to Vijoy Shankar Shahay, head of the department of anthropology, Allahabad University, the region of Andaman and Nicobar islands and South Asian islands witnessed the first evolution of man from apes. Giving details about the evidence which strengthen his observation, Sahay said that Darwin’s theory about the evolution of mankind had a missing link between ape and man which was solved by Haeckle, who named this missing link as Phecanthropus, the apeman. Haeckle has propounded that it was the tropical country where mankind had lost its hairy cover and that the apeman would be found only in the region where apes are found. In this case, gorillas and chimpanzees are found in Africa and orangutan and gibbon in Malaysia. (Times of India, 25 July, 2009)

It is a known fact that low altitude location on the equator favors maximum terrestrial bio diversity and a landmass on the equator on the Indian Ocean could have met the ideal condition favourable to Nature to evolve the first of the human species.

There are a couple of legends and a vision of a highly regarded occultist about a sunken landmass in South Asia which lends support to the existence of such a laboratory of nature in the distant past in this region. Some literature on the lost continent of Lemuria speculate that it existed on the Indian Ocean or Bay of Bengal.  In Tamil Nadu – southern most state of India spanning up to the tip of peninsular India – there is a legend of Kumari Kandam, a virgin continent on the Indian ocean which is believed to have extended westward and eastward from Sri Lanka. The Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, (Puducherry, Southern India)  who was an accomplished occultist had also spoken in a recorded private conversation the existence of a landmass west or east of India and Sri Lanka in the past. She said, “From certain impressions (but these are only impressions), it would seem that it was in the vicinity of either this side of Ceylon and India or the other, I don’t know exactly (Mother indicates the Indian Ocean either west of Ceylon and India or to the east between Ceylon and Java), although certainly the place no longer exists; it must have been swallowed up by the sea.”  From the foregoing it seems the real story could be that the pygmy Negritos of Andaman did not arrive from Africa but were more likely survivors of a lost landmass quite nearby on the Bay of Bengal/Indian Ocean.

When the landmass sank the survivors from the catastrophe might have reached the islands of Andaman directly or through Java – Sumatra. It is also possible that they first reached India and then travelled along the east coast up to Myanmar, exploring a way back to their lost homeland, and then reached the Andaman islands crossing the land bridges and straits that would have existed there during the ice age.

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An island shore

Historic records about the islands

“The earliest written reference to these islands is found in a literary work of an Indian poet who related how once Emperor Ashoka the Great  was approached by some Indian Merchants who complained to him of their losses and complete ruin brought out by ‘Black Savages’ when they passed through the islands, in 3rd century BC.”

“Ptolemy the Greek geographer who lived in 2nd century AD called Andamans as Bazakata, derived from the Sanskrit vivasakrata , meaning “stripped of clothes”. Ancient palm leaf Tamil inscriptions of Thanjavur refer to Andaman islands as Theemai-t-theevugal (Islands of Harm or Evil).”

“Rajendra Chola I (1014 to 1042 CE), one of the Tamil Chola dynasty kings, conquered the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to use them as a strategic naval base to launch a naval expedition against the Sriwijaya Empire (a Hindu-Malay empire based on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia). The islands provided a temporary maritime base for ships of the Maratha Empire in the 17th century. The legendary Maratha admiral Kanhoji Angre established naval supremacy with a base in the islands and is credited with attaching those islands to India.”

“The history of organised European colonisation on the islands began when the Danish settlers of the Danish East India Company arrived in the Nicobar Islands on 12 December 1755. On 1 January 1756, the Nicobar Islands were made a Danish colony, first named New Denmark,  and later (December 1756) Frederick’s Islands (Frederiksøerne). During 1754–1756 they were administrated from Tranquebar (in continental Danish India). The islands were repeatedly abandoned due to outbreaks of malaria and finally in 1848 for good.”

“From 1 June 1778 to 1784, Austria mistakenly assumed that Denmark had abandoned its claims to the Nicobar Islands and attempted to establish a colony on them, renaming them Theresia Islands.”

“In 1789 the British set up a naval base and penal colony on Chatham Island next to Great Andaman, where now lies the town of Port Blair. They abandoned Andaman 1796 due to disease. In 1858 the British again established a colony at Port Blair, which proved to be more permanent. Denmark’s presence in the territory ended formally on 16 October 1868 when it sold the rights to the Nicobar Islands to Britain, which made them part of British India in 1869.”

“At the independence of both India (1947) and Burma (1948), the departing British announced their intention to resettle all Anglo-Indians and Anglo-Burmese on the islands to form their own nation, although this never materialised. It became part of the Indian union in 1950 and was declared a union territory in 1956.”

Decline of indigenous population

When the British arrived in late 19th century, reportedly to secure the islands to prevent attacks on their ships from pirates and natives, the total indigenous population of Andaman was estimated to be about 7000. They were classified as Great Andamanese, Jarawa, Jangil, Onge and Sentinelese. Great Andamanese were the largest group with ten tribes totalling about 5000 people.

“The Andamanese’s protective isolation changed with the first British colonial presence (in 1789) and subsequent settlements, which proved disastrous for them. Lacking immunity against common diseases of the Eurasian mainland, the large Jarawa habitats on the southeastern regions of South Andaman Island were likely depopulated by disease within four years (1789-1793) of the initial British colonial settlement. Epidemics of pneumonia, measles and influenza spread rapidly and exacted heavy tolls, as did alcoholism.”

“In 1858, the British started building the vast penal settlement at Port Blair and also their administrative seat at Ross Island, near Port Blair. The year passed with bloody conflicts with indigenous people. The next year thousands of tribal lauched a war against the invaders who had taken away their finest harbor and hunting grounds. That turned out to be suicidal as their bows and arrows had no chance against the soldiers with guns, rifles and bombs; most of tribal army perished.”

Wrote E.H. Man in the introduction to the book on Aborigines of Andaman, “A wholesome dread of our power having been duly instilled, efforts were made by the Government with a view to the civilisation of the race…” Punitive raids were carried out by so called Bush Police killing dozens of natives. The population of Great Andamanese dwindled greatly and finally they lowered their arms and made peace.

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This friendly contact brought new types of enemies in the guise of epidemics, unknown diseases and addictions. E.H. Man attributes to Indian convicts brought by the British from the mainland the spread of Measles and Syphilis, two diseases that claimed a lot of islanders’ lives. It is puzzling how the convicts who were supposed to be insid jails could spread their diseases widely. The extent of the epidemic was so gruesome that the colonizers sent the Great Andamanese staying in government homes, established to rehabilitate captured and voluntary natives, back to the forest.

“In the 1867 Andaman Islands Expedition dozens of Onge tribes were killed by British naval personnel, which resulted in four Victoria Crosses for the British soldiers. When in 1930, a head count was conducted there were less than 20 Great Andamanese left.”

In the 1940s, Andaman and Nicobar came under Japanese occupation. May Jarawas were captured and their settlements were bombed from fighter aircraft.

“After India’s independence, to protect the Great Anamanese from diseases and ill effects of tobacco and alcohol, they were camped at Bluff Island (1949). Later they were shifted to slightly larger Strait Island (1969). Someone aptly named Strait Island as ‘Government Breeding Center’, as the gradual increase in population began from there.”

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Coral arch/bridge at an island

“In the year 2006 the total Great Andamanese population numbered more than 43 and in 2010 more than 50,  thanks to the ‘efforts’ of the tribal welfare and police departments.”

Sentinelese (present population 100 – 200) are still hostile to any contact with ‘outsiders’. Several of them were killed by an armed salvage party that went to retrieve a shipwreck at their island in 1984. More recently helicopters when hovered over their island to ascertain their state after Tsunami they were greeted by the customary shower of arrows. That was taken as a signal that they were doing just fine and they were left alone as before. Jarawas (now estimated to be 250 to 400) had cut off the hands of some Indian tree cutters and killed some settlers who had put up huts in the jungle to hunt pigs. However, they have been friendlier since 1996 when a young man of their tribe who slipped and got hurt while taking fruits from a settler’s farm was treated at govt. hospital and returned cured. Onge (now less than 100) are now confined to only Little Andaman island. Great Andamanese ( about 50) who live mainly in Straight islands obtain some of their diet from hunting, fishing and gathering. They also practice some agriculture and poultry farming.

Nicobarese

Tribes with mongoloid features live in the 19 islands that constitute Nicobar. They are of south and south east Asian origin and arrived at these islands only during the past two thousand years. Shompen, a reclusive tribe living at the southern tip of Great Nicobar were the first ones to arrive followed by Nicobarese. The total tribal population consisting of these two in Nicobar is about 24000 and more than 90% of them have been converted to Christianity beginning with the arrival of the European missionaries centuries ago. Most of these tribes have been integrating fast with the main stream. Their children study in govt. schools and women work in govt. services. The Shomphen tribe that has been reclusive has also recently started interacting with settlers from the mainland.

Religion, culture and society

The following passages and quotes are based on manuals published by British anthropological researchers. E.H. Man lived in the islands from 1869 to 1880 and published his findings in 1883. Alfred Radcliffe Brown travelled extensively and researched on the islanders from 1906 to 1908 and published his findings, delayed due to the intervening world war, in 1934 .

“There is no trace to be found of worship of trees, stones or other objects, and it is a mistake to suppose that they adore or invoke the celestial bodies. There is no salutation, dance or festival of any kind held in honor of the new moon…” (E.H. Man)

The tribals believed in spirits (Lau). Major ones are the spirits of forest and sea which they feared. The sun, moon and stars were talked of as if they were living beings and so were lightning and thunder. All non islanders were considered Lau. The north west wind is attributed to Biliku and south west wind to Tarai spirits. There are many different tales of how the world, man, woman and animals were created. According to one story Puluga is their supreme spirit and he is seated on the highest peak of the islands or in the sky. He was never born and is immortal. By him all objects animate and inanimate were created. He did not create evil spirits nor does he have power to control them. He created the first man Tomo and his wife Elewadi, taught them how to hunt, gave them fire etc. He issued them some commandments which were not followed by the generations after Tomo. Puluga got angry and sent a great flood which covered the whole land and destroyed everything. Only two couples who were sitting on a canoe were saved.

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“When a person died he was either buried in the ground or upon a platform placed on a tree. The latter is considered a more honorable form of burial and is adopted only in the case of a man or woman dying in the prime of life.” (Radcliffe) According to his sources the islanders just cut up to pieces the body of enemies who die in fighting with them and burned them as a sacrifice so that they don’t return as evil spirits. He says this might have given the impression of them being cannibals to some non islanders. “There can be no doubt whatever that since the islands were occupied in 1858 the inhabitants have not practised cannibalism and there is no good reason to suppose that they once followed it and then abandoned it.”

E.H. Man also dismisses the allegations of cannibalism by Andamanese as fiction: “No lengthened investigation was needed to disprove the long credited fiction, for not a trace could be discovered for the existence of such a practice in their midst, even in the far off times.

On their social structure Radcliffe wrote: “We have seen that the Andamanese were individualists and not inclined to take orders from a person they did not respect. No one commanded and no one obeyed. It all had to be voluntary or required by tradition, there being nothing like a structure of government. Chiefs existed but had no power to enforce their will on anyone; they were only men of influence. A chief reached his position through strength of character; heredity played no role whatever. A headman had to rely exclusively on respect and reputation to keep his followers in line and loyal. Decisions were taken by all grown-up older men with the older women given a considerable voice as well. Younger people were expected to show respect towards their elders and their opinions counted for less but they were free to voice them and were listened to. The final decision was taken by general consent among the older members of the group.”

E.H. Man says: “Their domestic polity maybe described as a communism modified by the authority, more or less nominal, of the chief.”

“It is said to be of rare occurrence to find any child of above six or seven years of age residing with its parents and this because it is considered a compliment or a mark of friendship for a married man after paying a visit to ask his hosts to adopt one of their children. The request is usually complied with…” (E.H. Man) There is no ear or nose piercing of children to insert  ornamental studs, bars or rings as it is the practice with many aborigines and even non aboriginal traditional cultures in other parts of the world.

They eat only cooked fish, flesh or vegetable.

Future of the tribes

As the story of the paleolithic people of the islands spread it attracted professional and amateur researchers from around the world. The govt. of Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar restricted access of visitors, particularly foreign nationals, to the tribal areas as a protective measure.  However there are occasional reports of some greedy operators luring tourists, domestic and foreign, with offer of arranging sighting of the tribals. The international and Indian media have been exposing activities detrimental to the tribals, who are known to have low resistance to diseases.  Gratifyingly the local media and activists in Andaman and Nicobar have also been very concerned and vocal about the welfare of the tribals and judiciary has ruled in favor of their cases.

One of the demands of the activist has been to shut down the road through the tribal territory of south and north Andaman. The road is a lifeline for settlers in these areas and contributes the local economy as it takes tourists to many locations of interest. When I asked a loca  young man born to settlers from India  if the tribals came to the ferry sometimes, he replied they used to earlier but nowadays they don’t as the policemen are telling them to stay away. All vehicles through these areas are taken in convoys – there were only 4 convoys in a day – and there was no stopping enroute. The convoy is escorted by a pilot vehicle and there are policemen inside buses to ensure no vehicle stopped and no one took video or photography.

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The fact is the tribals, excepting Sentinelese, seem to be equally keen now to see the outsiders and adopt their ways of lives at least at an experimental level. This is a natural human characteristics and it is inevitable that they may venture into the outside world sometimes soon and may not like to remain for long in the forests. However it is a fact that the road has increased contact with outsiders and thereby raised the risk for their lives through diseases. Some political parties are demanding to close the road cutting through the middle of the forests and instead open another along the coast.  However considering the fast expanding population in the main land and the islands the chances of survival of the tribals seem quite bleak.

On the contrary, the Nicobarese tribes (of Nicobar islands) have been integrating fast with the main stream. Their children study in govt. schools and women work in govt. services. The Shomphen tribe that has been reclusive has also recently started interacting with settlers from the mainland.

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Forest meets beach

References:

1. On the Aboriginal Inhabitants of the Andaman Islands With Report of Researches into the language of the South Andaman Island. –  E.H. Man, A.J. Ellis – 1883

2.  The Andaman Islanders, Cambridge University Press – 1924

3. Report of Archaeological Explorations from the Andaman Islands, Zarine Cooper, Deccan College, Pune.

3.  Molecular Relatedness of Aboriginal Groups of Andaman and Nicobar Islands with Similar Ethnic Populations – Central Forensic Science Laboratory and Anthroplogical Survey of India, Kolkata – 2003

4. Unique Origin of Andaman Islanders: Insight from autosomal loci – Centre for cellular and molecular biology, Hydearabad; Institute of Molecular and cell biology, University of Tartu and Estonian Bio-centre, Estonia.

5. What does it mean to be human? – Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

6. Glimpses to the History of Andman and Nicobar Islands before 1789 – Andaman Chronicle

7. The Jarawa – Tribes and Campaigns – Survival International

8. Tribal population of Andaman and Nicobar has declined: Census Report – Down to Earth

9. Q&A – Pygmy Negritos of the Andaman Island – Steve Sailer – UPI National Correspondent

10. Early human migrations – Lemuria (continent) –  Andaman and Nicobar Islands – Shompen People – Andamanese People – Nicobar Islands – Japanese Occupation of the Andaman Islands – Wikipedia

11. Mother’s Agenda – Institute of Evolutionary Research, New York

Stok La Trek

When I read Sri Aurobindo’s “Invitation” and the Mother’s play “Ascent to the Truth” long ago, I wished to have the experience of hard physical climbing on mountains one day. Two stanzas from the unforgettable “Invitation”:

“Not in the petty circles of cities

Cramped by your doors and your walls I dwell;

Over me God is blue in the welkin,

Against me the wind and the storm rebel.

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I sport with solitude here in my regions,

Of misadventure have made me a friend,

Who would live largely? Who would live freely?

Here to the windswept uplands ascend.”

Himalayas are mystic and majestic mountains inspiring awe and reverence. I chose the interior Himalayas at Leh, Kashmir for my mountain trek.

Three commercial flights bring hundreds of tourists to Leh every morning. For those who fly in, one or two days of rest is advised by the tourist authorities. Travelling by road to Leh, which is what I did, is supposed to help acclimatize better. Probably due to that I didn’t have any altitude sickness.

After reaching Leh my preoccupation was to prepare for an independent trek on the mountains. I decided to go to a well known trekking destination, the Markha valley, that would take about 8 days. People whom I talked to asked in a slightly surprised tone: “Akeleh?” (Alone?) On the next morning, at 7 am I was at Spitok, the starting point of the trek south west of Leh Airport ( yellow line on the map is the trekking route). It was cloudy, drizzling and a bit cold. I started walking at a normal pace and within an hour was on the highlands overlooking Leh. It was sometimes difficult to tell if the engine noise from behind was from an aircraft or jeep as the area was under the flight path to Leh airport.

After two hours of walking I saw the Indus river veering away on my right and vanish into the horizon and an hour later the road I was walking also vanished. It became a way filled with loose stones and small boulders. At about 11.30 am I reached Jing Chen. The halting point had just one tea tent. I was tired after hours of trek and thought of staying there and restart next day but the caretaker of the site suggested it was better to go to Rumbak, the next halt on the route.  Just then jingle of bells and noise of hooves were heard and a man with a bunch of ponies appeared. It didn’t happen every day that ponies without load were going from Jing Chen to Rumbak. Soon my trekking bag was put on a pony and I was walking behind the caravan to Rumbak. The picture below shows the ponies and their keeper ahead of me after crossing a stream.

Whenever the trekking trail was interrupted by the stream I had to remove my shoes, wade through the water and then wear them again. The pony keeper suggested that I get on a pony and so I heaved myself over the animal. However before I could put my right leg into the other stirrup the pony started descending into the stream. Right at the middle of the stream the pony’s left leg slipped a couple of feet deep giving a scare to the pony as well as me but he climbed up and ambled on to the other bank.

Once the trail became narrow, steep and had a sloping drop on one side. The leading pony stopped dead on its track. And then to my silent but mounting anxiety he neighed and turned back 180 degrees. Making the situation worse he walked down and nudged mine – perhaps wanting to go to the last place in the entourage resigning from his leadership role.  My pony was pushed into a dangerous and awkward position of standing with all its four hooves on a less than two feet wide path and facing the drop. It seemed the pony and me would tumble headlong into the gorge any moment.  To my great relief the pony keeper managed to reach the front and guided the frightened first pony ahead. Three hours after leaving Jing Chen we reached another tea tent, near Rumbak. The pony keeper untied my bag and gave it to me and I paid him more than what he had bargained. After another half an hour of uphill trek I reached the first of the dozen or so cluster of houses that constituted Rumbak village. It was a two storied house built with mud, stones and timber and I was given the top room from where I could see a towering snow covered peak above a ridge and looming close.

My legs were so weary and my body so tired it seemed impossible to continue too far on the trek in the coming days. I spread out my map to see if there was any shorter trail going to Leh. There was one. I could go to a place called Stok which and from there go by vehcle to Leh. That would save me 30 km from the total trekking distance of my expedition.

There were two trekking groups, with guides, leaving Rumbak next morning. One was going to Jing Chen and another to Stok.  There were men and women carrying  backpacks in the groups. Rumbak had a small valley with green fields.

Within half an hour after the start on the upward slope I needed rest.  A couple of French youngsters – Gayum and Vicky – were following. We exchanged our trekking experiences briefly and they I bid them to go ahead. They were the last humans I would see till the cessation of my trek that day.

In a couple of hours I had left the valley far behind and was leaving behind hills one after another. As I looked back the scenery was surreal (Picture above.). I pulled out my camera stand, the item making my journey difficult all along by its weight, and took some pictures.

Sometimes it was difficult to know which trail was right. I had to drop my backpack and scout ahead a kilometer to ascertain if it was going in a direction that seemed fine. At 2 pm I was still ascending and the trail was stretching endlessly. I had to stop after every twenty meters or so.

When I slipped away my backpack and fell to the ground something like a sharp stone hurt the back of my hand. It was something not very inspiring thing to see at the moment – skeleton of a dead animal. Could be that of a yak.

I was not feeling very hungry but I had to eat. The bread loaf I had packed seemed to weigh half a kilo and I threw it outside to reduce the weight. Ate some nuts and biscuits – my energy food – but alarmingly there was no water left in my bottle. Now the only way to get water was to descend on the other side of the mountain and for that I have to first reach the top. There was a castaway water bottle with a few ounces of water and poured it into my throat. It was getting close to three o’ clock and I needed longer breaks and more frequently. Probably the low oxygen content at that altitude contributed to my tortoise like pace.  It seemed that I could be stranded without water and food at nightfall. I sat down and concentrated within calling the inner and external universal forces to fill my body and spirit. The mind calmed and after that the limbs coped better. After some steady but slow progress I reached a scree*. There was a faint zigzag trail rising towards the ridge above where a festoon of Buddhist prayer flags were fluttering in strong wind. That was the top. I clawed the last 100 meters with my hands but disconcertingly the rocks I held on crumbled at times like biscuits. When I reached the top there was a chilly and strong wind blowing and the downhill view on the other side was awesome. That was at the topmost point of Stok La pass at an altitude of 4860 meters (19749 ft). Leh altitude is 3505 mtrs.

The emotion that filled my heart was one of deep gratitude for the divine grace. My rational mind can theorize how I managed the climb – weeks of physical training,  right navigation etc. but that welling up of gratitude from the depths was inexplicable. It was proof that an unseen power was there supporting all along. Those Buddhist prayer flags didn’t seem like avoidable acts of religious zeal but of devotion.

I didn’t shoot pictures as the slopes looked scary and my feet were also weary and unsteady. I had to descend safely and quickly on the other side and find water. The downward progress was faster but I skidded and fell a few times due to loose gravel. The trekking bag fastened to the back prevented any injury. While the lungs and back took the maximum stress during the ascent it was the ankles and knees that took the beating during descent.

Then it began to drizzle. It was a divine grace as it settled the loose sand on the trail so well that my shoes got better grip and I never again skidded. When we are lacking something vital in critical situations in life, not because we were careless but due to oversight or other causes beyond our control, the divine grace does intervene, I thought.

After an hour I found a dry bed of a stream by the side of the trail. It was around five o’ clock when I saw a patch of muddy water seeping on the hitherto dry stream bed. I dipped my water bottle in to the stream bed, filled it and drank the cloudy water to quench my thirst.

The sunlight was fading and again visions of myself in a sleeping bag in the open jungle flashed in mind. What if some hyena or tiger considered me a good dinner. I didn’t hear of any danger from wild animals on this trail but I wondered if such a vast wildness wouldn’t have some predator animal. If not definitely there must be at least snakes and scorpions.Soon I found a group of animals but not the dangerous kind, the contrary – a herd of gazelle. As I came a bit closer they fled across the stream and climbed high up on the other side. The area is known to have been a home for a small population of gazelles and herds of Tibetan Argali (Nayan),  a mountain sheep native to Tibet. It must be either a gazelle or a nayan but I feel they looked more like belonging to the deer species. Where there are preys there must be predators, the thought reinforced my apprehension. A nature specialist Indian trekker, Kireet, whom I met later confirmed that there were snow leopards in Stok La region but assured that they usually kept far away from humans. Rumbak, where I had stayed overnight, is in fact a well known watching point for snow leopards during winter, according to him.

Just as I was glancing at some caves for a night shelter I saw a white flag fluttering atop a group of tents some way down below. That was a tea tent of Indian Mountaineering Federation. It was about six and I slumped on the wooden bench under the tent and request for some tea. The site is maintained for trekking groups to bring their own tents and pitch them. A young Indian trekker – the naturalist from Mumbai – Kireet, offered me space in his tent. He said he had already taken in an Englishman but it was possible to accommodate one more in the tent meant for two. That night sleep didn’t happen. It was obvious that the body and mind were not able to calm down from the extreme stress it suffered during the day gone. I got out at 5 am next morning, packed my bag and bid the other two bye. They were proceeding in the other direction to a peak. Darren, the Englishman said I should really join them on their expedition to a non technical peak at 6150 mtrs. I said it was impossible for me then.

The stream that I found beginning as a damp patch on a hill yesterday had become a fast flowing little river by now. The trail sometimes went high above the stream on steep rock-faces.

Finally at about 12 noon I reached Stok valley, got a lift in a jeep and reached Leh town in less than an hour. There was very less than usual crowd of people and vehicles on the road. Dalai Lama who was visiting Leh had obviously drawn a lot of them to his meeting.

Thus was completed a trek of 30 kms (excluding the part ridden on pony) on the Ladakh mountain range of the Himalayas in two and a half days. On reaching Leh I got into a guesthouse room and fell asleep at once. It was 9 pm when I woke up feeling a bit rested but the legs were impossible. Even climbing small steps on the footpaths was a painful and it took three days for the legs to regain normalcy.

References:

* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scree

Over the Himalayan Passes to Leh

My delight at getting a window seat in the bus from Srinagar to Leh got subdued as the window pane wouldn’t slide open. I followed what another tourist in the same predicament was doing: clean the glass during halts in the journey so that photos would come alright.

But awesome views could be shot from outside the bus whenever it halted on the serpentine road traversing the hills. On such occasions quite a few tourists including myself leaped out with our cameras.

Kargil the main small town on the way to Leh and the route goes through a mountain pass called Zojila. A vital part of this road was first built by an Indian Army captain in 1954, that was less than a decade after Indian troops expelled Pakistan backed intruders from the eastern part of  Kashmir valley in 1948. It is a spectacular piece of road and was named after him as The Captain’s Curve.

he officer had sacrificed for it with his life as his jeep slid down the mountain and crashed during the project. The mountain peaks in this region were also the theatre of the latest India Pakistan conflict and this road connecting Srinagar to Kargil was the main target of Pakistani shelling.

As the journey progressed the scenery began to change. There were no more tall pines on the mountain slopes. They were barren and whatever greenery had short or medium height and shrub like trees. The route crosses  the second coldest inhabited place on earth, Drass. The temperature here falls to about – 40 C in winter.

We were getting delayed by a couple of hours at least by halts for checking of the passports of foreign tourists and a few traffic blocks on the mountain passes. It was about 8 pm and very dark when the bus reached Kargil. It is a small but well populated town and I separated from the crowd and the usual touts to find a suitable accommodation. There were hardly any streetlights around and dogs were howling. As I couldn’t get a room in nearby place I asked the help of a guesthouse keeper to guide me to the next one. A foreign tourist was seen paying Rs.1200 for a room there but I was charged only Rs. 600.

The bus crew had informed all passengers to report next morning at 4.30 am. I grabbed a last piece of meal from a restaurant and then hit the bed with alarm set to 3.30 am. Nex morning the bus rolled off before 5 am and dawn was already breaking. Every few minutes painting like view of the mountains with lively hues and stunning shapes kept changing and one could hardly keep the camera off.

As it neared Leh, river Indus became a constant sight. It was muddy, turbulent and there were hardly any greenery on its banks. It originates in the vicinity of  Lake Manasarovar in Tibet, runs across  Ladakh before passing through the entire length of Pakistan to merge into the Arabian Sea near Karachi in Sindh.  The total length of the river is 3,180 km. It was called as Sindhu in Sanskrit and several other languages.  The Indus forms the delta of Pakistan mentioned in the Rig Veda as Sapta Sindhu and the Iranic Zend Avesta as Hapta Hindu (both sets of terms meaning Seven Rivers). The river formed a natural landmark between the Indian subcontinent and Iranian plains. * The name of the river probably led to the names Hindu and India. There is no evidence of any ancient civilisation on the banks of the high altitude course of the river. Some rock carved figurines from stone age times have been found on its banks and some of the scripts of last millennium have similarity with those of the same era found in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. Leh itself, the capital of Ladakh, is a town of recent origin and it had its first kingdom in the 15th century AD.**

At about 4 pm the next day, that is the fifth day after my leaving Puducherry, I alighted in Leh. It looked like a quaint desert town with small structures but the cool air and glistening peaks at distance reminded one of its altitude. I took a picture with my co-passenger and Srinagar resident Gulzaar and bid him hearty goodbye. He was a nice gentleman and made one feel that all the people in Kashmir are not alienated. Gulzaar’s friend took me on a taxi to his guesthouse. There were a doctor and two nurses from Germany in the taxi and they told me last year there was a flood in Leh and forty people lost their lives. Flood at that altitude? I was amazed. They added: “all it took was a twenty minutes of cloudburst”. I asked on which date it happened. They said: 5th August 2012. Here I am in the same place in the first week of August, I thought.  They said he and the nurses joined medical relief work and since India was cut off and Chinese doctors had come for rescue and relief. (I haven’t yet verified about this flood, just noted what they said.)

Source: * Wikipedia

** Archaelogical Survey of India exhibition in Leh Palace.

(to be continued…)