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The Himalayan Echoes festival retells tales of Kumaon, its wildlife, craft and food

Boats peddled by tourists on an algae-green lake, its edges dotted with shops selling teddy bear-shaped candles and some cafes steaming batches of momos and pouring sweet corn soup into tiny plastic bowls; a rope-way leads up to less crowded viewing points where greasy chow mein and daal-fry accompanied with tandoori bread await. In the thick of a digital boom, young photographers are still around to offer their services. Somewhere in the history of Independent India, as Nainital emerged as a tourist escape to oxygen-deprived, sweaty plain dwellers, it replaced and rejected what was once Kumaon. In 2018, the Himalayan Echoes literary festival is attempting to revive what was lost.

Janhavi Prasad, filmmaker, journalist and author of the graphic novel on Mahatma Gandhi, Tales of Young Gandhi, started the festival two years ago, to bring youngsters back to folk tales and flavours the region lost to time. The festival is hosted at her 145-year-old ancestral home called Abbotsford, which otherwise functions as a heritage homestay. As compared to the first and second editions of the festival, which had seven and 10 speakers respectively, the third edition has brought together nearly 30 speakers. “If old homes are left empty, they crumble. The idea was to bring people into the home and make it alive. This is a small festival where people can sit down with the authors and have discussions,” she said. At the two-day festival on 6 and 7 October, 2018, there were over 200 people in the home with French windows, gravel-laden lawns with wrought iron chairs on them and leather, teak wood and engraved mirrors from another century.

The two-day festival called Himalayan Echoes is held at Abbotsford, a 145-year-old heritage homestay property in Nainital. All images courtesy of the author.

The two-day festival called Himalayan Echoes is held at Abbotsford, a 145-year-old heritage homestay property in Nainital. All images courtesy of the author.

Janhavi has conceptualised the sessions along with Namita Gokhale, the director at the Jaipur Literature Festival and happens to hail from Kumaon. “The two have come together to come up with sessions that offer a distilled sense of Nainital, without the sight of its dried and polluted lake,” said food historian Prof Pushpesh Pant, who looks at Abbotsford and feels he has come back to a Nainital of 60 years ago with begonias in gardens. He praised the Prasad family’s dedication towards saving authentic cuisine with homemade dishes like the musallam machli, fish slow-cooked to an extent that the bones had dissolved, the sahjan ki phali (drumstick curry), kumaoni pahari kaddu (made with locally grown pumpkins) and kimami sewain, Awadh-styled sweet vermicelli reflective of the strains of the composite culture of erstwhile Uttar Pradesh. Along the steep sloped entry to the grand old home, Rukmini ran a stall that a read Maskotia Farms, where she grows herbs like rhododendron and rose hips. “Consumption in places like Nainital needs to be decolonised. India still views its hill stations as summer capitals from the British-era. We were travelling to Sikkim and couldn’t find Sikkimese food. That’s why we set up a restaurant inside our farms, a 30-minute drive towards Kilbury, where we serve kumaoni fare in kansa (bronze) thalis and cook in iron woks.” She feels that restaurants along Nainital’s Mall Road give local dishes a miss, some of her favourites that aren’t easily available to tourists are a wasabi infused yogurt, chicken cooked with gandhreni (a mild local herb) and the barnyard millet kheer. She retails tea and other organic produce on Amazon but feels that unless the experience of local herbs is made mainstream, it’ll remain a challenge to educate tourists about it.

Not too far from her stall was another one displaying a cheeseboard. In 1984, the Government of India imposed a total ban on the import of animal rennet used in cheese-making. Retail volumes of cheese, essentially bright yellow chunks available at supermarkets, tripled to nearly 29,000 tonnes in 2016 from just 10,000 tonnes in 2007. There is a growing market for cheese and a chance for local manufacturing hubs to develop correspondingly. The Darima farms, named after a village in Mukhteshwar where it’s situated, does an assortment of Montasio like the honey mustard rub, smoked and with red pepper flakes. At the Hilamayan Echoes festival, its cheese makers displayed cubes with strains of wild tarragons and talked about integrating an entire dairy chain in the manufacturing process. Naming the brand after the village is a tried-and-tested way of giving it a region and identity that can give it recall value in the consumption market, much like Champagne in France that’s first a drink and then a place.

If food is one way to revive a region’s lost touch with itself, expression and sustenance through craft is another way of offering a livelihood to the workforce in a region that’s largely inaccessible and lacks job opportunities. Vasanthi Veluri and Abhinav Dhoundiyal, National Institute of Design Graduates, run a brand like Peoli that are hand-knitted products from Almora. “We’ve noticed that the use of pure wool is depreciating in the region, as is the living craft of hand spinning. We want to revive both and also encourage the use of natural dyes made of locally available materials like walnuts, bicchu grass and pomegranate,” said Veluri. The romance of Pahari fashion goes way beyond the flat-headed Pahari topi with red and green embroidery on the rims. Through its fashion, Peoli highlights fabrics of Kumaon that are lesser known, like the coarse wool found exclusively in Harsil, a cantonment area on the banks of the Bhagirathi River. The fabric doesn’t have a GI tag but Velluri, who was both a speaker and a displayer at the Himalayan Echoes festival, said they used a Craft Mark tag to establish exclusivity. Another person who raised the concern for GI tags was Amit Virmani, whose grandfather RS Virmani set up the first candle manufacturing unit in Nainital in 1969. Till two decades ago, the hill station was known as the biggest market for candles in Asia but today is flooded with cheaper candles of Chinese make. “The tall candles with colourful chunks in them are peculiar to Nainital and the Chinese products lack craft but unfortunately, the tourists do not understand the difference,” said Amit Virmani, who runs The Pahari Store in Mallital, Nainital.

Concerned locals feel candles and art forms like Aipan local to the Kumaoni region need to be preserved and popularised

Concerned locals feel candles and art forms like Aipan local to the Kumaoni region need to be preserved and popularised

“We are training girls from Bhumiadhar village to perfect the art form of Aipan (rice paste put on floors) that is stylised and put on bags and clothes. The whole idea is to set up micro-businesses for rural youth like training one bunch in filmmaking and another in camping and trekking,” said Kiwa Singh, who is a Kumaoni and a former Teach for India fellow. A festival like the Himalayan Echoes has kept her drawn to the idea of reviving what is being lost to the woods.

Books on Kumaoni folktales, history and culture displayed at the Himalayan Echoes

Books on Kumaoni folktales, history and culture displayed at the Himalayan Echoes

Here in the foothills of the Himalayas, there were others who evoked Kumaon through pen and paper. Stephen Alter, author of In the Jungles of the Night, was in conversation with filmmaker and Rudy Singh who is well-versed with his hometown of Nainital. Alter’s book fictionalises the life of Jim Corbett, the colonel who killed man-eaters in Kumaon, and the naturalist who championed conservation, after whom India’s oldest national park is named. Alter told Firstpost that the familiarity with the region is great among wildlifers. For instance, in a section in his book, which is part fact and part fiction, there is a part where Jim Corbett runs into a musk deer at Sher ka danda – the ridge of the tiger – which is one of the several hills surrounding Nainital. Wildlifers jumped down his throat stating there aren’t any musk deer at 8,000 ft, to which he responded with ‘maybe some occasionally wandered in here’.

The journey of writing and researching made him stumble upon many other heroes whose stories are hidden in these hills. One of them being the bird man of India Salim Ali, who made a trek to Kailash Mansarovar in the early 1940s. Alter described the bird watcher as a wonderful observer of the place. Nain Singh Rawat, who hailed from the Johar Valley of Kumaon and mapped the trade route through Nepal to Tibet, determined for the first time the location and altitude of Lhasa. DN Wadia was a Gujarati geologist who spent a lifetime studying Himalayan rocks and Chandraprabha Aitwal who came from a village in Tibet and became a mountaineer at the age of 35. Alter shared that he compiling another book on the romance of these heroes with the hills, which younger generations aren’t taught about.

A photography exhibition dedicated to local species of birds like the oriental white eye was put up at the Himalayan Echoes festival by a local club

A photography exhibition dedicated to local species of birds like the oriental white eye was put up at the Himalayan Echoes festival by a local club

“A little bit of Kumaoni literature was discovered when Namita Gokhale was at a conference in Germany some years ago and she ran into a man who knew about Kumaon. He had read a book translated from Russian to German titled Folktales from Kumaon,” said Neeta Gupta, publisher at Yatra books and literary consultant who gives special emphasis to translations. She told Firstpost about how exciting it was to publish the book that was originally written in Russian in 1875 by the ethnographer, Ivan Minayev, who records the folktales, myths and legends of Kumaon and also leaves readers with his impressions of the region.

Harish Kapadia, who authored the book Legendary Maps from The Himalayan Club: Commemorating 90 Years of the Iconic Institution did something similar by reviving culture and legacy through sketch maps. “A Survey of India map will only share a number like 6877 but a sketch map will share its location: Devdoli,” Kapadia shared the story of Scottish Himalayan explorer Bill Murray who started from Ranikhet and spent four months going up and down. His sketch maps made the route easier for other explorers. For instance, it took explorers 50 to 60 years to slowly understand the majestic Nanda Devi peak and sketch maps will share the story of Tom Longstaff who was a British mountaineer who stood at a Col (the lowest point on a mountain ridge between two peaks) and stared at the mighty peak. “The Survey of India maps made the 1930s will not give you this element of history. Neither will they factor in the knowledge of mythology like the Chaukhamba peaks symbolising Bhrama the creator or the Sudarshan and Yogeshwar Parbats named after the preserver Vishnu or the Thalai Sagar peak that churn poisons that Shiva takes down his throat,” he said that narratives aside from the ones laid down by government records can make the hills more mysterious, more magical. But, according to writer-diplomat and former Rajya Sabha MP Pawan Varma, who is a national spokesperson for JDU, the Himalayas echoes the philosophy of Adi Shankaracharya. Here to speak about his book Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker, he spoke about how the Himalayas may be divided by the boundaries of states that were drawn later but are mystically connected through the saint’s life. There’s a Shankaracharya temple in Srinagar and statues installed by the saint in Kedarnath.

Aside from the Himalayan Echoes festival, most of the rush surrounded Shobha De, who called Kamasutra a book of pleasure and not sex. In plates of biryani from Shervani Hotel, in herbal lemonades made of local herbs and in the warm sunlight falling on photography exhibitions dedicated to local birds, pleasure was waiting to be found here. The objective of the festival though is that the pleasure shouldn’t be momentary and that tourists carry a sense of the region back with them. There’s a saying in Kumaon that goes: Pahad ka paani aur pahad ki jawani kabhi pahad ke kaam nahi aati. This means that the water of the mountains flows downward and the youth born and bred in the mountains also leaves them behind in of a better life. Pankaj Raikuni, a second year BSc student at DSB Campus Nainital sat at the registration counter at the lit fest, showing his book of Hindi poetry Gaur Farmaya Karo to the guests. He said that all his life, he has been searching for Kumaoni stories to read and be inspired from and now feels the need to set out and explore other cultures and languages. A festival like Himalayan Echoes is as much a reminder of what’s dying as it is of the need to bring it back to life.

Updated Date: Oct 07, 2018 18:27 PM

Updated: October 7, 2018 — 4:23 pm
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