On March 17, a male lamb was born in the house of shepherd Bharat Singh Choudhari at Ladoli village in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district. When it started to grow horns a few days later, he informed the Nanda Raj Jaat Committee of the birth of a chausingha khadu, or four-horned ram. It was the gift they were waiting for ahead of the Nanda Raj Jaat Yatra, held once every 12 years in the upper Himalayas.
Recognised as a gift of the deity Nanda Devi, the khadu is “guiding” villagers on the tough, 280-kilometre trek. “We believe a chausingha khadu is born preferably in Chamoli before the beginning of the yatra,” said Bhuvan Nautiyal, convener of the Shree Nanda Raj Jaat Yatra Vikash Parishad. Two of the sheep’s horns are visible; Nautiyal says the other two are under fur.
On August 18, the khadu reached the starting point of the yatra at Nauti village, about 50 km from Ladoli. It was first brought to Kasuwan village, 10 km away in the erstwhile Chandpurgarhi estate , where it was handed over to rajpurohits (priests of the erstwhile estate) by the family of raj kunwars (princes). Hundreds gathered for a darshan but the priests did not allow anyone near the khadu.
The devout believe that Nanda, wife of Lord Shankar, is on her way to her sasural after 12 years; the khadu needs to accompany her till she reaches Kailash, abode of Lord Shankar, after crossing Homekunda. On Wednesday, when pilgrims start on the return leg, the khadu will stay back in these uninhabited areas 17,000 feet above sea level so that it can complete the rest of the journey to Kailash.
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The government’s worries began with the arrival of the khadu at Nauti village. The return of 5,000 pilgrims Monday from Vedani bugyal (meadow) brought some relief. The government has made “search and rescue” arrangements along the route, besides deploying police and setting up residential facilities, communication systems, and facilities for meals.
The yatra Monday crossed the most difficult stretch of 9 km between Vedani and Patarnauchaniya, where temperatures hovered between 4°C and 8°C. Shila Samudra at 4,210 metres was Tuesday night’s stop. “We have allowed about 2,000 pilgrims to go ahead (on the last stretch),” additional DGP R S Meena said.
A Nehru Institute Mountaineering team has helped the government construct the route. The PWD, Jal Sansthan, Rural Engineering Services and the forest and tourism departments too have taken up various tasks for the 20-day yatra that ends Saturday when returning pilgrims reach Nauti.
It is the first time the Uttarakhand government is looking after the arrangements for the yatra, which comes a year after the June 2013 flash floods. “The government extends its cooperation to the organisers of the yatra,” media adviser to the CM Surendra Agrawal said.
The RSS too has pitched in. “We have made arrangements for medical aid at various points. In bugyals, our workers provide refreshments. We have also set up bhandaras (food outlets),” said Dinesh Semwal, sah-prant-karyawah of the RSS in Uttarakhand.
Governor Aziz Qureshi, Finance Minister Indira Hridyesh and Tourism Minister Dinesh Dhanai were present when the khadu set off. Along the way, villagers joined the yatra while others welcomed and bade farewell to the deity, with many donating ornaments, cash and food. “We donate the same way as we do for our dhayanies at the time of vidai after their wedding,” said Basant Hari Joshi.
On the outskirts of Badhani, eight hours after Nauti, NCC cadets, students of Shishu Vidya Mandir and local women carrying kalashes on their heads received the khadu and the chantoli (umbrella, symbol of Nanda’s divine powers). Brahmins carry the chantoli, Thakurs blow the conches and the trumpets, and Dalits beat the drums.
The next morning, hundreds of villagers, the women weeping, saw the yatra off to Jakho village. The same day, it returned to Nauti; on August 20 it reached Kasuwan of the princes. Last Sunday, it reached Vendani, followed by the uninhabited mountains.
Navneet Singh, deputy commandant of the State Disaster Response Force, escorted the yatra from Vedani village onwards. “It’s the toughest stretch. We will allow only those medically fit,” Singh said a few days ago. The CM’s media adviser made an appeal to people not to go beyond Vedani.